by Mila Daskalova
‘My god, nurse, are you writing this down? There’s one on thirteen, one on fifteen, then… two, oh dear… two on the thirty-seven and one on the forty-third.’
The nurse finished writing, yawned, and went out to have her fourth coffee and cigarette for the day.
‘What have you done to your teeth?’
‘What have you been eating?’
‘When was the last time you went for a check?’
‘How often do you brush your teeth?’
‘Do you floss?’
Daria did not flinch in the chair. Staring at the lamp above her and feeling the light burning her pupils, she breathed evenly, said nothing.
Dr Sarbev waved his hand over her face, interrupting the hypnotising light beam.
‘Excuse me. I’m talking to you, Miss. Your teeth have moon craters. How did this happen? A young lady like you should take better care!’
At that, Daria’s eyes rolled and fell on him. When she answered, her voice was calm but hostile.
‘I go to the dentist at least once a year. I brush my teeth after each meal. Three, sometimes four times a day. I floss every evening before bed. That’s it.’
‘That can’t be it, there’s no way!’ frowned the dentist.
‘There is a way, but it’s none of your business.’
‘Oh, you know your rights, don’t you?’ laughed Dr Sarbev and reached for the cotton balls. ‘If we’re not going to discuss it any further, let’s get down to work then. I can’t fill them all at once. I will fix these two today and finish the rest next week – if you’d be so kind as to return, that is.’
Daria turned back to the lamp, nodded, and opened her mouth.
‘You need teeth in this life,’ muttered Dr Sarbev as he tucked the cotton behind Daria’s lips. ‘By the looks of it, you’ll lose yours rather soon.’
‘I can al’ays su’vife on juishesh.’
‘Well, I guess you can, for a while. But you need teeth anyways.’ Dr Sarbev paused and leaned over Daria’s face with a smirk, hardly hidden behind his facemask. ‘You need them to bite at life and hold it, till you draw blood, till you make it whimper.’
The dentist threw his head back, laughing. Daria sank deeper into the chair.
‘What if I don’t want to ‘ite? If I want to kissh inshtead?’
Dr Sarbev brushed a joyful tear from the corner of his eye.
‘How are you going to kiss without any teeth?’
‘Of cou’se I can!’ She tried to draw her lips together to show him, but the cotton balls did not allow her.
‘Who would like to kiss you if you didn’t have a single tooth in your mouth?’ Dr Sarbev was baffled.
‘I don’t care fo’ anyone’sh kisshesh! I will kissh, and life will haf to deal with it. It’ll haf left ‘e without teeth – it’ll haf no right to co’lain of ‘y kisshesh!’
Dr Sarbev was silent. Daria smiled widely, without moving her face because the cotton balls did not allow her.
‘I am so fat,’ he mumbled as he caught his own eyes in the mirror’s reflection. He fastened his belt, sucking in his belly, then grabbed his shirt from the back of the chair and pulled it over his head, his arms fighting their way through the sleeves. She watched the constellations of freckles on his back disappear behind the horizon of his shirt’s hem.
‘Don’t be silly,’ she sighed.
‘Oh yes, I am!’ he turned around, his face pleading. ‘Look at this!’
He grabbed his belly with both hands and squeezed it as if he wanted to tear it away. She waved her hand and closed her eyes, laughing.
‘I don’t want to look. I can see for myself and what I see is what I love. Don’t drag me into this. Now, if you’ll excuse me, my belly and I are going for a shower.’
She stood up, still naked, and slowly moved across the room, picking up her towel on the way to the bathroom. As she did so, she felt his fascination with her ease prickle her skin, but she was resolved to ignore it. Once behind the door, out of his sight, she turned the taps on and watched the water rain down to the cabin floor, steaming and frothing, washing away the idea of his presence in the other room. Here and now, it was just her and the rising steam.
But once all of him had sailed down the drain, the essence of his words surfaced like rocks laid bare by the withdrawing tide. Daria felt small. So small the water disappearing into the hole in the floor seemed torrential. Its dying roar clashed against the bathroom tiles, reverberating, deafening.
You are so fat, look at this, at your body, this is the body you’ll have to carry for the rest of your life, this skin, a bag full of fat, bones and muscle, but all in the wrong places, these huge hard thighs, more like the limbs of a horse than a ballerina, and all that covered with hair, in all the wrong places, so mismatched, deformed, abhorrent. This is the body you’ll have to carry for the rest of your life.
‘In six months, the little girl had become a young maiden; that was all. Nothing is more frequent than this phenomenon. There is a moment when girls blossom out in the twinkling of an eye, and become roses all at once.’ I read this when I was twelve and dreamt of waking up, ‘six months’ later, a rose. Six months passed many times, and I kept dreaming patiently. I hoped that my beauty will be so overwhelming that the boys in my class will keep their harsh hands away from me; that I will become an idol to be venerated rather than desecrated; that a whole new life awaited me around the corner – if only I waited. And so I did. And so I kept kicking and punching at the unwanted hands reaching for me. I grew thorns but I am not yet a rose. When is my April going to come? How much more waiting? Or maybe this is it? It’s April already and nothing more will ever happen. This is the body you’ll have to carry for the rest of your life.
Scratch it off with your claws. Cut it out if you have the guts. Starve it till it goes away. Hate it till it knows it’s unwanted and leaves defeated. But no. A whole year at war, stuck at a stalemate: every morning, the same puffy face mocks me from the mirror. No matter how much I try to waste it away. This is the body you’ll have to carry for the rest of your life.
