19, 16, and 1
by Jaime Fountaine
A week after I finally paid down my credit card debt, two of my teeth broke. I had made a pact with my mouth when I got this job, my first with benefits, that if I could just pay off my student loan and the debt I amassed in the worst 13 months of my life first, I would go to the dentist for real this time. My life has been built on compromises like this one.
When we were kids, we used to play with this old horse on springs in my grandparents’ basement. It was twenty or thirty years old, and it showed in the cracks and holes that my grandfather mended with gray dental putty. You can fix anything with a little imagination, as long as you’re willing to keep filling in the cracks.
Seven years ago, when the coffee shop I worked at was closed for summer break, I woke up with a swollen face. Something in my mouth was infected. I found the cheapest, closest dentist, who gave me a prescription for an antibiotic and told me I’d need a root canal once the swelling went down. That $600 hurt a lot more than the drill.
I keep trying to write about this experience as though it has some greater meaning, or to give it one. To turn each subsequent trip to the dentist into a new revelation instead of another two hours away from my desk, chipping away at a decade’s worth of conscious neglect.
When I was five, I was the flower girl in my mom’s friend Nicole’s wedding. I remember three things about it: my dress, the fight I got into with the bride when she decided that I couldn’t have the pink stuffed animal she’d given me earlier in the day after all, and that I didn’t brush my teeth that night. I was so worried. I couldn’t sleep, thinking that all my teeth would all rot out overnight.
Like the rest of a body, the teeth rot slowly. A cavity dissolved a corner of Number 19 when I was 20. I was at work. I called my grandparents from behind the counter, embarrassed. It was not explicitly said when I was a child that a cavity resulted from some moral failing on my part, but I had internalized it. I must not have done enough.
My grandfather, before he was strongly suggested into retirement by an emergency heart surgery, was a periodontist. His six children had been born with straight, strong teeth, like an advertisement for a job he didn’t quite have.
I didn’t inherit much from my father. Hazel eyes and weak tooth enamel. I hope none of his debt when he dies.
My grandfather’s practice didn’t focus on general dentistry, but he dabbled. He filled cavities and pulled wisdom teeth. When I was in fifth grade, he tried for a while to close the gap between my front teeth. First, he cut the muscle. I think we got ice cream after. He was gentle, precise. I remember worrying the wound with my tongue, tasting blood. It healed too well and he had to do it again before he could glue the braces onto my two front teeth. For my patience, I got a Cranberries cassingle.
I did not fully appreciate until recently the amount of effort that my grandfather puts into his quiet displays of affection until he was told me about going to the bookstore to research Doctor Who so he’d have something to talk about with my second-youngest set of cousins. There is an amount of work that must be done for something to seem effortless.
None of my grandfather’s bootleg orthodontia worked in the end, but I didn’t mind. It’s hard to imagine my face without that space, the slight overlap of Numbers 7 and 8, the even smaller one between 9 and 10.
The filling on Number 19 cracked a couple years later at a vegan Chinese restaurant, the first time I met my then-boyfriend’s friends. I palmed a toothpick on the way out and never mentioned it to anyone. I didn’t want to make a poor impression.
When I was almost ready to break up with that boyfriend four years later, I broke tooth number 1 in Brooklyn. I was visiting my best friend from college to steel myself for a visit to my dad’s family. I’d spent the bus ride watching Party Down on my creaky old laptop and trying not to cry, wondering if it was worth being with someone that made me feel so alone.
Deb has always been a balm in miserable times. When I got off the subway, she hugged me and kissed my cheek and told me we were getting drinks at the place where they give you free cheetos. I bit down on one and a chunk of my molar went with it. I swallowed it. If you’re already feeling worthless, losing a tooth to a basket of cheetos seems about right.
I don’t remember what happened to Number 16. After a while, anything can seem normal.
It was Number 19 that needed the root canal. And a couple years after that, the filling just fell out. My brother was on his way to my apartment to visit home before he got sent to Afghanistan.
“Wanna see something gross?” I asked when he got there. “This fell out of my mouth.” I held out my hand; it looked like a pebble. I held my mouth open, so he could see the hole in my tooth.
When he left, I made him take the filling with him. “That way, I’ll be there if you die,” I said.
The last person I loved didn’t notice until right before he left. The light caught it when I laughed. “What is that? How long has it been there?” A shadow crossed his face; I’d given him the key to the map of all the unworthy parts of me.
Bic Crystal pens are cheap, write smoothly, and have a cap with a tapered clip that is the perfect instrument to remove things from a ruined molar. The clip is curved in such a way that it’s ideal for scooping. If anyone noticed in the seven years I did this, they were polite enough not to tell me. It’s disgusting. I’m sorry.
