by James Jacob Hatfield
Joselyn has encouraged me to begin developing my own rituals. Things I do to calm down. Per the new installment of the Freedom of Medical Care Act (FMCA 7.3) “rituals” fall under the category of preventative medicine.
Now everytime I brush my teeth I time travel.
It helps to think of it as developing your own religion. Ask yourself what you do religiously, then ask yourself why you do it. If it has cause it’s valid. If it does not it is discarded.
Question: What’s one thing I do everyday?
Answer: Brushing my teeth is something I do everyday.
Question: And why do I do that?
Answer: Multiple reasons. To prevent gum disease. Which maintains the longevity of my teeth so I can feed myself without aid and also eat things that may be harder or impossible to chew with dentures or no teeth. Therefore I do it to secure a sense of independence.
Also, to have a smile that is pleasurable to others. So that people can accurately gauge that I am taking care of myself and that people won’t worry about me.
Also, to experience change. Each day I randomly select the quadrant of my mouth I am going to begin with and decide to travel in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction.
Also, to think. Brushing my teeth is a meditative practice.
Question: Do the benefits of this ritual outweigh the costs?
Answer: Inconclusive. It really depends on if you’re thinking about the past or the future during those eight minutes.
I squeeze black charcoal-activated toothpaste on the bristles. I use an electric toothbrush that employs a motor that oscillates back and forth seven thousand times a second to sonically vibrate my teeth clean. That’s up and down three million times.
Quadrant I: Permanent maxillary right quadrant; top right.
I don’t feel like myself. I used to be confident. I remember swaggering into parties in apartments and houses in college. Or stepping onto sticky concrete floors in dives exuding confidence.
Now the thought of trying to sleep with anyone at this point is less and less on my mind. No urge for any physical contact. My hypothesis that standoffishness is sexy is false.
I reach to my pocket to grab a pen then remember I don’t do that anymore. It’s hard knowing you gave yourself brain damage. It started when I overdid the hooking up thing in college. I had just started chewing gum back then, but everyone did. I learned on the internet at a young age that romance requires physical touch. A gateway to pass through before finding intimacy on a spiritual level. Those people in the videos looked like they loved each other.
Being inexperienced until college can cross the wires hooked to your pleasure center. Romance and validation blur. Until they’re cut and spliced together. I got so tired of trying to seem interesting that I gave up. And as my patience thinned a primitive shell around my heart began to ossify and harden.
Quadrant II: Permanent maxillary left quadrant; top left.
Once arriving in college and discovering porn my modus operandi for interactions with the opposite sex flipped like a switch. I no longer felt the need to pursue. I always had a back up option back at home. It’s not the real thing but it gets the job done and allowed me to be freer in my interactions with people because there wasn’t anything really at risk. Maybe that was the issue, seeing sex with myself as sex. Sort of diminishes the premium on human relations.
That slightly detatched minty-tingly feeling.
But, with this newfound gaze incorporated into my budding social life I began to make discoveries and write them down. I stopped participating in mind-numbing exercises. No more slurring drunk screaming over music and asking what each other enjoys and having an overdramatic freak out about a movie we’ve both seen.
These conversations: I hate them.
If I needed an out I’d shift the dialogue to obscure topics. Pose it as a question in the same manner you would ask a stranger what time it is.
Something like: “What do you think of Anne Carson’s take in Eros?”
Or, “Does the self form at the edge of desire?”
Or, “I think we can agree the only description for Ed Skoog’s physical presence is a divine doorframe speaking melted chocolate, correct?”
Or “Do you think it’s possible some people are just born to have the personality of a toothbrush?”
For me conversations are vehicles. I can control their direction with ease. I’m an intellectual. And I will veer this conversation off a cliff so help me God.
Sophomore year I curated a playlist called “The Slaylist” which would play via wireless Bluetooth in my off-campus townhome bedroom.
And to reiterate, maturing late may taint your belief in everything, especially requirements for self-love. But your sexual curiosity will skyrocket. And you’ll learn to fuck like a fucking fuck machine.
Quadrant III: Permanent mandibular left quadrant; bottom left.
Outside of class I was still in school. I was enrolled as an undeclared engineering major. But I saw myself as an autodidact in anatomical and behavioral sciences. The notebooks I filled piled in my bedside table drawer. I got up to twenty-three volumes I think. Not with rushed sketches or psychopathic drawings but very well-documented notes. Something told me these notes would be important one day. I had no idea this was my once-in-a-generation out-of-the-fuck idea. Written in very legible handwriting. I was trying to learn something.
