Toothpaste

Henry was tearing his way through life's lessons as he would one of his favourite novels. But Henry read so fast and so voraciously that he would normally all but have forgotten the contents of a book by the time he'd put it down.

Since he'd moved to university, everything seemed to have happened at once; already he could barely recognise the person he'd been just two, three months ago. He was caught up in a whirlwind of his own thought and emotion, now up, now down, but never in any one place for long.

In fact, there was a lot about him at this time that bore a striking resemblance to the traits he would later come to despise in Kerouac. And what better reason to despise someone you have never met than for reminding you of how you once were?

***

Henry was friends with a girl called Alina. Alina had red hair, green eyes, and on occasion, a slightly giddy disposition. This giddiness surfaced, more often than not, in the long conversations about nothing that she and Henry would share, and which left him feeling, in a gentle kind of way, strange, and somehow bewildered.

***

Gradually, by some mysterious, quiet process in which he scarcely dared hope to believe, Henry and Alina became more than friends.

***

"We're just friends," Alina said. "You know that's all we can be."

Henry nodded his assent. He knew about the boy back home, and how they would get back together one day. He knew that all Alina's encounters now were fleeting, and purely physical. He knew she had others beside him. He didn't mind. She didn't owe him anything; had never promised him anything; but she had given him a lot.

He nodded his assent. But increasingly, he believed, Alina's other liaisons were made less out of pleasure than a desire to convince herself of this truth: that she and Henry were "just friends". He could see it. She would leave them, and come to him, and all but apologise.

"I shouldn't feel guilty, but - I don't know why - I do."

And so, in a roundabout way, those nights Alina spent with other boys made him happy.

***

How naturally, and completely, Alina would surrender herself to intimacy. It left Henry amazed. The first time he had stayed at her house, Alina had offered him her toothbrush to use. It was a simple gesture, but one that seemed so unaffected, so guileless, shimmering, and perfect, that Henry was astonished by it.

Alina used a kind of toothpaste Henry had never heard of before. As he brushed his teeth that morning, in her bathroom with the green tiles and the cracked mirror, its strange, new taste seemed to mirror the strange, new feelings rising up inside him. Later that day, he made a trip into town and bought himself a tube.

***

His favourite times were the mornings. Alina would lie there, nestled into him, her head on his chest, her arm resting lightly on his stomach. They would stay like this, for hours sometimes, in glorious silence.

Sometimes Alina would talk about her childhood, old boyfriends, the odd dreams she had had... but sooner or later she would trail off, and silence would envelop them once again.

Henry would almost never talk. He liked the silence. Words were difficult, and hard to get right. But, he felt, lying there with Alina in his arms said everything he wanted to better than words ever could.

He tried to explain this to her once.

"It's like the song, by Depeche Mode..."

Then he stopped. It was a perfect example, he thought, of the uselessness of words. Exactly what he was trying to explain. He smiled, and touched his cheek gently to the crown of her head.

***

And then, as quietly, mysteriously as it had started, Henry's time with Alina came to an end. Alina began to seem preoccupied, elsewhere. She forgot, somehow, to kiss him as she used to, when they met, and when he left. Her giddiness was gone. In fact, she barely said a word. Now Henry was to experience a different kind of silence between them.

It seemed to happen quite naturally that Henry was no longer the fixture at Alina's house he once had been. A week or more had passed since he had last stayed over. Panicking, he invited himself round, and when it got late, asked to stay the night.

***

Henry averted his eyes as Alina changed into her pyjamas. She climbed into bed, next to him, and turned away.

He stared at the ceiling for a long time before he spoke. When he did, his mouth, tongue, moved reluctantly, as if in a dream.

"Do you want... things between us to have ended?"

***

They met the next day, in town, over coffee. Henry was quiet, morose. Alina looked at him with kind, sad eyes. She said things about friendship. Later, when he was a little older, had sat through this same conversation so many more times, had heard the same bland platitudes trotted out again and again, Henry would come to recognise Alina's words as genuine. He swallowed, bit his lip, and left.

***

Henry had lost Alina.

Henry had lost Alina. But he soon discovered a way he might have her back.

Henry had lost Alina, but just by brushing his teeth he could be transported back to that bathroom, to those mornings, to that time. The toothpaste's strange, almost salty taste aroused in him the same strange feelings as it had on that very first night.

Brushing his teeth became a sad and solemn ritual for Henry. No dentist could have faulted the regularity of his regime.

***

Days, weeks, and finally months passed by; Henry and Alina saw each other less and less. Though neither would acknowledge it, there existed between them an inescapable awkwardness that neither knew how to confront or dispel.

It wasn't that they didn't want to spend time with each other. It was just that, when they did, they no longer knew what to do or say. Soon, not seeing each other simply became easier for both of them. Then the term ended, they went home for the holidays, and the two never spoke in the same way again.

***

It must have been six months, maybe closer to a year later when Henry had the dream. He couldn't remember much of it; just that Alina had been in it. He had woken up feeling sad. As he tried to piece together what fragments he could, this sadness spread through him, softened, and became melancholy. It had been such a long time since he had even seen her. He had almost, sometimes, forgotten her. He glanced over at the sink in the corner of his room.

Henry still used the same kind of toothpaste, even after all this time. He approached the sink gingerly: there it was. He picked up the tube and studied its blue and white logo. It seemed out of place somehow, as well as comfortingly familiar.

The tube had the kind of screw-on cap Henry thought of as old-fashioned. Even this tiny plastic lid, he felt, was imbued with a sense of loss. He unscrewed it, placed it down gently on the side of the sink, and spread some toothpaste on his brush.

***

A magpie chattered outside as Henry began to brush his teeth. The sound must have distracted him: a few calm seconds passed before he winced, quickly, involuntarily, as the realisation sank in. Having used this toothpaste every day, every day for many months, toothpaste was all it now tasted of. It was no longer Alina's toothpaste; it was his.