You swing open the door to the men’s lavatory and find me here, in my usual spot, brushing my teeth at the middle sink. Our eyes meet briefly in the mirror and I see the familiar flash of annoyed disappointment on your face. I can see it clearly, even from up here atop my hygiene high horse. I live for that look. I have already won.
You instantly recognize me as “that guy who brushes his teeth at work.” And I recognize you as “a lesser man.” We are coworkers at a marketing firm. Colleagues, yes, but not peers. Not remotely. On the other side of that door our paths rarely cross. Out there, we are in different departments. In here, we are on different planes.
Let’s be clear: This has nothing to do with cavities or gingivitis. Dental hygiene and a winning smile are merely fringe benefits. The real purpose of this exercise is to push you further and further down. I brush my teeth at work solely to make you feel worse about yourself. I brush my teeth at work because — as we both know — you do not. Which part of, “after every meal” confounds you so? Which Fletch movie quote or fantasy-football statistic has replaced those words in your cerebellum?
I rinse. I spit. I continue.
You retreat to the furthest stall for your afternoon constitutional. Perhaps you hope to wait me out, but you underestimate my resolve. Dentists recommend brushing for 2 to 3 minutes, but I will be here for a minimum of 10 minutes — possibly 15 — to ensure that I’ll be seen by as many coworkers as possible. Yes, I will still be here when you emerge, to the rhythmic sounds of Reach Extra-Firm bristles on flawless enamel. Each stroke brushing away any illusion of equality between us.
This is not about teeth. The teeth are merely 32 gleaming ivory towers from which to look down on you. This is about what the teeth represent. It’s about what else we both might surmise from this moment: That I am likely far better positioned for retirement. That my houseplants enjoy regular watering and seasonal fertilizer. That I have enviable cholesterol and triglyceride levels. All of that with which you struggle in life, that which eludes you? These things are effortless for me.
Google Maps shows two pharmacies and a gas-station mini-mart within two miles of our office building. If you were fitter they’d be walking distance. Still, they are but a short drive on your lunch break, or a quick stop on your commute. Nothing is stopping you from keeping your own brushing implements in your desk. Nothing, that is, except for defeatism and inertia. But those are enough, aren’t they? You are in a rut as deep and dully painful as the cavity in your top left molar.
You emerge from the stall and I smile at you, incisors and bicuspids frothy, like a rabid hound. Outwardly, the smile is warm. Casual. A greeting. But we are both adults. We can read the subtext. It is the smile of a man who revels in being your superior in every possible way.
Yes, wash your hands. Linger here in your defeat just a little longer. Gaze into the mirror. Do you see the man you once were? A man who believed in his own potential? With plans for a future? Perhaps those plans included brushing more often. But it is too late. Only 21 inches of flecked-grey laminate countertop separates you from him, yet he is gone forever. And we both know it.
I spit again. In the literal sense, I expectorate excess toothpaste and saliva into a sink. But, symbolically, I am spitting onto the shattered pile of unrealized potential that you have become. The minty globule of plaque a punctuation mark, on the final sentence, of the final chapter of your life story. It is not a bestseller.
After I spit I carefully re-cap my Toms of Maine Whole Care Winterfresh. Then I say something trite like, “Well, back to the salt mines!” But we both speak this language fluently by now. The translation: “I will always be your better.”