Like Very Tall Trees in High Wind
You have beautiful teeth, she said, for a man. The hygienist resumed scraping at Howard's top molars while he tried to make a sound that would convey thanks despite the fact that he didn't feel particularly thankful. Howard studied his open mouth, ghosted in the hygienist's glasses. He was, he supposed, proud of the fact that well into middle age his mouth was still cavity-free. The trouble was that now, each trip to the dentist felt precarious—another opportunity for failure.
Most men don't take very good care of their teeth, the hygienist continued. Why she was so intent on discussing oral hygiene in terms of gender confused Howard, but he decided not to give it much thought. He was tired of always trying to understand. So he had stopped. Considering perspectives, context, word choice, body language, had all become a bother. The truth was, in all his years of considering, he had rarely been able grasp why things happened the way that they did.
Howard did not like unknowns. As a young man, an unidentified sound or odor would have him up for hours in the night, moving silently from room to room, careful not to wake his wife and children. His search for answers, for the source, was more often than not unsuccessful and Howard would spend a sleepless night disquieted, imagining possibilities: Raccoon at the trash cans? Furnace clicking as it cooled? Unstruck matches vibrating with potential, forgotten, in the back of the kitchen junk drawer?
Howard followed rules. He followed directions: speed limits, medication dosages, assembly instructions. They were, Howard believed, there for a reason. Why "heat for 90 seconds on high" if the number is arbitrary? This strict adherence had not been passed along to his children. His son and daughter had both left for college with modest but notable lists of ethical and legal infractions that Howard decided to accept as signs of vigor and creativity. His wife, it turned out, was not a strict rule follower either, especially in terms of monogamy. Howard supposed that her infractions and eventual departure were, among other things, also indications of vigor and creativity.
You're finished, the hygienist said as she raised Howard's chair into a sitting position. Yes, Howard agreed, I guess I am. He stood and retrieved his coat from a hook near the door. Big plans for the weekend? she asked. Yes, said Howard, unsure why he had lied. I'm going to the beach.
Lately, Howard had been feeling movement. He described it to his doctor as not exactly dizziness, but rather the motion of very tall trees in high wind, or a series of dark swells making it difficult for him to sleep. The doctor did not seem to find these figurative descriptions helpful and asked Howard if he could describe his condition in more concrete terms. No, Howard said, I cannot. The doctor sent Howard home with some pills and instructions. Howard put the pills on the nightstand and considered the translucent orange bottle and the white cap that he was quite certain would be difficult to open. The color combination made him think of Creamsicles. He couldn't recall the taste. Howard made a mental note to buy some.
Howard couldn't sleep. He was not hungry, but he got out of bed and ate a banana so he could take the pills as instructed, with food. To Howard's surprise, the bottle opened easily. To his disappointment, the pills did nothing. At 3:00 AM, Howard rose, dressed, and drove to the beach. He stood facing the sea. The sea was calm. Howard was aware of the tide but didn't care if it was coming or going. He knew the moon was above him playing its part, and the useless stars, but he didn't look. His wish for a foggy night had gone unanswered. Not far off shore, something large broke the surface and vanished and for a moment Howard lost his breath. Ignited, his imagination burned through the night. He watched as day broke, the sky and the sea shifting hues until they both became so hopelessly blue that it was impossible to tell where one began and the other ended.