I woke up stinking and sweaty, hot under my armpits and between my thighs, my mouth drained of moisture. It happened again, the teeth dream. I was climbing the stairs of a rickety lighthouse, talking to someone pretty. It’s a horrible feeling, putting your fingers in your mouth, your nails confirming what your tongue already knew: the hardest, most stable structure of your body is wobbling. You just want to get it over with then, and yank on the tooth. This time, a big chunk came out, a molar, blackened on the bottom. There’s a soft, bloody, tender spot where the tooth once was. My tongue digs into it, like fingers plowing into warm soil. I turn to talk to the pretty person, a girl maybe, maybe someone I know, but feel the breeze of a lisp whistle through the new hole in my mouth. I shut up immediately.
Awake, I count my teeth. Still there. My sleepy fingers fumble for my phone. Vivid dreams are messages, and I want to decode this one before my awakened consciousness sweeps it away.
I’ve visited the teethfallingoutdream.org webpage five times. You’d think I would have memorized the interpretations by now.
“According to recent studies in dream interpretation, dreaming about losing your teeth is an indicator of anxiety and, possibly, depressive states. Dreams about losing teeth also tend to point to feelings of helplessness and lack of control over one’s life circumstances.”
Anxiety, maybe. Living in the woods is frightful. Owls scream, and so do foxes. They sound so much like people, it’s unbelievable. I wouldn’t say I’m helpless though, or out of control. If anything, living in a van gives me total control. I can turn the van to wake up with a sunset streaming through the back window, or fall asleep to a river’s gentle lull. If I want to park at Walmart, I can do that too.
“Dream interpretation studies show that dreams about losing teeth commonly occur during times of transition where the dreamer experiences a higher level of anxiety than usual. The loss of a tooth or teeth in your dream could be a way to bring symbolically bring to your awareness something you are giving up or feel like you are losing in your waking life.”
They use the word “bring” twice, and they rely on Freud -- how trustworthy can this website really be? But they are right on the giving up part, I guess. To live like this, I have shed my old skin, left it discarded like snakes do, near restaurants and apartment complexes.
Whatever. I close the webpage; I have things to do. I woke up late, noon here in Maine, which means it’s 9 am in San Francisco, and they like to start their meetings early. It’s autumn now, the busiest time for beauty bloggers. Kasey will have a lot to say, and I’ve yet to prepare this week’s Twitter content.
Fall is easy to market. You step outside, and everything is already picture-perfect for you. Just take a photo, slap on some pun -- it’s unbe-leaf-able how much I love fall! -- and watch your social media engagement soar. I’m convinced Kasey planned her pregnancy to match the season too. Baby bumps are unsightly for summertime bikini photos, but in the fall, she partners with sweater brands, all her autumnal clothing conveniently loose to hide her ballooning stomach.
Kasey’s got the one problem though: there’s no foliage where she lives, not in the sunny Bay Area. That’s why she outsources her labor to me. Whatever did beauty bloggers do before Photoshop experts like myself existed?
I took some lovely photos out here in Acadia National Park yesterday, fall foliage burning orange and gold. I love fall. It’s so unkempt, just Mother Nature scattering her dirty socks around. In the city, San Francisco too, they sweep stray leaves up quick. That’s why I have to digitally insert Kasey amidst the autumnal woods. Her fans want fall content, her smiling in pumpkin patches or leaf piles, and Kasey never disappoints. If she must doctor up her pictures -- or hire an old college acquaintance to do it -- she will. I do my work quickly, diligently, and email her the result.
WiFi is never great in the wilderness. Mine trickles out of a portable hotspot, a little black box that somehow, through invisible waves, transforms my laptop into a portal to the rest of the world. Without it, I’d really be a hermit.
In all our online meetings, Kasey insists every member of the team have their camera turned on. I wonder what they all think every time I tune in from the back of my van.
Kasey chirps from my screen. Her every sentence is punctuated with an exclamation mark: “Hello! How is everyone doing today!”
No one answers the question, but she didn’t really expect an answer.
“So! Let’s go over the content for this week!”
She’s fascinating to me. I wonder what sort of mother she’ll be. I’ve known her remotely for years now, and I’ve yet to even begin to understand her as a person, if she is a person. It’s easy to convince yourself someone’s not real when you see them mostly on a screen.
It was Clara that introduced us, my old college roommate. I haven’t thought of her in so long. I wonder what she’d make of my new little lifestyle.
