Psychology 254: Landscape of the Soul

Submitted into Contest #59 in response to: Write about a character arriving in a place unlike anywhere they’ve ever been.... view prompt

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Romance Drama Funny

“Follow me on a thought experiment. The setting: someone else’s mouth. No, you are not a dentist. This is not a thought experiment about the morality of certain extractions or the way dentistry has become an aesthetic practice and what inequalities may result from that. This is simply a kiss. Well, maybe not so simply.”


Doctor Caldwell was the professor whose class you were lucky to get a spot in, the one with the reputation for being quirky and innovative (some might say funny), a peer who would insist, call me Alex. That day, in her elective Landscape of the Soul, Alex wandered casually between the tables in suede moccasins, pausing now and then to look a student pointedly in the eye.


“It’s a first kiss. And it’s a doomed kiss. The mouth in question is one you have been wondering about—maybe for a few hours, since you saw it across the room and it said its first hello, or maybe for months or years. But you know this mouth.” 


I sat forward in my seat. My fingers paused over my keyboard and, as I watched Alex’s hands make graceful, practiced gestures, I thought about a mouth I knew once. 


“You’ve studied the way its lips brush together when their owner speaks, and how wide this mouth opens in laughter, the way those lips slowly part, revealing almost-straight top-teeth in a shy grin, (maybe a slight overbite, or maybe one tilted incisor— you are not a dentist, but you know these things, or maybe that one tilted tooth prompted you to Google it), but also the way those lips fasten themselves in a tight line when their owner is upset, or the way he twists his tongue in thought, or she sticks the tip of her tongue out, biting it gently when she thinks of something particularly pleasant.”


I saw the mouth. His two front teeth are slightly uneven, one of them pushed out of place in a childhood playground accident. I was carried along by the current in Alex’s voice. 


“But these are all things you see with your eyes, and your eyes are closed now. You’re exploring that mouth with your other senses. You feel those lips brush against yours, softly at first like the stroke of a pen just beginning a new story. You like where the story is going, so you give a little encouragement— part your lips, offer your mouth as a plot point. 


“There is nothing pointy about this kiss. It’s all saturated pillows of moss like green velvet. This mouth is a jungle and you are an explorer, collecting samples of the native flora and fauna. (Fun fact, you will share identical oral microbiomes for approximately 90 minutes after this kiss. And this realization makes you feel connected rather than repelled).” 


The class rippled with giggles and groans but Alex didn’t seem to notice, just continued the lecture, her voice swelling with feeling.  


“It even tastes like round, soft things: a wheel of brie, baked inside a puff pastry, all warmth and air and salt, and a delightful crackle that’s really just electricity popping in your head. 


“This body is a strange continent, but your fingers begin to explore its ridges and crevices, taking time to marvel at every feature—the small of a back, the curve of a hip, the fleshy marsh of a cheek. A hand moves up your arm and you feel daffodils sprout in its wake. A thumb brushes that spot where your jaw meets your skull— that soft dimple under your earlobe; you shudder and the earthquake opens a new fault line inside of you.”


Alex’s voice was jaunty and polished, but she’d stopped looking at us. Her gaze lingered vacantly on the back wall. I noticed, only because of the change when she paused—not too long, but long enough for her energy to shift. Her eyes re-focused with a tiny shudder, and her chin tipped down as she addressed us again, not as an audience, hidden out of view by some bright spotlight, but as her students, here in this room with faded green carpet and heavy wood trim around the windows. “And now we’ve arrived at the point of the exercise. This is a thought experiment, right? Not a gratuitous fantasy. So what is the question? What are the logical and moral implications?”


The room was silent for a few seconds, students shuffling, exchanging glances, snickering until my bolder classmates began to throw out ideas: Make sure you don’t forget your friends or your other responsibilities? Wear a condom!


“Remember,” Alex interjected, “this is a doomed kiss. You know going into it that this first kiss, no matter how good, will be your last (or second- or third-to-last, depending on your style and level of discipline). There’s no chance a relationship will work. Maybe one of you is a cat person and one is a dog person. Maybe one of you is a Capulet and one is a Montague, and you’re not into tragedy. Maybe one of you is leaving overseas for a fellowship and the other got their dream job. As a dentist." Here she laughed, a staccato hah! that she sucked back in through her nose. "Maybe one of you is engaged. The point is that the microbes you exchanged will last a lot longer than your moment. But it still happened. What are the consequences?”


“You’re sad,” I said before I could stop my words. 


Alex’s blue eyes locked into mine. “That’s interesting, Noelle. Let’s explore that. Why are you sad?”


I felt my cheeks burn, but I evicted my words. “Because you lost something special. You barely even got to enjoy it and it’s gone.”


“Hmm. So you wouldn’t agree it’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all?”


“I didn’t say it wouldn’t be worth it,” I argued. “Maybe sadness is a price that’s worth it.”


“Very interesting!” Alex beamed at me as if I’d said something brilliant. “What does the class think about that?”


I sat and tried not to listen while my classmates discussed my invisible, hypothetical sadness. Probably Alex’s sadness, too. Then Alex jumped back in.


“Our experiences—maybe even this thought experiment, because I wanted to create an empathetic experience that hopefully each of you could relate to on a visceral and emotional level—can open up new places inside of us. A forest. Someplace quiet and dark where the ground is covered in delicate fern, and you walk softly so as not to crush anything. Big trees fall and die here, but small things—new things—grow from their fallen bodies.”


