On our way home from the food truck, I tug Dylan’s elbow and he nearly drops his burrito—pinching it, lightning-quick, between gloved fingers.
“Catastrophe averted,” he laughs.
As an actuary specializing in hurricanes, Dylan measures possible loss. His catastrophe modeling won him a promotion. He’s always bracing for something.
I don’t tug again. “Our first kiss was here.”
We’re passing a beautiful brownstone. The same one we pass each week. The food truck, too, is unsurprising, routine.
Dylan looks around with the wide-eyed stupefaction typical of cornered boyfriends. “Was it?”
It wasn’t, but proven indifference might be a good enough reason to leave him.
Dylan places a hand, tortilla-warm, on my shoulder. “Hate to ruin your narrative,” he smirks, “but you’re wrong. It was in a very expensive cab ride from Fort Greene to Harlem.”
I force a laugh, then punch him in the arm a little too hard. “Just your daily dose of relationship trivia! Keeps us on our toes.”
Our first kiss was two years ago. The cab was supposed to make two stops, but it made only one. We were official three weeks later, surprising my friends. No one believed real relationships started on Tinder, but I always had faith in the algorithm, in the multitudes. Dylan’s lips stayed on mine for hours in the early days, with only brief breaks. He’d snake a spontaneous hand around my waist on the street or the subway. In bed we’d fall asleep fused. He was always pulling me close.
Now we kiss only twice a day: before work, and upon reconvening. Goodbye, hello. Why doesn’t he understand how ordinary we’ve become?
I ask him—with our burritos in hand—to kiss me. With some impatience, he brushes his chapped lips against mine. “There. Happy?”
Tousling my hair, he turns his head and sucks in fresh cool air.
Back in the kitchen, he lights vanilla-scented candles, plays Miles Davis, and traces a finger around the ring of my knee.
After finishing the burrito, I rush into the bathroom and breathe into my cupped palms, smelling their grooves and lifelines. Has my mouth become a place to be avoided? Maybe it’s fixable, maybe it won’t be another reason to leave.
I brush my teeth for exactly two minutes—I set a timer—and breathe into my palms again. Most people gargle Listerine, but for me the taste is associated with vomit and vodka and burst blood vessels under my eyes. I was younger then—rinsed and spat and rejoined college parties with a cool-mint mouth—but now, years later, I’ve since forgiven myself.
In bed, Dylan and I fall asleep to different voices: the BBC shipping forecast for him, Big Red Machine for me. We must feel as if there’s something out there to drift towards.
My mother comes into town the next day. I take her to an Italian restaurant in the West Village with a delicious breadbasket. It’s unseasonably warm for January, so when we arrive I’m sweaty and disheveled, peeling off layers.
“It’s the same temperature in Florida right now,” she says. “Freaky!”
During childhood, my parents swore they’d never be predictable enough to flee New York winters for Sarasota sun like their own parents had, but after turning sixty, they packed a U-Haul and never looked back.
“How are things going with Dylan?” she asks.
A normal inquiry, but I almost knock over the wine glass. “Things are fine. We’re very— settled.”
Her eyebrows lift. “And?”
My thighs slide off the chair’s edge as I move closer. “Does my breath smell?”
As my mother leans in, I exhale.
Unusually dependent on maternal counsel, I’ve always told her everything—despite her suggestion that I straighten my hair, despite the childhood fridge magnet fat is a four-letter word, despite the tweezers in my Christmas stocking to “pluck that pesky chin hair,” despite frequent reminders to accessorize.
My mother’s expression doesn’t change. “A little sour, but barely detectable. Nothing to worry about.”
She sips her wine and spears a roasted artichoke—while I devour chicken parmigiana—and says she got her moles surgically removed when she was twenty-two. She touches several spots on her face, as if suggesting I visualize what is no longer there.
“The man I was dating counted five around my chin and cheeks, under an ear, over an eyebrow. He kissed them as he counted.” She takes another sip. “He was sweet.”
I want to say: I know what you’re thinking, it’s not the same thing, I’m still sour.
“Why’d you get rid of them?” I ask instead.
“He made me look. They began to be all I could see.”
I don’t ask if the man is my father. How could that sort of dissatisfaction last so long, so well?
At fifteen, I began documenting intimacies. The below rating system delineated our encounters:
* Kiss without tongue
** Make out accompanied by groping
*** Oral sex
**** Sexual intercourse
The list lived in a notebook kept inside the desk drawer of my childhood bedroom. It later followed me across states, countries, and continents until I returned to the city I knew and realized the legend didn’t allow nuance. How could a one-star (close-mouthed, obligatory) exist alongside a one-star (spontaneous, probing)?
A four-star (perfunctory, impassive) cannot compare with a four-star (passionate, tender).
With each man, low expectations but too much hope. Their fault, or mine? If I met as many as possible, someone would eventually stay, and I’d eventually let them.
Of the fifty-six on the list, most were like me—loud, lively, insecure. Dylan was quiet, thoughtful, confident.
Ten years after it began, I misplaced the notebook. Fifty-five men unshackled by numbers, released back into the wild.
The emails have learned to resist my spam filter, have built immunity, and continue to land, unrelenting, in my inbox: BOOK TODAY AND GET 25% OFF! Visits are usually annual, so I wonder—is the trick monthly, or more?
The morning after my mother visits, I take a long lunch break and go.
The hygienist is in charge of my cleaning. Appraising silently from doorways, the dentist only ever speaks if things look dire (cavities, impacted wisdom teeth). Unlike her employer, the hygienist’s a talker. Despite being in the wrong field for conversation, she’s careful to remove her hands from my mouth when expecting a reply.
