Fiction by Ashley Renee-Cribbins
When my daughter Irina started losing her baby teeth, she was diligent about their extraction.
From the moment she first announced that another tooth had started to wiggle, her fingers would be in her mouth, working that tooth back and forth until it could be yanked from its socket. She lined up the Sacajawea dollars that the tooth fairy left on her window sill, placing each new addition with care, her eyes as wide and shiny as those coins.
When her loose teeth slowed, I’d still catch her with her hand in her mouth, ever hopeful, digging for more.
“Can she pull out her permanent teeth?” I asked my brother-in-law, a dentist. “I’m afraid she’s going to try.”
He seemed alarmed by the question, but assured me she could not. “Not with her fingers anyway,” he joked.
I moved the pair of pliers from our kitchen junk drawer to the porcelain vase in the china cabinet. Just in case. When I had to sheepishly retrieve them for my husband later that week, he laughed in a way that was a lot like rolling his eyes.
But I could laugh about it too, eventually. With Irina’s baby teeth years behind us, I stopped dwelling on what I’d seen in our daughter and the things of which girls are capable.
* * *
Irina was in the eighth grade when I took her to the mall to get a second hole pierced in her right ear. She’d been asking for it from the start of middle school, and I had surprised myself by making her wait.
This did not align with the way I’d wanted to raise her, from the time she was just artichoke-sized in my womb. I’d decided well before she was born that my daughter should understand her bodily autonomy from the start, as if letting her choose her clothes and hairstyle in grade school would protect her from becoming a woman who couldn’t question her doctor or say no to a man.
“Would you let her get a tattoo?” my then-childless sister had asked.
“Sure, when she’s eighteen,” I’d said.
But this was before I’d held her, before I lost myself gazing at her tiny pink face and closing my hands around her smooth, doll-like feet. She does not belong to me, I told myself. She is her own person. But the words didn’t ring as true as I knew them to be. Even as she grew, her feet surpassing the length of mine, I still saw my baby: smooth rosy skin and perfect earlobes.
I made her wait two and a half years for that third earring because I was selfish. But we are never the mothers we thought we would be.
When we arrived at the mall kiosk, Irina peered into the earring case, tracing a finger across the glass. Her previous piercing studs had been round green crystals, billed as peridots, for her August birthday. At nine years old, she had wanted my input, and I had told her they would look lovely with her eyes. At thirteen, she had lagged several steps behind me on the walk through Macy’s and past the food court, throwing darting glances at the many groups of teenagers who hadn’t brought their mothers.
“Which one do you want?” I asked. Her finger skimmed over a pair of nail-polish-red ladybugs, a gold dolphin snuggling a cubic zirconia and a grinning skull in a black circle.
“I like this one.” She was pointing to a silver stud with a ball on one end and a spike on the other.
I tried not to act surprised. “Sure, whatever you want.”
The salesgirl finally slid over our way. “Can I help you?”
I tried not to stare at her shakily drawn-on eyebrows. “My… She wants a third earring. A third piercing.” I touched my own ear lobe.
“I want it up here.” Irina tugged instead at the top of her ear. This was news to me.
“Cartilage piercings are two dollars more,” said the salesgirl.
“I brought money.” Irina didn’t even look at me.
“That’s fine,” I heard myself say. I looked at my daughter with her tousled blonde hair and round eyes. Her current earrings were small plastic turtles and I tried not think about how the girl who had picked those out this morning was dying to punk out with some spiked jewelry. “Do you want me here, in case it hurts?”
“I’ll be fine.”
The girl who would be piercing Irina’s ear slapped a consent form down on the counter for me to sign. I peeled two twenties from my wallet and turned to lock eyes with my daughter.
“Are you sure you’ll be okay?”
“Yeah,” she said brightly, plucking the bills from my hand. “Go get a coffee or something, Mom.”
So I did. I left her. The piercing kiosk was almost visible from the food court’s coffee stand. As a chubby teenage boy made my latte, I squinted between the moving bodies and their shopping bags, trying to catch a glimpse of Irina on the stool, the girl with the eyebrows hovering over her. When I sat down at a table, I could no longer see them.
I’d barely taken three sips of my too-hot coffee when Irina came bounding back, grinning like a much younger child.
“Look,” she said, pulling back her hair. The silver spike glinted in the shell of her ear, which was now as pink as a Barbie car.
“It’s pretty,” I told her, before I realized I should have said It’s cool. “Did it hurt?”
She rolled her eyes, but admitted, yeah, and it still kind of did. She showed me the cleaning spray they gave her and chattered about the after care, how often she was supposed to clean and turn it. Then she pulled out her phone and spent several minutes trying to snap the best picture possible of her ear’s new addition while I finished my latte.
