Dreams of Teeth

Dreams of Teeth

3457e11b6ec7feaeca35b87f6e2834acBy Lorri Barrier

I had the dream about teeth again last night. In the dream, I feel something odd in my mouth, and I put my tongue in the place. I feel the tooth move easily, back and forth. I find a mirror and look. It’s true. The back molar is loose. I push it again with my tongue and it falls out easily. My heart pounds. Oh god. What will I do? Ill call the dentist in the morning. I console myself. At least its in the back. No one will see.

I look in the mirror again. This time I notice it’s not the only one. One of my front teeth on the bottom looks angled and awkward. I touch it. The tooth falls into my hand. I can feel how smooth the sides are, like one of my children’s baby teeth, but jagged on the bottom where it was attached at the root. I taste blood in my mouth. I panic. How will I go to work with a missing tooth? How will I afford getting two teeth replaced? I look again, and the cascade begins, teeth like dominoes falling into my hands. I can still feel them like tiny invisible pebbles when I wake.

My eight-year-old daughter has crawled into bed beside me again. I shove her over, and rub the place that aches on my shoulder from where her back was pressed against mine. I get up, leaving my daughter in bed, and make coffee. I am groggy and spill grounds on the counter. I wipe up the mess. I wake my nine-year-old son first by brushing the hair out of his eyes. He is sleeping tangled in covers, his head off the pillow. He mumbles he’ll get up after breakfast is ready. I go back to my bed to wake my daughter. “Time to get up,” I say.  She stands, stumbling, and I turn and carry her to the couch on my back. I have done this since she was three. She flops on the couch and covers herself with the fuzzy throw. I make her brother’s breakfast.

I know she won’t eat, but I ask her what she wants anyway. She has inherited my difficulty with breakfast. I have to be awake a long while before I can eat. Most days, she goes to school with an empty stomach. I yell after her as she gets on the bus, “Get breakfast at school! You have money on your account!” Sometimes she does, but most often she does not. In the mornings my son is ravenous. It is possibly the only time of day he asks for more food.

My husband sleeps through this morning routine. He would get up if I asked him to, but there is a rhythm to the morning, a road worn smooth with years of use. Sometimes I am envious of his extra sleep, but I’ve been getting up with babies since they were born. It feels like part of me.

Once my two younger children are on the bus, it is time for my middle-schooler to begin his day.. I’ve been up for well over an hour when it’s his turn to get up, I only have to call him once or twice, and then I go ahead and turn on the water for his shower. He goes in without much prodding. He always eats a cup of yogurt in the morning, but I don’t think that’s enough. He spends nearly five dollars a day on lunch, so I imagine he is starving by noon. He swears he eats it all.

On the drive to work, I have time to think about the tooth dream again. In college, I took an anthropology course about China. During one class meeting, a woman from China came to speak to us. She’d interviewed hundreds of Chinese women, recording their thoughts on all sorts of issues. The most common dream among the Chinese women she interviewed was loss of teeth.

At work one of my colleagues comes to talk to me. Our community college is small and rural, with many of the instructors wearing various administrative hats in addition to teaching. My office is messy, and I’m embarrassed, but it’s how I work—I like to see everything. She tells me they want me to take on an additional duty, something important. I listen. It is important. I’d enjoy it. She asks if I have any questions. I never know what to ask when people are sitting right in front of me. It’s only later that I think of what I should have asked. But at the moment, before I blurt out yes, I only think to ask, “How will this affect my other duties?” She smiles and laughs a little. “It would only be a few hours a week.” I list my current responsibilities, then make a joke about giving up something I don’t like to do this. As usual in education, there is no mention of more pay. There is always more work, always the expectation of excellence, but never more money. But I do want to do it. Even as she speaks, I have ideas.

