When I was 23 I went on a date with a guy in law school. That’s how I remember him.The guy in law school. He was visiting the East from California, his parents were local. We had polar lives. He went to private school and later Duke. Told me he sold insurance for a while before he enrolled in law school in San Francisco. Through a few signifiers he learned I grew up much differently.
We’d met while I was out with my friend in a weakly lit nightspot with indoor outdoor patio furniture. We talked a long time. He thought me somber and asked why I looked so sad. I can give off that air even when I’m swaying to the hits. I was drinking my tonic water (no gin). He told me his mom loved tonic water because she was an alcoholic. I agreed to see him again.
We met for tea and a movie. I remember the way he looked at me when I smiled. He looked directly into my mouth. Not at my complete face, eyes, or lips, but inside of my mouth to my teeth. My stained and plaqued, 2-3 times a decade professionally cleaned, jutting out like peninsulas, orthodontist-money-pit-tusks; my lower class teeth. I could tell he decided how he would treat me after he looked at my teeth. Perhaps, as in the olden days, he still believed bad teeth were caused by tiny malevolent worms and he was searching for them. Maybe he thought of sending me to his barber for tooth extractions. It was a long stare. Like an ancestor of Paul Revere, his preoccupation with dentistry and message delivery were clear and he didn’t even have to ride in on a horse.
Much like a woman who is sexually assaulted, people liked to tell me how I should feel about my teeth. They weren’t so bad, I was told… by people who’ve had consistent dental care, braces, and veneers. “Your teeth give you personality.”
My teeth have also been a way for people to diminish me. Like the dentist who asked me at 22, while shoving a mouth mirror and teeth retractor inside me, if I brushed “once a year.” I wanted to tell him I hadn’t received the luxury of always knowing if my mother would stay at a job with benefits. Would we have insurance for more than a year so I could get my teeth cleaned twice by the same dentist? I didn’t have the luxury of my parents communicating long enough to talk about whether braces were good for my long term health.
“Hilda, show her how to brush her teeth.” The dental assistant pulled out a model of perfect teeth with no malocclusions before my embarrassment could even set in. She showed me up and down for the bottom and top, brush them gently, don’t want your gums receding on you, only soft bristles. Wow, thanks. Because I only brush MY teeth once a year.
An amalgam of self-loathing poverty shame was the prescription this dentist thought was best.
The future lawyer who stared at my teeth took me to the movies. He said he would pay, but he made a point to tell me only after he checked his account. He was waiting for his law school loan money to come in, you see. He wasn’t living off Mom, Dad, or trust fund like most without a job. He thought I must know that about him. I must know that while he was getting movie tickets.
A former boyfriend liked to assert I had bad breath most of the time. His willingness to care only manifested as the command to “use some mouthwash.” The bad breath and rotting teeth could have been due to a sweets addiction. I was finishing up college at the time and I got 6 free meals a week as a full time commuter. My college had a dessert bar with 8 unique desserts plus ice cream.
Usually I’d try a bite of half of them after my meal. I’m almost certain I’d eaten myself into pre-diabetes, taking frequent extemporaneous naps under the library stairs before my last class of the day, unable to stay awake to do any reading. At the moment you eat them, free meals seem to make up for all the times you didn’t know when you’d eat. A pack of Archway cookies from the dollar store could make me feel good for a half hour. The sweets probably contributed to my issues.
Halitosis made sense. Around that time I felt a solidified plaque razor forming in the saliva trough by my lower teeth when I pushed my tongue up against them. Dentists call this tongue thrusting, though I assure you it’s not that sexy.
Metaphysicians say bad breath floats from the depths of the body, indicating the presence of tremendous internal pain. It’s from a sense of powerlessness which ferments. Like an acrimonious sauerkraut factory.
As we left the shops that day, future lawyer asked if I wanted to go to his friend’s house “to drink whiskey.” Because ostensibly that’s what women with teeth like mine did. We swigged whiskey at some guy’s house. That’s why I put myself through college, volunteered all those hours at the YMCA, so I could receive this dazzling invitation.
As a teen I remember one of my dental visits culminated with a burr drilling a gap in my, then ungapped, front teeth. The white marks I was getting were cavities, the dentist said. I needed fillings there. At fifteen I trusted this was a principled decision as I looked at my reflection in the examination lamp and saw the Hudson tube tunnels in my mouth, for a second wishing I could catch the PATH train through them and out of the office. I later found out front teeth fillings are not advisable when I woke up in my college dorm with a chip in the left central incisor.
My next dentist glared at me disapprovingly at 20 as he asked “who told you you should get a filling in your two front teeth?” like it was a recreational choice. He pressed his sandblaster to my enamel as he took a moment to talk to me about the benefits of Invisalign.
In metaphysics, teeth problems mean we’ve lost touch with intuitive guidance; our heart is closed off. The forceps of my unstable life had twisted my teeth into a vociferous fence; grinding them from stress cultivated a protective sharpness.
The brown stains, cracks, and misalignment don’t strike me much anymore. When I smile I see my absent father’s face. Occasionally I feel pain from the back left tooth partially submerged under an abscessed gum, especially if I’m giving my body to work I don’t want to do.
Whiskey at his friend’s house. Was that what my lived experiences had amounted to? I was a man’s poor woman fetish object? I thought not. I declined to spend any more of my time with him as we approached his car. It was a new Audi. He qualified this transportation lest I think the wrong thing: “This Audi is my mom’s.” I raised my arm to give a side hug, breathing goodbye to him closely, hoping my carries would repel him, taking my power with me as I walked away.