A rhino ran me down.
That was my first thought as I struggled to stand, brushing street grease off my palms onto my jeans. A sharp ache spread from a point at the back of my head. My hand came away sticky.
She struggled to stand, all legs, a newborn giraffe. One of her high heels had snapped and she nearly went down again but I held out my arm and she grabbed it. Her breath smelled like mint. Her upper lip was swelling.
A triplet of horns honked like geese who've forgotten why they're angry.
My head tingled. I blinked at prancing pinpricks. There was definitely something wrong, but there was no reason to get run down while puzzling it out.
The lights had changed and cars advanced over the crosswalk despite us. She flipped them off as I took her by the elbow and steered her to the curb. Her overlarge shopping bag slapped between us.
I leaned on a fire hydrant and asked was she okay.
"What the hell? No." She opened her mouth wider than necessary to get the words out. Without the swollen lip she might have looked like a tall Grace Kelly. She scowled. "Why did you stop walking in the middle of the effing street?"
"Did I?" That didn't sound right. But where the memory should have been a looming ocean rose. It was a void that stretched like a slow-motion tidal wave that would never crash.
I probed my head working in from both sides, moving inch-by-inch closer to the center of pain at the back of my head.
"You nailed me," I said.
"No, you stopped." She dabbed her mouth with tissues and let them drop in the wind. She tried to smile.
Her finger followed my stare to the broken tooth, flinched, and returned again. Her tongue went to work on it. Her eyes crossed trying, maybe, to see it. "Frick. It’th loose."
"Chipped." I took a picture and held out my phone.
"Great." She pinched and expanded her fingers over the screen. "I look ridiculous."
"It's not so bad," I said. "Like King Kong took a bite out of a plane and caught his lip on the propeller. But you should see the plane."
She punched my shoulder. "I'm serious."
I hadn't been punched like that since I forgave Margery Thompson for standing me up at the junior prom. That had ended in my first ever lip-to-lip kiss. It's not like this woman with the chipped tooth owed me anything, but it was a promising punch.
I gave her my best three-quarters profile, chin down, well practiced. "What does the Matterhorn care about losing an icicle?"
She frowned. "The Matterhorn?"
"Or more like," I said, "you know the pyramid at Giza?"
She narrowed her eyes.
"You're just as regal . . . only now with the face of a sphinx." I showed her what I meant by pretending to break off my nose.
She covered her mouth with both hands. "Stop it. My tooth is broken."
"My bad. Woah there."
She clutched my arm, nails digging in. "I have to sit down."
I led her through the press of indifferent lunchtime pedestrians to an outdoor table in front of—I peered up at the bird drop flecked awning and felt a tingle at the back of my head again, like something was about to spill out—Juan's Place.
We sat across from each other. As near as I could tell my bleeding had stopped, but the epicenter was so tender.
A stench of vinegar and hot asphalt made me rub my nose furiously. The next-door alley was cramped with a jumble of green mop buckets with missing wheels and cracked chassis.
A waiter materialized impeccably decked in white and black. His hair shone, wet. He bowed minutely. "Sir. Madame."
"A coffee, I guess." I wasn’t even sure if I liked coffee. I held one arm ready to catch her if she passed out.
The waiter pivoted towards her, but she was preoccupied with making faces into a thumb-sized mirror. I would have said her name to get her attention, but, of course, I didn't know it. It couldn't have been just anything, maybe a Matilda, or a Greta, or an Ariadne, or a Joan with long vowels.
"Make that two. Coffees," I said to the waiter’s back. "And a bag of ice?"
The waiter disappeared into the cafe.
"Think that's Juan himself?"
"Who?" She tucked the mirror into her purse and arched her lips back. I’d seen chimpanzees do that. Her tongue flicked pink at the hole. After a minute of this she said. "Who's Juan?"
I pointed to the awning. "The way he holds himself, it's like he owns the place."
"He’s just European." She peered into the ally and her nose crinkled. "What died back there?"
"I know, right? Well, you needed somewhere to sit down. This was the first free table."
She pointed to a cafe across the street with a red awning that reflected the sunlight. I couldn't read the name for the glare. The tables were full. A flurry of bike messengers and delivery trucks streaked on the road between.
"He's bringing coffee. And ice."
"Juan." I pumped my thumb at the restaurant behind me. "I don't think you should move around right now."
"I used to love going to the dentist." She pouted. "I never had a filling until one time there was an abscess that 'needed lancing.' Why do they say it like that?"
