Toothpaste Time

Hopping the Pond

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On Thursday night I went to my bathroom to brush my teeth. Yes, I know, surprising behavior from a Brit.

I only encountered the American myth that “Brits have bad teeth” upon arriving here; however, I must confess that my mother exists to contradict this. I will explain why. 

It was August. I was preparing to head to London Heathrow; my flight to California was to depart in a few hours. Whilst I was busy filling my water bottle at the sink, my mother, in one last onslaught of overbearing — and endearing — maternal care unzipped my carefully sealed bag and thrust an excessive amount of toothpaste into it. The socks and chargers I’d packed spilled out of the gash she created, making room for enough Colgate boxes to cure the world of gingivitis. 

“They have toothpaste in America, mum.”

“Yes, but I’ve got this for you so you won’t have to spend money yourself on any toothpaste there. This should last you until June.” 

I wondered if my mother knew that my exchange program ended in a June of this century.

Regardless, it was an adorable gesture. Excessive, but forgivable only in the way that an expression of a mother’s excess love can be.

Upon reaching my bathroom on Thursday, I realized that the first tube was now a wrinkled shell. The first toothpaste was finished.

Not only is this what an American would see as an immense achievement for a British person — to finish a tube of Colgate — but it was also a personal awakening. As I gazed down at a shriveled strip of plastic in my dimly lit bathroom, I almost burst into tears. I must have looked ridiculous.

Open the calendar on your laptop or phone. Two months doesn’t seem like a long time. When you zoom out or scroll through the course of a few years, these seventy-or-so days align themselves in a compact grid; a brief and manageable block of time. They come and go uniformly, quickly, quietly. It was only upon feeling my mother’s empty tube of toothpaste did I realize that, in fact, my life wasn’t passing so passively.

I thought back to my first squeeze of the tube in the restrooms of SFO airport after an 18-hour journey. Staring into the mirror, I saw an exhausted yet ecstatic Stanley. After months of lockdowns, I was now on the other side of the world, armed with more toothpaste than clothes. A whole year of unknown stretched like a long, faceless shadow before me.

By the tenth squeeze, I had done a grocery shop, gone out with housemates, learned that Californians drive as though they have a death wish. In the summer heat, I tried to behave as if this new room was my room, but no number of succulents or souvenirs could distract from the 5,500 miles to London that loomed beyond the window.

The thirtieth squeeze was around the evening of my first day of classes. The room was now my room. Maybe it was the new drapes or the frequent calls home, but the unfathomable distance no longer seemed to yawn beyond my windowsill. That being said, my UC Berkeley seminar rooms were still full of unfamiliar faces.

By the sixtieth squeeze, those unfamiliar faces were laughing on my terrace under a warm summer sun. The eightieth squeeze saw me planning trips to family homes with these faces. It was around the hundredth squeeze, as leaves began to fall from the trees, that a pearly white smile spread across my face upon being notified that I was to be a columnist for The Daily Californian. 

And if my tooth brushing consistency is as dependable as my mathematical skills (that is, ostensibly reliable), squeeze number one hundred and forty-eight saw me reaching for my mother’s second toothpaste tube. 

The Stanley of the first airport squeeze seemed so far away.

Our brains can measure time to the millisecond. This is how we hear in stereo; we are equipped with the precision tools to infer from what direction a sound comes based on the fractional differences between its arrival time at either of our ears.

It is a bizarre fact, therefore, that we are incapable of accurately measuring time in longer periods, as we realistically live it. We cannot internally measure minutes or months the way a clock or calendar does. When we talk about photos of the past, we don’t regurgitate the exact time and date they were taken. It is not in our nature to preserve such detail.

Instead, as humans, we gravitate toward our own subjective modes of timekeeping. We temporally locate these photos with personal experiences: “Look, that’s when you were grumpy about your grades,” “That’s before you two were married” or “That’s when California had that rainstorm.”

Don’t worry, you will not hear me referencing photos as “during my third tube of toothpaste.”

However, all I hope is that with every squeeze of Colgate, new places, new emotions and new Stanleys will continue to come. And thanks to my mother, I don’t think I will run out of squeezes any time soon.

Stanley Stott-Hall writes about finding his Berkeley bearings as a Brit. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.