What she liked most about her mother was that she wasn’t maternal. Not in the conventional “I’m slightly overweight and I’m going to bake you cookies on the regular” way. Her name was even lacking in conventional maternalness: Alaina. She could have just as easily been fifteen as she was thirty-nine. But no, Grace was the fifteen-year-old. She was apparently wise beyond her years, however, as her wisdom teeth were ready to be taken out two years ahead of the “average age.” Averageness, in this case serving to mean “wisdom teeth generally erupt between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five.” “Erupt” was, surprisingly, an understatement as far as Grace could tell, and when she tried to describe the pain to her mother, Alaina shrugged and said, “I’ll schedule you a dentist appointment.” She was always matter-of-fact in the face of any sign of drama. Grace usually preferred this in cases of breaking her curfew or getting caught smoking out in their backyard, but right now, what she wanted was a reaction. Something to comfort her fear of this agony, which would only grow more intense post-removal. She wanted the stock reassurances she had been conditioned to expect by reruns of old TV shows on Nick at Nite.
Alaina could not give them, instead returning to her book to study for an exam she had coming up. She was currently enrolled in USF’s graduate school program for psychology—somewhat adding to her natural aura of detachment. Now, everything could be clinically diagnosed. If Grace said something as offhanded as, “I don’t think I can go to college,” Alaina would return, “Maybe it’s part of your avoidant personality.” The longer Alaina was in school, the worse her knee-jerk diagnoses became. It got to be so irksome to Grace’s father, Gabriel, that he purposely extended his work hours at the office, where his role as property developer could have no end of fake paperwork to conjure. Alaina was, in short, becoming unbearable. But still, Grace respected her, perhaps as no teenage girl had ever been capable of respecting her mother. It was as though Alaina proved the typically hollow statement that women can be whatever they want, and didn’t need to adhere to a certain set of unspoken rules just because she was a mother. And as she became more deeply engrossed in getting her degree, the dentist appointment loomed. It was on a hot July day—no requisite San Francisco breeze to offset the uncharacteristic warmth. She got to leave school early for it, the only silver lining of the affair. And when she took the BART to get to Union Square, she saw the ominous foreboding of an old homeless woman hobbling through the station, toothlessly demanding change so that she could get back to where she was from, that she had been trying to gather enough funds for years to go back to Portland, where, presumably, her aesthetic and station in life would be more embraced. Grace felt she could have at least attempted to make her way to the Berkeley area in the meantime. In any case, the toothless factor made her shudder. Made her think that she would soon be next after a botched excision. She knew what hippie dippy quacks California doctors were. Especially of the San Francisco variety.
Even so, her mother believed firmly in “the work” of Dr. Billingsly, and would be meeting her at his office, making a big to-do that she had to miss part of her cognitive therapy seminar course in order to arrive on time for the appointment. Grace didn’t care—she needed her mommy and she wasn’t afraid to admit it. Alaina, on the other hand, seemed to be afraid to admit that maybe she couldn’t juggle motherhood with the intensive pursuit of a career. But she bit her lip about this as she sat with Grace in the waiting room, thumbing through an old issue of Bazaar from January with Kate Winslet on the cover. The title was “Kate Winslet’s New Life” and seemed to suggest more about the weight she had lost in the six years since Titanic came out. “The Life of David Gale is secondary to what Bazaar really wants to say: she’s thin now!” commented Alaina, getting evermore irritated with each passing minute that Grace wasn’t called in to get the surgery over with. “Why can’t these rags ever just say what they mean instead of all this doublespeak, huh?” Grace sighed. “That’s not what the masses seeking distraction want, Mom.”
“Well, maybe that’s why everyone’s so fucked up.”
At that moment, Dr. Billingsly emerged to announce, “Let’s free those fuckers from your gums.” Again, Grace knew all San Francisco doctors were quacks.
As the anesthesiologist tried to put Grace under, she demanded the presence of Alaina in the room. Dr. Billingsly rolled his eyes and told the anesthesiologist, whose name tag read simply: FLORENCE, to fetch Alaina. She glared back at him and replied, “Excuse you? Why is that my job? You think she who administers the drugs somehow has lesser power?” Dr. Billingsly looked from Grace to Florence and then promptly left to collect Alaina.
When she was brought back, the unbridled trepidation in Grace’s eyes touched the matriarchal chord within herself she had so long thought incapable of being played. And in a rare instant of pure instinct, she rushed over to Grace to grab her by the hand and say, “Hey, it’s gonna be okay.” Grace froze in surprise, almost not knowing how to handle this bout of affection. Seizing upon Alaina’s brief show of parental vulnerability, Grace stated, “I need you to do something for me when we leave here.”
In 2003, Jamba Juice was it. Along with Noah’s Bagels, Starbucks and Papyrus, it was present in every mall and outdoor strip mall one encountered. So yes, of course, Grace wasn’t immune to the temptations of the phenomenon. And knowing full well the normal nature of her appetite on a day-to-day basis, she needed to ensure that said hunger—an inevitably immediate sensation after coming out of her temp-coma—would not add positively to an already heightened sense of susceptibility pertaining to voraciousness. It was thus that before counting back from ten that Grace asked Alaina, “Can you take me to Jamba Juice?”
The last thing she saw before closing her eyes was Alaina’s frown and the first thing she saw upon opening them was her smile. “You made it,” she stated as Grace looked down to see she had been put in a wheelchair to be taken out of the recovery room. It really seemed like a lot of production for a few small teeth. “Are you sure? This isn’t purgatory?”
“That I can’t officially confirm,” Alaina said, her usual humor returning after this rare flirtation with conventional mothering.
Grace glanced over at Dr. Billingsly, who offered, “Would you like to see those chompers?”
She shook her head, “That’s all right.” And with the push of a wheelchair, she was ejected from the dentist’s office almost as abruptly as she was from her mother’s womb.
As her mother was about to merge onto the Bay Bridge on their journey back, Grace, even in her overly numbed and medicated state, was horrified that Alaina, in her role as caretaker, had already forgotten the one very specific request she had made, thus her frenzied reminder, “Mom, I need to go to Jamba Juice.”
“Oh. Right.” She gripped the wheel more tightly and turned her head over to abruptly plea, “Is it super important we go right now? I have to study for an early exam tomorrow.”
“Yes. It is ‘super important.’ I’m starving and I can’t eat real food.”
But Alaina had already gotten on the bridge, her own needs taking precedence over her child’s.