"I know, right? It's like they're going to come at you on horseback."
She stared at me with her expression not changing.
"Sorry," I said. "Go on."
"I haven't been back since, not even for a cleaning. That's not gross is it? Do you think they can glue it back on?"
"Yeah, the missing part?" She whipped to face the intersection. "Oh, no. It’s lost."
I thought she might leap up and dive into traffic so I put my hand on hers.
Her skin was cold. I pulled away and stuck my hand in my jeans pocket. She turned from the intersection and stared at the back of her hand. My face flushed.
"It doesn’t work like that," I said. "They make a crown out of new material. Anyway, I think your tooth is still stuck in my head."
"Serious? In your head?" Her face morphed back and forth between horror and fascination. She pulled a blonde hair out from between her teeth. I looked up as high as I could; yep—I had blonde hair.
"Turn around," she said.
I shifted in my chair obediently.
Juan stared through a small side window, motionless. An espresso machine hummed.
She held my head steady with both hands and tilted my neck forward. "Your bleeding stopped."
"The head can really bleed, huh?" I said.
"Well, it stopped. What a mess."
"Anything white sticking out?" I asked.
"Shut up. Out of your head?"
"If there's a tooth stuck in there, to get it out do I go to a doctor or a dentist?"
She parted my hair. "I can't see anything."
"It's there. Something's there. I can feel it."
"There are tweezers in my purse."
"Thanks." I rested my elbows on my knees.
A pinch like an electric shock jerked forward. I think I actually squealed.
From behind me came the gut thump and splatter of someone throwing up.
By the time I had shaken my head clear, she was already staggering out into the sidewalk traffic. She pushed at the air with her hands.
"Your things..." I lifted her shopping bag.
She half-glanced back and walked faster.
The top of her head sank into the crowd, then surfaced further on, then sank again.
"Cream or sugar, sir?"
"Hold on. I'll be right back."
Juan's lean frame blocked me from the street.
I showed him the shopping bag. "She forgot her bag."
"That is twelve-fifty. Sir."
I looked at my wrist watch, but didn’t seem to wear one.
"Dollars," he said.
I fumbled in my wallet but only had a five and three crumpled ones. I'd have to use a card. I stood on my tip-toes to see around the waiter.
Morning foot traffic bobbed a foot away. Shark suits, polka dotted dresses, piss-stained trousers, tie-dye t-shirts, coifed frills, eyeglasses that defined or challenged the limits of geometry, perfectly accented waistlines, hips loose and hips tight all popping past in a continuous stream. No one looked over.
Juan inhaled sharply. He squinted at the floor behind me.
She had thrown up a good amount of liquid goop. Lots of bubbles.
I lowered into my chair, still dizzy, grateful to lean on the arms of simple plastic. It would help to eat. "Can I see a menu?"
I shook my head. The weight of it was all wrong and I kept shaking it slowly to feel out the sensation.
Juan returned with a mop and a green mop bucket on wheels. He handed me the menu and rolled the bucket between the tables to the mess.
I scooted my chair in.
The menu's ornate font looped as much as the nest of power cords bunched above restaurant's door. It was all in Spanish. No burritos or enchiladas or chimichangas. It was Spain Spanish and the prices were high.
I tapped an entree at random. "This looks good."
Juan carefully folded the menus and tucked them under his arm. "She'll be back."
My headache thrummed. "No, impossible. She hates me. I broke her tooth."
Juan closed his eyes and raised his eyebrows. For a moment it was like he'd been put on pause. He leaned into the mop and wheeled the bucket away.
"Not like that." I stirred in cream and let the sugar pour.
It was a very good day to drink two iced coffees and eat an early lunch of what might as well have been bull nuts with mint sauce. The sun hit the corner of my table. I got up feeling much stronger now and sat down in her chair to enjoy the warmth on my head.
A tsunami wave still hovered in the periphery of my thoughts. I tried not to think about it head-on.
I ordered wine—nothing fancy, a round red—and propped the phone against the bottle to study the photo of the cross-eyed beauty while I drank.
She had four little moles and a dimple below her left eye. I magnified the shattered tooth. Its sharpness was unreal. She should put some wax on the corner right away or she could cut her lip.
In her shopping bag lay two crisply folded cardigans and a receipt.
A bead of water hit my neck.
"I rinsed it from the bucket." Juan stood at my elbow holding out the bill.
On the tray rattled a tiny, perfect, triangle of bone.
And that's how I began my collection.