I told the undertaker that I wanted to keep her teeth, so he suggested cremation. Tooth enamel, the hardest substance in the body, tougher than bone, survives the furnace. They usually grind the leftover bones and teeth into ash, but they could save a few if that’s what I wanted.
The night they cremated her, I stayed up reading about the process. How inside the chamber, heated to 1800 degrees, the body undergoes rapid dehydration. The muscles contract, and the body flexes its elbows, knees, and hands, assuming what they call “the pugilistic stance,” like a boxer, clenched fists raised in front of its face. How fitting. Her long battle against cancer. She hated the word survivor.
The undertaker presented me with two cardboard boxes. I put the smaller one in my pocket, opened it in our bedroom, emptied its contents into my palm. An incisor, a canine, a couple of molars. I held them to my lips.
The summer after our junior year in college, we flew to Taipei so I could meet her parents for the first time. She told me her mouth was already watering, thinking of all the Taiwanese street food.
She held my hand as we weaved through the crowd at the night market. The alleyways lined with vendors, rows of grilled pork on sticks, fried taro balls piled high, beneath a jumbled forest of illuminated Chinese signs.
She spoke in a dialect I didn’t know to the man in a black t-shirt, his head wrapped in a bandana. He nodded and ladled clear broth onto a clump of yellow noodles. There was an iron pot shaped like an ancient throne, covered with layers of rust. Inside, brown meat sauce bubbled over a fire. She told me the pot is purposefully never washed. It just accumulates the crust of the prior night’s cooking, adding to the flavor.
We sat on folding chairs under hanging red lanterns. She sipped the pork broth, brought her chopsticks to her lips, noodles glazed with meat sauce. She moaned. The rhythmic motion of her chin, the contracting muscles beneath her cheeks, the pleasure between her teeth.
Her parents made up a bed for me in the attic. I didn’t stay there long before sneaking downstairs to her room. Our front teeth clicking together as we kissed. So clumsy.
Over the next three decades, there wouldn’t be an inch of my skin that would escape her bite marks.
But that first night in Taipei, with the window open to the night breeze, she held me on her bed, my tongue gliding across her enamel.
ELIOT LI — Eliot lives in California. His work appears or is forthcoming in Pithead Chapel, New World Writing, The Pinch, Cleaver, and Gordon Square Review.
Art by KAITLIN NOEL HANRAHAN — Kaitlin is a little quirky, a little weird, the designated bad girl of the group, an IBS warrior, a sinner, and allergic to apples. Follow her on Twitter @coldslaw99.