I wasn’t a creep. Not every guy that’s mesmerized by the female figure wants to murder her.
I find this stereotype unfair and rather hurtful. The internet is littered with myths of male violence. Some true, some not. Some true, but accentuated. The popular books and movies made about males written by females make me nervous to show my findings to anyone outside of the type of people who frequent bars like Rosetju. Anyone else is too unsophisticated. They’d filter and muddy my art with their morals and politics.
Most people talk about sex like children. It has always been profoundly serious to me.
In hindsight my one critique is I could have done a better job of recording names. Most of my research was documenting the actual performance. And some interesting commonalities arose.
About those noted to be lacking in experience: I found that if a subject had no idea what they were doing felacio-wise they would resort to a desperate and panicked bob. Rake her molars over my foreskin. Pop it out of their mouth. Then proceed to twist and jerk me with a spiderweb of spit. Looking like an angry baby drooling on their fist.
Her eyes glistening. She’d catch her breath and sniff as she’d ask me something like, “You like that baby?”
I of course would say yes. Or more likely, “Oh my God, baby. Fuck yes I do!” With as much feeling and bravado I could muster because you don’t want to shatter anyone’s confidence in that vulnerable moment. They may get embarrassed if you’re too honest and not let you have sex with them.
In the back of my mind I wondered if I was encoding my brain with a backwards logic that was separating me further from my heart everytime I was intimate with another human being. And I became fearful that one day there would be no feelings at all aside from those mechanical physical sensations. Not until volume five did I start to wonder if gratification is not associated with emotional connections. But there was no way to prove it. Doctors hadn’t done any research on this like they do now. None of us knew what we were doing. So I carried on with reckless abandon.
Volume seven was filled with notes on Ursula.
Ursula was a very special case. I remember her name. From a clinical perspective she was unforgettable. Ursula would later be categorized as Dunker. She was of a phylum of single women that I studied with great interest that year. The Dunker’s original trait was they relied on a singular technique for the entire duration. From start to finish they deepthroated.
She had a hematoma in the back of her mouth that she enjoyed prodding for masochistic reasons unknown to me.
A few warmup dips, pulling on the back of my thighs, then she’d shove it all the way back. And when she did (if I remembered to) in my head I would start a timer. Counting the seconds until she did this gag-cough. It was fascinating.
Novel experiences are the only things that made women stick out enough to earn a dog-eared page in my notebooks. But Ursula’s name was underlined multiple times.
Quadrant IV: Permanent mandibular right quadrant; bottom right.
I’m there again.
Other artists and writers at Rosetju love all my ideas. They always want to hear more. Their interest is encouraging but no matter how pleasurable the snooty English is I can’t bring myself to do another volume.
Not after Margot.
She is my incomplete volume twenty-three which will remain unfinished. Margot’s most notable trait was that she sounded like a marathon runner when she sucked penis. She would pant and make noises. Gasp and spit all over it. So that the moist clickity-clack of the jerking was much more prominent. It’s an attempt to show effort but it kind of hurt. Like I get it. And enthusiasm is great. But it’s a fine line between tight and painful.
Margot got me the first time at a Halloween party at an apartment Senior year of college. She took me by the hand into someone’s closet. I was wearing a red Adidas tracksuit and a leather horse head. I introduced myself as the Italian Stallion. Her dress was painted on and her voice was charred from smoking while she drank whiskey and Mountain Dew. She had six lines exploding from painted dot on the tip of her nose and paper triangles on her head.
She wobbled as she leaned and pressed her hand against my chest and pushed me against the wall of whoever’s bedroom we were in. She says, “I’m a sexy kitten.”
This was the night that I would discover that I was a zombie. That the human part was almost all gone. My brain had been fried from over exposure. Maybe it’s the gum.
Instead of being present in that moment with her in the closet, my mind was elsewhere. All I could think about right then was that somewhere there’s a man who raised his daughter. And in this daughter he instilled virtues and values. And when people at church or work ask how his daughter is doing in college he says she’s doing good, real good. And that he and his wife couldn’t be prouder. And right now that same girl can only breathe out of her nose, because she’s using my penis to tease her epiglottis, blocking airflow.
As she’s hanging her head on my cock like a coat on a doorknob I tilt my horsehead back toward the ceiling and think. This isn’t love.