I eat my lunch around noon. It’s usually a microwave meal, which I eat at my desk. I figure I can stop grading papers, stop planning my online classes, stop jotting down ideas for this new duty for a little while. I love the beach, and I look at beach homes for sale on the internet. My tastes are not fancy. I look at what we might really be able to afford with just a little more money. Not beachfront, but cute and cozy. We could walk to the beach, or buy a used golf cart to drive around. I imagine how our lives would be different if we had this beach house. I imagine the clean line of sand and aquamarine water next to the shore, my three children floating out on the waves, their distant laughter lost on the wind. It is always summer at this beach house. We are always happy.

By the end of the day, I am mentally exhausted. My younger son meets me at my car as soon as I pull up and asks me if I brought pizza. Pizza? “No, honey. Not today. I’ve been at work.” My oldest son tells me his sister broke the remote and now no one can watch TV or play the Wii EVER AGAIN! I look at it. It isn’t broken, but the back did come apart and the batteries are missing. I find one battery under the couch, squatting, still in my heels and skirt.

I make afternoon coffee before I change my clothes. My husband is working in the study. He still has more to do. “She lost privileges for throwing the remote,” he says as I walk by. “Okay,” I say, already wondering how to keep her out of the living room while the boys are watching TV. “Let’s just turn it off for now,” I say to all three of them, doing exactly what my students hate—punishing the group because of the one. I put on yoga pants and a T-shirt because I need to go to exercise class at 7. I have to go, even though I feel too exhausted to stand. Somehow, I make it through. On the drive home from exercise class, I wonder what I’ll find when I get there. Have the kids been fussing? Is the homework done? Are they ready for bed?

Inside the house it’s eerily quiet. It’s just before 8:30. Surely they aren’t all asleep? I look in on my daughter. She’s reading in bed. She sees me pop in my head and says, “Get out.” I look in on the boys. They are both in bed, my oldest on the top bunk with a book light, my youngest already asleep. “Mom,” my teenager says from the top bunk, “When you go out, close the door.”

“Good job with the kids!” I say to my husband as we settle down on the couch to watch a show. This is the only time of day we spend together, these meager hours once the kids are in bed, both of us exhausted. “They do fine at bedtime when you aren’t here!” He smiles and I know it’s a joke, but there’s some truth in it. They are always talking to me, clinging to my arms, sitting in my lap, wanting a story, even though they read easily enough themselves. They become babies again at bedtime, or close to it, when I’m here.

In spite of my best efforts, I fall asleep during the show.

“We can watch the rest of it tonight,” my husband says in the morning. He’s talking to me through the door while I’m in the bathroom. I’m flossing my teeth, watching for signs of decay, being careful around the one with the crown. I should have had braces when I was younger, but they didn’t do that as much when I was a kid. If your teeth were mostly okay, they let it go. No one expected perfection.

When the woman from China finished speaking, students peppered her with questions. Everyone wanted to know more about foot binding. After a little while, I tentatively raised my hand and asked what I wanted to know. “The dreams of teeth—do you know what they mean?” She nodded her head a little. “It’s hard to say what someone’s dreams mean, but I think,” she paused, trying to find the right English words. “A loss of voice. Like, you have no say, no voice.” I was twenty then.

I look at my reflection in the mirror. The same blue-green eyes. The same fair skin. The same reluctance to be too noticeable, too bold. Twenty-five years later I’m still spitting dream teeth into my hands. I feel like the life-clock is ticking. I want desperately to begin shouting my truth, whatever it is, if I can just find a voice in me loud enough.

Author’s note: It’s been a little over a year since I wrote this piece. Many days I still feel like I’m treading water with the business of parenting, working and being a good partner to my husband. It’s hard to nurture the self in a sea of activity, meeting the needs of others. I have tried to find my voice more at work by starting an LGBTQ awareness club for students. I have also decided to stop dyeing my hair (after 17 years of color) and go gray. That might sound superficial, but I’m learning it is a journey of self-discovery and reflection. I write about my gray hair and my journey at https://graysitions.wordpress.com/.

Lorri Barrier is a mother, wife, teacher and writer. Her other essays for Brain, Child include “Faithfully,” “The F-word,” “Unplugged” and “Idle Threats.

