As if I did not have enough problems, as if my tooth were not aching a dull, constant throb, as if my jaw were not swollen, as if fever from the infection did not have me teetering on the brink of this room with its pastel furniture and beige carpet and long white buzzing suns, there is a painting hanging above the couch that seems to be only headlights in the dark. I stare at it. I cannot make sense of the colors. It’s a painting, just a painting, I tell myself, although it is blinding and I find myself squinting at it while holding the palm of my hand against my too-hot cheek.
The woman sitting on the couch beneath the painting is looking at her phone, tapping the screen, sliding her finger along it, head bent down. She texts, “I am here to get my teeth bleached.” I swear I can see this, that I know it, that the letters tap in neon across the wall, across that painting. Or maybe I can just interpret it, the Morse Code of her flying thumbs. Or perhaps I am just guessing, speculating, judging. I have been known to judge.
She does not seem to have an abscess or pain or swelling anywhere, except in her breasts. Bought and paid for, I think. This is me being judgemental again. Snarky. Old. I hate her smooth, flawless skin. I hate her flying thumbs. I hate the way she keeps glancing at me as though being in pain is some sort of personal failing. I imagine she thinks of homelessness this way too. I’m not homeless. Not anymore. I have an apartment now, but no furniture. I sleep on the floor, on the carpet. It’s blue, the color claimed by the town’s university sports team. Carolina Blue. I sleep in the southern part of heaven and have a tooth that must be pulled. Already I have missed a day of work coming here.
My jaw is hot, hot, hot. The painting. The lights move. The woman below taps her phone. The painting hurts my eyes. It is too much like the underpass on a rainy night. The reflection of headlights on dark, wet pavement. Watching the headlights slide by as the rain pattered down and the tires of the passing cars whooshed through the puddles that sprayed into the lights. “It’s pretty,” I told Rita. “If you forget you’re homeless.”
I’d taken her hand. She was five years old. She had a toothache. It hurt. We’ll take care of it tomorrow, I told her. I didn’t know how. And it didn’t happen. And she got taken away from me because I couldn’t care for her.
“I’m here to get my teeth bleached,” the woman texts again.
I swear I see it. The neon letters across the painting. I hear sirens. My skin is hot.
“I’m here to get my teeth bleached.”
This short piece of fiction was written from a prompt in my free second-Saturday class, in which I passed out pictures of paintings taken from an art book, and gave the writers the setting of a waiting room. “This art is hanging in a waiting room.”