White Elephant

Illustration by Dario Bijelac

The hole in my mouth goes deeper than the missing tooth. It burns and then is numb, like rubbing alcohol on a wound, and it radiates down my jaw and into my throat and stretches fingers through my lungs, and it’s obvious that a part of me is missing, has been pulled out with pliers and dropped into a sterile envelope.

It’ll grow back, they say, once the trade is done — but I’m not counting on anything.

The envelope sits in the pocket of my coat, crumpled from the pressure of my palm. I’ve been standing here too long. The party is at an oversized suburban house, an Arts & Crafts menace too big for its lot, and I’ve been here nearly a minute without knocking, just standing in front of the door listening to people talking behind it.

Go in, I think, Jesus, you’re paying for this time — because the kids are at home with their usual cheap, oblivious sitter, barely more than a warm body to call 911 in the case of real emergency. They don’t like her, but they’re not scared of her the way they’re occasionally afraid of me. So it’s worth it to come here, worth the $60 I’ll end up giving the girl at the end of the night.

I stand very still on the front step. I’ve never been to one of these things before.

The latch clicks, and a sharp-edged man in a sports coat opens the door and smiles down at me. Must have seen me through the window. Standing here like an idiot.

“Hello,” he says. “First time?”

I nod, and he ushers me in. The house is all polished wood and oiled bronze, and the people in the living room are talking quietly over vegetable platters and artichoke dip. My host offers to take my coat, but I refuse. My blouse is well-made but worn at the cuffs.

I eat carrots with single-minded determination, saying nothing but watching everyone, trying to decide whose envelope I might want to take. There’s a woman in the corner who looks calm and unlined like her face has never seen the sun or a violent expression. There’s an old man with a brilliant smile.

“It’s time,” our host says, and everyone reaches for their envelopes.

They make an unremarkable pile, there in the middle of the coffee table. A heap of letter-sized envelopes or small boxes.  Some people have wrapped theirs, but many have not. Some aren’t even sealed.

I draw a late number, so I have plenty of time to watch. The old man goes first, and he takes a small folded-paper box that I saw a pretty blonde girl slip onto the table. It’s a good choice — she has a sweet face.

The packages dwindle and then it’s my turn. All my first choices are gone. There are a little earring box and a crisp white envelope and a soft bundle of faded newsprint. That one was our host’s — he set it on the table and stepped away like he’d just dropped dogshit into the waste bin. His face in a little sneer.

I scoop up the newsprint bundle and sit there watching him. He only smiles at me, a meaningless professional smile I’ve seen on so many faces before I’m sorry, there’s nothing more I can do. The money’s just not there.

A man like that, in a house like this. What could he possibly want to be rid of? Maybe softness, maybe mercy. Things like that, I’ve found, have no place in business.

He takes my envelope when it’s his turn, and his smile drops as he does it.

After everyone has chosen, our host cracks a bottle of Malbec and passes everyone a glass. We shake the contents of our packages out onto our palms, and I’m left staring at a little flat tooth, a man’s back molar.

“Cheers,” he says, and I slam the tooth back and swallow it with a mouthful of wine.

The pain in my mouth goes away. The pain in my chest, the sense of something missing: it goes away. I’m whole again like I was when I was angry, but my anger’s been pulled out at the root. That’s gone, given away, and a new piece has settled into the gap.

For a moment I think, ­what is it? And I wait to feel laziness or sentimentality or whatever emotion a sharp suitcoated man like that might cast off. For a moment, I feel nothing.

But I’ve never felt nothing before, not like this. I feel heavy, slow and blank like my limbs are weighted down with lead. There’s a pain in the small of my back and right around my eyes and I’m blinking back tears, sudden and absurd.

“Are you sad for me?” my host says, stooped by my elbow.

“Why should I be sad for you,” I say because he has my rage now but what do I have instead — this lethargy, this crushing weight. This feeling like nothing will ever be right again.

“Did you really think everyone had it so much easier than you?” he says, and the spark of my anger is in the pinch of his lips, his bloodless knuckles. I know those signs.

“I just wanted to be better,” I say, the words raspy in my throat. “I wanted to be someone who could be happy.”

This time, the smile he gives me is pitying. “We meet twice a year,” he says. “Maybe you’ll find what you’re looking for.”

I brush out the door without talking to anyone else. There’s nothing more to say. I’ll go home to my apartment and my children, and for once, I won’t worry about snapping, about hurting them. That has to be worth something. Anything will be better than that — anything at all. It will.

“See you in six months,” the man says, and shuts the door behind me.