I swore Alex looked right into me when she asked, “What do you do with that new place it's opened up inside you? Our sadness and vulnerability can inspire empathy and introspection. It can change the way we look at the world. Energy cannot be created or destroyed. It merely changes forms. These woods grew from you, and the energy of that kiss. What do you do with this energy now?” 


More stupid answers from the class. Channel it into something productive? Sing karaoke? Write sad literature?


Then someone shouted out a completely different idea. “Burn the forest down. Release the energy.”


I watched Alex and saw her face turn pale.


⧫⧫⧫


This is what I think about months later, when we’re all back home, attending lectures from laptops in our childhood bedrooms. This is what I think about when his text arrives and my stomach does a flip. 


You know this mouth….


I've never tasted the flavor of his last meal or harbored his microbes in my body, but I've gone through the thought experiment (or maybe, I realize, just the gratuitous fantasy part). Our kiss would smell like jasmine (his grandma grew jasmine and it was his favorite flower—he gave me a sprig, once) and our lips would touch like petals rustling in an evening breeze. 


Just the smell of jasmine, or fresh bread like we’d enjoy in the coffee shop where we studied together on weekends, would send me into my own woods. I’ve camped out there in the years since we parted, thinking of him through quiet weekends and rainy afternoons. Sometimes, in the beginning, I’d text him something—maybe a clever unicorn GIF or a recipe for challah French toast. But never once did he respond. His silence sent a shiver through the treetops. 


Here is the forest in me: it’s made of western hemlocks bending under long beards of moss, and spruce pines drowning in a green sea of kudzu, each consumed trunk reaching up from the rolling sheet of club-shaped leaves like a supplicating hand. It's so heavy.


I remember Alex’s forest. She’d made it sound so frothy and full of life. Good, non-suffocating life. The “circle of life” kind of life. And still, her eyes, so far off, her mind drifting back to us with a chilling shudder. She’s made melancholy into a career.


I don’t want to be Alex, cool and admired, but aloof, living alone in a pile of books, tying her fate around one sacred redwood (an engaged dentist, no less!) while vines grow around her feet. I don’t want to carry the weight of that space inside me. I don’t want to be this lonely. 


Only witches live in the woods. Witches and wolves, but not princes. And he’s not a prince anyway, I realize, with his lopsided teeth and disappearing for two years—never a word after we left for college. But here he is in this little blue speech bubble with four simple words: “Hey, how are you?” As if it were really that simple! That's how I know there is no forest inside of him, at least not one that I’ve inhabited, none created by an energy we shared. So then what does he want?


I had been waiting for that text. Now it's here and my shock morphs into anger as I try to think up a reply. Oh hey how's it going? Did you just get off a deserted island? 


Ok, let’s do a thought experiment. What would the implications be? I send a reply dripping with sarcasm and he probably laughs, not knowing the bitterness behind it. He sends a lighthearted reply, I send a picture of a cat in a party hat, he sends...what would he send? I don’t even know anymore. A picture of him and his girlfriend? And how do I react to that? A lie? Oh, you guys are so cute… And maybe it goes on like that for weeks or months, during which we never see each other, and then eventually we can all go back to our respective campuses, and we forget each other again. Only I don’t forget. I just go back with a forest denser and heavier than ever.


My anger grows into a little flame. I’m ready to burn the forest down and release the energy. I picture it— hot tongues licking up the moss beards and the kudzu in a quick gulp and burping out light and rainbows as the fire erupts in flashes of blue, purple. It’s beautiful and I’m free.


This is what I think about as my finger hovers over the delete button.


September 18, 2020 07:42

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8 comments

Bianka Nova
22:47 Jan 03, 2021

So glad I read this. Also, a happy coincidence that it also features Dr. Alex from the other story, who seems like a (slightly) different person here. Since you mentioned she's younger, it's understandable. And I just LOVED your descriptions. Here vivid would be too small a word. I'd say you catered straight to the reader's at least 4 of 5 senses. XD As a writer, I bow to this line comparing the first touch of a kiss to the first stroke of a pen: "You feel those lips brush against yours, softly at first like the stroke of a pen just beginn...

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Rayhan Hidayat
07:26 Sep 21, 2020

“saturated pillows of moss like green velvet.” Ugh I wish I thought of that. Top-tier descriptions as always. I was enamored by Alex, we’ve all had that one kooky professor at uni haha. I hope you win soon, your writing is too solid not to be noticed. Keep it up! 😙

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A.Dot Ram
18:04 Sep 21, 2020

Thanks, you're so kind. It was very interesting that both of our worlds were heavy and overgrown with sort of dangerous life, but were otherwise very different.

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Rayhan Hidayat
20:55 Sep 21, 2020

No problem! And yeah it was haha, though you certainly twisted the prompt in your favor while I just took it literally 😅

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A.Dot Ram
21:00 Sep 21, 2020

I thought your world was a bit of a spiritual, internal place, too. Maybe just my bias.

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Rayhan Hidayat
06:00 Sep 22, 2020

Honestly that wasn’t my intention, but I’m completely fine with readers interpreting it their own way—death of the author and all that.

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Anika G
12:52 Sep 18, 2020

Wow! This is a very compelling story! Your vivid descriptions brought everything to life. Good job!!!

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A.Dot Ram
15:39 Sep 18, 2020

Thank you! I considered giving up on this one several times this week. But I've been thinking of the symbolism of the forest a lot this summer and decided to see it through.

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