• Hamsters

    Robert Travieso

    Summer 2023

    The dental hygienist was blasting tartar from my gums, exploring my mouth with a long silver tool that shot powerful darts of water into the space between my teeth, and shouting out numbers to her assistant—3.7! 2.1!—that I didn’t think had anything to do with me. There were three people in the room, or four, including myself, the hygienist, her assistant—who sat in a wheelie chair across the room, typing feverishly—and some third worker, the scope of whose job I couldn’t discern, who was holding a small cone-shaped cup for me to eventually spit into. But there had to be more to it than that; maybe she was in training. This third worker was so intensely bright I couldn’t look at her. Her teeth and pants were so white I felt I could see through them, and I could, actually, see through them—I could see the layers of her enamel and the outline of her underwear; it was as if I was seeing her more brightly just from the power of my own mind, and so I had to look away.

    Jane and I were in the middle of some stupid fight, brief, meaningless, but intense; I’d thrown a Sprite can at the wall, and she’d called me cruel, and I’d felt a kind of mourning for whatever phase we were no longer in, the early days, come and gone, and I’d stormed out to go for a walk, the kind where you leave the house without a plan, and just . . . walk, the kind of walking that’s really a kind of waiting, waiting while moving, for your mind to think of the next thing to do. And this was the next thing to do. I’d passed the dentist’s office and done something that probably no one had ever done before, walked in and asked for an appointment on the spot, as an act of spite, or masochism, or just as a way to be unavailable for a while, and they’d said, Sure, yes, we have availability, as if I were getting a haircut. And why hadn’t I gotten a haircut, if I was looking for something to do?

    The hygienist switched to a new tool that spurted a kind of numbing gel onto my gums, but the gel was sliding now, it seemed to me, too far down the column of my throat, and there was too much of it, and I thought maybe my esophagus was going to be put to sleep by accident, or that my epiglottis might flop backward over my windpipe, and that I might die, right there in the dentist’s chair, right in the middle of an unresolved fight with my wife. But I couldn’t speak, because the hygienist’s hand was crammed halfway into my mouth, and so I just hoped for the best, and tried to relay to her that I was beginning to lose feeling in my throat. What had the fight been about? Maybe about the end of the early days, though in my mind, it was the fight itself that was ending them. Or the fights, plural, that we’d been having. So many fights were like that, and not just ours, but fights in general, so circular they made you dizzy. Or maybe we were fighting because I liked my new job and she didn’t, because she’d loved being an English major in college, but ambitious people don’t get to become high school English teachers, except in defeat, or post-breakdown, so she didn’t become a high school English teacher, and I did, even though she’d cared more about literature in college than I had, and they’d given her all the awards, and invited her to all the banquets, and featured her on all the glossy postcards sent around the country asking for money, and now it was five years later, and what she did at the law firm with the constantly dropped and rotating names in the title was related to the sedulous joys of poetry explication only in the sense that flying to Buffalo on a commercial commuter airplane (which she did all the time) and jumping off a diving board into a lake-fed pool in mid-August (which she never did anymore) were the same in that each hoisted you momentarily aloft. During our fight, Jane had said that she could feel now in her bones whenever any divisor or multiple of an hour had passed. At six minutes, she said, she’d feel a little stirring in her neck, at twelve, the sensation of a dime rubbing against the dull gray paint of a scratch-off ticket. At an hour, she’d feel her heart curl into a smile. The backward ticking of all the hours she had to bill, the endless keeping of accounts, from 2,500 all the way down to zero, and sometimes even beyond. And what was the cruel thing I’d supposedly said? I couldn’t remember. But what I was thinking was: No one asked you to do this. You’ve done it to yourself.

    But I didn’t say that out loud, because I wasn’t a cruel person. Cruel? I wasn’t cruel. I was realistic. Sure, I’d shoved a kid or two at recess, said some mean thing to make somebody cry, but who hadn’t? When Dara Salcman sat in the chocolate pudding, when Allie Goldberg spilled the milk on her crotch, when that kid had let the class hamster go dry under the heat lamp when it was his week to watch it, hadn’t I been more or less kind? Or at least kinder than I could have been? The gel puddled thick against what I thought of as my pharynx. I coughed but it did nothing, the gel simply flounced and then resettled like a poorly flipped pancake. Could the hygienist see the panic in my eyes? But of course, to her, everybody had panic in their eyes. I tried blinking out an SOS, but the hygienist was telling her own story, talking, rapid-fire, in the way of people who know they’re not really being listened to, and she wasn’t even looking all that closely at my face, or into my mouth, I guess because she did everything by feel?

    Peter Meacham. That was the kid’s name. The lowered rims of his eyelids, like a bloodhound’s, the quivering of his bottom lip, the empty cage, the sharp scent of wood shavings and piss, the little cigar box, resting too heavily in his hand to be empty—we’d all crowded around as he lifted the lid and Ms. Albert explained to us about rigor mortis, how soon the stiffness set in, and how the poor thing probably didn’t feel any pain. No pain? our eyes asked. Well, we can’t be sure, said Ms. Albert, fingering her necklace, but he looks peaceful now, doesn’t he?

    He didn’t look to peaceful to me. His tongue was sticking out. His belly was engorged. His back legs were crossed, as if he’d died having to go desperately to the bathroom. And why had Ms. Albert let us name our class hamster Rambo? And all our subsequent hamsters Rambo as well? Rambo I, Rambo II, Rambo III, Rambo IV, and then some other class had taken over and named their hamsters Sammy or Hammy or Sandy, something like that. And why had there been a heat lamp in the first place? Hamsters didn’t need heat lamps. Maybe that’s why they’d all died. Or maybe I was inventing the heat lamp. But it never ended well for hamsters, regardless, for any hamsters—what hamster ever died a happy death?

    Robert Travieso lives in Baltimore, where he teaches high school English. His short stories have been published in Tin House, Kenyon Review, One Story, and Electric Literature, among others.

    Read More

    Web Design and Development by Riverworks Marketing