When we were back in the car and buckling our seat belts, she turned to me and said, “Thanks. You’re cool, Mom.” She didn’t hug me, but it felt as if she had.
Relax, I told myself, taking one more glance at her new earring. She’s fine. You did the right thing.
* * *
So I was shocked when I walked into her room the very next night to find her sitting in front of her mirror with a safety pin hanging from her left earlobe. She leaped up, like her chair was an ejector seat. I could not tell if she was looking at me in guilt or defiance.
“What on earth are you doing?”
“I wanted to pierce my other ear,” she said. “So I’d have two holes on each side.”
“And you’re doing it with a safety pin?”
“I sterilized it with a match! Leah said she pierced her ear like this―her cousin did too. Both of them used safety pins.”
I was only half-listening. The laundry basket in my hands was the only thing keeping me from marching over there and yanking the pin from her ear myself. I took a deep breath and dropped the basket onto her bed.
“You’re not doing that. Give me the safety pin.”
She brought a hand up to her ear but didn’t touch it. “But I’ve already got it halfway through.”
With a sigh and then a wince, she plucked the safety pin from her ear and wiped it on her jeans. She dropped it into my hand, avoiding my eyes.
“Now go to the bathroom and wash off your ear.”
Her eyebrows knitted. “Am I in trouble? Are you going to tell Dad?”
“I haven’t decided.” I slipped the safety pin into the pocket of my sweater. “Just go take care of it. Use some Neosporin.”
Irina was looking down at her slippers when I walked back into the hall, but I heard her slink out behind me. The bathroom door clicked closed just as I stepped into my bedroom.
My husband Stuart was stretched out on the rug, doing his PT exercises. This was the one where he lifted his butt off the floor and flexed his hips up at the ceiling. I sat on the edge of our mattress and watched him finish the set.
When he sat up to look at me, he immediately asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Irina tried to pierce her own ear.”
“She tried to do what?”
“I caught her and stopped her. She’s washing it out now.”
Stuart’s forehead rippled with the intensity of his frown.“But you just took her to get her ear pierced.”
“I know.” My fingers found the safety pin in my pocket. “I don’t understand either. She said Leah gave her the idea.”
Stuart sighed and leaned back against my shins. I rubbed his shoulder through his well-worn t-shirt. The collar was barely connected in the back, but the front retained the logo of his college club soccer team, so he’d never get rid of it. I liked it; it smelled like him, even fresh from the laundry. And I remembered watching him play in that year before we became parents, when our futures seemed more open and expansive than the green soccer field.
“I don’t know who Leah is,” Stuart said, after a moment.
“I barely do.”
“Should we ground her? And tell her not to hang out with this Leah?” Stuart’s tone was opaque; I couldn’t tell if he was for or against the idea.
“We’ve talked about this,” I said. “We’ve been trying to teach her that her body is her own. And that no one else can tell her what she has to do with it.”
“That’s true,” Stuart said. I could only stay so calm because I knew that beneath his reasoned remarks he was thinking Of course we should ground her! Of course we should keep her away from this other girl!
He lifted himself up onto the bed beside me and closed his hand over mine. “I don’t feel ready to have a teenage daughter yet.”
Unlike me, he hadn’t been steeling himself for the idea since the day ten-year-old Irina had a wailing breakdown about how “babyish” all her clothes were.
“I remember some of what being that age was like,” I said. “Not a lot.”
“Did you ever try to pierce your own ear?”
“No. I never did that.”
* * *
I went over to my sister Sophie’s house that weekend, Saturday night after her boys had gone to bed. We sat on her leather sectional and opened a bottle of Syrah that was left over from a dinner they had hosted. A grown-up dinner, she specified, mentioning they had paid a neighbor girl to take her boys to the movies that night.
“Irina could do that in a couple of years,” Sophie said. She still drew some level of amusement from having a younger sister with an older child.
“Let me tell you what Irina did,” I said, and I told her about the new earring and then the safety pin. Sophie listened, swirling the dregs around in her wine glass, but I could tell she had no idea what I wanted from her. I wasn’t sure myself.
“Is her ear okay now?” Sophie asked finally.
“Yes, fine. Both ears.” Irina had been cleaning and turning her mall-kiosk piercing with her usual meticulousness.
”She never tried to finish the safety-pin piercing?”
“I don’t think she could get it through. I think it got stuck.”
Sophie laughed, then rose to refill our glasses. “I knew a girl in college who had that problem. When she tried to pierce her belly button.”
“How come we never tried to pierce anything? Mom made us both wait until fifteen to get our ears done.”
Sophie handed my glass back. “She made me wait until sixteen.”
“We did other dumb stuff.” She held up her hand and blinked at the palm like fortune-teller. “Remember the salt and ice cubes?”