Illustration: pinimg.com

Love Letters

Love Letters

By Lorri Barrier


At age eight, my daughter has discovered the joy of written correspondence. She spends lots of time drawing, writing, taping, and decorating—compiling letters and small packages for a few select friends. There is even a package on my desk ready for “Cookie Swirl C,” a YouTuber she enjoys, whose fan mailbox is currently closed. My daughter checks Cookie’s website daily to see if there is a change in her mail acceptance status.

“Do you think this will go through the mail?” My daughter asks, handing me a slightly puffy envelope. I feel something plastic inside with sharp edges. The slightly jagged envelope was addressed to her friend Teagan, with the address line extending way too far to the right, but with all the correct information included.

“I doubt it,” I say. “It has to be smooth, or you’ll need one of those envelopes with the bubble wrap inside.” Once when I was a little girl, I tell her, I tried to mail a book to a friend, but it came back to me—damaged. My daughter runs off to her room to try to remedy the situation, or create something else.

Sometimes, if the packages are larger—a shoebox-size—I help her hand-deliver them. She likes to do this in stealth mode; we placed a package on her friend Sophia’s back porch for her to find as a surprise a few weeks ago, and tiptoed away giggling. (She doesn’t know it, but I texted Sophia’s mother to let her know the package was there.)

Her friends respond in kind. I opened our door to a surprise package once during the summer. I never heard a car in the driveway or footsteps on the porch. For my daughter, it was a little taste of Christmas. (From the elves, Sophia’s mother’s text told me, with a winky-faced emoji.)

I am not sure how this love of snail mail blossomed. My daughter is a child of the electronic age, perpetually plugged in at one end to an iPod or e-reader. The cord hanging from her ears connecting to a device is as much a part of her as her skin or hair. But each time I see her engaged in creating mail for a friend or opening something she’s received, I’m overcome by the act of simple sweetness.

I was always a prolific letter-writer. Any of my past romantic interests could recall the volume of letters I generated. I remember the excitement of receiving a long-awaited letter in return. One particular summer when my high school boyfriend spent several weeks in Europe, I clutched the lone letter I received in my hand, and walked to an isolated spot on my grandfather’s property so I could read the letter in a romantic setting. I imagined the sunlight filtered through the canopy of trees would infuse some magic into the letter, and it would be exactly what I wanted to hear, and not what I feared.

Sometimes the letters I received broke my heart.

Sometimes the letters I wrote broke hearts.

But broken hearts didn’t keep me from writing the next time, with equal intensity. A former boyfriend once confessed after the relationship ended that he hadn’t actually read all of every letter—it was just too much.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a letter to anyone. The passionate need to express my feelings in words is dampened by daily life. Email is easier, texting easier still. I no longer have as much to say, it seems. The kids, the job, the marriage—it is often an unexamined blur of activity.

I watch my daughter open a letter from her friend. She takes out several pieces of paper with drawings and short paragraphs written in various shades of marker. A few glow bracelets fall out of the envelope as well, and she smiles at all of it. Prolific correspondence may be a fleeting season in my daughter’s electronic life, but it is a beautiful, lush season.

“Mama, I’m going to put all of that back in the envelope and pretend I just got it and haven’t seen it,” she shouts, jubilant at the discovery. That’s the thing about letters. They can be revisited again and again. Even old letters retain a bit of the essence of what used to be on faded pages.

“I got your letter,” my future husband had said to me over the phone. He couldn’t see then how I blushed, knowing what I’d written but couldn’t say out loud. Finally, I received the response I’d been waiting for. The story of us begins with a letter, the story we are still writing, our daughter’s chapter open with a rose pressed to the page.

One of my favorite letters from my daughter is attached to the bulletin board above my desk—”I love Mommy for taking care of me when I’m sick and even when I’m not and I wanted to say Thank You!”—complete with a row of “XXOOXOO” on a folded purple (my favorite color) piece of construction paper. I imagine the intervening years may not include such tender exchanges, but for now, this is all I need to know.