Kasey’s talking to me: “Hey! These photos look great! As if I were really there! You did a great job! One thing, though, please redo my right hand, you can kinda see where the finger has a little of the old background on it!”
I want to tell her that it doesn’t matter, no will look that close at a Twitter photo. But they will, and they will call her out on any blunder. The beauty blogger community is guarded by vicious watchdogs. That too I learned from Clara.
It’s funny, Clara didn’t even have a phone when we first lived together, not a smartphone. I walked into our room the first move-in day of college, and she was sitting cross-legged on her bed, a mountain of peanut-butter-chocolate cups and beef jerky surrounding her like goddess offerings, with an old-school flip phone woven between her fingers. She was so busy texting, she didn’t notice me walk in.
“Hey!” I offered.
“Oh. Hi.” Where I soon learned Kasey spoke in exclamation marks, Clara’s voice never exceeded a period. She didn’t look up, just shut tighter her silky floral robe. In most of my memories of our first year living together, Clara is dressed in that same robe. I wonder when she washed it. The peanut butter cups and beef jerky, those too were ever-present. That first night, I asked her about them, why that particular combination.
“I just like them. They’re tasty.” She also liked weed, and techno, and that was pretty much it.
Sitting on my bed, I stared at her legs peeking from beneath the robe. I couldn’t help it. Tattoos circled her calves, birds and flowers and tiny faces.
“Oh. These.” She waved a hand, dismissive, as if they were some nuisance.
In our first few conversations, I gathered that Clara had done everything a college freshman could find important. She had a boyfriend, done cocaine and ketamine and some new weird type of acid, shaved her head and grown it back and dyed it purple. I was in awe, and a little jealous. My world had been safe, comfortable, clean and well-lit, school to home to soccer practice, talking to boys at a respectable distance, keeping my skin soft and unmarked. I’d arrived starving for something real and grimy. She was more than satisfied.
She stuffed a towel under the door, opened a window, lit her bong. I wondered nervously about the smoke detector, but she’d taped a plastic cup over it.
“Listen to this.” She played a techno song from her computer. Dun dun dun, like an electronic woodpecker over and over. I kind of liked it. I didn’t like the bong -- the smoke was sandpaper in my throat and made my hands feel like they were melting in my pockets. But after a few weeks, I got used to it. That’s how we spent our evenings, lying in bed on our backs, glassy eyes on the ceiling, techno pounding a third heartbeat between us.
Those first few weeks at college, I felt like a lapdog edging towards the wilderness, stepping with delicate paws on dirty grass, then racing back for the comfort of home. I’d end up alone with someone attractive, they’d give me The Eyes, I’d hyperventilate, excuse myself to my dorm with my tail between my legs. Clara was always there, and I’d tell her what happened, and her consolation was the same -- a nod towards the bong.
But even lapdogs evolved from wolves. I got bolder. A stick-and-poke tattoo carved into my upper thigh with the ink of a ballpoint pen, my first taste of cocaine, the hot lips of a strange boy pressed against mine. Clara listened to my exhilarated tales with the bored look of an older sister. Somehow, whatever social cyclone sucked me in was never as exciting as the inside of our dorm room.
She might’ve been a genius, I don’t know. She collaged a lot, weaving intricate images from tiny strips of cut magazines. She’d glue a few pieces down, pop a peanut butter cup in her mouth, repeat. But that seemed the only action she would partake in.
My own life, meanwhile, got messy. Every purse I carry ends up filthy inside, cluttered with old gum wrappers, exploded tubes of chapstick, crumbs, hair ties, stained with loose tobacco and sample-size vials of perfume, and so too every day for me was scattered, full of useless tiny things that ate up space for anything nourishing. Nights ran like packs of spooked sheep, disorderly and dumb, chewing grass and empty beer cans and lukewarm packets of french fries.
And suddenly I understood why Clara spent so much time inside our little dorm. I was bloated and starving at the same time, exhausted and wired and foggy. School was a teeny hammer banging millions of tiny nails into my head, facts and dates and formulas I had no love for, then as soon as I did my homework, my body gave over to people I did not love and who did not love me. It all exploded one night, on Halloween, when I stumbled into our dorm with vomit dotting my shirt. I was drunk, and had crawled demon-like up the stairs, alone. No one I had been dancing with mere hours ago had helped me home, though I clearly had been swaying in my heels like a tree in autumn.
