Tobias and Marcus sit in a courtyard outside an office building. Seven stories tall, the red, shiny type of granite. Gray skies mark the beginning of fall. Green and yellow leaves sweep by. A whipped-up offshore breeze. Tobias carefully unwraps an item, folds the remaining clear plastic neatly onto the mesh metal table the men share, and rips a chunk out of his tuna salad sandwich. The bolus stuffed into his right cheek makes an exaggerated slide down his throat, and he speaks.
“I think the way we’re brushing our teeth is all wrong.”
“I’ve started taking my toothbrush to work, and brushing after lunch. I’m embarrassed about it, so I sort of hide it in my pock—”
“I bring the toothpaste separately. So in my right pocket I have the toothpaste and in my left pocket the toothbrush. The thing is, though, that it feels bizarre—disgusting—stuffing a toothbrush into my pocket, brush side down. I worry that the bristles will become dirtier inside my pants than outside. And I hate when you have a toothbrush loose in a toiletry bag or something and then you take it out after a long trip and all the brushes are sort of squeezed off to the side. It’s a violation.
“It’s all probably wrong; the air could easily be dirtier. But I have this idea about it, and so after lunch I get back to the office and I shove my toothbrush in there, bristles sticking out my pocket, and smooth down whatever shirt I’m wearing to cover it up. Depending on the day I have to take my phone out of my pocket to make it all fit. Imagine if something were to happen on those stairs—I hate to think of what I’d do without my phone.”
Marcus, who had remained frozen amidst Tobias’ initial comments, starts in on a pile of coleslaw with a white plastic fork and speaks.
“I actually don’t think that’s super weird. Like, at all.” Just his left molars chew. “I mean, lots of people brush their teeth in the middle of the day. My seventh grade math teacher used to do that. Well, that actually was a bit weird, but that was only because it was middle school and he’d do it right outside his classroom, in the boys bathroom we’d pee in at lunch. So you’d be at the urinal about a foot and a half from Mr. Carlyle brushing his teeth in the communal sin—”
“Way to fucking stigmat—“
“Fine, fine.” Marcus shields his face by turning towards the ground and lifting his fork. “That was a bad example. But aside from that one detail about the specific setting it wouldn’t have been weird and I’m sure he could have done it without judgement, no questions asked.”
Tobias slowly moves his head from side to side, like he’s trying to touch his ears to his shoulders. He does this in a manner which suggests he might have more than two of each.
“Anyways,” Marcus says, “It doesn’t sound like you think we’re brushing our teeth wrong, as you say, if you’re going out of your way to do it an extra time every d—”
“See,” Tobias wags his finger in front of his own bowed head, “It’s not that I disagree with the way we’re meant to brush our teeth. It more has to do with the quantity.”
Marcus moves on to a plastic container filled with cold pesto farfalle. His head is down as he picks around the olives, but he nods to indicate his attention.
“I’ve taken to...” Tobias pauses, seeking the precise word, “…adjusting my brushes. Not just at midday, but also in the morning. They’re around thirty seconds shorter, each one. On account of the extra brush midday. I figure you’re supposed to brush your teeth twice a day for two minutes each, yeah? We can agree that that number is clearly an over-exaggeration. One of those where they say two minutes because they know your average Joe only has time for about half that. But if they made the recommendation realistic—say, a minute—people would start going for thirty seconds at a time, or they’d skip brushing altogether. So they bump it up to two, twice a day, and live with the results.”
“Sure.” The word doesn’t come out quite right. A sun-dried tomato is stuck between Marcus’ two front teeth.
“So I was, I think, an above-average brusher, compared with the general population, before this midday addition, which means that before I was averaging probably a minute and a half, twice a day. Three minutes total every day. I’m brushing my teeth three times a day now, not two, so I’ve bumped each brush down half a minute. Three brushes a day, a minute each. Three minutes of total brushing a day. And I’m wondering to myself about the efficacy of this method.”
“Well, the other day I’m with this friend I haven’t seen since high school really, except for a few times like right after school ended that summer. But I was real close with him at the time, with his family and all that too. He’s just moved back in with his parents after getting laid off and we’d made plans to kind of walk around the neighborhood, like we used to do, and at the end of the walk he tells me his parents are home and that he’s sure they’d love to see me. Great. Walking in the door I suddenly remember: the dad is a dentist.”
“So I’m all excited now, kind of foaming at the mouth to test out this theory for the first time on an actual expert. I hug the mom and give a nice firm handshake to the dad the same way I did as a kid. We talk for a few minutes, but really the whole time all I’m thinking about is a way to bring up toothbrushing.
“Finally there’s a gap and I kind of blithely chuckle and say something like, ‘Now that I’m seeing you, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask,’ with a smile and a kind of guffaw. I realized as it came out my mouth that that was maybe the wrong thing to say. Because really it could have been any dentist, it didn’t matter that it was him specifically, which is kind of how I made it seem. I kept it light, though, and moved on. Really I’m taking the whole thing very seriously—I’m wondering if I’ve made a major advance in the field here—but I’ve gotta make it seem real casual. I haven’t seen the guy in years.
