Everybody has a tooth story. It was only when I had a tooth story of my own did I realize this. Like how when you’re pregnant, you start noticing baby bumps everywhere.
Dr. Jeffrey asked me if I wanted to see my tooth. I shook my head. Or tried to, at least. My mouth was numb and full of gauze. My neck stiff from staring up at the fluorescent lighting for an hour while the sound of metal scraping against enamel buzzed in my ears.
I was held hostage to my lack of self-care and flawed genetics.
“See this?” he said, pointing to my canine tooth in his hand. It was bloody and much bigger than I expected, an intertwined mess of dangling threads that culminated in a ball of pus. “You’ve got three roots. That’s so cool.”
Not cool. My dentist was nerding out, and all I wanted to do was cry. This was the second tooth I had pulled. An unexpected infection that began with a fancy X-ray, a doctor who tried to be sincere when he told me he was sorry about my bone loss, and a costly extraction. Below it, a space where my cuspid tooth once lived. A missing space valued at nearly $3,000 when all was said and done. In addition to the other space that had already cost $3,000. With insurance.
I blamed exhaustion. I blamed sugar. I blamed Dad.
Dad slathered the thick white paste onto his toothbrush. The baking soda mixed with water was supposed to make his teeth whiter and cleaner, but it didn’t seem to be working. His teeth were still the color of a butterscotch wrapper, stained from years of smoking in his youth before his mother died from lung cancer and he vowed to quit.
“You should try it, Celeste. You never know,” he told me. He spit into the bathroom sink. He was still foaming at the mouth. Literally.
“Gross,” I said. I rolled my eyes. I was 12-years-old and everything out of his mouth sounded dumb. He burned pancakes. Wore a dorky bike helmet. Withheld Mom’s child support check some weeks just for the hell of it while she waitressed nights at the bowling alley so I could have school supplies. No way was I going to take his dental advice.
I was surprised he even listened to the dentist. His track record with medical professionals was questionable. He’d met our family dentist, the first Jeffrey, while installing AT&T phone lines at their office. When it came time for me to get braces, Dad thought Jeffrey should give us a discount because of the good work he’d done. He didn’t. Dad yelled. The only reason Jeffrey continued to be our dentist was because he knew me and my sister couldn’t be blamed for Dad’s temper. I didn’t even know who Dad’s new baking soda dentist was.
After he brushed his teeth, he dropped his bridge, a metal contraption with a nub of a tooth, into a glass of fizzing water on a desk in the bedroom where we slept every Friday night. Smiled at me and went to bed, as if a piece of him weren’t missing.
Me, I had a TGIF television lineup to watch. Before geeking out on Urkel, I went back into the bathroom. Made a baking soda paste of my own and slathered it all over my mouth. It tickled my teeth. The freckle-faced girl staring at me in the mirror, the one who was never going to end up like her freckle-faced Dad, laughed.
Belgian chocolate. Alphonso Mango. Sicilian Pistachio. The amount of gelato choices in the case at Whole Foods was overwhelming. My right jaw was puffy because of the implant, and I was sick of eating mashed potatoes. I’d been scanning the pints now for about ten minutes. Dad would think I’m ridiculous right now spending so much time, and money, on ice cream for Pete’s sake. And, there wouldn’t be a question of which one he’d choose: pistachio. He ate the same thing every Friday night when we went to Friendly’s. Me, I loved chocolate. I chose pistachio.
In America, a tooth infection can kill you if you’re poor. Or too exhausted to keep going to appointments, to keep paying co-pays, to keep missing work so you won’t be poor. An estimated 100 million Americans don’t go to the dentist because we can’t afford it. Only when we get our tax refunds do we suck it up and go.
I pedaled as fast as I could. My phone was gone. It had tumbled out of the back of the bike trailer I schlepped my two daughters around in, and the phone tracking device told me it was on a street nearby. I’d never had a panic attack before but I was on the verge, tearful and talking fast. To myself.
I needed this phone. Only a month before I’d stupidly not locked my bike in front of the preschool and gotten my bike and phone stolen. Fifteen hundred dollars lost. An entire month’s worth of freelance work if I was lucky and if the check got mailed. The tracking that time led to a homeless encampment on the side of the highway, all bent shopping carts, and soiled tents. The police wouldn’t go in.
This time the street was like any in Portland: homes bursting with color and earnest lawn signs touting justice and equality. My husband Craig was with me. We narrowed it down to two houses: the blue one with the Subaru or the yellow one with the Subaru. Before I could knock, Craig’s phone rang. It was Kathy from Grove Dental. Like I needed our dentist right now.
“Hi, I can’t talk right now. I think I’m all paid up – “ I said.
“Oh, I’m not calling about that, honey,” she said. “Someone named Jane just called us.”
Who the fuck was Jane?
“She has your phone,” she continued. “Here’s her address.”
Jane had gotten Grove Dental’s number from my appointment reminder cards. I’d shoved a stack of those cards in the slit of my wallet phone case and kept adding to the pile because I was too lazy to toss them. Or maybe I didn’t want to toss them. They were a record of my pain, of my persistence.
Smart Jane. She called Jeffrey. I had never loved him more.
Pro tip: If your tooth gets knocked out, place it in a glass of milk to prevent it from dying. Mom’s new boyfriend never got the memo. Too many bar fights at Fire & Ice, too little self-love to care.
My pills are blue. Little blue orbs that I need to pop in my mouth every day. Dad took pills, too. We both have hearts that can’t withstand our rage.
