Numb Enough to Be Removed Forever (Hasti Abbasi)
(edited by Michelle McLaren)
I exit Amir’s car at the hospital.
My eyes are drawn to a glowing baby in a pram as I enter the toilets. Her mother is applying foundation in light, bouncing motions. The baby starts crying loudly. The mother slicks some red lipstick on her lips. The baby’s cry is peppered with staccato hiccups. Black eyeliner is smeared under the mother’s eyes. She fixes it, and then outlines her lips with a dark red lip liner. The baby looks as if it’s choking. It is choking. The mother brushes her eyelashes with mascara, making them as long as possible. There seems to be something wrong with your baby, she’s choking. She is choking.
‘Calm down,’ the mother says in a cold, sarcastic voice, brushing her hair to one side.
The baby stops crying instantly.
See? She just wants you to notice her. Notice your baby. Don’t be like me.
Her phone rings. Looking satisfied, a proud smile spreads across the woman’s lips. ‘Hi love,’ she coos, pushing the pram towards the exit.
My first date with Amir flashes before my eyes. ‘I’d like to have four children, two girls and two boys,’ he had said, pointing to a cute toddler at the next table. The kid rocked back and forth, pressing his lips together whenever the mother put the spoon near his mouth. ‘I’ll never force my kid to eat something he doesn’t enjoy. It makes things easier,’ I had said.
‘You just give birth to the baby and I’ll take care of his food, I promise,’ he had laughed.
Amir has only recently regained full use of his injured leg. His right leg used to drag. Truth be told, he suffered all for me.
I leave the toilets to find the right sub-department: Oral Health.
I walk down the floral-wallpapered hallway towards the reception desk.
‘Hi, I am the interpreter for Rahim Karami.’
‘Good morning, let me check,’ she says mechanically. ‘Yes, he’s sitting over there.’
I approach a short, bald man in his fifties, who is squeezing his nose with his thumb and middle finger. Fumbling in my bag, I introduce myself: ‘سلام من دینا هستم. مترجمتون’.
His mouth opens with a laugh, displaying the four missing upper front teeth. He sniffles and wipes his nose with a handkerchief.
‘I’m Jane, his social worker,’ an Australian woman says from behind me. Her curly blond hair looks quite messy. I take my glasses from my bag.
Rahim slides a photo out of his pocket. He talks about his brother, Karim, who has been hospitalised for a while but is feeling well now. The laugh is gone.
‘من یه برادر دارم. بیمارستان بود اما الان خونست. حالش الان خوبه’
He puts his face close to the photo and stares at it for a moment, repeating Karim’s story.
‘من یه برادر دارم. بیمارستان بود اما الان خونست. حالش الان خوبه ‘
Why does he repeat himself? Is it the effect of desolation?
‘Rahim has this problem that makes him repeat everything several times,’ the social worker says. ‘Has he talked about Karim yet?’
‘Yeah, he did.’
‘Karim’s hospitalised and is unlikely to recover from his heart problems.’
Yes, his habit is the effect of desolation.
Rahim plays with the ID card hanging around his neck, turning it face up. ‘این منم’, he says, ‘It’s me’. He tries to make sure I understand that Jane has taken the photo.
‘.جین این عکس رو گرفت’
He settles himself comfortably back in the chair and repeats, ‘.جین این عکس رو گرفت’
I smile. The receptionist hands Jane some forms to complete. Jane asks me if Rahim is allergic to any drugs.
‘Rahim jan به چیزی آلرژی داری؟’, I ask him.
‘Allergy?’ he asks. ‘HAAA allergy,’ he points to the bouquet of flowers on the receptionist’s desk.
‘.من گلهای زرد و قرمز دوست دارم’
I tell him that I like red and yellow flowers too, and then ask the question again.
‘He doesn’t seem to know if he’s allergic to any medicine,’ I say to Jane. ‘I mean he doesn’t quite understand my question.’
‘That’s okay. Let me see what I can do.’
Jane calls another member of the organisation that looks after Rahim’s medical conditions.
A Chinese girl in the front row turns the pages of a magazine. She looks to be about my age, possibly thirty-eight. Rahim asks for a magazine. She sneezes. ‘Bless you,’ Rahim says. Her long straight hair falls around her face as she turns around and gives him a gentle smile. ‘Thank you.’