And then, the words of that silly dentist: ‘But you need teeth anyways.’ They haunted her dreams in which her teeth and her tears fell all the same – like raindrops onto her feet. It was May and she was fifteen. Fear crept in as she realised she no longer wished her flesh away, but her body refused to stop tearing itself apart. Her fingers were so used to digging into her own skin that she woke up in the mornings covered in wild red scratches. Blood on the sheets. Mysterious bruises kept appearing all over her body. Her mouth kept craving poison. Her fingers kept feeding it obediently and then trying to choke her. Swallowing the poison was easy. The fear of death was the real punishment for wanting death. In the meantime, her stomach kept screaming in agony, wishing it all to stop. Her forever-changing dentists were forever puzzled.
Some years passed unnoticed. Some months were worse than others. Some days were unbearable.
It was no longer about the edges of her body. No one she cared about really cared about where exactly she began and ended. Men had seen her and had loved her anyways, in their own weirdly crooked ways. She had loved all these imperfect men with their bellies, furry backs, and funny looking toes. She knew already that these were charms and not curses.
When life spilt out of her hands, she still made herself suffer, in her own way. Taking it all in, then letting it all go. It was like breathing to her. She could not unlearn to breathe. But punishing herself also put things in perspective: whatever the problem, it could never get as bad as that.
And then that morning came when she met her own gaze in that mirror and, breathless, knew she was blessed. It was 6am, the crack in the curtains allowed a single sunbeam to cut her cheek as she was putting on her trousers after a drunken, sleepless night. Sleepless because she had spent it thinking about the consequences of giving birth to a mistake (like father, like son) and about the ways to erase that mistake. By dawn, fear and self-loathing had given way to acceptance and will. By 6am she was out of bed, ready to go on a quest for the magic bean.
That’s when she saw herself. There was something about her messy hair, the wild look on her face, and the sun scratch on her cheek that made her smile at herself. She finished dressing, grabbed her bag and bit hard into the hairy calf that had crawled out from beneath the bed covers. Escorted out by a shout and the dog barking from the other room, she sprinted out of the flat, slamming the door behind as hard as she could. She ran laughing all the way home, scaring the birds in the nearby trees into flight.
Daria stepped out of the shower and opened the door of the bathroom. He, lying on the bed fully clothed, lifted his eyes from his phone and looked at her. Amidst steam erupting from the bathroom, Daria moved towards the bed, her feet leaving wet spots in the carpet across the bedroom. When she reached him, she bent, lifted his shirt and planted a kiss on his bellybutton. She lay down and placed her head on his stomach, facing him. Her wet hair stuck to him like little black snakes. Her dark eyes glistened as they rolled and fell on him:
‘This is your body and it travels through life.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Yuli had never seen her this serious.
‘It is not your baggage but your plane,’ she continued.
He reached his arms and pulled her close.
Hard knocking on the door woke him up shortly after 6am. The room glistened with the golden-pink light of the sleepy April sun. Daria was not in bed. He called her name – no answer. Half-asleep, he got up and dragged his feet towards the front door. As soon as he turned the key, two policemen forced the door open and pushed past him.
Suddenly fully awake, he rushed after them, finding them peering down through the open bedroom window.
‘What’s going on?’
‘You didn’t see anything?’ One of the cops turned to him, his eyebrow arching.
‘What has happened? Has something happened to Daria?’ He sat on the bed.
‘We have to ask you a few questions.’
The policemen closed the door behind them. He could not be bothered to see them out. Throughout the interrogation, they kept asking if he was sure he did not see anything and tried to avoid his questions. Unsure what to say, they said very little. The emphasis on ‘sure’ increased with every repetition. The last thing he heard them say was ‘A woman was seen flying down from one of these flats.’
That couldn’t have been Daria, he thought. If it was, they would’ve asked me to identify her. Yet, where was she? Her phone was on the nightstand. Her bags and suitcases were in their places. Nothing was missing other than Daria herself. The sun, the only witness, was already up, shining bright as if nothing had happened, as if Daria disappeared without a reason and an explanation every day.
He decided to look for her. He stood up, got dressed, and left the flat. Impatient to wait for the lift, he ran down the stairs, skipping steps. At the front door of the building, he bumped into one of the neighbours, a 70-something-year-old lady who used her dog as an excuse to walk around the neighbourhood, eavesdrop on other people’s conversations and exchange gossip with those who were willing to trade. While on a usual day he would have just exchanged polite but brief greetings with her, her widening eyes when she saw him excited him to ask:
‘Mrs Ivanova, have you seen Daria?’
The woman grabbed his arm and led him out of the building. He could hear her wheezing gasps as she rushed him across the street, pulling her dog after her. Once they reached the sidewalk, Mrs Ivanova stopped and turned around. She lifted a finger up.
‘I saw her. She jumped. I called the police. I didn’t know what else to do!’
‘But where is she?! The police told me nothing! If she jumped, where the hell is she now?! Why didn’t they say something?’
‘Oh, I… I don’t know… When I saw her flying down, I rushed to see and then…’
‘Nothing. And then nothing. When I reached the spot, it was as if… as if she never fell. There was nothing! Well, there was something – rose petals and…’
‘Rose petals?!’ he thought this was what madness felt like. Senseless words with pauses interspersed.
‘There were also teeth. Rose petals and baby teeth.’
Mila Daskalova is a PhD student in English at the University of Strathclyde, born in Bulgaria but based in Edinburgh for the past eight years. While an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh, she saw two short stories and a poem of her’s published in the University’s literary magazine, The Inkwell (Jan. 2014; May 2014; Jan. 2015). She reached the shortlist of the Veselin Hanchev National Youth Poetry Competition in her home country, Bulgaria (2014). Having focused mostly on her academic writing and her blog (roomofwonder.com) for the last five years, she has recently shifted her attention to short stories and poetry again.