During one such moment, I ask: “Is something wrong with my mouth?”
Already so vulnerable, I won’t ask if there’s a stench.
“You’re dangerously close to periodontitis. Now, spit.”
I obey. Red-flecked drool dribbles down the sink. It’ll surely gleam again—sterilized, silver—once I’m gone.
My instructions are to floss, brush, and massage my gums twice a day. The unspoken question still unanswered.
The subway stalls between stations on my way back to the office, so I watch another couple kiss. A man leans against the door; a woman lifts, lipstick smearing, onto her toes. A string of saliva passes between mouths. When the man catches me looking, I avert my gaze and notice Dylan texted: how’s your day?
We don’t text during workhours anymore, so maybe he senses something is off. Maybe he’s paying attention now.
The train is still stalled, but I reply: Trying not to self-combust at work.
As the receptionist for a fancy PR firm, I keep snacks stocked, order printer ink, answer phones, and draw cartoons on scrap paper when no one’s hovering over my desk.
I wonder if Dylan will ask about my cartoons, or encourage me to submit to The New Yorker like he used to. Do couples, at a certain point, stop asking each other things?
That night, we go to a concert. The music is whispery, romantic; even the drums tell a secret. The tin of spearmints fits inside the curl of my clenched fist.
After each mint dissolves—when my mouth tastes like itself again—I pop another.
Too soon I exhaust the tin.
Closest bodega: six blocks. Concert venue: no re-entry. Eighty dollars for two tickets, a sum Dylan paid. An artist we both love.
In my ear, Dylan says: “I’ll get more drinks.”
In his absence I shove a finger in my mouth and accidentally make eye contact with another woman who looks concerned, then reproachful. But I just need to smell it. Jabbing my sharpest nail into the sliver between teeth, I dig until it’s flecked by something yellow.
Dylan returns, handing me a beer that turns breath sour, fermented.
After the concert, in our kitchen, Dylan pushes my pajamas bottoms aside and enters me from behind. Spontaneity he knows I like. I tip my torso forward; he pulls my hips back. It feels good, but our faces are so far. With a flick of his fingers I come twice, and watch my reflection, there, in the microwave door.
Images I masturbate to when I’m alone:
- Dylan and I in the early days
- Dylan kissing a stranger the way we kissed in the early days
- a stranger saying they laughed at my cartoons
I clear my browser history—halitosis; xerostomia; tonsilloliths; cysteine; signs falling out of love—like a person seeking to dispose of a body. Dylan doesn’t use my computer, but he could, he might. Anything is possible. I must be careful. He thinks I’m okay, still thinks I’m normal.
One website warns against cultivating certain diets, but garlic makes everything taste better, and I can’t give up coffee.
Now, during showers, I let the powerful jets pummel the enamel of my teeth, the pleasure bumps of my tongue, with heat. A command: wash it all away.
There’s only one way forward, isn’t there? I must be certain.
Dylan’s in the office finishing a model. The insurance company needs it tonight so they’ll know how much to charge people to save their own lives. The Earth warms, and catastrophe comes in all forms. Dylan’s a hard worker. He sees nearly everything before it arrives. Sometimes I joke he’s psychic. (“It’s math, not magic,” he’ll say.)
It’s been years since I misplaced the four-star ratings, but earlier today I found digital evidence: photos I took of the notebook, and emailed to myself, in the likely event I’d lose it. After random selection of #48, I confirm he’s recently single.
What a coincidence, I tell #48. I am, too.
In Williamsburg, I enter a bar with a book I don’t intend to read.
“You look stunning,” says #48.
It’s true, I do.
He tells me vague, boring things about his job on Wall Street but at least he’s easy to look at. I nod, smile, breathe in his direction. He doesn’t react, but frequently signals for the bartender. Is he looking for excuses to angle his body away?
I finish my wine. “I have a proposition for you.”
“Is this a business meeting?” He has an ugly honking laugh.
“Kiss me, now.”
The screech of his bar stool as he drags it closer, greedy, excited.
His stubby fingers, so unlike Dylan’s slim ones, around my thigh.
His breath—entering my mouth, eyes, nose—has a non-smell like vapor. I want it. I pucker like a fish. If he jerks away, it’ll be welcome knowledge. I’ll scrub myself from the inside out until I’m worthy of being wanted.
He kisses me.
“Do I taste how you remember?”
“Yes,” he says against my mouth.
When our tongues touch, I almost gag. Did I dread this result, or wish for it?
When he invites me home with him, I decline. “I just wanted to be kissed.”
He looks confused.
“An experiment,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
Patting his bicep, I disappear into the subway. On the platform, I huff into my hands and bring them to my nostrils. Inhale, repeat.
You and Dylan are such a cute couple, my friends have said. You’re so lucky.
What am I doing?
No way he’ll forgive me, no way. But I must confess.
Dylan’s flicking through Netflix when I return. I watch him. He’s beautiful, he’s kind, he’s not right, not right.
“Hey, you.” He looks up. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
My scarf, hat, gloves, are still on. It’s difficult to swallow. “I kissed someone else.”
Some involuntary laughter, and then: “Oh, same, I’ve been kissing tons of girls tonight, too.” He pats the bed. “Get over here. What should we watch?”
I obey. Breathe, with my mouth closed—in, out, in, out, in and in and out.
© Caitlin Barasch
[This piece was selected by Heather Cripps. Read Caitlin’s interview]