“So he says alright and I tell him all of what I just told you, differently, of course, tailored to the audience and all that, but with basically the same point. I tried to present it in a way he’d understand. I knew, for example, that he’d be hung up on the three total minutes thing—that he’d try to dodge the more fundamental question I was asking by saying that I wasn’t going for the full four minutes like the two by two brushers are. And I didn’t want him questioning my personal behavior—he was kind of my dentist, as a kid, but then my parents moved me to a different dentist, and it was this whole thing, and everyone is over it now. But I wouldn’t want to reflect poorly on any of the parties involved.”
“You have to balance out all these interpersonal factors in every interaction you have. So I turned it into a hypothetical. ‘Say, for example, that one were to brush their teeth five times a day for one minute each,’—I’m preempting his overall minutes counterargument here by over-exaggerating the amount of brushing. I really want to push him. ‘Would this be just the same, or better or worse, for your teeth than the standard two minutes a pop routine?’”
Marcus scoots up in his chair. “And?”
“And I swear to God he looked at me like I had just jammed Mr. Slurpy—Mr. Slurpy is what all the staff called that suction wand thing at his office—Mr. Slurpy up my nose, dumped his stash of creamsicle-flavored fluoride into my own eyes and crucified myself to the chair with a wad of heavy duty floss. Pure bewilderment.
“It wasn’t that he didn’t feel like engaging. It was just that he couldn’t get his head around the premise. The idea of any alternative to the two by two rule had never crossed his mind. This guy’s been a dentist for forty or however many years. How could that question have never come up? What collective failure inspires such profound lack of imagination? This is a brilliant guy—contributed to dentist literature and all that—but because it took someone so long to ask the question, he couldn’t process even the most basic of its implications.”
“Well, the fact that it’s remotely possible that there could be any alternative to this rule. I guess it’s an extreme example—that two times two brushing thing must be the first commandment or whatever of the industry. But think of the bigger picture. I was walking behind a little girl and her mom the other day on the way home from work. The mom sort of had her hands full and asked the girl to hold a carton of eggs. A dozen eggs, and there’s no bag or box or anything, she’s just holding the carton, and the eggs are wobbling around in the girl’s hands. The mom realizes there could be an issue, so she tells the girl, ‘Look down, and focus only on the eggs, as you walk.’
“So of course the girl listens and starts staring at the eggs as she’s walking, and they do stabilize. But then almost immediately she starts zigging and zagging wildly down the street. She’s about to smash into a parking meter when the mom reels her in and starts guiding her at the back, the girl looking down at the eggs the whole time, just to make it down the sidewalk in a straight line. So it’s like, yeah, the eggs are fine, but now for the rest of her life this little girl is gonna have her mom’s voice in her head telling her to look down at whatever fragile object she’s carrying whenever she’s holding eggs or flowers or vases or whatever and clank into street cleaning signs and step in dog shit and God knows what else for the rest of her life because of it. And then she’s going to pass that onto her kids, and it’ll become this generational cycle of unquestioned, unchallenged orthodo—”
“Look, have you considered that you might be the only one who’s produced such an original thought? The toothbrushing thi—”
“Original thought? You think I’m the only one asking the question? No one is the only one asking the question, Marcus. If I’m thinking about this every day while I’m brushing my teeth in the handicapped bathroom of the storage basement at the office, I guarantee there are hundreds of thousands of us out there—millions, probably. They’re all thinking maybe not the exact thing, but, you know, some proxy of this, in their own voice and language and all that.”
“And, what, no one has thought to question Big Toothbrush or whatever until you got around to it.”
“Out fucking loud? Of course not. Look, for most people, this stays inside. How much stuff is marinating up there, stewing around, which never develops into anything more than a sort of quarter-baked state? I’m not even talking about the random, unintelligible thoughts, because it’s obvious those would pass by, unaccounted for. I’m talking about the ones that come in patterns, even waves. That world you enter when you’re half asleep and there’s an entire other universe that makes this unbelievable amount of sense, but only in the singular moment when you inhabit it. I’ve gone to sleep for the last week rocking in the cabin of a creaking wooden ship, peering through the webbed creases of my eyelashes at dozens of lanterns perched on ceramic Medusa heads blazing all around me, fuzzy shadows dancing on the walls. And the times I’ve been down there are the warmest, sweetest moments, easily, that I’ve experienced, real life, dream life, whatever, since this place emerged. But I can’t summon it or go back on command or conjure it in any inorganic way. I have no agency over it. No one, no one, no one talks about that place. Just like no one talks about how we should, you know, maybe be brushing our teeth completely differently.”
Marcus checks his watch. It’s 1:02pm. The men stand up, toss out their garbage, and return to the office.
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