A few months before he died of a stroke he decided not to take those pills. He was 55. His girlfriend said he didn’t need to. They had God, and God didn’t like medicine. God also didn’t like The Sopranos or my sister and me. So Dad stopped watching TV, stopped taking his blood pressure medicine, stopped talking to us. We made him too upset, my sister who had piercings all over her face and a boyfriend who raced beat-up cars around a dirt track, and me defending my sister with the piercings. The last time we’d spoken over the phone after months of misunderstandings and meddling, I’d said to him with gritted teeth, “Fuck you. I don’t ever want to talk to you again.” I didn’t really mean it.
Dad died in January. He’d sent my husband an AOL message in November: “Tell Celeste I love her.”
I’ve got one gold crown. When it’s sunny outside my girls like to stick their popsicle stained hands in my mouth and pull back my gums so they can see it glisten. “Mommy!” they’ll say. “It’s so pretty!” For once, I’m the queen.
Dad’s sister-in-law Franny was missing her two front teeth for years. She had ten kids and spelled pizza with one “z” and lived in North Carolina in a house full of dog hair. She smiled close-mouthed in photos, even when she was holding her grandbabies. She got her teeth finally replaced when she was 72. She was the only one who knew that my grandmother Eileen, who died before I was born, drank beer out of the same chipped mug every day. If I wasn’t so afraid to look at her mouth, I could’ve asked her more questions years ago. But I was too childish to understand that missing teeth does not mean something else was missing. Sorry, Franny. I was a jerk.
Dad kept a newspaper clipping of his father’s obituary on his desk next to the glass holding the metal contraption with a nub of a tooth. His name was Thomas. Dad’s name was Thomas. My youngest daughter’s middle name is Thomas and Mom’s never said it to my face but I know she hates it. Original Thomas drove New York City buses. He gave me my first bracelet, a slab of silver with a heart cutout. He hit my grandmother and Dad hit him. Then Dad hit Mom.
She always said, “Your father’s a whackjob. He’s bipolar.” I didn’t believe her. Years later, a DNA test told me I was wrong, that I had the gene in my blood, and I still didn’t believe it.
I called up Dad’s sister and asked.
“Oh honey,” she said. “Don’t you know we’ve all got a touch of it?”
George H. W. Bush’s grin was all over the news when he died. Giant photos of his bloated face and strained smile, his teeth crooked like his policies. I obsessed over those photos. Studied those worn-down nubs and nodded in commiseration with their cellophane yellow coloring. His net worth was $25 million. I wondered if he ever thought about whitening or straightening, but I preferred instead to believe that his teeth were a giant middle finger to the dental industrial complex.
Sometimes, at midnight, I’ll reach into the cupboard and shove handfuls of Swedish Fish and jelly beans and gummy bears into my mouth. Candy the girls won at the arcade, that I promised to keep safe.
I walked into my high school reunion with a gaping hole in my mouth where my canine tooth had once been. Me, class of ‘98 Valedictorian. They’d yanked the tooth a few days before I hopped on a plane.
JP was the first person I saw sitting on the barstool. In fifth grade, he had punk hair and wore Guns n’ Roses t-shirts, and I loved him. Once, to let him know how cool I thought he was, I did the very uncool thing of calling him up and putting my phone receiver to my cassette player blaring New Kids On The Block’s “Hangin’ Tough.”
“Celeste!” he said. He looked almost exactly the same. “I should’ve played NKOTB for you as you walked in!”
He remembered. I laughed. Then closed my mouth. I’d spent hours smiling in the mirror and taking selfies to lead up to this moment, the moment when my former high school peers would see me for the first time in 20 years and pass their spoken and unspoken judgments.
I’d gained weight (expected). My nose had gotten longer (unexpected). Neither I cared about. With each birthday I’ve gotten closer and closer to having zero fucks to give. The one fuck I held onto was my teeth. Successful people have all of their teeth. Even though I knew better, that voice was still there in the key of Connor Murphy, who once told me he was shocked I went into nonprofits. He always thought someone as smart as me would be a lawyer or something.
JP and I hugged. He took a sip of beer and his attention shifted to his former crush who walked through the door. “Jessica,” he said. “Come over here. You’re gorgeous, but you’d look even better by my side.” He was still charming in that doofy, fifth grade kind of way. I laughed again. I laughed all night—at stories of people’s children, at the dumb things my friends and I did back in high school, at how only 22 out of 250 of us showed up at the Italian strip mall restaurant to drink and reminisce.
Nobody seemed to notice the hole in my mouth. If they did, they didn’t care. And so I didn’t, either.
That time Dad visited an art gallery I wrote an article about because he was missing me, 2,646 miles away. The other time he played Fievel’s song “Somewhere Out There,” straight-faced, on the guitar for Craig and me. That laugh. That big, throw-back-your-head laugh, fillings on display for all the world to see.
Mindy got the teeth magnets. Big plastic molars without the roots. Six white, one gold. She squealed in delight. The rules of the holiday party White Elephant dictated they were still up for grabs. Ben stole them from Mindy. I stole them from Ben. Three times a charm.
“I’ll trade you notebooks for teeth,” Ben said to me later. He offered me flimsy dollar store paper.
“Katherine really wants them,” he said.
She told me her story: she had two of her own teeth in jars at home. When she needed braces in her 30’s, her teeth were too squished and needed space. They pulled her back molars out, and she ran a marathon the next day. She was also a new mom of twins. The teeth were her trophies.
At home, I arranged the teeth on the freezer door in a perfect smile in between a Planned Parenthood sticker and a postcard my cousin sent me from Barcelona. I removed two and moved them down at the bottom of the fridge for the girls to play with. Only when I got my own teeth back would I allow them to be part of the tribe again.
I wanted to feel bad about not giving Katherine the magnets. I didn’t, not even a little. Before leaving the party the host whispered to me, “I saw those teeth and bought them for you.”