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July 2022

So I Said I Floss

Daniel Musgrave

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read by Tony Perry

art by Nora Kelly

—So I said ‘Sure, I floss.’ and immediately regretted it. Pure reaction. I mean, she’s basically wrist deep in there. She sees.

She just says ‘Mhm’ and doesn’t even blink— heard it all before— and then in goes that fishhook into my gums. You know the one. Gets caught on all the crooked bottom teeth. She’d just started and my mouth was all grit and blood and spit already. Really putting her back into scraping my shitty life choices off my teeth. And I’m laying there, about to pay cash for the whole thing like I wanted it.

She turns, gets the little sucker, and plugs it into my mouth and says ‘Spit’ and just in time because everything was ready to spill down my chin. And while she’s switching back to the little pickaxe I rush to say, ‘I’m not really a bad person.’

—So she knows, I guess. Just came out. Felt important to say it.

But she doesn’t even nod and I’m thinking maybe she doesn’t believe me. Due to the whole flossing thing that I led with. I want to repeat myself but she’s already stabbing me again. And she’s looking down into me and I’m staring straight up, trying not to make eye-contact because she’s like my mom’s age and it’s— all her attention on me like that. It’s a lot.

—Actually? Honestly? It felt kinda good. Like, maybe it was arousing in this confusing way that was not sexual but was — I don’t know— compelling. Anyway, I feel like she’s expecting something— no, like she should expect something— from me. Like I owe her. And it’s weird not reciprocating. But then I think, how would it be good to stare deep into her eyes while she picks barnacles off my molars? What kind of reciprocation is that?

So what I do is I look away, but in the pockmarked drop ceiling there’s two different temperature bulbs in the fixture, and it makes me crazy. One warm yellow, the other cool white. I can’t look at them, but it’s either that or make eye contact because she has this calm energy, almost sleepy, like she does a lot of yoga, and it keeps sucking me in. And her crow’s feet make me think she laughs a lot. Full, deep laughing. Which is comforting, even as she leans in so damn close. Having her just so all in, so completely focused on me— I’m just saying it was intense.

Anyway, listen. She says ‘Spit’ again and I do and then I try a second time. I say, ‘Actually I volunteer at a dog shelter every other week and—’

But she says ‘Open’ and in goes that hypersonic blaster. And I feel maybe a little frustrated now. I’m thinking: Why do you need those layers of protective covering just to look at my food hole? You know? Am I really that disgusting? Scrubs, gloves, glasses, surgical mask, and a whole extra clear welder’s mask thing on top of it all?  Like, what if she thinks that my teeth are who I am as a person and she doesn’t give me a chance to correct that?

She says ‘Spit’ and I rush to say ‘I’m trying to do better. Sometimes I journal. I read this book about positive energy and seeing the big picture beyond the immediate and physical.’

But again she’s back, inch from my nose, putting the not-quite-cherry-flavored paste-scrubber against my teeth.

My saliva hung from the scrubber in strands— like a dog’s— but did she care? Did she look twice at that bridge between us? Did she crinkle her nose? Grimace? Comment? No. Nothing. Just stares into me. And that’s scary. There I am, laid low, and she’s right there. Doesn’t retreat. She’s with me.  I notice the way my mouth debris flies up between us, against her barriers, as she blasts it and I’m suddenly not frustrated anymore because all I can think is: well this is totally gross, and this woman does not deserve this. Like, why am I doing this to her?

‘Almost done.’ She says and turns for the spit vacuum. And I know this is almost the end, so I just swallow the whole mouth-stew and sit up, paper bib crinkling.

‘When I was 15, I met this girl from another school at a quiz-bowl tournament. She was beautiful, actually. And smart. I was totally average, but she still asked for my number and we talked on the phone for weeks, said we were going out. She invited me over one Saturday. My mom had to drive me because her town was like 45 minutes away and when I got there her folks weren’t home, so we went to her room and we sat on her bed and pretended to be interested in talking for maybe five minutes while her Ricky Martin poster stared down at us with his mouth open and his She-Bangs hips thrown to the side and we started making out really hard and she got on top of me but after a bit, she broke away real abrupt and said ‘I’m Catholic. We can’t do anymore unless you say you love me,’ which made me pause but after half a second I told her I loved her because I was 15 and we started kissing again and she took off her shirt and for a minute I thought, wow, maybe I did actually love her because I’d never touched a girl’s breasts and it made sense that love would feel like they felt and then, real sudden again, she stopped and made me say it again and then again and again and she let me touch her in a new way in return each time and I said it again and again until she pulled my jeans down to my knees, spit on me— on my— and then it was happening. It felt better than anything had ever felt but I didn’t even get to enjoy it cause I was really distracted that I still had my Doc Martens on, which didn’t seem right. Shoes and socks on still. And on the carpet too. It wasn’t right, you know?’

‘Mhm,’ was all she said as she puts the sucker in my mouth. ‘Spit’ she tells me again. So I try, work up whatever saliva is left but my mouth is pretty dry by this point. She pulls it out.

‘—Anyway, the important thing here—’ I rush and reach my hand up to just barely stop hers from returning to my mouth ‘—I guess what my actual point is is that evening after my mom picked me up I was nauseous until we stopped for gas and I just gave my cell phone away to a guy asking for change even though it still had prepaid minutes left on it. Dropped it right in his big gulp cup with all his money and it got a text, I assume from her, right after and I heard the change in the cup buzz. By the time we got home the girl had sent me a bunch of instant messages and so I changed my AOL screen name too. I woke up the next day feeling better. I think about that a lot. Like, all the time. You know? I could have made a difference for that poor guy. Maybe it got him out of a jam. So you see? I think that’s the kind of person I am. And I guess maybe I don’t floss everyday, but I wouldn’t just lie about it. I just wanted you to know that.’

Then I laid back down and she inserted that little mirror, moved it around my cheeks until she pinned my tongue down maybe harder than she needed to, until it hurt, and her brows furrowed at what she saw.

About the Author

Dan Musgrave was raised by animals in rural Kansas. He is a writer and photographer whose work often focuses on the intersections of the human and animal world. In collaboration with his father, John, he is working on a memoir about the intergenerational effects of war.

About the Reader

Tony Perry is an actor and singer-songwriter. He narrated the film Lost and Found, and the audio comic The Captain Punishment Adventure Hour, and his animation voice work has been seen on HBO Max. He’s performed in New York City and across the country in musicals and plays, recorded several pop/rock albums, and has released several new song demos on Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and other streaming services. He has performed in English and Yiddish, and he’s happy to talk about all things Doctor Who.

About the Artist

Nora Kelly is a muralist, painter, illustrator, and musician based out of Montreal, Canada. View more of her work at norakellyart.com.