Berenice 360

Sally Toner

The night of the Columbine shooting, Gabby made my nipple bleed. She was cranky, fighting sleep, and the jagged ridges of white just beginning to poke through were brand spankin’ new, so she just chomped down while I nursed her, and we both howled. That’s when Eric came in to check on us.

I knew he was frightened of my moods. One time, when we were both so tired and the colic was at its worst–when the crickets, cousins to the lightning bugs that saved our bacon had begun to die—Often taking the baby out on the screened-in porch just to listen was our only respite from the screaming. Even as a newborn, the musician was attuned to sound, and the string section holding court in our backyard did the trick—I smashed the top of a vanity with my hairbrush. I think Eric thought I might have cracked something else. But something held my violence against any and all animate objects in check. Still, I would begin to see a therapist, get put on a low dose of some harmless antidepressant.

The night of the Columbine shooting, months later, when Eric came in to check on us, he also informed me, matter-of-factly, that fourteen students and one teacher were dead–that, according to news reports, one freshman lay face down in the hallway with his hand still around a spilt milk carton. I didn’t say anything, dipped my finger in a glass of water on the floor next to the sliding rocker and rubbed Gabby’s bottom gums. She kept screaming, and he stopped his gruesome commentary for a moment.

“Man, but she does have a set of lungs on her,” he chuckled. I never understood how he got such a kick out of her red-faced, fist clenched, interminable freak outs. “She’ll be an opera singer for sure.”

He wasn’t too far off. Maybe it was because she had a highly arched palette, and more air ran through–extra room in her sinuses and a short button nose to expel surplus oxygen. By the time Gabby was twelve, she would be on her way to a brilliant career as a classical trumpetist.

She never liked math, and, in the fourth grade she lost recess for fidgeting in class and chatting with her friends. Irate, I emailed her teacher. How dare she! Didn’t she know denying recess was the WORST thing one could do to correct the behavior of a child? What kind of cognitive and behavioral educational training did she have anyway? I emailed the teacher to this effect, complete with the all caps, even more irate when I didn’t receive a response for almost two days. Her teacher apologized. She’d been on the road—down to Blacksburg with her best friend, another teacher in Gabby’s school. She’d lost a child in the shooting at Virginia Tech. This was before the days of the mobile GPS, but her daughter had been exactly where she was supposed to be—in French class at eight a.m. I wouldn’t email another teacher for any reason for a long while.

As she grew, Gabby’s overbite was a problem; the middle-school years were a no man’s land of braces, brackets, tightening and aching, “I can’t even eat” complaints. Nothing out of the ordinary for a tween. Her first solo was in the sixth grade, and I remember brushing her thick black hair, plaiting it down the back, three strands end over end until I got the end and shoved in the hairpins at the nape of her neck. She chatted the entire time–about the march her instrument would introduce, how the woodwinds were never in tune or on tempo (such a haughty little thing). When it came time for her to play that first time, exposed, there was a crack–invisible to the ears of anyone else in the audience. But that night, she sobbed herself to sleep.

“She gets that artist temperament from you,” Eric said as we lay in bed, nose to nose, that night. “But she did sound, so, special…didn’t she?”

She did, and the cost of the dental work was soon eclipsed with money for lessons from the finest university teacher in the area. We padded my study in the basement with sound proofing insulation so Gabby could practice all hours of the night without the neighbors knocking on the walls. Never mind that the Beethoven sounded far superior to the Yorkshire terriers in their living room that woke us every morning. They were ridiculous–yippy, needy, with the worst halitosis. I remember being shocked when the neighbor described brushing their rotten gums.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I marveled at the dinner table as Gabby ate her pasta with one hand and poured over a score with the other. “All that money for a dog’s damn TEETH?”

“I’m sure their cavities hurt like everyone else’s,” Gabby replied, not even looking up. “And those puppies are her babies, mom.”

“I thought we said no reading at the supper table,” I replied, kissing her on the top of her head as I picked up her plate and made my way to the kitchen.

“This isn’t reading,” she smiled. “It’s music.”

“She’s got a point there,” her father teased. He always took her side.

Gabby had her wisdom teeth out after her freshman year at conservatory. Because of her festival schedule, we had to time it just right, get multiple recommendations. Anything to do with the mouth, Novocain, on a burgeoning horn player could prove disastrous. The night before the extraction, I held her for hours, rocking back-and-forth, deep breaths in and out as she suffered a panic attack over the possibility of a slipping needle, wrongly hit nerve, permanent paralysis of the lip.

“Remember when you were in the sixth grade,” I reminded her, “and you got that piece of your lip stuck in your bottom bracket while you were eating an apple? You had to wait, almost 45 minutes, for me to pick you up, terrified, not even able to talk. You were so sure, if they had to numb you, it would never wear off.”

She remembered–all those worst fears that never came true. She played Mahler’s 1st at Tanglewood a month later to perfection. Eric and I flew up north to hear her. We knew better than to seat ourselves in the very front row. The best acoustics were on the right side of the center aisle, about a third of the way down. Eric and I had spent the day hiking right outside of Lennox. The performance space was a glass cathedral in the middle of the woods. Her sound, it blew pure, elegant, rising above the rafters to some kind of planetary alignment that late July when, yes, the lightning bugs, crickets, and frogs were at it again.

