The Death of Toof #2
I have a recessed tooth in my mouth, my upper left lateral which is the first tooth to the left of my two central teeth. When I was in 8th grade my friend Clint called a similar tooth in his own mouth “toof”, a purposeful mispronunciation to signify that the tooth in question was a bastardization of a healthy or well-placed tooth. I’ve always known why I never got the tooth fixed but my junior college strength and conditioning coach summed it up best. He told us that his daughters were lucky that he had money when they were growing up. He said that it’s hard to be good looking when you’re poor. Poor kids don’t have braces, they have toof.
I was poor when I went to the dentist for the first time. It was my first trip to the dentist because it was the first time we had money for my brother and me to go to the dentist. I was probably somewhere between 8 and 11 years old. The dentist looked at my crooked teeth and declared I needed braces. We couldn’t afford them. He probably knew that we couldn’t afford them, but he told us that I needed them anyway. Maybe it was malevolence or maybe he was being considerate; he could have thought that it was important not to assume that we were poor or he could have been taunting us for wasting his time with our Medicaid and thrift store clothes.
My mother told the dentist that we couldn’t afford braces and asked about alternatives. He suggested that I take a Popsicle stick and push it against the back of my tooth whenever I had free time. When watching TV or reading or doing homework I could also be straightening my teeth.
I never used a Popsicle stick on my toof. Instead I would push my tongue against it during classes or while playing basketball. I still do it now when I think about my stupid, crooked smile that makes me look like a deranged, big-headed game show host. The tongue pushing hasn’t helped anything but I’m sure the dentist got a good laugh out of it.
* * *
I was jealous of kids with braces when I was in middle school. There was a boy named Patrick who lived up in the hills (the rich hills, not the hillbilly hills) and he had braces. Girls liked him because he didn’t care about stuff. That was cool. One time in class he was messing with his braces for like twenty minutes until he finally tore off a single bracket. He did it to get sent to the school nurse and miss class. It was very punk rock. He was back the next day with a new pair of braces, not paying attention in class while effortlessly winning girl’s hearts.
So what if the Patricks of the world could get new sets of braces on demand? I got ten fillings in one sitting.
I don’t know where we got the money for that dentist visit. It was years in between the first visit and the second. In that time I had managed to get ten tiny holes in my teeth. The dentist pumped me full of nitrous oxide. After the procedure I stood up from the chair and stumbled out to the waiting room like a zombie after human flesh. I was blissful in my medicated state. I could care less about Patrick’s new neon green braces or my toof or my cheap clothes from the JCPenney’s catalog.
* * *
The next time I went to the dentist I was in college. My girlfriend thought it was a good idea. She had perfect teeth. I didn’t. It wasn’t that she didn’t like my smile. It was that she didn’t understand why I didn’t take care of my teeth. I only brushed once a day and I didn’t go for checkups; what was wrong with me?
I was poor. I didn’t have money or insurance. I was also stupid. I didn’t know how to start healthy habits. My parents had instructed me to brush my teeth, but they weren’t adamant about how many times. My girlfriend wanted to help me. Curious about how bad my teeth were she gave me one of those tablets that expose the plaque in your mouth. You chew it and it turns the plaque pink or red depending on the level of filth your mouth is harboring. My mouth looked like I ate a tube of lipstick.
I might have lost all my teeth if my parents hadn’t caught a lucky, unforeseeable break: their children got older. With all four kids hovering around adult age my parents started to do better financially. They were able to afford insurance which meant that I could be under their insurance plan until the age of 25 so long as I was in school. So my girlfriend took me to the dentist. I got x-rays and a cleaning and all kinds of stuff done. The official report was that my mouth was a barren wasteland unfit for settlement.
My mouth, my giant stupid mouth, was somehow too small. There is no God, I declared. What “God” could be this bad at design? What “God” would make a head with a hat size of 7 5/8 and not design a mouth with a sufficiently sized jaw? The dentist said that my wisdom teeth would have to be removed or they would make my crooked, ugly teeth more crooked and ugly (my words not his).
The good dentist wasn’t finished. Apparently my mouth had attachment issues. It had never given up on my baby canine teeth. X-rays revealed my adult canines were lodged in my gums. My mouth was literally in a state of arrested development. No wonder I didn’t know how to take care of myself like an adult.
The dentist told me not to worry. He had a battle plan. First he would remove the wisdom teeth. Then he would pull the baby canines.
-But doctor, I said, I’ll have two gaping holes on either side of my mouth.
