Baby Teeth New Excerpt
A battle of wills between mother and daughter reveals the frailty and falsehood of familial bonds in award-winning playwright and filmmaker Zoje Stage’s tense novel of psychological suspense, Baby Teeth.
Afflicted with a chronic debilitating condition, Suzette Jensen knew having children would wreak havoc on her already fragile body. Nevertheless, she brought Hanna into the world, pleased and proud to start a family with her husband, Alex. Estranged from her own mother, Suzette is determined to raise her beautiful daughter with the love, care, and support she was denied.
But Hanna proves to be a difficult child. Now seven years old, she has yet to utter a word despite being able to read and write. Defiant and anti-social, she refuses to behave in kindergarten classes, forcing Suzette to homeschool her. Resentful of her mother’s rules and attentions, Hanna lashes out in anger, becoming more aggressive every day. The only time Hanna is truly happy is when she’s with her father. To Alex, she’s willful and precocious but otherwise the perfect little girl, doing what she’s told.
Suzette knows her clever and manipulative daughter doesn’t love her. She can see the hatred and jealousy in her eyes. And as Hanna’s subtle acts of cruelty threaten to tear her and Alex apart, Suzette fears her very life may be in grave danger…
MAYBE THE MACHINE could see the words she never spoke. Maybe they blazed in her bones. Maybe if the people in the white coats blew up the pictures they’d see her thoughts, mapped like mountains and railroad tracks, across her ghostly skull. Hanna knew nothing was wrong with her. But Mommy wanted them to look. Again.
The room in the hospital’s dungeon carried the threat of needles and smelled like lemon candies tinged with poison. When she was little, the machine scared her. But now, seven, she pretended she was an astronaut. The rocket ship spun and beeped and she scanned the coordinates, double-checking her course. Through the round window, tiny Earth dropped from view, then she was in the darkness with the glimmering stars, zooming away. No one would ever catch her. She smiled.
“Stay still, please. Almost finished—you’re doing great.”
The flight director watched her from his monitor. She hated all the ground control people, with their white coats and lilting voices, their play-dough smiles that flopped into frowns. They were all the same. Liars.
Hanna kept her words to herself because they gave her power. Inside her, they retained their purity. She scrutinized Mommy and other adults, studied them. Their words fell like dead bugs from their mouths. A rare person, like Daddy, spoke in butterflies, whispering colors that made her gasp. Inside, she was a kaleidoscope of racing, popping, bursting exclamations, full of wonder and question marks. Patterns swirled, and within every secret pocket she’d stashed a treasure, some stolen, some found. She had tried, as a little girl, to express what was within her. But it came out like marbles. Nonsense. Babbling. Disappointing even to her own ears. She’d practiced, alone in her room, but the bugs fell from her mouth, frighteningly alive, scampering over her skin and bedclothes. She flicked them away. Watched them escape under her closed door.
Words, ever unreliable, were no one’s friend.
But, if she was being honest, there was another reason—a benefit. Her silence was making Mommy crazy. Poor Mommy made it all too clear, over many desperate years, how badly she wanted her to talk. She used to beg.
“Please, baby? Ma-ma? Ma-ma?”
Daddy, on the other hand, never begged or acted put out. His eyes lit up when he held her, like he was witnessing a supernova. He alone really saw her, and so she smiled for him and was rewarded with kisses and tickles.
“Okay, all finished,” said the flight director.
The ground control people pushed a button and her head slid out of the giant mechanical tube. The rocket ship crashed back to Earth, where she found herself in a crater of ugliness. The blobby people emerged—one with her hand outstretched offering to take her back to Mommy, like that was some sort of reward.
“You did such a good job!”
What a lie. She hadn’t done anything but come back to Earth too soon. It wasn’t hard to be still, and not speaking was her natural state. She let the woman take her hand, even though she didn’t want to go back to moody Mommy and another suffocating room. She’d rather explore the hospital’s endless corridors. She pretended she was walking around in the intestines of a giant dragon. When it exhaled its angry flames, they’d catapult her forward into another world. The one where she belonged, where she could race through a gloomy forest with her trusted sword, screaming the call that would summon the others. Her minions would charge behind her as she led the attack. Slash, crash, grunt, and stab. Her sword would get its taste of blood.