It was Valentines Day Gabby’s sophomore year at conservatory when Stoneman Douglass happened. Seventeen students this time. Security officers quivering behind the bushes outside. I was, in fact, at the dentist that afternoon getting a tooth pulled when a hygienist came into the room and mentioned it, shaking her head sadly behind her blue surgical mask. The doctor, Dr. Datta, he was always quite a character, had talked me out of nitrous and was hammering against my skull to finish the destruction a lemon drop had begun. I should have known better than to bite down on candy that hard.

“Oh, those poor people…their mothers…You know, I used to work in a forensics lab examining dental records. Dental Records–we used to joke that was the perfect name for a heavy metal band.” He kept hammering away. I was numbed; there was no pain, just the banging against the top of my jaw that left a bruise below my right eye for days.

After that shooting, I made Gabby download Life360 to keep better track. She resisted at first–wasn’t Find my Friends enough? But I wanted to see her moving. I needed to see the icon I created, a baby picture shot through the back of a rainbow stroller in the afternoon light–a silhouette with her dandelion fine hair sticking straight up all over her head. I needed to see that image steadily creeping down the highway, down the sidewalk. I needed to check her speed as she drove to gigs, not because I feared her breaking the law, but because I knew, as long as she was headed towards a destination, her body functioned. She could talk, laugh, breathe. Gabby acquiesced.

“It’s not like my life is that interesting anyway,” she laughed over the phone. “Class, rehearsal, performance, rinse, repeat.”

Eric, and my therapist, decided I was having difficulty adjusting to the empty nest. We adopted a kitten from the shelter–a mix of Russian Blue and Siamese–to make the house less quiet. I was definitely this pet’s (We jokingly named her Gabby 2.0) person. There wasn’t a moment when I sat down she wasn’t curled up in my lap, head butting, nuzzling. Eric reminded me of what I said about the Yorkies next door when I trained her to let me clip her nails and brush her teeth.

“But mouth infections can be dangerous.” I knew that now. “If we can take care of the teeth at home, then she doesn’t have to be put under at the vet’s to clean him. Gabby 2.0, I want to keep her close.”

Eric and my therapist also said I should cultivate outside interests. So I joined a neighborhood book club. I have always enjoyed reading–even toyed with a literature major at University before settling on accounting. Numbers didn’t scare me as much. They were there—unwavering. Forms I could discern. Credits, assets, what one owed I could quantify so easily. Poems, novels, they’ve always frightened me a bit. I have always had this infuriating habit of reading the last page first. After a while, the others in the group refused to discuss any part of the month’s book with me before the meeting itself. No spoilers, they said.  I tried to explain that I must own the last page of the story to enjoy any part of it. Even books, I say, need a Life360–a destination I don’t need to fear.

My neighborhood is an interesting mix of suburban appearance and opinion, with its share of rainbow flags and Black Lives Matter signs on the one hand and Trump voters on the other. We pride ourselves on coexistence, a respectful exchange of ideas, and we are sure to choose the most noncontroversial titles for our monthly book discussions. This month’s is an oldie but goodie–Water for Elephants. I’ll be damned if we were going to read any more Jodi Picoult or Dan Brown. Surely, I found something literary that won’t raise anyone’s ire. So this story, love, loss, the circus. It was perfect. All set in a year, no less. What an incredible discussion topic. “Name the most memorable year of your life so far and explain what made it so.” A REAL Life360 of memory.

Tonight’s the night, and I’m hosting. I’ve set out everything–baby elephants on paper plates I got in the birthday section of Target. I think it’ll be cute to drink Pinot Noir out of little circus Dixie cups. I’ve even blown up some balloons and taped them to the lamps in the living room. Dark chocolate M and M’s, tortilla chips and homemade guac. Everything’s perfect.

Marjorie arrives first. She’s always the earliest–a serious minded adjunct professor at the local community college. I compliment her on her new haircut and highlights. Formerly flat and brown, parted in the middle down to her shoulders, it’s now a delightful little pixie with a tinge of auburn. I think she got new glasses too.

Then it’s Katherine and Joy. They always walk over together and huddle on one end of whoever’s couch is available. You get the idea there’s some inside joke between them the rest of us aren’t in on. Then comes the fifth of our group (we’ve dwindled in recent months)–Audrey. She’s definitely what some might call a Karen. The bane of Next Door. She can’t be quiet online or in person. I can’t stand her; I don’t think anyone in the group can. But her husband got Eric an important government contract, so I suppose we both felt we owed them. Plus, it was one of those awkward situations where she overheard Marjorie and me talking about the club and getting new members at a neighborhood potluck, and she asked to join. Totally rude, not reading social cues, etc. etc., though I suppose it was our fault for not being quieter. Anyway, here she is, in my house, munching on a dry Tostito. She’s also allergic to avocados. I pretend to have forgotten that and apologize, offer to get a jar of salsa that’s in the fridge.