Lorri Barrier lives with her husband and three children in Mt. Pleasant, NC.  She teaches at Stanly Community College in Albemarle, NC.  Her previous essays for Brain, Child include “Faithfully,”  “The F-word,” and “Unplugged.” 

Illustration: canstock.com

Idle Threats

Idle Threats

WO Idle Threats ArtBy Lorri Barrier

My daughter is difficult.  I don’t say this to her, but I feel the weight of it as I bend to pick up the contents of my purse, which she just dumped on the floor. She asked to use my iPod, and when I said no, her anger attacked quickly and sharply, like a coiled snake.  I look into her eyes as she stands over me, little blue springs wound tightly, too tightly.  “That’s it,” I say calmly.  “You can’t go to the sleepover tomorrow.” She struts off to her room and yells back at me, “I will go tomorrow! I will!”

This is a familiar path for us, and I dislike walking it.  It is not my nature to be heavy-handed, yet my seven-year-old daughter demands it of me. The hours between this evening and tomorrow evening will be an emotional bundle of push and pull.  I know without question that her will is stronger–I have always preferred a Zen approach to life, but she insists on pushing me out of my comfort zone again and again.

She begins the following day asking if she can go to her friend’s house that night after all.  I remind her that I told her no, remind her that she yelled at me the day before and dumped out my purse.  She smiles as if this is funny.  “I know you will let me go, Mommy,” she says with certainty.  “You’ve forgiven me before.”

By midday, I’m worn thin. I’m beginning to second-guess myself, thinking that perhaps the punishment is too harsh for the crime.  I actually want nothing more than for her to just go to the sleepover and give me some peace. But if I relent now, my word is worth nothing. Even though the weather has been terrible lately, I think it will be best for us both to get out of the house.

She walks beside me quickly, past the barn, through the old gate, down the hill toward the creek.  It is the first clear day we’ve had in nearly a week.  The fields are saturated and sloshy.  My daughter and I both stop and stare, gaping at the swollen creek. “If you don’t let me go, I’ll jump in!” my daughter blurts.

A breeze lifts my hair. There’s a hint of spring in the February chill.  The sunlight glints off the water and I have to squint.

“I mean it,” she says again and looks at me sideways, her arms crossed.

I stand still, unsure of what to do.  I don’t think she understands the gravity of what she’s saying.  I know she wants to say the worst thing.  The thing that will make me change my mind. I look down into the water, the color of rust at its deepest.  Usually, this is an easy crossing.  Hop one, two, three on large rocks and we’re on the other side. Today, the crossing rocks are nowhere to be found; water spills over the banks and into the pasture. What was a pleasant waterfall, a hidden fairy place, is transformed into a  torrent.

“It looks deep,” I say to her, as calmly as I can muster.  “It’s been raining a long time.”  I am deliberately motionless–she is a skittish animal, and I don’t want to frighten her toward her threat.  I worry that one wrong move from me and in she goes.  Her arms remain crossed.  Her body stiff. “It’s probably cold,” I add, wishing I’d brought a jacket.  We stand in silence a few more moments, neither of us moving.  My daughter is pouting, but she doesn’t lunge forward. Finally, I shrug and walk up the hill away from her.

It takes tremendous effort to turn my back on her,  even though I am angry. I am reasonably sure she will not jump, as much as I’m sure the squishy earth really is solid beneath my feet.  Still, I am her mother.  As I walk, I imagine I hear the splash of her body and her muffled cry against the rush of water.  I see myself running, getting there just in time to pull her soaking and coughing from the creek.  I also imagine getting there too late, and the horror of pulling her lifeless body from the twisting current. I have to look back.

She’s still there at the edge, now squatting, turning over muddy stones and throwing them in.  I sit down at the top of the hill and tell myself she lost privileges for bad behavior. I can’t give in. It was her choice, and now the consequences are in motion.  Even if those consequences are deeply unpleasant for me as well.   There will be other sleepovers.  There will be other good times.