SHE SMOOTHED DOWN the back of Hanna’s hair where it had gotten rumpled during her test.
“See, not so bad. Now we’ll see what the doctor says.” Her tight smile forced her eye to twitch. She dabbed at the corner of it with her index finger. A terror clawed beneath her skin, making small rips in her equilibrium. Doctors’ offices, medical buildings: institutions of torture. They pressed on her like a heavy slab. Hanna sat with her elbow on the chair’s armrest, head on her hand, absorbed and expressionless like she became in front of the TV. Suzette glanced at the framed print that held her daughter’s interest. Squares of watery color. She tried to guess, by the movement of Hanna’s eyes, if she was counting the total number of squares, or collecting them in groups of similar shades. Hanna pretended to be unaware of Suzette beside her, and she read the usual rebuke in Hanna’s refusal to look at her. After so many years, she’d lost track of the moments for which she was being punished.
Perhaps Hanna was still angry at her for running out of bananas. She’d slammed her fists on the table, glaring at her naked bowl of cereal. Or maybe Hanna couldn’t forgive some perceived slight from the previous night, or week, or month. Hanna didn’t know that Suzette had resisted bringing her in for another CT scan—500 times the radiation of a single X-ray—but relented to Alex’s wishes. Her husband’s concerns remain rooted in the pragmatic insistence that something might yet be physically impeding her verbal progress. He didn’t see what she did, and she could never tell him what was really wrong—that it had all been a mistake: She didn’t know how to be a mother; why had that ever seemed like a good idea? So she played along. Of course she’d have Hanna tested again. Of course they needed to know if anything was physiologically awry.
She considered her daughter. They looked so much alike. Her dark, dark hair. The big brown eyes. If only she’d inherited some of Alex’s fairness. She had Hanna put on a nice dress, brand-new knee socks, and Mary Janes. Suzette wore a silk shirtdress, loosely belted to show off her figure, and shoes that cost a fortune. It was silly, she knew, for both of them to dress up for a medical appointment, but she feared situations in which her mothering might be judged, and at least no one could say her child looked neglected or ill. And Suzette had so little opportunity otherwise to wear her finer clothes when all she did was stay home with Hanna. She used to dress up for Alex’s office parties and loved the way his lustful eyes followed her around as she sipped wine and chatted, enjoying the rare company of other adults. But no babysitter would ever come back, and they finally gave up. Alex, considerately, made the gatherings rarer and shorter, but still. She missed the casual normalcy she once had with Fiona and Sasha and Ngozi. She never asked if Alex talked about her at work, or if they all acted as if she no longer existed.
Nervous about what the doctor would say—how he might criticize her—she patted a jumpy rhythm on Hanna’s arm. Hanna pulled it away, lowering her chin as the colorful, blocky print continued to mesmerize her. Suzette held each part of her body too tightly—her crossed legs, her tense shoulders, her hands curled into fists. It made the tender part in her abdomen twist and squeal in protest and she fanned her fingers, trying to make herself relax. It was her first big outing since The Surgery, eight weeks before. They did it laparoscopically this time so the superficial part of the recovery was faster, though she’d asked the doctor to fix her horrible scar while they were there.
The misshapen canyon of a scar had always bothered her, falling in a deep, wonky six-inch diagonal on the right side of her navel. Alex insisted it was part of her beauty, her strength. A marking of survival, of the suffering she’d endured as a teenager. She didn’t need any reminders of those lonely and disgusting years, of the enemy within or her own mother’s deadly indifference. As it was, that first surgery at seventeen put such a fear in her that she’d put off Dr. Stefanski’s recommendation for another resection until her intestines were in danger of perforating. In the beginning, the stricture only caused a bit of pain and she reduced the fiber in her diet. She’d expected her heavy-duty medication—an injectable biological drug—to eliminate the worst of her Crohn’s symptoms. And it did. But as the inflammation receded, scar tissue built up around a narrowing in her intestine.