-Not to worry my boy, he repeated, we’ll slice into your unrelenting gums and attach chains to the adult teeth lodged inside and force your mouth to grow up.
-How will that look doc? I inquired.
-Not so bad, he assuaged, it will pair well with the braces you need to straighten out your toof (my word, not his) and the bottom row of junk on your lower jaw.
The upside was that it would probably only take 3 years, also known as the rest of college, to fix my smile. Yay!
You may call it vanity, but I didn’t want my mouth to look like Hannibal Lecter’s mask for the rest of college. I was pretty sure I was going to be getting a lot of “ass” in college and I didn’t think having chains and brackets and rubber bands in my grill was going to help. In hindsight it was a poor decision. Not because I hate my smile; I do hate my smile and my teeth, but that’s not the reason. The reason is that after I broke up with my girlfriend, I immediately became depressed, gained eighty pounds and didn’t have sex for the rest of my college existence. I finished college without obtaining a single solitary unit of “ass” and my smile was still crooked.
So vanity plus the fact that braces and chains and whatnot would have cost 10 billion dollars forced my hand. I opted for wisdom teeth removal only.
My girlfriend drove me to the dentist because the removal of wisdom teeth is an actual operation. They put an IV in my arm and the nurse laughed at me when I flinched. Nurses always think it’s funny that I flinch because I’m a big guy. Big guy is scared of needles, they like to taunt, as they jab a sharp piece of metal into my body.
My girlfriend told me that I came out of the operation giddy. Apparently I hit on the nurses and started dancing. It wasn’t laughing gas this time, but general anesthesia was also a good high. I like any chemical that will slow my thoughts down and allow me to ignore my own negativity.
* * *
One day, not long after I got my wisdom teeth taken out, I bit into a granola bar and cracked the last molar on the left side of my mouth. Toof #2. For the next ten years I walked around with half a tooth in the back of my mouth.
Being the over-achiever that I am, I made sure while having a broken tooth (and being fat and depressed) during University to also keep up a regimen of drinking, smoking and drug experimentation. Smoking did the most damage to my teeth. I didn’t take up smoking to stain my teeth and add layers of grime onto them, but I’m sure the self-sabotaging thought was in my subconscious.
The other benefit of smoking was the unnecessary stress it caused and then alleviated and then caused and then alleviated. Basically I would smoke and then stress about how the smoke was affecting my toof and then I would smoke again to get rid of the stress, quite the feedback loop.
In the morning I would brush my teeth and pull back my left cheek with my index finger and angle my head in the spittle-spotted mirror so that I could see my eroding toof. It was turning weird colors, but it didn’t smell so I figured it wasn’t rotten, just broken.
I had some experience with rotting teeth. When I was in high school a friend of mine had a rotten tooth that his parents couldn’t afford to get fixed. He used to jab his finger into his tooth in the back of his mouth. Then he would smell it. Based off of the odor he would eat 10-15 mints in one go in order to mask the smell. My tooth didn’t smell, but just to be safe I stocked up on mints and gum.
My first girlfriend’s uncle had a rotten tooth that was infected and the infection leaked into his brain or throat or something and he went kind of crazy. I didn’t think that was happening to me, but I made sure to check myself regularly for bouts of insanity.
My new toof caused me more anxiety than the other misplaced toof. Whenever I drank and smoke I could feel the toof absorbing the toxins. I imagined that the exposed area was becoming cancerous, hence the color change, but mostly it didn’t hurt so I assumed it was fine. I felt a little like Jaret Leto’s character in Requiem for a Dream who keeps shooting up into the same hole. Of course I recognized that my life wasn’t as “hardcore” as the character’s in the movie. I know that’s lame, but I was in film school and I thought pushing limits mattered for making art. Not being “hardcore” depressed me and made me want to smoke and drink some more, quite the feedback loop.
The final wheel fell off the bus after college. I stopped brushing my teeth. I did not revert back to brushing once a day, I stopped altogether. No money, no job, no girls, what the hell was I brushing my teeth for? In Slaughterhouse 5 the British soldiers comment on how the American POWs fell apart in the prison camp and failed to perform the basic tasks of grooming. The Brits conducted a daily toilet despite being in confinement. Well I was an American through and through; my mental prison had a hold of me and I had given up on maintenance of any sort.
My sister tried to intervene, but I didn’t listen to her. She had some teeth troubles of her own. As did our father; he had dentures which he got from removing bottle caps with his teeth. It was a family thing. I was going to have bad teeth if I didn’t watch out. I retorted that I already had bad teeth. Her larger point though was that I had to have some personal pride. I couldn’t argue there because I certainly didn’t have any of that.
