Francesca Leader: My Blue-Gloved Beloved

I like this doctor, though I’m not sure he’s even a doctor. This sculptor of oral appliances for people with mild to moderate sleep apnea. Whatever he is, I like him. He’s sexy in a hail-beaten, Harvey Keitel sort of way.

            “Ever been fitted for a mouthguard before?”

            “No, I haven’t.”

            “So, here’s how this works,” Harvey says. “I’m going to place these molds in your mouth—one on top, one on bottom.” He mimes in the air, hand tantalizingly close to the bespoke mouth. “While I keep them in position, like so, with my fingers, you’re going to bite down and hold it for fifteen minutes. And don’t worry, your teeth won’t hurt me.”

            “OK,” I say, wondering what Harvey would think if he knew how long it’s been since I had a man’s fingers (or any part of a man) inside me. I wish I hadn’t drunk that free waiting room coffee. I wish I’d worn more than just lipstick on my face. I wish I’d stashed my wedding ring in my purse. No ring on his finger. But I imagine he takes it off while working. A man like this, hard yet warm, would have to be married. Women cling to such men, as do reptiles to sunny desert rocks. Rings don’t mean anything anyway. Mere indicators of possible intimacy. Or, as in my case, gilded grave markers for romantic notions that don’t deserve them.

So why am I here then? To become a better wife? A better mother? To try to save that which I don’t really believe is savable?

Last week at my Sleep Study follow-up, the beautiful, rested-looking somnologist said it often takes more than a decade from the onset of a sleep disorder to diagnosis. So many people, she said—mothers, especially—dragging through the days, not knowing why they’re always so exhausted. She smiled sympathetically, seeming to promise that more-refreshing sleep was the one balm I needed to soothe the cracked and brittle surface of my life: my husband’s annoyance when I lack the energy to clean, or doze off during a movie; my impatience at my children’s pleas for a second or third bedtime story; all of it; all the things wrong with me that aren’t my fault. I declined the CPAP machine, so the somnologist referred me to Harvey, for the less-invasive option.

But seriously, why am I here? I know I’ve got problems no amount of R.E.M. can fix. I wonder if Harvey, secretly, knows it, too.

            “You don’t look like someone with sleep apnea,” he says, bemused, maybe flirtatious.

            “Seems I have a tiny trachea. If it had come off an assembly line, quality control would’ve rejected it.”

            Harvey chuckles. “Well! You never can tell from appearances.”

            “I just wanted to be less tired, you know. Feel like myself again.”

Now I fear I’m oversharing, and also lying, because I don’t yet think I’ve arrived at the whole truth. Harvey tilts his head compassionately. “You’re certainly not alone.”

            Emboldened, I say, “You want to know what else?”

             “Of course.” His grin crackles, old-fashioned gold fillings in the sides—from another country, no doubt, where they don’t fetishize blinding white teeth.

            “I think I’d have gone through all this just for the Sleep Study. I mean, a night away from home, at my insurer’s expense?”

            Harvey laughs. “You’re not the first to confess that, either. Did you enjoy your stay in our luxurious overnight facility?”

            “Slept like a drunken co-ed,” I say.

            “Glad to hear it.” Harvey laughs again, like sugar cubes rattling in a box. Rough but sweet. Ready to dissolve on your tongue.

He turns away then to the counter, preparing the molds, and I’m bereft in the shadows on my cold vinyl stool until he turns back, shines that imperfect, half-golden smile on me once more.

“I need you to open wide now, dear.”

I close my eyes, part my lips for his gel-filled molds and nitrile-gloved hands. Tender as a mother crocodile enclosing her young, I bite down. His fingers, holding the molds in place between my teeth, are large; my lips strain. I’m reminded of the mortifying, gratifying acts of love. The gentleness only the strong can wield.

For the next fifteen minutes, I enjoy a waking dream in which Harvey coaches Little League; helps his son with Algebra; cooks; vacuums; uses those hard, thick fingers to rub the feet of his incalculably fortunate wife; slips satin straps from her sun-damaged shoulders as he breathes into her neck the words, You’re beautiful.

I realize there are tears, cool and viscous on my cheeks, that spilled unnoticed. I realize I can’t remember the last time I wept. And I realize, finally—or admit to myself—the real reason I came here: to be seen; to be touched; to feel something.

            Too soon, my blue-gloved beloved withdraws.

“I’m so sorry, I smudged your lipstick,” he says, wiping the corner of my mouth.

Do you have any idea how hot that was? I want to ask. But he’s got patients waiting, as I waited, in coarse maroon chairs, irritably scanning the Best Doctors magazine, drinking complimentary coffee they’ll soon regret.

So I leave him, and walk, rubber-limbed, to my car.

I find a dead-looking lot behind a medical supply warehouse. I park in the shade, and finish what he started.

Then I drive home to fix dinner.

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