My son has come outside, he trudged toward her. He’s only slightly taller than she is, though he is two years older. He yells up at me, “Mama!  She’s going to jump in!”  I shrug my shoulders, feigning indifference. I lie back in the wet grass, exhausted from the drama.

“Mama!”  He yells again.  “She’s putting in her feet!”  I hear her squeal and laugh, yes, it’s cold.  I close my eyes and breathe deeply, feeling a bit of tension release.  Soon, I hear both of them running up and down, rocks splashing against water, happy sounds.  Sounds of forgetting, sounds of being present in the moment, the way only children can be.

When my daughter was a toddler, we uncurled her angry little balled fists and said, “Hands are not for hitting.”  We thought it would just take time, but we were still doing it when she was three and four.   At five, she kicked her door so hard during a tantrum the knob went through the drywall. I covered the yawning hole with a collage of family pictures–smiling faces masking the evidence of her anger.  Her oldest brother nicknamed her “Tiny Terror,” though she’s not so tiny anymore.

Years of dance have made her solid and muscular.  Years of defiance have made her iron.  I remember the spring she had strep throat just a few days before her dance recital.  I took her to the doctor, and he asked me if she’d take pills or a shot.  “Give me the shot in my leg,” she said, answering for herself.  She barely flinched, and then danced a day later on a bruised leg I knew then (if I hadn’t known before) that she was made of something far different from what is at my core.  She has always been a tornado, a lightning bolt, a surging storm.  She summons her powers easily, without hesitation.  And this isn’t the first time I’ve thought, guiltily, that if she’d been my first, she’d be my only.

I tell myself that her temper will serve her well, if she can only learn to reign it in a bit. She is everything I want to be when I need to stand up, speak my mind, and not back down.  But not now, I think. Dammit, not now.  I want to tell her to save it, save this passion, for when she needs it.  Save it for when it matters.

I sit up, my back damp from the grass.  They have moved from the creek’s edge to a copse of trees.  They are busy in play, jumping, laughing, enjoying the day

“I have to go home,”  I yell to them. “I’m cold.”

“Awww” they say in unison, but run toward me, red-faced and out of breath.  She is carrying her wet, glittery pink shoes in her hands, barefoot in winter.

Barely a minute passes before she asks, “So, can I go now?  I’ve been good!”  I have to laugh to keep from crying.

Later that night, she makes a bed on the floor of her brothers’ room.  I sit reading in the quiet, and unbidden, the tears come. Great wracking sobs of release.  I wake her, or perhaps she wasn’t asleep.

“Mama, why are you crying?” she asks in earnest.  I am sobbing too hard to answer.  She climbs onto my lap and drapes her arms around me.  “You are a good mommy,” she says.  I hear her, but I don’t believe it.  I am plagued by thoughts of what I could have done differently years ago.  This is the psychic work of mothers: try to make sense of things, navigate through the mistakes, create a better reality. I want a rewind button, a replay view.  I want to analyze everything from the day she was born to the present, and see where I first went wrong.

I wonder what memories she will retain of these troubled times, these angry outbursts and the outrageous pageantry surrounding them.  What images will be painted inside her of who I am, and what we are together?  I think of the images now embedded in my psyche: the rushing water, her blue, glaring eyes, the chilly breeze tangling her dark blonde hair, her stiff body poised to jump, the moment I turned and walked away, trusting nothing but my instincts that it would not end badly.  I sigh and hold her close, letting her fall asleep on me like an infant, chest to chest, her heart in sync with mine.

Lorri Barrier lives with her husband and three children in Mt. Pleasant, NC.  She teaches at Stanly Community College in Albemarle, NC.  Her previous essays for Brain, Child include “Faithfully,”  “The F-word,” and “Unplugged.” 