* * *
I woke up one day a couple years ago and my teeth were perfect. Haha! Just kidding. This isn’t speculative fiction or some fairy tale in which I suddenly accept having jagged rows of filth in my mouth. What happened was I woke up after going out the night previous and toof #2 was straight up killing me. Worst pain I had ever felt, I think. Worse than my broken ankle or the torn ligament in my foot because it wasn’t immediate, it was gradual and kept coming in waves. I went to the dentist as soon as possible. I called my British friend and asked him which dentist he went to (please fill in the blank with your own joke about British teeth) and took the subway four stops to the GuLou district.
Historically a lot of Black people and a lot of poor people don’t like hospitals. Chalk it up to mistrust based on a history of being neglected and/or screwed by people who “know better.” Well I’ve been half Black (home-remedies-passed-down-from-my-Louisiana-father half Black) my whole life and poor (homemade-clothes-made-by-my-mother-until-the-fourth-grade poor) for most of my life, so I have the pedigree of a person that doesn’t like hospitals. Contributing to my preexisting anxiety was the fact that I hadn’t been to the dentist since my wisdom teeth were taken out and that my British friend told me that to remove a tooth in China they use a mallet to dislodge it while you hold your jaw steady so that it won’t dislocate. So understand that pain, real searing pain, could be the only force that would drive me to voluntarily go to the dentist.
As soon as I got to the Nanjing Oral Hospital I experienced what I already suspected: hospitals aren’t as stressful when you have money and insurance. It also helps that China has socialized, affordable healthcare but that’s another topic.
I paid the consultation fee and was given a number. After a short wait I went to see the dentist.
-Pull my tooth, I said, in Chinese and she refused.
-I hate you and wish you weren’t born, I said, in English.
Then she explained to me that if she pulled my second lower molar my whole mouth would shift and my teeth would be even more crooked and ugly. She might have actually said the words crooked and ugly; Chinese people are very blunt.
So she refused and I sighed loudly a few times and cursed in a few languages and then I acquiesced to her prescription because she “knew better.” I was going to have a root canal.
Root canals suck. Ask anyone. It’s a consensus. My mother had one and I remember how much she complained about the pain. This is a woman who is less than five feet tall, grew up on a farm, and gave birth to twins and two boys who grew to the size of linebackers. She thinks root canals are painful, so she’s right and you are wrong.
And it was painful. Anesthesia in China is weak. In America they load you up with Uncle Sam’s finest knock out fun time medicine, but here they give you a shot in the gums. Boring. When I go to the dentist I’m trying to get a free fix either during the procedure or after. After my wisdom teeth got taken out I saved my vicodin for after the recovery and then I took them recreationally. I mean, wouldn’t you?
So I was disappointed the first two times I went in to have root therapy done to my lower second molar. All I got was a numb mouth, a healthier root and a bunch of drool on my shirt as I rode home on the line 1 subway. All of that would have been preferable to what happened on my third trip.
On the third trip they had to go in and shove tools into the hole in my mouth and extract stuff or fill stuff in; my mastery of technical dentistry terms in Chinese was lacking. You know what else was lacking? Anesthesia. For some reason they just decided not to give me any. They started in on the tooth without even mentioning the Big A.
-Where’s my shot of the good stuff lady, I asked.
-You don’t need it, she said politely.
Don’t I? I wondered.
I did. But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want her to think I was a weak American bourgeois. I gritted my teeth (no I didn’t, I couldn’t, I had to keep my mouth open) and took the treatment. She also capped my tooth that day with an inexpensive covering that I chose over the more expensive options. The whole treatment, four visits in total, cost $150 U.S. Again, a different conversation, but are we sure we don’t want to have socialized medicine in America?
I left the dentist and walked to the subway station without a numb mouth or drool on my shirt. I wasn’t dancing or walking like a zombie as I hadn’t been given any substance to shut my brain down. I was fully awake with a slightly sore jaw and a newly repaired tooth. I don’t know if what I felt was pride, but I do know that I felt better. Toof #2 was dead and my mouth was an adult.
I still hate my stupid, crooked smile though.
Bobby Wilson lives in China where he teaches English and writes. His creative non-fiction has appeared in the Longridge Review, Feminine Collective, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and Unlikely Stories. He spends most of his time reading, writing, studying languages and cooking. Wilson is married and owns a cat.