The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Veronica’s Teeth

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There’s the night that Veronica knocked her front teeth out. It was only the two of us, me and V. We’d been in North Beach all night and now we were walking to wherever we were going. I have no idea. Assume it was one of the dive bars on Columbus.

In fact, let’s talk about Columbus for a second because it had grown famous in our alcoholic circle because of Kerrie’s ex-husband, Alan. Legend has it that one night Alan was so wasted and called Kerrie begging for a ride home, and she agreed to pick him up, asking, “Where are you?” and he said, “I’m at the corner of Columbus and Columbus,” and she said, “Those aren’t cross streets. Where are you?” and again he said, “Columbus and Columbus,” and that became a way to communicate when you were too fucked up to find yourself.

You’re at the corner of Columbus and Columbus.

So that was where V found herself on the night I’m trying to tell you about. She staggered down the street and I was next to her, certainly not sober, but blocks away from Alan’s infamous intersection.

She staggered and then she fell.

Fell hard.

Right on her face.

Too blotto to bring her arms up.

I remember that I laughed before realizing how serious it was. She’d knocked out a couple teeth and badly chipped another.

The blood seeped from her lips and she asked, “What happened?” and I wasn’t sure how honest to be with her. I’d seen war movies in which one soldier, having just stepped on a landmine and missing both his legs, asks another, “What happened?” and they say, “It’s nothing serious. You’re going to be fine.”

I also wanted to comfort my friend. We might not have been soldiers risking our lives but we were human beings. She’d know the next morning how serious her injuries were. No reason to rile her up now.

“You’re okay. We need to get you home,” I said.

Hailing a cab with a bleeding six feet tall woman under your arm wasn’t easy. Several whizzed by us and it became clear that I was going to have to work out alternative transportation. I threw V over my shoulder, giving her the fireman carry. Like I said, she was a tall woman, really skinny, but still, she was heavy and I had a pretty good swerve going and periodically I needed to rest, keeping her over my shoulder but leaning on a parked car to give my legs a breather.

“What the fuck?” a guy said, coming toward us. “Get off my ride.”

I understood his stance. I wouldn’t have been happy either, seeing two heads on my car. But I was sure that if I explained it to him he’d calm down.

So I explained.

Yet he didn’t calm down, didn’t feel any human empathy, only saying, “I don’t care… I don’t care… I don’t care… get the fuck off my car!”

Notice how level-headed I had been until this moment. This moment in which my friend was badly hurt. This moment in which I was only trying to get her home. This moment in which no cabs had the decency to help us. This moment in which I needed to rest my legs for like thirty seconds leaning on this guy’s bumper and now he was swearing at me?

Bad move.

I folded V up on the guy’s hood and squared up in front of him: “Here are your choices,” I said. “I kick your fucking ass all down the street or you give us a ride to my friend’s house.”

My hands up now.

My chin down now.

Getting in a boxer’s stance.

Balls of my feet.

Bouncing.

“Just get off my car,” he said, moving back a couple strides.

“We’re past that.”

“Just go.”

“Give us a ride or we fight.”

Nothing from him.

“Guess that means we fight,” I said, taking a step toward him.

“Where do you need to go?”

“Only to the other side of North Beach. Over on Filbert.”

It’s almost impossible to describe the mood during that car ride. How he despised us but was trapped, seeing no other option.

V nodded off in the backseat and came to every thirty seconds or so totally discombobulated and would start swearing at this guy out of nowhere, something like, “What the fuck is this fucker doing?”

“Shut up,” I said. “He’s helping us.”

“He’s a fucking fucker.”

“Right, but he’s helping us. Go to sleep.”

“What happened?” she asked.

Then she’d pass out and the driver and I would look at each other, shake our heads. We had an apprehensive camaraderie brewing, but I could tell he hated me. I would have hated me. I mean, he’s chauffeuring us around just because I threatened him. It’s a precarious way for a relationship to begin.

Anyway, then V would blip awake again, start with the whole spiel over: “What the fuck is this fucker doing?” and so on and we would have the same conversation, leaving me thinking that this was what it must be like to drink with that guy from Memento.

When we got to V’s apartment, our chauffeur peeled away, not helping me get her inside. I wondered what version of the story he was going to tell his friends when he got to the next spot. Would he change things? Make himself the hero? How he picked up a couple train wrecks stranded at the corner of Columbus and Columbus and basically saved their lives driving them home? Or would he exaggerate it the other way—that I was actually going to hurt him, that he met me, his near death experience, a psycho ready to tear into him for no real reason. I mean, I might have. There’s no telling. There’s only conjecture—his story and mine—and I’m in the mood tonight to give myself the benefit of the doubt, something that doesn’t happen too often around these parts.

But tonight is different. Tonight, as I puke this story up like I’ve got alcohol poisoning, and in a way I still do—tonight my second wife and daughter sleep in the next room. Tonight, I look back at these things and don’t see myself as a monster, as a piece of shit, as a complete waste of air, my lungs parasites drawing breaths they don’t—I don’t—deserve.

No, tonight I see a kid, an angry kid, stunted and damaged and dumb.

Tonight, I see some good in myself as I cringe down memory lane. I can say: I wasn’t going to hurt that man and tonight I mean it. I can say: I did my best to help V.

Take this: Once I got her into the apartment, I contemplated putting her in the shower, but since she could barely stand up, that was no good.  Why risk her falling again?  So I stripped her naked and wiped her bloody mouth one last time and turned the lights out and she was in bed sort of mumbling and cooing and crying, and I stood by her bedroom door, eavesdropping while she talked to God. The lights were out. I stood there thinking about how much of our lives we can fuck up and have no idea. No sense of the consequences until later. There was nothing really wrong in V’s life yet.  Not until she awoke the next morning.  Not until she realized what had happened in her mouth. She’d come back to life and wouldn’t know what was wrong, but sensing something was off. Something ached. Something was no good. And that was when she’d understand people like us made our own destruction. We suicide-bombed our own lives.

In that moment I wanted to stay, wanted to curl up on her floor and be there the next day, to spare her sorting through the inchoate facts alone. So why didn’t I? I don’t know exactly—don’t have a very good excuse—except to say it felt like an intrusion.  Like I was barging in her consciousness, jumping on her brain’s bed, throwing open the curtains. It was her mouth and I had no right to trespass. To this day, I have no idea if that was the right thing to do or not, but that’s what happened.

I told her I loved her one last time and left.

I still wonder about the specifics of the next morning. I’ve never asked her. I don’t want to make her hop in that agonizing time machine. Relive that disaster. She’s still someone I absolutely adore, someone I love unconditionally, and if I did the wrong thing that night, V, if it would have made it easier on you if I’d stayed, I apologize. I’m sorry if I let you down. We could have cried and cooed to God together and maybe he would have taken mercy, a miracle happening before the sun came up. The tooth fairy coming not to collect your lost teeth, but to give them back to you, spackle them into your gums so we remained beautiful forever.


Joshua Mohr is the author of five novels, most recently “All This Life.” More from this author →