Carolina didn’t know when the pain began, but one day she bit into a cracker, and it arrived like a needle through her jaw. She avoided that side of her mouth for weeks in hopes that it might disappear on its own, but when it didn’t, she had no choice. At the dentist, the receptionist looked like she wished Carolina wasn’t there, and Carolina wanted to say she wished she wasn’t, either, but instead she took the form handed to her and sat down. The hygienist was friendlier. She had braces that Carolina could see in detail when she peered over her mouth, shiny purple stars above a gaping black hole. While she tapped Carolina’s tooth and told her to bite down on a waxy strip, she talked about her infant whose photo Carolina had noticed tacked to a corkboard. She’s easy enough that my husband can handle her, the hygienist continued, sucking saliva with a translucent tube. The way she talked about the baby reminded Carolina of the way that some people talked about horses: husband-safe! they would say, advertising an animal that was predictable and sane. Do you have children? the hygienist asked. Carolina couldn’t speak because a hand was in her mouth. I’ll be right back, she said without waiting for Carolina’s answer.
Around the same time her tooth began to hurt, Carolina had moved out of the house and into a motel room that smelled of takeout and bleach. Although, she wasn’t sure she could call it a move. Everything in her life was still at the house, including her husband and her child. The room was closer to where she worked at the riding stables as an assistant trainer. Once, she brought her daughter out and strapped her to one of the husband-safe horses. She cried the whole time, and eventually, Carolina’s husband had to come ferry the child from the saddle. Her neighbors at the motel were a sex worker and a painter. The sex worker made home movies that Carolina could hear through the walls. It’s nice giving my clients what they need, she said to Carolina once, and Carolina wanted to ask how she knew. She only caught a glimpse of the painter’s work when he was coming back from a grocery run: violent slashes across green canvasses. Carolina liked him, though they never spoke.
When the dentist entered, she apologized for the wait. You wouldn’t believe the trouble people get themselves into, she said, but Carolina believed she could. Once, she had forgotten her daughter in the car on the way to pick up her prescription. The manager of the drugstore saw the baby crying on his way in and made an announcement on the intercom, his voice reminding Carolina of her childhood teacher, scolding her for wearing her mud-caked boots to class. Carolina ran back to the car without picking up what she had come for, the eyes of the fellow store patrons following her all the way home. She didn’t tell her husband. It wasn’t the worst thing she had done. Can you tell me which part hurts? The dentist said, tapping the tooth with her metal prod. Carolina wished she could see inside her own mouth, could pinpoint the pain when she crunched down. But she couldn’t. It was everywhere and nowhere. I’m sorry, she said. She had gotten used to apologizing.
It wasn’t just people. Horses got into trouble, too. Last week, one of the horses caught his leg in a fence. It was the husband-safe horse, and Carolina stroked the velvety hairs on his nose all the way to the vet. Once, a father had asked Carolina what they did with the horses when they died. I imagine they’re hard to move, the man said, as the child whose lesson she had led ran into her arms.Carolina was inside her car now, tears wetting her jeans. She didn’t know how long she had been there when she heard a tap. The first thing she saw were the braces, then a mouth fogging the glass. She rolled her window down. You forgot this, the hygienist said as she handed Carolina’s keys through the window. The hygienist squatted to Carolina’s level. Her eyes were warm and brown and soft, and Carolina recognized something in them, an animal longing. It’ll get better, she said. You’ll see. The body is healing. You’ll be fixed right up.
Mini-interview with Sophie Newman
HFR: Can you share a moment that has shaped you as a writer (or continues to)?
SN: When I was in fifth grade, I got in trouble for writing stories when I was supposed to be in math class. Only recently did I realize this was a moment that defined the choices I would later have to make as an artist. Being a writer is about writing when the world wants you to do math.
HFR: What are you reading?
SN: I’m always reading at least three books. Right now, they’re The Hurting Kind by Ada Limón, Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, and New People by Danzy Senna. Lately, I’ve also become addicted to mystery audiobooks. I loved Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders series, and I’ve been making my way through the Hawthorne and Horowitz books. What I love is that his plots often involve vindictive characters in the literary world—agents and editors and authors with dark secret agendas. So fun.
HFR: Can you tell us what prompted “Husband-Safe”?
SN: Growing up in the horse world, “husband-safe” was a term I heard thrown around a lot. The horse world is interesting because, with the exception of maybe rodeo, it’s a space largely dominated by women. The term belonged to a cheeky code for the kind of knowledge exclusive to this group, which also afforded them a certain power. During lockdown, while dealing with a mysterious tooth issue, I started thinking more about “husband-safe” and its potential manifestations both in and outside of its original context.
HFR: What’s next? What are you working on?
SN: Aside from revising and editing my short stories and novel, I’m in the thinking stages of a new manuscript set on a boarding school campus much like the one I attended. Think fog, a forest of cypress trees, a tempestuous sea. Very often, I will begin a story with mood and setting before character and plot. Also, I’m obsessed with campus novels, so perhaps I’m biased in thinking there’s always room for more.
HFR: Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?
SN: Related to my first answer, I’ve been thinking about how maintaining my regular writing practice is like fighting a constant battle with the capitalist ideals of production and efficiency. Writing—and I’m not talking about writing content for a specific purpose, which I also do—is a kind of spiritual work. It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around writing for no reason other than to tell a story because we’re trained to think of work as only that which leads to financial capital. Now, I think we’re starting to realize this definition excludes all sorts of people, not just artists but domestic laborers, and even those struggling with mental or physical illness. Of course, we have to make money to live in this world, and the ability to write every day is a privilege I don’t take for granted. But I think everyone reading this will agree that dedicating any amount of time to unpacking the human experience is a dream worthy of protecting.
Sophie Newman is a writer from Monterey, California. Her work appears in The New York Times, Atticus Review, Quarter After Eight, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from The Ohio State University and edits prose for Identity Theory.