A stocky dentist with glasses comes out of room 28 to call Rahim. ‘Ha,’ Rahim says.
‘Come in Rahim,’ the dentist smiles, casting a rapid glance at me as I rise from the chair.
‘Hi, I’m Jane, his support help, and this is Dina, the interpreter.’
‘Nice to see you.’
Rahim touches the black mark on the door as he enters.
‘What seems to be the problem?’ the dentist asks.
‘He’s been complaining about severe pain in his upper front tooth since Sunday.’
The dentist adjusts his glasses on the bridge of his nose with his right hand, and writes something on a questionnaire-like form with the other. I hear the slow scribbling of the pen.
I hope Amir has arrived home safely. He is driving for the second time since the accident.
‘OK, what I’ll do now is to see if there’s any need for an X-ray. Then, before any special work is done on his teeth, I’ll contact the adult guardian to get permission. Ah, will you ask him to recline his head on to the headrest?’
I make a conscious effort not to laugh my lungs out. Rahim’s head is in the air, next to the headrest, with his mouth as wide open as possible. His eyes are clamped shut. I wish the dentist could shove a toothbrush in his mouth and brush his yellow teeth.
‘Ha,’ he says, his eyes still shut.
I ask him to open his eyes; ‘Rahim jan, چشماتو باز نگه دار’.
Rahim does, then puts his hands behind his head and leans back. I move two steps nearer to touch his head and move it slightly. He blinks at Jane, with his index finger up, and then brings his hands towards me to show his badly damaged nails. He used to construct and repair walls, partitions, arches, and concrete blocks for fifteen years, he says.
He breathes in deeply, then pulls his shirt up to expose a huge, round belly.
‘Is he hungry?’ Jane asks.
‘Yes,’ he says.
‘He’s always hungry,’ Jane whispers in my ear.
‘Does he eat a lot?’
‘Yes, well, if he gets the chance.’
‘Please explain to him that I’ll take a thorough look in his mouth to see which tooth is causing the pain.’
I do as I’m asked.
The dentist wears surgical gloves and a mask. Rahim changes his position from prone to sitting upright, touching my wrist when he sees the mirror in the dentist’s hand.
‘What’s wrong?’ the dentist asks. Rahim points to one of his teeth in the upper right hand side of his mouth and says, ‘.دیگه درد ندارم’
‘He’s scared,’ I say, extremely impressed. ‘He says that he no longer has any pain.’
‘It won’t take more than one minute.’
‘Okay,’ Rahim says, reclining his head on the headrest once again.
Does he understand English?
‘All right,’ the dentist says, removing his left hand from Rahim’s mouth. ‘He needs to have a dental X-ray; I believe his tooth has to come out.’
Rahim’s big, round eyes are staring at me. He turns red in the face, and jumps to his feet.
He knows English.
‘Please ask him to bite this cardboard X-ray film and not move. We’ll go out of the room while the X-ray is done. Also tell him that I’ll give him some medicine just in case he has some pain after the numbness abates.’
Rahim seems to understand the whole procedure. ‘Okay,’ he says, rolling his eyes.
‘Open wide, good, now bite down hard and don’t move.’
Hesitant to bite down on the piece in his mouth, he points to Jane. ‘Let’s go.’
‘It’ll be all over very soon. You’ll be fine, you’re a brave man,’ Jane says.
He runs his fingers lightly over Jane’s arm, delighted.
‘Come on,’ Jane says, looking frustrated.
We step out of the room, leaving him alone. Rahim brings his thumb up as the X-ray machine buzzes.
‘Well, the X-ray proves that we’ll need to extract this tooth. There’s almost nothing left of it. It’s mostly broken. Please let him know that I’ll give him an injection before removing his tooth. He might feel a short, sharp pain but it won’t take more than a second.’
I convey the message. Rahim takes the position of a runner, but he halts and sits back.
‘Okay,’ Rahim says. He then repeats a story over and over about his brother hitting himself in the head when the doctor wanted to remove his tooth last week.
The tooth is now numb enough to be removed forever, to stop existing. No longer being there to help Rahim chew or bite. No longer going through the pain and difficulties Rahim will experience in life. The poet Rumi once wrote: ‘Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.’ In what form will a lost tooth or a lost hope come around? Oh, my baby. Where are you?
‘Here it comes,’ the dentist says. ‘There’s a bigger piece still remaining.’
