Root Canal

After his father died, he started telling people he had to go somewhere, when he actually had nowhere to be.

“Sorry,” George would say, “but I’m late. I really—I just have to go.”

Then he would sit on the steps of Butler library, not really watching the people and not reading or anything.  If people noticed the lies, they didn’t say anything.  He had expected they would ask where he was going or why he was going, but no one did.

They just said goodbye, they just watched him turn to leave, a little slouch in his step, which might well have been a compensation for his height. 

He stopped shaving, but his beard was patchy at best and it itched. All the time, he wanted to scratch his face, but sitting on the steps of the library he didn’t do anything about it.  Sometimes, he had his organic chemistry textbook in his lap, but he didn’t really open it.  He just sort of put his fingers in between the pages, like he wanted to remember an important passage.  He did this on the subway home too, and sometimes an old lady would say to him, “studying to be a doctor?”

Sometimes he would lie. He would say yes. He would say I go to Columbia Medical School. But that wasn’t true.  Most of the time he would say, “not yet.” Maybe the woman would wish him luck, or maybe she would turn back to her mystery novel.  He was the sort of boy older women liked to sit next to on the subway.  They could loosen their hold on their bags when he was around—even now, when he was growing this patchy beard and looked kind of silly with his glasses sliding down his nose, maybe especially now.

And when he got home, to the house, with the yard being mowed by the kid next door, and his mom packing everything up in that way she had of never inhaling, but always exhaling—an endless sigh.

She said, “we’re moving to 168th and Morningside.”  And his older brother, Bruce, didn’t say anything, except to remind everyone that that was more convenient for him, anyway, and he was only staying in the house now because of what had happened.  

Their sister cried for a long time even though she already had her own husband and her own baby and her own home, which looked like an overgrown gingerbread house plopped in the middle of the suburbs and always smelled like too much rice—because that was all she knew how to make anyway.  She sat in the blue living room in their childhood home sobbing, and her baby just sort of sat on the fresh wall-to-wall carpeting and then their mother just said, “okay now,” several times.

George didn’t say anything while this was happening.  He just sat at the dining room table, with the brown boxes all around him, pretending to study organic chemistry. This bond works like this, he would say aloud and maybe Bruce would tell him to go get batteries from the grocery store, maybe Bruce would call him a pussy.

George met a girl in his summer course named Anna who liked to eat quiet foods during class—berries, soft carrots.  Anna’s food never crunched or anything, and George was amazed by how she could take this quiet food out of her bag completely silently—no rustling, suddenly it was just there and she was eating it, still taking notes. 

He wondered if Anna ate quiet food all the time, or just in class, and so he asked her if she wanted to go see Henry IV, Part I in Central Park and she finished her carrot and said, “okay, yeah, I guess.” 

They had to skip class that day, and sit in the park starting very early in the morning because the tickets were free, but you had to wait a long time to get them.  He brought a big yellow blanket from home and some bagels, and she got coffee because—she told him—she lived on the Upper West Side anyway, so it wasn’t that far for her really. 

George tried to drink the coffee like he drank it all the time, but Anna could tell probably, he thought.

She smiled and asked him about his beard.  When had he started growing it?

“Two months ago,” he said.

Anna asked him if he had flunked his regular organic chemistry class, the one he had been taking at school, and he said no that something had just gotten in the way, you see, and he hadn’t had a chance to finish it up.

Anna said that she had flunked hers, and her mother said that she should probably just be a nurse. 

Then it started to drizzle a little bit and they moved farther under a tree, but still on the path, still in line, and George put his arm around her and kissed her for a little while and she said, “it tickles.”

After the play, when he was walking her back home, he asked her about the silent eating in class, and she said that in her house they always ate quiet foods, that if you dropped a fork while you were eating people all the way on East End probably heard it.  Then she kissed him, and went upstairs to her apartment, and George noticed the doorman looking at him so he smiled and got on the subway, back home.

When he got home George wanted to tell his brother about the quiet eating girl, but his brother said, “I’m not Bruce. I’m Mr. Smith” just like he did when they were kids and their parents went out and maybe he asked Bruce to turn off the TV and Bruce would suddenly lower his voice and get all glassy-eyed and say that he wasn’t his brother at all.

