I’ve always had this problem with letting things go.
I can’t quite explain it. It’s like my brain is hardwired to cling to sensory data.
All data, good or ungood, absorbed into the frenetic, pulsing jumble that is my head.
I remember everything. Seriously, it’s almost creepy. I remember shitting my diapers. I remember the names of my tablemates from preschool and entire conversations we had over tiny cups of Mott’s apple juice. I can recite lengthy, tepid monologues from movies I haven’t seen or thought about in 20 years (which makes me really, super (not) fun to watch films with … just ask my family). It’s fucking endless.
It’s not that I’m particularly proud of this personality quirk of mine. You see, it gets mighty hard to make room in your head for new, good things when your mind is constantly spinning its way around an elaborate matrix of loops.
Alas, it’s just how I’m bent.
I suppose on some deep level I hate the thought of all the things in this world that are gone away. I hate that no one remembers the baby worms wriggling in a pile of dirt outside our kindergarten classroom, or the singular beauty of this one moment when we were 15 and we smoked a joint and sat together on my living room couch and the sun came pouring through the blinds and just set the room afire with perfect light.
I feel compelled to rescue such defunct moments from the clutches of time. So I categorize and inventory them ceaselessly. Then I hit rewind, over and over.
Some people amass collector coins or VHS tapes or porcelain birds. I hoard memories.
My unwillingness to let go has extended, also, to the physical. Goodbyes of any kind feel, to me, like ripping off a limb. My packrat tendencies have mostly been reformed by a string of unindulgent roommates and more than 25 moves across 14 cities in a single decade, but I still don’t forgive or forget easily. And I still mourn for lost things – a brown finch that mysteriously vanished from its cage one September morning during my 8th year, a cool shoe purse that I lost at the dollar store when I was nine, a couple of almost-full passports, a few boys I loved too hard, or perhaps not hard enough.
I’ve tended to avoid loss at any costs.
In the end, though, I’m coming to realize that this way of being comes with its own set of less tangible but equally mighty costs.
* * *
Considering my propensity toward limerism, it’s probably unsurprising that I never got my wisdom teeth out when I was a teenager.
It’s a fairly routine dental surgery, and a rite of passage as time-tested as crashing your mom’s car or pulling off your panties come prom night.
I did crash a car my senior year of high school, but most other traditions I bucked vehemently, including the ceremonial tooth extractions that mark so many young Americans for adulthood.
My mom needled me about making an appointment for a few years, but she eventually gave up.
Throughout my 20s, I was plagued by vague, insistent toothaches as a result of my refusal to give the teeth up.
I started to grind my molars together at night. As time passed, I noticed with some dismay that one of my bottom front teeth was being slowly and unceremoniously crowded out of its rightful spot.
There was no denying that those rogue teeth were on the move, but I was too busy traveling and job-hopping and fucking up to bother with things like dentistry.
I did actually schedule the surgery – twice – during my 20s, but in both instances, I canceled at the last minute. I was always too broke, or in a strange foreign country with no one to drive me home from the clinic. So it went.
As I approached 30, I kept at the grasping and clinging. To people. To lost places. To ideas, both about myself and others. I changed careers, cities, again and again.
I turned 30 last summer, and soon after that landmark birthday, I decided it was finally time.
My mouth ached incessantly by then. A tiny tooth edge had broken through my back lower left gum, right on top of my 12-year molar, the tip of a surfacing iceberg for which there was nowhere near enough room.
A fissure had appeared too, in the rest of my life. I couldn’t get up in the morning, no matter how much I slept. When I wasn’t working, I was thinking about hating working. I’d wake up in the night wincing at the gnash of my teeth. The little front tooth had turned practically sideways.
I retraced my steps, trying to figure out where I’d gone wrong, my mind awhirl with recalling and recasting.
Then, one day last September, it all became too much.
I scheduled the dental surgery and I decided to quit my job.
On my last day of work a few weeks ago, I woke atop a pillowful of tears, my jaw clenched tight.
I’d been dreaming hard. I’d gathered into my arms a little girl I knew years ago. In carelessness, I’d hugged her so hard her tiny back broke.
In the dream, I’d gone to visit her mother, to beg forgiveness and to discuss reparations.
“This is going to get ugly,” I told her as we cried together.
Sitting on the edge of my bed, I tried to get hold of myself, but it felt as if this great flood had come bursting up from somewhere way deep down. My mouth and the side of my head ached for release.
