From the summer issue of Zoetrope. Alarcón’s “All Politics Is Local” appeared in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine.
I was in Lima for the first half of that year. For two months—autumn months in the Southern Hemisphere—I visited my cousin’s dental office every Tuesday. I’d gotten financing for a recording project, and since I had no insurance back in the States, it seemed like a good time to get my teeth fixed. Before I’d left, my girlfriend had let me know she approved.
Maybe this way, she said, you’ll smile when you see me.
My cousin and I had a standing appointment, which I kept at all costs. My case was a difficult one, he told me again and again, repeating the admonition so often I began to take some pride in it. How’d you break your front teeth? he asked on my first visit, and without hesitating I described a schoolyard fight I’d once observed—two brave, wiry boys pummeling each other with abandon.
Interesting, my cousin said. He ordered X-rays, as if to confirm my story.
When I was a boy, my cousin lived with my family in Birmingham, Alabama. He went to the local public school, and most weeknights one young lady or another would phone our house and ask to speak to—here she would stretch out his name in an impossible Southern drawl—and my mother, always severe, would correct her, then call the proper pronunciation out loud. Upon hearing his name my cousin would race to the kitchen like a man on fire and pull the long cord into the hallway, where he’d spend an hour whispering his broken, seductive English into the receiver. In matters of flirting, he was a minimalist: Oh, your hair, he’d say, or, Oh, your eyes. I’d eavesdrop, unable to fathom what a girl might say in response to these cues. When it was over, he’d lock himself in the bathroom, emerge a while later showered and combed; and as we prepared for bed, my cousin, flummoxed and anxious, would ask me in Spanish: What do American girls want?
I was eight years old.
Now my weekly dental appointments were the only occasions we saw each other. We didn’t talk much. I spent most of our time together with my mouth open, blinded by the overhead lamp, trying to block out the sound and sensation of the drill. I curled my toes in my shoes, or jammed my hands into my pockets and squeezed my wallet like a man being mugged. I’m sensitive to pain, I told him on that first day, hoping he would be gentle.
He smiled. I know, he said. I remember from when we were kids.
My cousin’s regular assistant was young, a novice, charged mainly with suctioning spit from my mouth with a transparent plastic tube. To accomplish this task she hovered close, blinking her tender eyes at me as my cousin sawed my teeth, chipped them, filed them, burnished them, polished them, bleached them, carved them; and though I never saw her without a face mask, I’d begun to imagine she was quite beautiful, with an invisible smile I’d come to crave.
In the course of these endless appointments, I’d established certain routines. They involved sublimating the discomfort of the drill with thoughts of sex. My girlfriend had stayed back in the States, and though things were not good between us, for the moment I was attempting fidelity, enduring this famine only by allowing myself a certain creative license. How else to survive? There was nothing to look at but the assistant or the unadorned walls, and naturally I preferred the former—or rather, I preferred to imagine what lay beneath that protective white uniform as I bent her over the counter and tongued her ear until it sparkled.
My cousin was planning to marry a woman named Carmen, who was finishing her last year of law school. She was lovely, short and curvaceous, and wore her dark bangs pressed diagonally against her forehead with a rigid Plasticine gel. Unlike American girls, she was quite clear about what she wanted. For starters: A church wedding. A white dress. A slow waltz before the entire family with flashbulbs popping from every direction. A bottle of whiskey on each table, and a tawdry night at the Sheraton in Miraflores, overlooking the sea. Later: a passel of children who’d study at the American school, a house with a room for the maid, and a garden to receive guests. These were things anyone could tell just by looking at her, perfectly reasonable goals in this city, and there were others, too, which my cousin hinted at on occasion with a sly smile. Oh your hair, I thought, Oh your eyes. I kept my mouth open as he told me of weekend visits to chapels all over Lima, their rental fees, their waiting lists. Nothing aroused her more than wedding talk, he said, a fact he considered curious. He was enjoying himself so much he hoped to postpone the ceremony for another year, longer if possible.
It was May, a busy day for both of us, and my cousin and I met after hours, in the early evening. On five of my teeth I had temporary caps, two of which would be coming off during that appointment. His assistant had gone home, he said when I arrived, and I contemplated with horror the sexless hour of dental torture that awaited me.
My cousin must have seen my anxious look.
Don’t worry, he said. Carmen is coming.
Oh, I said. Isn’t she a lawyer?
He shrugged. Yes, it was true, he told me. Technically speaking, she was not trained. But was it that difficult? He spread his arms wide, as if embracing the entire room.
Is any of this really that difficult?
I don’t know, I said.
He leaned in: I studied in Oregon for three years, cousin. Three years. And you want to know the truth? I could have done it in two.
He held up two fingers. A peace sign, half a set of air quotes, a pair of scissors.
Carmen arrived a few minutes later in a black miniskirt and a sky-blue wool sweater. She looked great, which was precisely what I’d been afraid of. My cousin’s office faced a major avenue, and the rush-hour traffic moved slowly and noisily, an unyielding army of rank fumes, bleating sirens, screeching brakes. Even at seven in the evening, the bedlam had not eased. I will think of the traffic, I told myself, and it seemed like a solution: what could be more stifling to the human sexual impulse than these sounds, these tormented, broken-down, dying cars and buses, these accidents-in-waiting, these flat tires and stolen mirrors, these dented doors and missing hubcaps, these potholed streets that cannot bear them all?
And suddenly, I felt happy. Blissfully undesirous. My cousin and Carmen put on their surgical gloves, though she did not wear a face mask. The drill started up. I will not think of my cousin’s wife-to-be, I told myself. I will not think of her red lips, or notice how attentive she is, how tender when she leans over me to wipe my face, how her breasts just graze my arm.
But something changed. A cap was dislodged with what amounted to a hammer blow, and the pain forced my eyes shut. When I opened them, Carmen was staring: I offered her an ugly, stump-toothed smile. She turned away, and then they were talking about the wedding as if I weren’t there—the chapel, the floral arrangements, the priest, the readings. And I was confused: my brain couldn’t decide between traffic or sex, weddings or sex, white walls or sex, though none of these abstractions were actually within reach. Spit ran down my cheek, to my neck, where it soaked the collar of my sweater. It was warm.
I’d have liked to think of my girlfriend, but I couldn’t summon her image. I’d have liked to think of my cousin’s assistant, but she was halfway home by then, wherever home might be, sedated by the narcotic stop-and-start of a packed city bus. I’d have liked to think of Carmen, who is beautiful and demanding and didn’t notice or care that rivulets of spit were pooling in the chair and creeping south along my spine. There’s a dress, she told my cousin (not me, I wasn’t even there), a lovely white dress she’d been looking at, and as she described it in greater and greater detail—its lacy, open-backed elegance—I, too, turned to my cousin, who withdrew a metal hook from my mouth and winked. I nodded, I got the message, and in my mind I was pulling the hem of this not-quite-virginal dress up Carmen’s thighs and burying my face between her legs. As if to punish me, my cousin raised a hammer and banged on my teeth. Another cap broke off, and then my smile was even more grotesque. They offered me a mirror, but I declined. I knew exactly what I looked like. I was far from home. My eyes burned. My cousin and his fiancée were playing footsie beneath my reclining chair. I couldn’t see it, but I knew.