December 10, 2009 by The Citron Review

by Carole Rosenthal


Somebody left a smile lying around on the street. Maybe a person lost it, it fell off someone’s face by accident. I tripped over it, startled, while rushing to the subway. A big smile, lots of teeth, quite cheerful initially, though the teeth felt more aggressive when they brushed against my ankle, snagging my stockings, and while trying to get away from it caused me to stumble into a building. I bashed my head. A knot raised. I could feel color pooling, beginning to throb. But the damned smile wouldn’t let go. If I hadn’t been wearing stiletto heels, I might have saved myself damage but in this cosmeticized era, judged always by stature and superficial appearances, I must look imposing, mustn’t I? Life is mostly packaging after all, skin over bone, a balance of love and fear, with competency.

Maybe the smile itself was packaged. Barely used, newly bought, it fell out of somebody’s bag. A man’s? No. . . . lipstick! L’Oreal Gritty Pink. In fact, lipstick smeared the incisors. I bent, detached my stocking from its left canine, pointy, felt soft, cushiony lips, and recoiled. Moist. Too vital. Respiring. I was passing a mesh garbage can near Bennett park and I tried to throw it away. But I couldn’t. The damned grin clung. Stuck on my hand now, lips opening, curling, insinuating, and though I swiped my hand down my hip, on my thighs, I couldn’t get rid of the thing, it was attached.

The power of a smile! More than a cliché. I shoved my hand in my pocket. The smile writhed. My palm quivered, then quickened. What to do now? How to force the lips to stop beckoning, a mockery, its slight hint of saliva tickling my fingers. I imagined a light salt taste of blood replicating in my own mouth, an intimation of throat. Oh, god, how scary. In this crowded, anonymous city anything can happen to you. I raised my hand to my face, pressed the mouth against my own. The lips clung fully to mine, its kiss masterful, a possessive attachment of ownership. But when I pulled back, my palm felt vivified, rosy and clean. No hint of bite, no snail-slick of tongue. My own mouth felt puffy though, loosely distended, and I realized that for awhile at least, until I got to work, to a bathroom, I’d have to assume this smile as my own.

On its own, it greeted people. I had no control over it and I felt embarrassed. A strange overly responsive opening in my visage. An entrance to me, though showing teeth too, allowing a glint of disciplined powers.

People smiled back! A Chinese restaurant guy riding in the wrong direction almost clipped me with his bike. Did I want to befriend him? Or make pleasantries to office-mates whom I have long ignored? I’m told that a smile uses only ten or twelve muscles, a frown so many, many more. Then, in our exercise-mad times, why isn’t frowning a better exercise for you?

Yet a smile relaxes one’s body.

Do I want to be relaxed? Perhaps I’d prefer vigilance.

Somebody else who preferred vigilance–my real soul-mate, best friend, unknown yet dear–probably threw this smile away.


Carole Rosenthal is the author of a short story collection, It Doesn’t Have To Be Me (Hamilton Stone), in which characters’ inner lives collide explosively with external reality. Her stories have been translated into eleven languages, and dramatized for radio and television, including Italy’s RAI and South Africa’s Springbok Broadcasting. Widely anthologized, her fiction appears in magazines such Cream City Review, The Minnesota Review, Mother Jones, and Other Voices. Her nonfiction, published in the most recent issue of ACM (Another Chicago Magazine) and forthcoming in The Bloomsbury Review, is online at Huffington Post, Persimmon Tree, Drunken Boat and elsewhere. She is a Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, where she teaches modern and contemporary ideas in literature and film.


6 thoughts on “Smile

  1. LongLive Carole Rosenthal. I”ve been a fan of her work for ages. It’s smart, funny, ironic, & sardonic. It gives and keeps on giving.

  2. Robert Roth says:

    As always a big smile comes whenever I read Carole’s work, even the most solemn and serious of her work. Their is such a magic presence there. The smile is never found just there emerging rom deep inside.

  3. Rosemary Grebin Palms says:

    Brava, Professor Rosenthal! “Smile” made me smile at the outrageousness — but also shiver as I caught a sinister whiff of Kafka.

  4. monique Kaim says:

    How contagious! I found a “Smile” on my screen and now I can’t get it off my face. Much like Carole’s other short stories, I love the smile and frisson her fiction leaves me with.

  5. Deborah Drew says:

    Carole—I LOVED the Smile. I read the commentary, but I didn’t think of Kafka, I thought of Borges. they way you explored the meaning of smile, the feeling both emotional and visceral of it and the philosophy of it and personal repulsion then acceptance is brilliant. Also, like when I read Borges, I picture and feel everything clearly and without effort. Thanks.

  6. Nina Koenigsberg says:

    What a lovely story. Like your other reviewers, Smile brought a smile to my face – ah, the power of words. Thanks for brightening my day.

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