“Don’t take too much!” she’d pleaded with the surgeon, as if he was about to rob her, not restore her to health.
Alex had kissed her white-knuckled hand. “It’ll be fine, älskling, you’ll feel so much better, and be able to eat so much more food.”
Yes, reasonable assessments. If it wasn’t for her inconsolable fear of losing so much small intestine that she’d lose the inalienable right to shit on a toilet like a normal person. People did it every day—lived with ileostomies and bags attached to their abdomens. But she couldn’t. Couldn’t. The very thought of it made her start shaking her head until Hanna twitched, glancing at her with a soured frown as if she was already stinking up the room.
Suzette got herself back under control, at least so far as her daughter would notice. But her dark mind played on, resistant to more-comforting distractions in the weeks since her surgery.
What if she got another fistula?
That was the thing that haunted her every day since she agreed to schedule the procedure. The last time, it developed about six weeks after her emergency resection. She’d woken up one morning feeling as if she was sleeping on a brick, but the mass had been in her own belly, a pool of waste that needed to be drained. It had been eight weeks since The Surgery, so maybe the danger had lessened. Alex said his usual “one day at a time” platitudes. Dr. Stefanski said no no, just keep doing your injections, your inflammation markers are low. But in her head the oozing puss and shit waited in the wings, and what if Alex had to play the role her mother played, nursemaid, replacing the soiled packing in a wound that wouldn’t heal—
A quick knuckle rap on the exam room door dispelled her thoughts. Sometimes the presence of a doctor only made her trauma worse, but this one was here for Hanna, not her. And she was here as a good mother, a concerned mother, unlike her own. She pressed her palm against her tingling abdomen and made herself smile as the new doctor gusted in, grayer than the last one. His eyebrows needed a trim and Suzette struggled to maintain eye contact with him with his nose hairs on such display.
“Mrs. Jensen.” He shook her hand.
He pronounced her name as everyone did, incorrectly. It didn’t bother her as much as it did Swedish-born Alex, who, after nineteen years in the United States, still couldn’t accept that Americans would never make a J sound like a Y. The doctor sat on the rolling stool and brought Hanna’s records up on the computer.
“No changes from the scan she had … When was it? Two and a half years ago? No abnormalities of the skull, jaw, throat, mouth … upon examination or on the scan. So that’s good, right? Hanna’s a healthy girl.” He smiled at Hanna’s turned-away head.
“So … There’s no…?” She tried not to sound as disappointed as she felt. “She should be finishing first grade and we can’t even send her to school, not if she doesn’t speak. We don’t feel like she needs a special class—she’s smart, I homeschool her and she’s very smart. She can read, do math—”
“But it won’t be good for her—it’s not good for her, to be so isolated. She doesn’t have friends, won’t interact with her peers. We’ve tried to be supportive, encouraging. There has to be something we can do, something to help her…”
“I know an excellent speech language pathologist, if Hanna is having trouble—”
“We’ve tried speech pathologists.”
“—she can be tested for any number of things. Verbal apraxia, semantic pragmatic language disorder…” He scrolled through her online chart, looking for something. “Maybe auditory processing disorder, though she presents atypically for that. Has she had any of these tests?”
“We’ve tested her for everything. Her hearing’s fine, no muscle weakness, no cognitive problems. I’ve lost track of all the tests, but she takes them, seems to think they’re fun—but she won’t say a word.”
“Won’t?” The doctor turned to face Suzette.
“Won’t. Can’t. I don’t know. That’s … We’re trying to find out.”
Suzette squirmed as the doctor flicked his overeducated attention between the two of them. She knew what he was seeing: the daughter, lost in her own head; the mother, a carefully groomed, but wound-up mess.
“You say she can read and write? Can you communicate with her that way?”