My phone buzzes in my pocket, and I take it out and place it on the kitchen counter as Audrey calls after me. “Oh, Berenice, that’s okay,” she declines. “I need these chips like a hole in the head anyway. Trip to Cancun in three weeks, you know.” I have to physically restrain my eye muscles from rolling and manage only a weird little arch of the brow and a chortle of understanding. I turn the phone over and see the alert:

Multiple Casualties in Shooting at Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas

Of course, everybody knows the first 45 minutes of any book club are spent catching up on our kids. Gabby is teaching at an elementary school outside of New York and auditioning. She’s a natural with the children, though general music is hard on anyone–large classes, squirmy little bodies, every single virus that comes down the pike. These are Pandemic babies who never did learn how to school.

21 Dead in Uvalde. Gunman—18-Year-Old Gunman Used AR 15

I check 360–watch that baby in the stroller on 360 float from the classroom to the parking lot, onto the highway. When she moves, I’m the one able to breathe again.

Out of everyone in the book club, I like Marge the most, but I wish we didn’t have to hear one more time how her Timmy is doing in New Haven. Yes, we know your son is in med school at Yale. Yes, we know you’re grateful he hated his surgery rotation because the call schedule is hell. And did we mention he’s at Yale? And, of course, we’re so proud he wants to go into family practice because, yes, we need smart doctors (like ones from Yale) going into general medicine.

She is discussing how Timmy will be spending Thanksgiving this year with a sister outside of Newtown when Audrey interrupts.

“Oh, Newtown–your sister wasn’t in on that horrible hoax, was she?”

We all stop, put down our baby elephant plates.

He has a battle rifle police said of the Uvalde shooter.

The same kind of rifle used at Sandy Hook.

My head begins to pound.

“Uh, I’m not sure what you mean,” Marge says, though I think we all have that same knot in the pits of our stomachs and know exactly what she means.

“That school–the shooting they invented. I read this article that talks about how those kids are alive and well.”

There’s a ringing in my ears. Or is it sirens?

No one says anything for a minute. I think there’s a beat, or two, as I remember the first time I took Gabby to New York to see a show. We were walking down the sidewalk through the upper west side and came upon a piano keyboard lying on top of a pile of garbage bags stacked on the curb. Just the keyboard, nothing else, and the keys were all dislodged–like some kind of broken toothed smile. I told her then about the time my rowdy cousin got in trouble for taking a toy hammer to Grandma’s baby grand, chipping off the tips of a quarter of the 88 keys.

22 is a quarter of 88. Most children have 20 baby teeth they lose by the time they are twelve. I have every one of Gabby’s. They’re on top of the divan in the living room inside a mahogany box about a foot long and four inches high. It’s antique, inlaid. I bought it when she was a baby for about 600 dollars. I wanted something worthy of my daughter–something worthy of carrying that part of her long after she left our home.

There was this time my rowdy cousin got in trouble for taking a hammer to Grandma’s baby grand.

I consider the 21 children at Sandy Hook—the 21 more children and teachers in Texas today as Audrey yammers on about freedom and the constitution and the Democratic party’s plot to take away our God given rights. No one else has said anything yet as I walk across the room and rub my hand across Gabby’s box of teeth. Those tiny little pearls inside, some of them with flecks of silver –cavities she had filled as I sat outside and watched her light up shoes bob up and down while the dentist worked and she watched cartoons above the chair.

I pick up the box as Audrey goes on. Why won’t she shut up? My head continues to throb. Like the dentist hammering–the nerves pulsing, pain like tentacles of a Man O’ War. The sirens scream louder. The nerves run long, from the mouth to the mind and back again all through my body to the tips of my fingers clenched on either side of the wooden box.

Those 21 babies Audrey claims didn’t die. Some of them hadn’t even lost their first tooth yet. Their mothers–their boxes were empty–Christmas presents still wrapped and hidden in the closet. The teachers who died with them–Where is Gabby now? Please God, let that little fuzzy head be moving across the screen of my phone when I pick it up again.
I walk over to where Audrey is still proselytizing. I put both hands on the end of the box and swing, connecting with her jaw before she says another word.

I know for sure where some of Gabby lies–20 parts of her scattered on the carpet as the blood begins to flow. It spreads around the luxury bones as one more falls from my neighbor’s mouth to join–a perfect 21.

Sally Toner (she/her) is a High School English teacher who has lived in the Washington, D.C. area for over 25 years. Her poetry, fiction, and non-fiction have appeared in Northern Virginia Magazine, Gargoyle Magazine, Watershed Review, and other publications.   Her first chapbook, Anansi and Friends, from Finishing Line Press, is a mixed genre work focusing on diagnosis, treatment, and recovery from breast cancer. She is presently completing an MFA at the University of Georgia in narrative nonfiction. A recent empty nester with two grown daughters, she lives in Reston, Virginia with her husband. You can find her at, salliemander70 on Instagram, and on Twitter at @SallyToner.