Stephen Harris: Stronger than Breath
Southern Legitimacy Statement:
Stephen Harris is from Cayce, SC and currently lives in Raleigh, NC. He eats a biscuit for breakfast every Friday because he used to eat a biscuit for breakfast everyday. He just ate a Cheerwine donut and is feeling especially brave. Go Cocks!
Stronger Than Breath
Stan stared at the back of Ishiko’s hair bobbing over the porcelain sink, because what else was he going to do while she flossed? Their brief engagement was torrid, full of fumbling races to remove each other’s clothes. He’d stared at plenty of other things, but rarely found the time to stare at the back of her hair. He leaned in close. It was coarser than he thought.
“Huh,” he mumbled.
She turned around. He tried to stare deep into the dark, almond eyes he loved. Instead, his eyes were drawn to the mint-flavored string dangling between her front teeth. “What? Do I have shomeshing in my teesh?” she lisped.
The floss flopped in front of her. He thought about yanking on it, making some lame joke about fishing but he didn’t think they were yet at that stage in their marriage. When it’d been years and they had dogs and cats and kids and sex wasn’t fun anymore, maybe he’d make jokes that lame. Now? It was still too early to give in to every whim. They’d only gotten married two weeks ago. This was the first night in the new condo with the double sinks.
He smiled at her. She shimmied the floss out of her teeth, set it on the counter. He waited for her to throw it away. She didn’t. He then pretended not to notice as it sat there, limp and stained reddish brown.
A plastic snap finally broke his staring match with the chocolate-chip stained floss. “Don’t forget to brush,” she said, pointing at his toothbrush on the counter.
She squirted blue and silver-flecked paste on both of their brushes, flicked hers under the running faucet, shoved it into her mouth. Stan did the same, making fanged grimaces at himself in the mirror as he always had.
A sharp staccato broke the steady rhythm Stan was used to hearing inside his mouth. So this is marriage, he thought. Letting your wife’s sweet, piccolo tooth brushing drum in harmony with your own slow, determined tempo.
The thought struck him as profound. He repeated it in his head, turned to say it to Ishiko. He saw her with her face in the other sink, her mouth facing down, white foam dripping from her mouth. She held her toothbrush vertically, her hand wrapped around the very bottom, the same way a middle schooler picked to go first in the talent show might clutch a microphone before vomiting onstage.
Ishiko snapped her head up, splashing small white flecks on the mirror. Still holding her toothbrush vertical, she proceeded to brush her front teeth straight up and down, straight up and down, straight up and down. Stan imagined a whole country of coarse-haired folks brushing this way before bed.
Stan emptied his mouth into the sink. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“Brushing my teeth,” she said without stopping.
“No. I mean…why are you holding your toothbrush like that?”
She pulled the brush away from her face and looked at it. “What do you mean?”
“Straight up like that. Like…vertical.”
The entire bottom of half of her face was covered with a white beard of foam. “How am I supposed to hold it?”
Stan held his toothbrush up to his face horizontally, flipping through memories of bathroom scenes from TV and movies to make sure he himself was doing it right. “Like this. Haven’t you ever seen people brush this way on TV and stuff?”
“Yeah, but, I thought it was just one of those things…you know, like how my family had rice at every meal and everyone else had mashed potatoes.” She leaned over the sink, washed the foam from her face.
“So that’s how Japanese people brush their teeth?”
Flicking the water off her brush, she said, “No…I don’t think so. I’ve never really watched anyone else brush their teeth.” She grabbed Stan’s brush, ran it under the water, set it down. “How many times have you watched other people brush their teeth?”
“Well,” he said, counting on his fingers, “there’s everyone in my family, roommates…a few, erm, exes. Everyone else brushes sideways.”
She picked her brush back up, held it horizontally in front of her face. “Feels…weird.”
He held his toothbrush the way she did, like Mick Jagger holding a microphone. “Well, so does this.” It felt alien. Who was this woman in his bathroom?
He looked at her delicate hand, suddenly clumsy in new motion. She had brushed a spot of water over her left cheek in the process. He grabbed a hand towel, stepped next to her so her bare knee brushed his.
“What?” she asked with a smile. Her teeth glinted white in the morning sunlight.
“You got something there.” He wiped the spot off her face. She smiled even wider. Somehow their hands found each other. Looking into each other’s eyes, standing this close, smelling the sweetness of each other’s breath – how could they not kiss each other?