The Big Idea: Cassandra Khaw
Nothing But Blackened Teeth is about zombie relationships. The shambling half-things we all find ourselves stitched to by circumstance, its body rotting, oozing infection into the places where they’re bound to our own flesh. We’re brow-beaten by Hollywood into thinking that relationships all have a singular outcome: either they endure, or they shatter because of death and nothing else. There are no other options, no palatable alternatives. Anything else is just repellent.
So, we stay.
We stay because those relationships are familiar. We stay because of sunk costs. We stay because we have good memories of the person and because we’re tied to them, because our identity includes the phrase ‘we’re also friends with X’, we make excuses for their new belligerence, their recent obsession with conspiracy theories, their nascent politics, their nastiness. We stay, we try so hard to stay.
Except sometimes, that’s the worst thing we can do for ourselves.
As I get older, I’ve come to value the time investment of relationships more. I’m pushing forty, and with that number, I see where the horizon ends, where it empties into a perfect black stillness. It’s nowhere near an immediate concern as of yet. My family is excruciatingly long-lived and to date, exactly one female relative has died and she keeled over at the grand age of one hundred and two. I have time, but I am increasingly aware of how limited that time is. And with that awareness, I’m realizing how ferociously I want to guard what I might have.
We don’t get back any of the hours. None of them. Every moment we’re allocated, every second, every minute, all of them are finite resources. Once spent, they’re gone forever. And more importantly, the same is true for everyone else. What’s worse, we have no idea as to how much time any of us have. For all that we might live to be a hundred, there is no guarantee the same will be true for our friends and our loved ones. We all adhere to the idea that the general life expectancy these days is about seventy-something or so, and go about our lives safe in the knowledge we should be able to, statistically speaking, expect those calculations to be true.
But outliers are surprisingly common.
Shit happens. Disease happens. Cancer, heart attacks, aneurysms. Hell, COVID, for fuck’s sake. There are a million ways to die and there is no guarantee that Death will wait until we’re seventy-something to inflict such things on us. Given all that, it feels almost blasphemous to me to think about wasting that time on people I don’t care for and people who don’t care for me. Especially if the reason behind such expenditure is, ‘we’ve known each other for a long while.’
Life is short. It is always getting shorter.
Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a little bit of me grappling with that understanding of the world, and it is also me looking at relationships that have necrotized, and the ways we try to accommodate that rot, how we pave over things, how we smile over each other, how we apply blush and powder to the moldering skin, and try to frame everything in the best light.
There are relationships worth saving, relationships that improve because people talk and people go to therapy and people listen when they are told, “This isn’t how it should be.” Those exist and god help me, they’re some of the best relationships you can have, romantic or otherwise. Then there are the ones in this book, where the friendships have dimmed into ghosts, and well, we all know what happens when we fuck around with the dead.