I knew it was silly, but I wanted to keep crying for what my dream self did, for my carelessness, for how I’ve always needed too much and grasped at everything so hard.
Instead, I accepted a hug from Morgan, I dragged my hands down my face and I rose, dressed, and headed to the office for a final time.
I finished my work that afternoon and I carried out my things in an old Sky Vodka box. Sort of a sad amalgamation – a few old folders full of newspaper clippings, a tube of mint lotion, a Chapstick, a notebook, my favorite silver mechanical pencil. It seemed so little to show for such effort.
“When a hole appears in your life, be careful not to fill it too quickly,” my coworker advised me.
That night, I met Morgan for Mexican food at a divey little place on U.S. Highway 101.
The waiter was a shy, old hombre with a bloodshot eye. He spoke to us softly in Spanish and we flexed our rusty language skills back at him. I ate a taco salad and I worked at being easy and ready. But I couldn’t stop gritting my teeth. It was like my mouth was clamping shut of its own accord.
* * *
Before bed that night, I took two heavy-duty sleeping pills, as prescribed. They would sedate me, make me forgetful, finally.
I remember little of what came afterward.
An alarm. A bowl of lentils. More sedatives. A car ride. An improbably huge needle.
Me, in the dentist’s chair, clenching a tiny Buddha figurine in my hand so hard I break the skin on my palm. Opening and closing my eyes to puzzle over the sudden and strange doubling of everything in sight. So many pairs of hands.
The pulling and cracking, the teeth refusing to give way. Commotion. A grunt of frustration from the dentist. The sides of my mouth tearing and bleeding.
Once, they hit a nerve, and angry energy raced through my bones, making me jump – something thumping and zinging and adamant inside of me that protested angrily at the premise of giving up even just one hunk of the matter that proved, certifiably, that I existed.
Hours later, I stood, or was stood up.
I asked to see the teeth. The nurse guided me to a bloody little pile of bones on a blue napkin in the corner of the room. She picked one up and pointed to a series of raised root ridges.
“See those bumps?” she asked. “Those are what made your teeth so hard to pull out.”
A genetic quirk. A lifelong battle. Every part of me fighting extraction of any kind.
I asked to keep one of the teeth, or perhaps I only thought I’d asked. Morgan led me, empty handed, to the car.
On the drive home, he tells me, I kept pulling wads of bloody gauze from my mouth. My head lurched backward and forward as I mumbled incoherently and pointed to the colorful whoosh of cars and passing billboards.
For two days, I cried, I slept, and I dreamed my dreams. I forced down pudding and eggs and watched movies I don’t remember. I slept more. I itched. I ate pain pills until the world turned soft pink and yellow and my voice thundered in my ears.
I rested. I twitched and I dreamed and I remembered and I forgot again.
As I emerged from the fog, my head felt airy and empty. So did my future. So many gone-away things. So many holes begging to be filled back in.
I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but I tongued at the big spaces in the back of my mouth. I discovered a stitch and a strange landscape of swollen ridges and crevaces. I healed.
* * *
And from the ordeal, one Big Adjustment to the way I understand my own earthly allotment of joy and misery.
If there is such thing as Hell, I think it exists in the heaviness we consent to carry inside of us, mile by mile, when we fill our hands too full of dust and blood and old slivers of bone. When we just won’t let go.
I’m trying not to be so afraid of the hellish bits anymore, of the partings and the losses and the forgettings. But I’ve also resolved to be less cowed by the beautiful bits, too.
I am not a religious person, but I’m learning to place my faith in a lesser brand of redemption. I call them my three minor commandments: be kind, try hard, and make reparations when you fuck up.
Because, trust me, you will fuck up. Things will get ugly. Backs and hearts and jaws will break in equal measure.
I had been stumbling through life with a head so stuffed full of memories and sharp bits of bone that it was turning me to marble, cold-white and implacable.
Now I am hollowed out. I am jobless, and three teeth lighter, and hard at work shedding some of that massive storehouse of remembrances.
While I was hopped up on pain pills, I threw away half of my photographs.
And now, whenever I feel a memory rising, I pause to reconsider its worth. If I really need it, or it really needs me, I’ll tuck it back to bed. But more often, I loose the knot and let it float away instead. Out my ear, or my mouth, or wherever else.
In a single month, I’ve been punched so miraculously full of holes.