“You’re an asshole, Bruce,” George said.

“I’m not Bruce,” his brother said again. “Bruce is in the closet. I stuffed Bruce in the closet.”

“You’re twenty-three fucking years old, Bruce.”

“Who’s Bruce?” he said, opening his eyes wide.

“You go to fucking Columbia Medical School, Bruce.”

“Bruce is dead,” he said. “I’m Mr. Smith.”

And for a second, in their silent house, with their mother pretending to be asleep in the room next door, George almost believed that his brother was suffocating in the closet.

“You still look like a pussy when you’re scared,” said Bruce, being Bruce again. And then, “so she only eats quiet foods, huh?”

“Not quiet. Silent.”

Bruce didn’t say anything.

“You know, you can’t say things like pussy when you’re a doctor,” George said.

“Just to you,” Bruce said, and then he got into bed and turned out the lights even though George hadn’t even taken his shoes off yet.

Later that summer, they moved to 168th street, to a two bedroom apartment with a living room and no dining room and maybe, if you stood in the kitchen at 7 a.m. you could get some natural light—that’s what the realtor who rented the apartment said, except she put it like “there’s such nice morning light, in the kitchen.”

But even after they had moved, sometimes without really noticing, George took the subway and then the train and then he was back in Long Island, in front of their house that wasn’t their house anymore. But it was never then that he thought about it, thought about how his father just collapsed about to give Mrs. Katzenstein a root canal, how he had been up at school and Bruce had called him real quiet and said that he should come home fast, just take the train.

“What?” George had said, holding the payphone really close to his ear in the hallway, with his roommate behind him in line to call his mother about wiring him some more money. And George had told his roommate to shut up already, he was trying to listen but his brother was uncharacteristically quiet and just said that he should, he should take the train, which—of course—he did.

It wasn’t then, standing in front of the house that wasn’t his, that had been sold to an Indian family who were making spicy smelling foods, that George thought about how the payphone had felt kind of soft in his hand, or about how his sister was probably still crying all the time in her gingerbread house, trying to learn to cook something that wasn’t rice.

It was the moment when he told people that he had to go, that he had somewhere to be.  It was then that he couldn’t help but think, or maybe he left because he was already thinking.

He thought about his mother sitting in the kitchen light, searching The New York Times for a new place to be a dental assistant.  He thought about how she could think about so many things at once, how she could turn away real quiet and make these lists in her novels every night before she went to bed.

One: unpack boxes. Two: buy new dress for interview. Three: shovel snow, and then she crossed that one out because it wasn’t winter and they didn’t have a driveway anymore.

George didn’t know about the novel lists until he and Bruce were unpacking boxes, and he was flipping through his mother’s copy of The Idiot and he found one.

One: update address book. Two: file insurance claim. Three: pluck eyebrows.

“Isn’t it weird the way she writes out the numbers?” George said.

Bruce just said that their mom was like that, but George opened up all the novels and saw that they each had lists in them.

“Isn’t it weird that there aren’t any dates? That she doesn’t date them?” George said.

“Yeah,” said Bruce. “That’s definitely the thing that’s weird about this.” And there were so many “ths” in his mouth that he kind of stuttered when he said it.

“Do you think,” asked George, more quiet than usual, “do you think she would make the list before or after she and dad…before or after they’d…you know?”

George thought that Bruce might punch him or call him a pussy, but instead he said: “After. Definitely after.”

But really, what George thought about, what he was always thinking about, even as he was watching Anna eat her quiet foods in class, was Mrs. Katzenstein. Mrs. Katezenstein just waiting to have a root canal in that big white office chair, with the smell of dentist office all around her, and the quiet hum of the waiting room right outside the door, and his mom typing up bills in the next room, and that extra silence of the now-empty house which cradled the office, where maybe, five or six years ago, you would’ve heard Bruce and George fighting about who should take the trash out downstairs.

Mrs. Katzenstein didn’t walk by their house now, ever. But if she did she might’ve seen George standing there, smelling the Indian family’s dinner. Mrs. Katzenstein might’ve called out. She might’ve said: George! George!

This won’t hurt Mrs. Katzenstein, his father probably said, right before he died. Trust me, Mrs. Katzenstein. You won’t feel a thing.