Like the Earth Under Our Feet

The bloody tooth hangs by a thread. It’s always shocking to see your child’s blood, even if it’s from a minor wound. Especially when the child looks up at you with wide eyes after he touches his finger to his mouth and sees red. It’s okay, I reassure him, wiping at the corners of his full bloody lips. Do you want me to get it out? I ask, and this time he nods. A little shove to the left and a twist back and there it is, in my hand, that right front tooth I have looked at since it first emerged from his baby gum.

Five days ago Mount Merapi erupted near Jogyakarta. Years ago, on the island of Java, I slogged through soft dust at dawn and ended up at the edge of a volcanic crater at sunrise, sulfuric smoke spewing from a hole deep within the suddenly fragile earth. When I stayed in Bali, when the island shook we’d run out of our tiny bamboo huts by the Java Sea, and scatter outside among the palms, trampling the banana leaf offerings that mollified angry gods. I started to understand the need for those offerings on an island cleft by fire. My first earthquake I felt was on the island of Taiwan, on the sixth story of an ugly but cheap tenement I shared with Taiwanese roommates who’d look askance at me if I drank a cold drink in the winter, or took a bath in morning instead of at night. I watched a newscaster on television loudly announce the news in rapid Chinese, as the building rattled in the fetid smog of Taipei, and I felt unmoored, from familiar language and from the illusion I had growing up in a flat seaside town on the Jersey Shore that the earth didn’t move.

My fear on the Jersey Shore was of waves, huge waves splashing on the shore and taking away my possessions on the beach. I imagine myself as a small child sitting on the edge of the sand when high tide rushed in, and swept away my plastic shovel or perhaps a towel, the terror it must have invoked, the fear that it could be me next. But I’d go out the next summer into the warm waves on my father’s shoulders, and feel solid and safe as I grasped him tightly. By the time I was a teenager, my friends and I would be out in the ocean for hours in our bikinis and board shorts, knowing to duck underneath a big wave when it came. Occasionally we’d get pummeled, gasping for air as the rough current pounded us down, but our confidence grew as we bobbed up time and time again.

Still, I had recurring nightmares of waves coming up, washing my possessions away. At some point it became a camera that the waves claimed. I could interpret this dream as a statement on memory and loss, or fear of letting go. I now dismissed the dream as merely symbolic, but still, when I would have the nightmare again and again,  I’d smell the sea air and feel so vividly the fear of the high tide rushing in and pulling me by the ankles into the salty darkness. Years later, the basement of my stable and solid childhood home, the one I could always go back to, flooded in a torrential rainstorm. Boxes of letters and photos from childhood friends, boxes of memory jags I was meant to go through some day when I wrote my memoirs, ruined. There was one letter I rescued, from a friend since kindergarten who asked if my mother had found out I had tried cigarettes in that sleepaway camp by the lake, and I suddenly remembered that new searing sensation in my lungs as if it were yesterday.

We Skype the grandparents when the tooth is still hanging by a thread. My son sticks his mouth close to the webcam and wiggles his baby tooth grotesquely, revealing the emergent adult one. My mother, who is still beautiful on the verge of seventy, rues that finally her teeth are starting to go, like her eyes did at a certain age. My father, who has survived ten years with thyroid cancer but stills rides his motorcycle up and down the Jersey Shore every day, beams and tells his grandson, You should get a string and tie it to the doorknob, like he said for every loose tooth that was about to come out, for years, for all of us.

Did we ever really do that? I ask him, suddenly not sure.

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