“She’ll write out answers in her workbooks, she doesn’t seem to mind that. We know she understands. But when we’ve asked her to write what she’s thinking or wants—any type of actual communication … No, she won’t speak to us that way.” Her interlocked fingers started hurting and she glanced down at them, a little surprised by how forcefully she’d been twisting them. She took hold of her purse strap and started strangling it instead. “She can make noises—so we know, maybe, she could make other sounds. She can grunt. And squeal. Hum little songs.”
“If it’s a matter of her refusing … Won’t requires a different type of doctor than can’t.”
Suzette felt her face reddening, as if her hands had moved to her throat, squeezing the life from her. “I—we—don’t know what to do. We can’t go on like this.” She gasped for air.
The doctor wove his fingers together and gave her a sympathetic, if lopsided, smile. “Behavioral difficulties can be just as difficult to manage as physical ones, maybe more so.”
She nodded. “I always wonder … Am I doing something wrong?”
“It causes strain in a family, I understand. Perhaps the next thing to try … I could recommend a pediatric psychologist. I wouldn’t recommend a psychiatrist, not until she has a diagnosis. In this age, they’re so quick to write prescriptions, and maybe this is something you can work through.”
“Yes, I’d prefer that, thank you.”
“I’ll send a referral through your insurance company…” He turned back to the computer.
Suzette worked the kinks out of her purse strap, feeling slightly dizzy with relief. She tucked a piece of Hanna’s hair behind her ear.
“I try to avoid toxic things,” she said to the doctor’s slouched back. “Not that all medication is toxic, but like you said, society’s so quick to find a pill for something, never mind the side effects. But if it’s not a disability … An organic solution, that sounds good.” She turned to Hanna. “We’re going to work this out. Find someone you might talk to.”
Hanna took a swat at Suzette’s fussing hand and curled her lip in a snarl. Suzette shot her a warning glare, then peeked at the doctor to make sure he hadn’t seen.
Hanna bolted to her feet, crossed her arms, and stood by the door.
“In a minute, we’re almost finished.” Suzette made her voice sound endlessly patient.
Spinning back around on his stool, the doctor chuckled. “I don’t blame you one bit, young lady, cooped up at the doctor’s on a sunny day.” Suzette stood as he did. “The referral will probably take a few days, then you can schedule something directly with Dr. Yamamoto. She’s a developmental child psychologist and has a great way with kids, very established. And hopefully Hanna will connect with her. They’ll print out all the information when you check out.”
“Thank you so much.”
“She might even be able to recommend some schools for you.”
“Perfect.” She looked over at her daughter, not surprised to see the angry scowl on her face. Through bad behavior, Hanna had made herself unwelcome at three preschools and two kindergartens. Suzette had come to believe that their mother-daughter relationship would improve only when they had some distance—when Hanna went off to school. And Suzette wanted their relationship to improve. She was tired of yelling “Hanna, stop!” and maybe she shouldn’t yell, but there were endless reasons—small and large—why she’d needed to. Plucking all the leaves off the houseplants. Pulling on every loose thread, no matter what it unraveled. Mixing a cocktail of orange juice and nail polish remover. Throwing balls against the glass wall of their house. Staring at her and refusing to blink or budge. Hurling sharpened pencils like darts across the room. Hanna had creative ways to amuse herself, and most of them were intolerable.
Since the doctor confirmed there was nothing physically wrong, then, for the sake of her own health and sanity, it was time to convince Alex that they needed to find a school for Hanna. Maybe someone else would succeed where she hadn’t in disciplining the girl. She couldn’t phrase it to him as a desperate need for her own time and space; she couldn’t make it all about herself. Hanna behaved quite lovingly in his presence, and often he saw silliness where she saw mischief, and her more-provocative antics he ascribed to intelligence. He remained blind to his own hypocrisy, all the things he explained away as normal while exulting her precocity. So that would be her argument: Gifted Hanna was bored; she needed more stimulation than what she was getting at home.
One way or another, she wouldn’t let Hanna continue to derail her life.
Hand in hand, they engaged in a silent contest of who could squeeze the tightest, as Suzette smiled at the nurses on their way out.
Copyright © 2018 Zoje Stage.