Number 16 broke again on a Tuesday, while I was eating a salad that didn’t have anything especially crunchy in it. It cracked into a single sharp point that cut my tongue. It was already useless, I thought, as I stuck the nail file into my mouth. This will barely make a difference.
Two days later, Number 19, that fucker, broke on a roasted chickpea. It happened right when I bit down, so I had to swallow everything in my mouth in a gulp of water, like a pill. The whole front of it was just gone. I knew this was untenable.
I looked up the dental practices that took the insurance I had contributed to, but not used for two and a half years and wrote:
“After over a decade of not having dental insurance, I finally have access to it. It’s also caught up with me. I have three broken teeth and probably several other issues (including wisdom teeth) that need to be addressed as soon as possible, but after a mildly traumatic incident with an emergency root canal, I’m terribly anxious about being judged for a situation that I didn’t have a lot of control over for several years. I was wondering how your practice addresses those sorts of things.”
It felt hostile, but I figured it was better to come in swinging than let myself get hurt.
One office called me the next day when I was buying subway fare on my way to work with a lot of questions about my insurance. I hung up on them. They wouldn’t see me for a week anyway.
The place I ended up going to emailed me back was kind in their response. They said I could talk about my anxiety at a consult on Monday.
It feels important to note that I grew up poor because my parents decided I would. They were raised on the comfortable end of the mythic middle class. Both still recline in their safety nets like vacation hammocks. There’s not a system in place keep people that look like me down. The world lays itself open for scrappy little hard workers like me.
My new dentist is part of an all-female practice, which means a few things: there is very nice soap in the bathroom, everyone calls me “sweetie,” and before each procedure, every single aspect is explained to me. “You might hear a crack, but don’t worry, that’s normal.”
This makes me think of the argument I got into with the Comcast installer when I moved into my apartment. When he told me he was going to have to drill, I asked him to explain the process first. “Women always do that,” he said. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask what’s about to happen to my wall,” was the nicest, calmest thing that I said to him.
Getting a tooth pulled costs about $15 out of pocket. Saving a tooth, with a root canal and a crown, costs almost $600. This seems like a metaphor.
In eight visits, I had three teeth pulled, a root canal, a number of cavities filled, and a crown put on. The pain was minimal. I watched Netflix the entire time. On each walk back to the office, I cut through the park, hoping no one could tell how vulnerable I felt just by looking at me.
I crashed my bike very badly once. I had to walk home in terrible pain, bleeding, dragging the totaled frame along with my good arm. Some guys saw me trying and failing to get my chain back on and asked if I needed help. “I’m fine,” I said. “Thanks anyway.”
I called my brother and tried to get him to stay on the phone with me, even though he was busy, so that no one else would speak to me. He was busy, because it was a Saturday night, but he started texting my friends to check up with me, because I was trying so hard not to cry in public that he thought I had a head injury.
When people can see that you’re hurt, they look at you differently. I woke up the next day with a black eye, a swollen face, and a shoulder it hurt to move. I didn’t have insurance then, so I sucked it up at work, manning the espresso machine left-handed and taking other people’s prescriptions.
“I fell off my bike. Nothing’s broken. It’s just a burst blood vessel. It doesn’t affect my vision. Yes, I should wear a helmet. No, I did not go to the hospital.”
Some people are very comfortable telling you about your body, and all the ways you’re living in it wrong. The dentist who did my first root canal asked, “how could you let this happen?” as if these bodies were not born to rot.
The infection that brought me to his office, the cheapest, closest one I could find, never cleared up. It just waited in my tooth where the nerve used to be.
When she was strategizing how to make the most of my $1500 deductible, my dentist told me I’d have to hold off on getting a cleaning until after she pulled it out. We didn’t want to aggravate it.
I’d already spent seven years and hundreds of dollars coddling this bacteria. What was another week? I can tolerate anything if I think it will end someday.
The hygienist was the kind of reasonably attractive blond woman that makes me nervous. “It looks like it’s been a little white since you’ve had a cleaning.” She posed this as a very polite leading question. “I didn’t have insurance for ten years.” She nodded, perfectly expressionless, as though she’d practiced. “You’re in pretty good shape, considering.”
Jaime Fountaine writes and tells stories. Her work has appeared most recently in The Fanzine, Paper Darts,, and Knee-Jerk Magazines. She lives in Philadelphia, where she co-hosts the Tire Fire reading series at Tattooed Mom, and Excuse My Dust, a “weirdo literature variety hour” at the Good Good Comedy Theater.
Image source: Wikimedia via Creative Commons