PAUL AND TEETH
Paul was twenty-one and adrift. He was waiting and alone in the
Copenhagen airport, unsure of what to do with himself, unable to decide
if he should stand or sit.
Having anticipated his friend’s arrival and now strangely missing his friend’s arrival, Paul felt his cells slow down inside of him and his skin sag into one loose dead carpet of sunburn and sham.
Teeth had said 1:00 P.M., but already it was after 3.
A fresh tide of travellers extravenated itself into the arrival hall: blonde, after blonde, after self-loathing brunette. They bored Paul. Teeth would stick out like a sore, handsome thumb. Paul already stuck out like a sore, handsome thumb. They would both stick out like sore, handsome thumbs, and in an instant they would find each other, and they would run down the streets together like two fools with no debts. Where was he?
Maybe at the last minute something had come up and carried him away. That was classic Teeth anyway. He had probably been packing, and some celestial creature like a moth had probably helicoptered through the apartment, bumping into things and catching his sight and leading it out the window. He had probably chased after it, down the stairs and into the night, calling after it the name of his deceased grandmother, the one he neglected to see months before she died, hurtling after it and watching it land on a small plastic aquarium containing a freshwater frog whose orange spots were disappearing in sync with the moon. He must have scooped the tank up into his arms and raced it to the nearest veterinarian, this Buddhist veterinarian with whom he would get to chatting, and at this moment Teeth was sure to be on a bus to a hilltop monastery, where he’d get his head shaved and make a bevy of bald monk friends and solve life.
That was just the kind of person Teeth was. He had the whole galaxy in his lungs.
But they had been talking about this for months! Ever since Paul’s application to study abroad his fall semester junior year had been approved and Teeth had read about Christiania.
Maybe his plane had gone down. Maybe Teeth was no longer.
Maybe he had missed his flight, and then the plane he was supposed to be on had gone down without him in it. Paul sincerely wondered how that would affect their friendship.
Paul and Teeth were assigned to the same dormitory hall their freshman year of college, only Paul didn’t know that until a month after school had begun, because Teeth had missed the first month of school. All Paul knew is that one morning he woke up and a boy he had never seen before was in the communal bathroom using his toothbrush, and he thought he was still dreaming. But then the boy smiled and Paul forgot whose toothbrush it was and if he was asleep wishing he were awake or awake disbelieving he was alive.
That was just the kind of person Teeth was. His exhalations alone could heal you.
Paul was aware that his union with Teeth was founded on a moth’s wing, yet it was the bedrock of his imagination and his possibility, and it regularly amazed him that something so contingent could feel so thought-out and truthful.
Teeth inspired Paul’s art and found his science fascinating, and Paul appreciated him for that. Late some nights, Paul would sneak him into the lab so that while he worked on his brain slides he could be calmed by Teeth’s vibrations or revived by Teeth’s threats to pitch lab apparatus into his clavicle. Instinctively Paul would flinch, but deep down he knew Teeth would never actually throw the stuff. That just wasn’t the kind of person he was.
Paul remembered the night the slides finally got done. It was 4 A.M., Teeth was reclined on the counter like an Urbinic Venus in Converse high-tops, and they both stared at them for a long while, these slices of brain from birds emanating like filaments of connection.
The brain slides were for an experiment documenting cell regrowth in response to traumatic brain injury—the body mending itself, saying everything was going to be O.K. and that certain things never happened.
“This is sick shit, man,” said Teeth, still taking in the slides. “You should turn this in as your art final. Two birds one stone.”
He looked up at Paul in sudden astonishment. “Woah. Pun.”
Teeth was the only person who thought Paul’s biology and studio arts double major was cool—Paul himself included. Truth be told, Paul didn’t care enough about either to pick.
He was used to this apathy. In fact, the only time in his life he had felt strongly about something was during his spring semester sophomore year, when he had taken a bio seminar on behavior-mediating infections.
That something he felt strongly about was someone and that someone was Jez Murakami. Jez Murakami made rabies and zombie ants sexy and hilarious and a Platonic order of souls seem obvious and whenever he was around her Paul physically experienced the inexorability of the passage of time and the history of the earth. She made him feel it all: the plate-breaking, the climate-changing, the darkness to ice to heat and life. With Jez, Paul felt no room for doubt.
One night in May he decided to make her understand.
“I think about you a lot,” he said, after spending a significant amount of time machinating then executing their extrication from the rager going on in a senior’s terrace apartment.
“I think about what you’re learning in your other classes and about all the grand changes that are going to happen in the world because of you. I think about the pastels of your blood and the flowers in your lips and I think a lot about kissing you. And I hope it’s O.K. if…”
And like in a dream he leaned in and like in a dream of a different variety she leaned away.
It amazed him that something so chartered in the stars could feel so undignified and beyond reach, and the next day Paul applied to leave campus for a while.
Given how late he was to the process, the program in Copenhagen had been the only option available. Paul had taken it, relieved and nodding at the universe. At some point in his life he was going to have to choose, but this, he’d been glad, was not it.
At some point he was going to have to graduate and write cover letters that stated his objective and trick someone into paying for his visa or move back home if the fraud stopped being worth the effort. Eventually, he was going to have to figure out the kind of person he was and the cause and import of his life and then curate his behavior accordingly.
What kind of person was he? Supposedly everything could be traced back to the parents, but his were not very illuminating.
Had the both of them been musicians or practiced alcoholics this would have been a no-brainer. Instead, for as long as he could remember his mom had been stay-at-home and the job she held before that had since been made obsolete by the forward march of technology. Meanwhile, his dad owned a chain of jewelry stores, which Paul had been explicitly forbidden from inheriting.
“What’s the point of a family business if it’s not going to be the family’s business?!” Paul had screamed when he was fifteen.
“Knowing you, the family business will not stay the family business,” his father had replied philosophically.
His childhood was equally vague. Oftentimes Paul wished that before he could speak or walk his parents had laid out at equidistance from him symbols of potential careers; had let a meaningless yet interesting shape at which he crawled and clawed before his lobes had even hardened, seal his fate, so he could take it easy the rest of his life, convinced and relaxed in his destiny. For example, one of Paul’s cousins spent all of his childhood unraveling rolls of toilet paper, much to his mother’s dismay, and now he was an EMT, equally to his mother’s dismay. All Paul did with his childhood was masturbate and snack, so this was his punishment: a biology and studio arts double major at a liberal arts college.
Yes, Paul had never cared much.
Although… Once, when he was fourteen, Paul had stood naked in his room gazing at his blank wall until he began to punch at it. He was the only one at home that afternoon, one of his parents away with addiction and the other trying to hold everything together, and in that moment Paul was surprised to know what ambition felt like, in that moment he was singularly driven to tear out his flesh just to get at what he was sincerely supposed to be.
He had punched at the wall until he got past his skin and his insides became clear, until his arm ruptured and he genuflected to the floor. He had stared at the blood on the wall for a very long time, then the cells on his knuckles, and in each he had seen art and science mapped indistinguishably one onto the other.