He grimaced as he wiggled his front left tooth. It jutted out at strange angles, clinging to his tender gums, before it fell into his hand. He examined the stained specimen, but lost interest as it blurred into his palm. Sliding the tooth into his pocket, he struggled to his feet. The first rays of daylight disoriented him as he inspected the surrounding alley. He almost recognized where he was, but memories were evading him. He couldn’t remember the night before, or even the day of the week. He wondered how he had ended up in this state, but his thoughts mingled and evaporated soon after their conception. His numbed senses brought even less clarity. The pleasant smell of peach gave way to a faint scent of whiskey and then putrid Chinese food. The metallic taste of blood became that of salty saliva and sour flesh. He shut his eyes to escape reality, but his vision only sharpened. His wife’s judging face stretched and distorted into that of his nagging psychiatrist. The pulsing screen of his work computer shattered into a thousand yellow pills. He shook his head and staggered towards the nearest street, broken glass crunching under his sneakers. He was outside a local dive bar.
He peered through the window at a man slumped over the counter, still clutching a full shot glass. By the dartboard, a rusty clock hung on the wall: 5:23. The reflection off the window caught his eye. His fleshy, hooked nose drooped to his chapped upper lip. His frizzy beard obstructed his second chin and his wrinkled brow extended far beyond his hairline of decades past. Dizzied by the strange ensemble of his own facial features, he leaned against the glass. He felt around his pockets for a cigarette that wasn’t there. Forgetting his missing tooth, he unwrapped a piece of mint gum and began to chew. His attention drifted across the deserted street to the only lit building on the block: a strip club. Half of the neon letters on its sign were out and a web of cracks spread across its glass entrance.
He heard a snap and paused, trying to process its meaning. His tongue brushed against something spiny in the wad of gum and he removed it from his mouth. It was stained red and another tooth lay half-hidden inside. His jaw felt mildly sore, but when he pinched himself hard on the cheek, he didn’t feel any pain. Compulsively, he glanced back at the clock in the bar: 5:23. It took him a moment to realize that the time hadn’t changed. He stared at the unwavering second hand. Time was not moving. This couldn’t be real. Everything would be O.K.
The successful reality check suddenly ignited his conscious mind. Recognizing his lucidity, he grinned widely. He imagined the limitless possibilities that he had discovered from months of online research. He scanned the world for an opportunity to satisfy his primal urges. Eyes locked on the strip club, he focused on controlling his meandering mind, and steered his body down the sidewalk. In the depths of his depression, he had been curious about what lay inside the strip club’s depths. Now was his time to live out the fantasy. He swung open the wooden door, prominently spray-painted: “Live Nudes.” The place was empty, but a hostess sat up front fiddling on her phone. He stared blankly until she finally looked up.
“You looking for a girl?”
He nodded and the hostess led him through a maze of vacant tables to a back room. He closed the curtain behind him. The room was small and dark with a velvet couch against the back wall, where a scantily clothed woman lay. She didn’t acknowledge his presence. He crept closer. She was beautiful, unscathed by the passage of time that had estranged him from his wife and loosened his wife’s pale skin. He breathed deeply as he examined the young body from head to toe.
“Well, what do you want?”
Startled, he sat beside her, unsure how to proceed. He hadn’t been with a woman other than his wife in a decade. She sprang up and began to dance provocatively. Her undulating curves mesmerized him. When she turned and pecked him on the cheek, he wanted more. He grabbed her and threw her onto the couch, unzipping his jeans.
“I don’t do that!”
He hesitated. She was playing hard to get. He’d play her game. He took all the cash from his wallet and tossed it down at her; bills rained onto the couch. Her expression unwavering, he pulled off his wedding ring and slid it onto her finger. She gazed up at him, and then through him, seemingly mourning the loss of her dignity. She squirmed as he mounted her, but soon went limp, resigned.
Finally satisfied, he left the room and inquired about a cab. He waited outside on the curb until a small, brown man arrived in a yellow taxi. He spent the ride with his head out the window, the hair he had left flowing in the wind, uncovering new bald spots. He considered leaping out and flying up into the sky, like he had the other night. On these exhilarating escapes from the dulling medications of his broken life, he felt powerful. When the cab finally pulled into the driveway, the driver asked for a twenty. Remembering that his wallet was empty, he apologized. The driver might be upset now, but it wouldn’t matter in the morning.
“You must pay me now, you filthy bum.”
The insult struck a chord. Reaching for the door handle, he heard the click of the automatic car lock. How dare this man interrupt his bliss? The driver, infuriated, let out a stream of profanities that ricocheted inside his skull. The earsplitting bellows turned to the grinding of steel gears and then to the thuds of his contracting heart vessels. He reached around the driver’s headrest, clutching the man’s neck with both hands. The seat bent back and jerked as the man squirmed, clawing away in desperation. He’d never killed a man before. But as the man’s body grew limp, the world became quiet again and his grip loosened. With a loud, raspy gasp, the driver sucked in life before slumping against the steering wheel.
As he entered his home, his body ached and tingled. The familiar smell of air freshener and hum of the refrigerator made him feel alive. The haze in his head began to fade. He opened the door to his bedroom to see his wife sound asleep. Where he should be sleeping, the bed was empty. He opened the drawer of his bedside table and grabbed his dream journal, flipping through the latest entries. In the jumble of words, “teeth” stood out, and he remembered how in nightmares they had crumbled onto his tongue. He ran a finger along his top row of teeth. Despite the two gaps, they felt surprisingly sturdy. Looking for assurance, he glanced at the clock on the wall. The second hand ticked away: 32, 33, 34… Time was moving. He began to shake.
He dashed out of the bedroom, yanking at his teeth. In the garage he grabbed the first heavy tool he could find: pliers. He hurried into the bathroom, switched on the light, and stared intently at himself in the mirror. Despite bruises around his mouth and two missing teeth, the reflection of his face looked normal. He probed for some sign of his unconscious, some disruption in the laws of physics: an enlarged eye, an aged portrait, or a lag in reaction. But there was nothing extraordinary. His t-shirt dampened with sweat as he stared mournfully at the rows of pills he had neglected to take. Images from the morning flashed through his mind with too much clarity, and his stomach churned.
He raised the pliers to a fresh tooth. The teeth had always come out. He tugged downward, but the pliers slipped off. He needed to prove that none of this was real. Exasperated, he clenched the pliers, almost cracking the tooth in half. This time, the tooth came flying out and blood spurted down into his mouth. He yelped and collapsed in pain.
“Honey, is that you?”
Her voice sobered him. He couldn’t bring himself to respond, let alone crawl into her arms. His wife and psychiatrist had finally praised his progress last week. He lay on the tile floor, drifting in and out of consciousness. He blinked purposefully. Long, deep blinks: the type that could bring anyone out of the deepest slumbers. He felt his body sink down deeper into the floor. Each tear diluted the salty puddle of blood spreading through the tiles’ crevices. He blinked and blinked, to no avail. He knew he would never wake up, so instead, he slept.