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‘They’ll need to come out before you go,’ an oral surgeon told me in her office on the second floor of a building on the edge of the city. Two of my wisdom teeth had started hurting so badly I wasn’t sleeping. And sleeping was the only thing I felt like doing, so this was an emergency.

‘Will I heal in time?’ I asked.

‘When do you leave again?’

‘First of July.’

‘As long as we keep the mouth clean and do everything by the book we should be fine.’ She stared out her window at the wilting poplar trees and tapped the point of her pen on her notebook.

‘How much will it be?’ I asked.

She turned away from the window towards me. ‘Sure you want to know?’ she asked, laughing, and I thought I might say something like, I’m not paying you to laugh, Mona, but instead I smiled awkwardly and left to sign the papers at reception.

The tooth extraction went well—which it should have, considering it cost four thousand dollars—but the ten days that followed were hell. First came the headaches: big ones. Not migraines, I don’t think, but headaches like no headache I’d ever had; they came from deep within. My skull was too small for my brain, suddenly, and it would soon have to leak out my ears and nose. It went from stinging to tingling to throbbing to pounding. I was rendered useless, like a rock or a brick—more useless than that, even, taking up space and using up oxygen. I couldn’t even close my eyes, because when I did the hallucinations scared me. I fantasised frequently about cutting out a chunk of bone from my head, like I’d seen in those animated instructional YouTube videos, and letting my brain swell out through the gap, what divine relief that would be. I fantasised about bludgeoning myself until the pain went away, like smacking the TV to fix the reception.

I was rendered useless, like a rock or a brick—more useless than that, even, taking up space and using up oxygen.

On one of these pain-bludgeoned evenings, I opened the RENT ARREARS emails because I knew they couldn’t hurt me. And though I couldn’t make out all the words, I made out enough—bring the account up to date, take action, vacate—and I enjoyed the impenetrable force field of humming pain and delirium that meant I wasn’t having a heart attack or crying from shame or even experiencing a small amount of fear. I was just reading, and knowing that things were quite bad, and that I would need to do something about it, even though I was certain that nothing mattered and, no matter what I did, none of it meant anything. I had promised myself that I wouldn’t spend your superannuation on my utilities or rent. I’d spent it on dental surgery and flights to Europe, which I’d reasoned away as purchases you’d approve of; one for my health and one for my survival. But rent? How intolerably bleak.

Fortuitously, I’d left my job at the technical college just one fortnight before you died. Which could have been cosmic inter­vention or intuition, or, possibly, the head of the department’s insistence that ‘things’ ‘seriously’ needed to ‘improve’, and my inability to care about that feedback. The truth is that I’d started giving up before you died. Feeling tired, helpless. Maybe it was the state of the world, or just whatever had been wrong with my brain since forever. Or maybe it was neither of those things, but the exhausting knowledge that my family unit was falling apart again, and there was nothing I could do to cushion the blows. Whatever the reason, it had turned out quite well, because after the police had phoned, I didn’t have to call my boss and quit.

I spent my final pay cheque very carefully in the month after leaving work, paying the bills that meant I could have hot showers, charge my phone and watch the internet, but refusing to pay for my health insurance, because who cared?

I did cry a little bit that night in my bedroom as I trans­ferred the large sum of very overdue rent. And I said to no one in particular, out loud, ‘Fucking fuck this.’


The next day I decided that something was actually wrong; I wasn’t just imagining it. The painkillers Dr Mona had prescribed weren’t helping. I took the pills just as the nurse at the recovery ward had explained: two at a time, three times a day or as the pain came. But they did nothing. I took baths, showers, held a cold compress to my head, a heat pack. I lay facedown on the bed, groaning, weeping, kicking my feet to distract myself. I lay on the floor, curled up in a ball. I googled wisdom teeth out now head feels like it’s exploding, wisdom tooth extraction head pain dying and over the counter painkillers strongest on earth? But everyone said different things, and no matter what I found it felt out of reach anyway, because I couldn’t stand up, or keep my eyes open, or speak, or get to a pharmacist.

I called a free medical helpline and listed my symptoms in the dark of my room, as if I were praying. ‘Please call your surgeon,’ the nurse urged. ‘Call them right after you’ve hung up.’ I tried calling Dr Mona but the line was always busy.

That same afternoon I awoke from a daydream in which I was lying on a gurney like in a movie, drifting off towards a light. The pain was easing. Standing over me, someone—not my mother, but someone like that—was saying, ‘Rest easy, now. Rest easy.’

When I came to, I realised I’d been staring at the wall and fantasising about death. I tried Dr Mona’s office one more time. This time I got through.