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By Lorri Barrier

Dandelion in the wind“Okay, the doctor will look at these pictures and be in to talk with you in just a bit.”

The table is comfortable, lights low, it’s blissfully quiet. In any other circumstance, I’d drift to sleep. But this is my second mammogram in two weeks, and I’m on edge. The first one was easy, but then I got the call about the spot, “the area of concern.”

I look around the room, notice fancy drop ceiling tiles that would look nice in our basement, if we ever get around to remodeling it. I close my eyes, become aware of Steve Perry’s familiar voice singing “Faithfully” ever so softly, coming from somewhere in the room.

Faithfully. I was in middle school when that song came out. I was already a C-cup by then. I remember the boy sitting behind me in history class reaching around me, trying to cop a feel. I turned and punched him twice in the shoulder—hard. He never bothered me again.

But later that day I remembered where his hands had been, and they left a sense of shame. Something’s not right about these breasts, announcing to the world that I’m a woman. Because I’m not. I’m still a little girl.

I spent the rest of that year hiding under sweaters and jackets, waiting to grow up.

I look at my watch. 1:22 pm. I take a deep breath and tell myself not to worry. I put my hand to the breast with the spot, try to feel something. I don’t.

A boy I loved touched my breasts when I was sixteen. I remember feeling shocked awake, electrified. I gasped when he kissed me, his hand still under my bra. My breasts were alive for the first time. Sexy.

Sexy, when I lean down to kiss my husband, and he whispers, “Nice view.” This is what I will miss, if I had to lose one or both. How will I feel that way without them?

A knock on the door and the doctor and nurse come in. The doctor is youngish, red-haired, wearing a plaid scarf and coat, as if he just got here. He reminds me of Doctor Who. I smile a little.

“I’m just going to take another look with the ultrasound wand,” he says.

I have to roll on my left side facing the wall, to give this stranger full access to my right breast. I put my arm above my head. His hands move my breast to the desired position. “This gel might be a little cold.”

There’s a picture on the wall, right at eye level, for all of us forced to look this direction. It’s a lone dandelion magnified, a few seeds caught in flight, pulling away from the center, weightless. I think of blowing dandelions into my daughter’s face, her eyes closed, laughing.

It’s odd having an ultrasound on my breast and not my belly, though the connection is unmistakable. All my children preferred to nurse on the right side. Even now at age seven, Morgan often rests her hand there while we read a story or if I lie with her as she goes to sleep. Her hands remember. For the first part of her life, my breasts were food, comfort, home.

I look back at the dandelion, and I see the similarity to the image they took earlier, my ducts and veins aglow with radiation, like strands of Christmas lights, like fragile white dandelion fluff clustered around a nucleus. Not like my breast at all—a cross section in a textbook. From my angle I had to look askance at the image, my untrained eyes searching for the spot.

“I think it looks okay,” the doctor says after a few minutes. “I’m happy with this. The same spot on the second mammogram doesn’t look like something we need to be concerned about. We’ll see you in a year for your annual.”

I exhale the breath I’ve been holding all week. I practically jump off the table.

I wore my pretty bra, pink with black lace, and I look at myself in the mirror as I pull it back over my shoulders.

In the hallway to the lobby, I see exam room doors closed, and I know there is a woman behind each one. A woman with a life, a woman holding her breath, another woman releasing hers, another still waiting to take the next step of a difficult journey.

Outside, the sky is a perfect Carolina blue. I inhale. It’s warm; it feels like spring in February. It feels like a new day. It feels like a second chance at everything.

The radio says tomorrow we might get snow. It will probably just be a little bit, but the kids will be excited.

I’ll believe it when I see it.

About the Author: Lorri Barrier is a teacher at Stanly Community College in Albemarle, NC.  She married with three children, and lives in Mt. Pleasant, NC.  She has always enjoyed writing, and  finds her  inspiration from nature, daily life, and childhood memories.  She feels lucky to live on farmland that has been in her  family for over 100 years, and much of what she writes is tied to her rural upbringing.

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