Not love for me, not love for her. It felt like one of those weird things where we thought we were fixing something for another person.
After I came I took off the Halloween mask. And she hadn’t disappeared.
For a considerable number of consecutive days she was with me. I was later informed we were “dating”. Which meant we arrived at social gatherings at the same time. Usually together. And took photographs where we stood close and pushed our cheek muscles up high into our eyes so hard they almost popped like grapes.
She had her own place but most nights stayed at my townhome a mile from campus. A lifestyle that had all the pleasures of a relationship without any of the risks.
For the first few months of dating I engaged in body worship. I felt like I was cramming for a final, trying to figure out my own damage. Waiting for some spark to ignite the thing I was missing, praying whatever I got wrong was hiding in plain sight. We had sex more than we talked.
I stopped going to class entirely. It was a distraction.
Every night as she slept I’d stare at her bare back.
Study the Sahara-colored dunes of her tanned skin.
Notice the aliform shoulder blades.
The place where her torso splits.
And nothing. I felt. Nothing.
I remember watching my hand descend onto her, supposing and hoping an electric shock would jolt my heart awake. I’d concentrate and try not to get frustrated.
One night I got so worked up I woke Margot with my panting. I had to fake an asthma attack to get out of it. Holding my chest and pointing to the side table drawer while fake-wheezing IN-HAY-LUR!
While I swallowed the cloud of albuterol she was still in the drawer fingering through my notebooks.
“What the hell are these?” She asked.
The next day I broke up with her.
She took the news as well as you’d think. We’re still cool we just don’t talk.
I wondered if at some point another switch had flipped in my brain. And sometimes I look at myself and think something important might still be switched off.
You can think of a lot of shit in eight minutes.
And spit. Brushing complete.
So, I ask myself the question again: Is brushing my teeth a valid ritual?
Answer: It’s something mechanical and familiar I do so I fall asleep.
But I’m still not tired.
I squeeze a healthy amount of a different toothpaste on my brush. The baking soda one. I like it because it’s salty. And the foam it creates leaves my teeth feeling glossed.
Stuck in my thoughts. Meditating on what the point of it all was. How I gave myself brain damage and recorded it in notebooks. How I am my own failed love experiment. That was my grand enlightened idea to materialize.
I could have been brushing for hours before it happened. With a mistimed stroke. Without even thinking.
I leaned over the sink at the same time I sent the brush forward into my throat. My esophagus tightened like a drawstring bag and my eyes watered, and I unleashed an all-too-familiar gag-cough.
I froze in the silence as white foam dripped from my lips. I didn’t think I was capable of replicating that sound. I thought that was only for people who sucked on penis. I held the tooth brush out for a moment as if it had violated me. Shrugging it off I continued to the opposite ridge of teeth. Then I checked my peripherals making sure no one was watching. I don’t know if I was doing it on purpose, but I found myself starting to bob my head on the toothbrush. I wanted it. I checked my peripherals again. Then I did a few warm-up dips and sent it back again. And again. A little harder each time. Over and over the way they churn butter from cream.
I felt myself being overcome by a wave of hopeful euphoria. Convinced the answers to all my love problems were dependent on how much I could gag myself on this toothbrush without tapping out.
The salty sudsy toothpaste saliva mixture bled out the corners of my mouth as I gripped the brush handle with both hands. I retched and coughed up clear bile and it rolled like microwaved water-based lubricant between my fingers all over my clenched fists. And no answers were coming.
I held the toothbrush out in front of me. There it stood glistening erect and lifeless. In the mirror my face slathered in the salty white foam looked like melted ice cream.
I put the brush down and put my hands on my face.
Joselyn says that the body releases dopamine when you smile in the mirror for thirty seconds or more.
So I push my cheek muscles up into my eyes until they almost pop like grapes.
Because your mind can’t tell the difference. It doesn’t care if your smile is real or fake.
James Jacob Hatfield lives in Durham, NC. His fiction and poetry have appeared in places such as HAD, Barely South Review, Maudlin House, X-R-A-Y, and the North Carolina Museum of Art. He is a Sterling fellow and a Weymouth fellow. He works the night shift as an engineer and writes before bed just as the sun is coming up. “The Ritual” is the 28th chapter of his novel VCO.
@jamesjacobhatfield on everything https://linktr.ee/jamesjacobhatfield
Photo source: Alex Padurariu/Unsplash