‘It’s normal to feel pain after surgery,’ said the receptionist between snaps of her chewing gum. (‘Dr Mona is not available for calls.’) ‘Are the headaches dull or sharp?’

‘Both,’ I said, crushing my eyelids shut.

‘Okay . . . So it is normal to feel pain after surgery,’ she repeated.

I said nothing, because I’d heard her the first time, and because it hurt to speak. I wondered if maybe I was one of those people who couldn’t handle pain, the type who’d be sent spiralling into madness by an everyday headache, and the thought annoyed me. I wanted to be one of the stoic ones.

Maybe I was one of those people who couldn’t handle pain, the type who’d be sent spiralling into madness by an everyday headache.

‘You can always book an appointment with your GP if you’re concerned,’ she said, after we’d both been silent for a while. ‘They can advise you on alternative pain medication, and if they feel you should see your surgeon, they’ll make the appointment for you.’

‘Okay,’ I said before hanging up and breaking into a kind of whiny sob.


The next day, as it rained sideways at her window, the doctor at the clinic near my building told me, ‘These are not painkillers.’

‘What?’ I asked, half-listening and half-looking at my Uber receipt.

‘They’re anti-inflammatories,’ she said.

I just looked at her. It felt like I was very minutely shivering.

‘That would explain the pain you’ve been experiencing.’

‘I don’t understand,’ I told her.

She didn’t either, she said, but she guessed there had been a mix-up at the hospital. I’d never been given painkillers, none except for the anaesthetic. The two boxes of pills I’d left with had both, somehow, been anti-inflammatories.

‘You’ve only been treating the swelling,’ she said, cringing.

I cried some more in her office before leaving, this time with a script for new painkillers. Good ones. ‘You’ll sleep with these,’ she promised.

And I did. I slept so hard I felt sick afterwards.

By the time I was watching Mum’s Subaru pull away from the kerb outside the airport, I felt almost normal. Or my body did. I wasn’t sure what I’d packed or if I was ready ready, but it was happening either way.

In the cabin with the lights turned down to signal Evening Time, I cried. First to music, then to a movie, then just out at the sea and sky quietly. For some reason it felt like I was connected to you up there.

At one point we were flying over ocean, blackish under the dark purple sky, faintly lit by this one thin slice of daylight on the furthest edge of the globe. And down below the passing cloud, in the middle of all that water, I saw something. An island. The most beautiful little island. Mountainous and dark and covered in tiny sparkling lights. Homes and streets probably. Like something from a dream. I opened the flight map on my screen and looked for it, but it wasn’t there. Too small, probably. But it did something to me. It stopped me crying, for one thing. And it made me feel something good, too. Something really good. Like, if life were this magical, maybe everything was all right.

The way I felt then, on the plane, in my seat, sitting next to nobody, was a way I’d never felt before.


The way I felt then, on the plane, in my seat, sitting next to nobody, was a way I’d never felt before. Or maybe I had and I just couldn’t remember. But I doubt it. Each feeling was new, wasn’t it? Each everything was new? Happiness was never just happiness, because each time the sky was a different blue or the air was a different kind of warm or maybe things smelled different or what I was wearing would have me feeling different (oversized button-up shirt meant casual, confident; denim skirt meant sexy). Each feeling would be new because I might be with someone, or multiple someones. I might be in love, or heartbroken, or obsessed with someone, or lonely, or what­ever. Each feeling had a new kink in it; an evening kink, an autumn kink; a Monday kink. That night (Saturday, summer, I think, depending on which hemisphere we were flying over) I felt free. Not free like on my last day of school (free from pretending, free from 7 am alarms, free from being measured, young and free), or free like when I first fell in love (free to stare at flowers, free to be naked, free and completely stupefied), but a new kind of free: free into sadness and aloneness and not giving a fuck. I was free because I had nothing to lose, everything was in pieces, I had only my body and my bag of stuff and my recklessness. It was not unlike being that perfect level of opiated; blunted enough that everything and anything works and will do, and so there is no more fear.

I was hurtling into the movie version of my grief, into the Italian countryside with its poppies and lilac hills and dusty sky. Into warm weather and slow days and chiming church bells. Into nobody knowing me or caring to know me. Into an iron-framed bed where I would wallow if I needed to, and then say it was a migraine.

There would be no admin. No Department of Human Services, no real estate agents, no packing up of things. No storage-facility hold music. No bedsores (maybe?). This was the kind of freedom people dreamed about: big, sad, single, lost freedom. Running into something, not knowing or caring what happened next.

And it felt good. Or what I felt of it felt good.

This is an edited extract from Sunbathing by Isobel Beech, (Allen and Unwin),  available now at your local independent bookseller.