This page contains:
- Body transformation
- Drug use
- Settler colonialism
The crumbling of a De la Rosa candy on the tip of my tongue ranked high among the things I missed the most. So did kissing. If there were a top five, the two might be side by side on the list. Cigarettes and spitting might also have a place. I rarely smoked, usually only on special occasions, because I have asthma. As infrequently as I had them, each cigarette felt special, a small revolution, an uprising against my own body, against my own stupid, dysfunctional lungs. Cigarettes were exciting. So was spitting. Spitting was reserved for lovers. Like cigarettes, it wasn’t something I was even aware I enjoyed until I couldn’t do it anymore. But the De la Rosa was something I craved above all things. The sugar sweet peanut butter dissolving, cementing against the roof of my mouth. My mouth. Stupid, red thing, full of crooked teeth. I never thought I would have missed it this way.
The day they took my mouth hadn’t been spent eating De la Rosas, or smoking, or spitting. In fact, I hadn’t used my mouth in any way that you might expect someone who was about to lose their sense of taste, their tongue, their voice, might have. I spent the day mostly quiet. I drank coffee. I wrote in my journal. I washed my hair and walked my dog. I missed a phone call from my mother. I watched three bands play and after the show, before the bar closed, I had two shots of whiskey. I did laugh. I remember that. It was a stupid joke, but he told it well and I laughed hard and loud. Then we were back at my apartment. His shoes were on the side of my bed, his denim jacket flung over the sofa. It was like he knew where to toss it, like a coat rack that had become familiar. He had been in my bedroom before; this dance was ritual. His long hair hung down over my face as he leaned in, one arm stretched out as he scrolled through a phone on the nightstand. He was trying to DJ our moment. I smiled and pulled his face close to mine. My beloved. I sucked in a breath, whiskey-sweet and lingering with salt from the fries we shared at the bar.
It was a hard phrase to say out loud. It was loaded and heavy like lead. I had been dancing around it for weeks. But caught up in the moment I took a deep breath, and I considered language. I wanted to say it with my whole body. I wanted to say it the way my ancestors would have. I let the words float from my belly up my throat. They caught there like a crash and splintered. I picked them out one by one. Moody synth music floated in from the nightstand, the traffic and the bodies hummed in the night just outside my window. And then it happened. I knew he wouldn’t understand the words but I said them anyway. I heard the words, felt them take shape in the hollow of my cheeks. I knew what would happen next. I had been warned. I chose it anyway. Fuck it, I thought. And as soon as the words escaped my lips and fell into his ears I saw something in him ignite. He felt it too. For a moment we held each other. Drunk on the syllables and the sound. Then they came.
It was easy enough. They filed in one by one with expensive-looking jackets, clipboards, and books. They spoke quickly and only to each other, except for the one who did the work. His voice was muted, hollow, like the color beige, like valium in the form of a person. He spoke softly, reassuring me that their technique for removing such vulnerable parts had come a long way over the years. I would barely feel a thing. He walked me through it. Quickly and neatly, they removed my mouth. They handled it delicately. They dropped it gently into a specimen jar. I saw it for a brief moment as I signed the appropriate paperwork, floating there, lipstick only beginning to smudge. It was still mouthing the words when they labeled it and dropped it into the big black medical bag. Then they left.
It didn’t hurt, but it was raw. I touched my fingertips to the bandage that used to be my mouth. Blood bloomed there, kiss shaped. He pulled my hands away, No, don’t do that, he said. His hands brushed my hair, he kissed my forehead because he couldn’t kiss my mouth.
In the morning he had to go to work. He promised he’d come back. I just lifted my phone from the nightstand and waved it like a flag. You can get a hold of me here, I gestured with a wave of my hand and a roll of my eyes. He nodded, smiled, and I watched the door shut behind him as he left.
Then I began to take inventory. I looked at the things in my apartment: two bags of coffee, one cigarette, a bottle of champagne in the fridge. I listened to voicemail from my mother. I let out a sigh, only I couldn’t, just air out of the nose. It didn’t have quite the same effect.
After feeding my dog I opened a cupboard in my kitchen and saw it there. The cellophane-wrapped marzipan. How long had it been there, uneaten? Weeks? Months even. Looking at it I felt the certain tragedy that the De la Rosa of course would still be good, no matter how old it was. A silent lump swelled in my throat when I thought of it twenty years from now, still perfectly intact, its neon red rose pristine and uncrumpled. What a waste.
It’s true the candy was a tragedy, but only because I missed the mouth. My mouth. Glittering cut, always red, full of imperfect teeth and too many words. I had not expected to miss it the way I did. But on days that the missing got too bad, I knew that I could visit the mouth. That was part of the deal.
I could walk the hill downtown, to the museum. I could climb the stairs and pass the marble pillars and the fountain. I would nod and wave; the security guards would know to let me pass. I got the fast track, bypassed the tourists and the school field trips. I got to walk right through the galleries and straight up to the glass, my glass, the display that encased my mouth.
I hold my breath now when I see it. That’s easier to do without a mouth. I hold my breath and I see the ugly thing, smeared lipstick, mess of teeth, trembling smile, flanked by hands. Hands. At least it has neighbors. There are many glass cases in the Native American Cultural exhibit. There are three cases that I visit each week: the hands and my mouth. The hands float, each one frozen in an active pose. A set of fingers curl around a strand of cedarbark. The others push a knife against the grain of wood. Hovering above each of the hands are gold placards that read COAST SALISH WEAVER and UNKNOWN CARVER. Above my mouth, sloppy with lipstick and lonely for a kiss that would never come, read the words: STORYTELLER, THE GRANDDAUGHTER OF THE LAST LUSHOOTSEED SPEAKING GRANDMOTHER.
One afternoon I was recognized. A woman with a camera around her neck smiled enthusiastically when she saw the names on the placards and the photos decorating the gallery walls. She recognized my mouth. Did you speak fluently? she asked with a big smile. No, I shook my head. I pulled out the handheld whiteboard that I carried now from my purse. I wrote, I only learned one phrase. The woman continued unabashedly. She wanted to know, What phrase did you learn?
I swallowed nothing. I took in no air. I wrote the words in my grandmother’s language, the traditional language, the first language. Beneath the phrase, I translated them to English so the woman might understand. I held out the small whiteboard sign that read:
I love you.