Rahim’s placid expression changes to one of extreme anger.
The dentist places the piece of the broken tooth on the tray. The napkin goes red. I can feel the pressure on his tooth every time Rahim stares at me, tears leaking from his eyes. The dentist begins levering the tooth with his elevators. The tooth is really stubborn. It refuses to come out, very insistent on being there, as a witness to its life. ‘This piece is really uncooperative,’ the dentist says, replacing the elevators with extraction forceps.
Rahim moans, stretching his arms farther towards Jane. I pat him on his shoulder.
‘It’s already loosened somewhat and will be teased out in a second,’ the dentist says.
Is his tooth really hard to extract or is he an inexperienced dentist? Rahim is no longer shouting, as he is more obsessed with grabbing the dental assistant’s hand. She has grown anxious, no longer smiling or saying any comforting words.
Rahim screws up his eyes against the light.
‘It’s finished,’ the dentist exclaims with delight. ‘It was deep inside his gum. Well done Rahim, such a brave man. Rinse your mouth with water.’
Saliva drips from Rahim’s mouth into the dental sink, mixing with his blood. Then his mouth opens with a sweet smile to display the big space left by the missing tooth.
‘He’d better not have anything to eat for two hours and then have something soft.’
Rahim touches his belly and says ‘گرسنمه’.
Jane stares at him and frown lines appear on her forehead when I tell her that he is hungry. ‘He had a big breakfast just before coming here. How come he’s hungry?’ Jane asks, and then quickly turns her head towards me. ‘Please make sure he understands that he should only eat soft food.’
Rahim looks deep into my eyes and tells me that he loves Jane, that she is very beautiful. Then he rubs his tummy with one hand and his thigh with the other.
‘Is he still talking about eating?’ Jane asks.
I look back at him and exhale in disbelief.
‘Well, no. I don’t think so.’
He wants Jane to take his hand, now that he’s behaved so well. I tell her. A surprised expression crosses the dentist and the dental assistant’s faces. ‘What?’ Jane asks, sarcastic. ‘Ask the receptionist to book him another appointment in two weeks’ time,’ the dentist says.
‘Sure, I will.’
‘دوسش دارم’, Rahim says again; I love her.
‘Is there anything wrong?’ the dental assistant asks looking at him still seated on the reclining chair.
‘He’s talking about his brother,’ I lie, not knowing what else to say.
We thank the dentist and the assistant.
‘بهش نگو’ Rahim says, his fingers drifting slowly and rhythmically over his stomach, and into his lap. He doesn’t want her to know yet.
Rahim’s eyes drift towards Jane’s breasts as he talks about how enticing, round, and firm they are. I feel a shiver running down my spine. ‘Anything wrong?’ Jane asks, giving me a curious look. ‘No, everything’s fine. I’ll just have the assignment sheet signed, if there isn’t anything else I can do for you.’
‘No, thank you Dina. All done. The next appointment is on Tuesday the thirteenth. Let’s go Rahim.’
I walk down the footpath towards the shops, thinking about something soft to eat before remembering my noticeable weight gain over the last two weeks. I turn left and walk to the bus stop.
I board the bus.
A mother in the front seat fumbles for something in her bag. There is a baby crying in a crimson red stroller next to her. Its sound echoes weirdly in my ears. The mother seems uncomfortable. She screws up her nose as she stands, pushing the stroller back and forth. Her eyes squint and her neck muscles tense when she notices the looks from other passengers. No matter what the mother does, the baby does not stop wailing. The bus driver looks into the mirror above him to see what is going on. The crying sounds like an adult impersonating a child’s voice. Next stop. The bus pulls over to the side of the road. I make a stealthy effort to see the child. My stomach tightens as the baby’s face is revealed. Cleft lips. Large face. Receding forehead. Big head. Too big for his age. The mother’s eyes sweep over me quickly as she pushes the stroller towards the exit.
‘Not beautiful?’ she asks in an agitated voice as she exits the bus, a faint smile quivering at the corner of her lips. I feel tears prick the back of my eyes. ‘I―’ my heart tightens.
She looks across the street before pushing the stroller and waddling away. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I mumble, looking through the window.
Hasti Abbasi holds a BA and an MA in English Literature. She is a sessional academic and a PhD. scholar of literary studies and creative writing at Griffith University.