It’s interesting Kasey hired me, considering that was how I looked the night we first met. The vomit had mixed with the fake blood on my neck -- I’d been dressed as a sexy cardiothoracic surgeon -- and my chest was sloppily exposed. My words slurred incoherent when I plopped into bed. I barely recognized the presence of a third person in the room, sitting next to Clara on her bed. Really, I thought my vision had been playing tricks on me since Clara never had visitors, though Clara and Kasey looked nothing alike then. They ignored me that night -- probably for the best.
I still have no idea how Kasey and Clara met. Kasey was a Social Media & Communications major, peppy as a blue jay, fluttering from group to group. Clara was more swamp owl, hidden forever in her tree hollow. But somehow, over those following weeks I spent hibernating, curtains shut and blankets pulled over my head, the two birds started singing together.
While I’d been drunk, I fell and bumped my head. That was the only thing I seemed to remember from that night, me curled at the bottom of some stairs, head swinging inside, like the top deck of a cruise ship on stormy seas. I couldn’t stop staring at the wall. There it was, finally, the blankness I’d been trying to hard to avoid, to look away from, to fill with millions of tiny explosions. I was at a dead-end -- whatever I had been looking for in all those nights spent gallivanting, I did not find. And then the question becomes, why go outside at all? Clara was on to something, spending all her time in that dorm room. You couldn’t be left abandoned, crumpled, intoxicated on some stairs if you never left at all.
With Kasey’s help, Clara seemed to have her own reckoning. I worried all my staying inside would disrupt all of Clara’s staying inside. But she left me alone. Suddenly, every day, she was out, hanging out with Kasey, doing whatever it was respectable and normal people did during the day. She got a cellphone, and its dinging rang in all day like a persistent digital woodpecker. She changed her major, now Social Media & Communications. Skinny jeans concealed her tattooed legs. I was happy for her, really, she had found whatever I’d been missing, that little spark, a happy voice to contest the raggedy animal one -- when it asks what’s the point of getting out of bed, the happy one says come on, silly, you have things to do. My happy one used to suggest the parties, etc., but once I killed that part of myself, the happy voice fell silent.
So it was just me then who spent her nights smoking, cranking the techno up to unbearable volumes. I hardly bothered covering up the weed smell, no longer even putting a towel under the door crack. That backfired. I got in trouble when Kasey called security on me. She said I was disturbing her work -- she had a paper to finish for her Twitter class.
It’s one thing after the other once you’re labeled a nuisance by security. Things, complaints, calls build up, a case stacking ever higher against you. I don’t think anyone was surprised when I eventually got kicked out. Going around in a van was my idea-- I figured being mobile would make it easier to find whatever it was I’d been searching for. And now I’m in the woods, my gasoline and granola bars and propane canisters funded by the Photoshoped images I paste together for Kasey. I found her on a dream interpretation forum, looking for “creatives” to assist her “brand curation.” Strange place to look, but we found each other, didn’t we?
The meeting is over. Kasey waves goodbye, manicured hand flashing pixelated on my screen. My mouth waters just thinking about the pumpkin-spice-smell that probably wafts warm and sweet in her house. Her blankets are soft, I bet, creamy white and fluffy like teddy bears. No need to pretend otherwise, I do envy her, the ease, the simplicity of her life, the way she can buy nice things and talk with nice people and keep everything nice and clean and comfortable. What’s the meaning of it all? Twelve thousand likes on a photo of her dog in a Winnie-the-Poo costume, a sponsorship from a wooden water bottle company, going out to dinner with the hubby at Outback Steakhouse. She’s on to something, I think. It probably is that simple.
I climb out of the van, bare toes clenching mud and pine needles. It’s chilly, autumn air stinging like a slap. I’m not sure what to do next. What freedom, right? I suppose this is what I wanted all along, an entire day to waste as I please. Maybe it was all worth it, leaving everything behind, if it meant I got to just stand here, watching caterpillars crawl over my ankles, with nowhere in particular I had to be.
Maybe I’ll meander down to the river, cuff my pants, splash through sediment and freezing water. Before then, I decide to floss. I have those little plastic picks, shaped like scythes with just a bit of floss tied on. I dig deep between my teeth, drawing blood. I wasn’t a big fan of flossing back home. But when you’re in the wilderness, those little things assume tremendous importance — they remind you you’re still human. That, and I fear lodged food rotting on my gums, weakening my enamel, and my teeth falling out. What a horrible thought. I bury the pick in my pocket, and begin the rest of my day.