“I thought about that the other day! Kids are still doing it. I saw a story online about some girls getting badly burned.” It was a sleepover game. Or, more accurately, a sleepover dare. We sprinkled salt in our palms and gripped ice cubes in our fists to see who could stand the sting of it the longest.
“We always got bored before we got burned. Or maybe we just couldn’t handle it.”
“Irina could probably burn a hole through her hand.”
“Maybe you should warn her about it.”
“You mean give her the idea?”
We finished the bottle of wine and I lay, hazy, on the couch while Sophie answered some e-mails on her phone, occasionally reading me a sentence to ask if it made sense. I caught myself inspecting the palm of my hand. Did I ever hold onto that ice long enough to leave a lasting mark? It seemed like the kind of thing I should be able to remember. But I couldn’t even remember what it felt like.
It’s funny how time can erase even the sharpest pains, the sharpest feelings. You don’t realize it when you’re a teenager because everything is still so fresh. Less than a decade ago, you were five years old, slicing open your knee in a bad fall off your bike, and your young body still remembers exactly how much it hurt. You don’t realize that one day you will touch the scar and no longer recall the pain that made you wail so hard you could barely breathe.
I thought I would remember the pain of losing my virginity for my entire life: the first seconds of my high school boyfriend pushing into me, a bright hot flare. It was this thing I’d built up in my head as a rite-of-passage, a transformative pain, and it was over before I could blink. The rest of the sex was clunky and uncomfortable, but at least afterward, I knew what it felt like. That was all I wanted to know: what it would feel like and if I could do it. It had been my idea to get into the backseat of his parents’ car. I just wanted to know. But now, my body has had too much time to confuse the feeling, to forget. With this much distance, what I think I remember might as well be from a story someone else told.
The couch shifted as Sophie yawned and stretched, setting her phone down on a side table. “You know, I always thought I wanted a daughter,” she said. “But now that I have Jake and Oscar, I can’t imagine anything different.”
“I know what you mean.”
“You could still have another one.”
I let out a one-syllable laugh. The thought made me want to sink into my sister’s sofa and never get up again.
“I can’t imagine it,” I told her.
* * *
It was almost eleven by the time I felt normal enough to drive the four miles back from Sophie’s house, and when I pulled into our driveway, the house had mostly gone dark. The only light was coming from Irina’s bedroom. At dinner, she’d claimed to be tired, but I supposed that was so we’d let her leave the table.
I hung up my coat when I came in and headed upstairs. A slice of light spilled out from below Irina’s door. She must have heard me on the stairs, could probably see the shadows of my feet in the hall. I paused in front of her door, half-raising a hand to knock. But I went to my own room instead, to undress in the dark and climb in bed with my husband.
* * *
I found Irina’s safety pin in the bottom of the laundry basket after I’d finished folding a load of my and Stuart’s clothes. I’d forgotten it in my pocket somehow, the very thing I had chastised Irina for after picking bits of tissue out of too many loads of her laundry.
When I went to drop the pin into a drawer of long-neglected sewing supplies, a green Christmas tin―nestled between a box of spools and a stack of patterns―caught my eye. Santa winked up at me from the circle of an embossed wreath. The box weighed nothing but rattled when I picked it up.
Inside were Irina’s baby teeth. Probably all twenty, though I didn’t count them. Even the molars were so much smaller than I remembered, tiny teeth I could barely believe had ever fit inside my tall daughter’s mouth. I picked up an incisor between my thumb and forefinger, inspecting the hollow where the root had worn away. I could ask Stuart’s brother if it had been ready to come out or not, to see if my memory of Irina yanking out teeth before their time had been exaggerated. But of course I wouldn’t.
I wondered if Irina still had those dollar coins squirreled away somewhere, in her closet or a box under her bed. I had no memory of her ever spending them. Holding her teeth in my hand, I was sure that these had been the real prize all along.
Sophie used to worry about her boys being risk-takers, that their male brains would spur them on to climb too high or ride their bikes too fast. But girls are risk-takers too, just quieter ones. The things we have to conquer may not be hills or trees, but they’re just as real.
I could still picture six-year-old Irina, so proud, holding up her newly lost tooth with a bloody grin. I wonder, if I asked her now, would she still remember what it felt like to pry out a baby tooth? But I don’t have to ask, because that’s one memory my body held onto somehow. Just the sensation: turning a tooth between my fingers and the sharp jolt that followed. Pain and satisfaction intertwined. Like the first-time feeling I’d chased through my adolescence.
I dropped the safety pin in with the teeth and closed the tin, shoved it back in the drawer. If I were a believer, I would fall to my knees and pray to my god that all of my daughter’s risk-taking will continue to fit inside.