My bottom molars are concave and pitted like the surface of the moon; they ache when I chew. I’ve been grinding my teeth since I was a child, and there’s one tooth worse off than the rest, on my right side, with a crater the size of a raspberry seed. When one gets stuck from fresh fruit or jam, I can feel it, the small bit of resistance. Each seed beds down so deep that I almost feel bad excavating such a perfect fit with the nub of a bobby pin, tweezers or a pencil tip.
When I was a kid, a dentist told my mother I’d grow out of the grinding, but when I hadn’t in a few years, she brought it up to a different dentist who suggested a nightguard we couldn’t afford. Instead, my mother bought one of those boil-and-bite mouthguards for athletes; it was blue plastic and felt like hot tar against my gums when I bit for the impression. My mother held it out with a pair of tongs, and I wondered whether I should be putting something in my mouth that was too hot for her to hold.
When we eventually found a dentist who made nightguards for cheap, the fit was off, so I spit it out in my sleep. In the morning, I’d pick it up off the floor, stuck with dog hair and carpet fibers. I stopped wearing it, and my mother stopped asking.
I don’t go to the dentist as often as I should. I got sick of the gasps and tuts and same-old questions when I open to reveal cheeksful of ravaged enamel. Instead, for the past decade, I’ve been budgeting for Sensodyne and chewing food on the left side of my mouth, which, for some reason, is achieving a slower rate of deterioration. In the last year, though, I got my first job with benefits, and it seemed foolish not to take advantage of my plan after seeing how much I pay for it.
The hygienist asked questions I couldn’t answer with her hands in my mouth, but before she tilted me back, I asked her not to gasp, and she didn’t. When the dentist came, he said I needed a cap on my raspberry molar and then asked if I’m bulimic without ever actually saying the word.
“We rarely see this level of wear without there being contributing factors.”
I said my experiences with disordered eating were sporadic and long-past, and he seemed satisfied:
“I trust you’d tell me,” he said, “if that were the case.”
At my follow-up appointment, the receptionist ran my card for an amount just shy of that month’s paycheck, and when it didn’t decline, I was ushered to a chair with a soft blanket and a nitrous mask. During the procedure, the hygienist smeared balm on my lips when they went dry, and under the influence, I was sure I’d never been touched with such tenderness by another person; I thought the dentist, with his drill, might be etching his own miniature Mount Rushmore into what was left of my unfortunate tooth, a secret colonization.
They 3D-printed my new molar, or else a machine carved it from a ceramic cube. Either way, the hygienist held it up for me to see, and said it was what my tooth was always meant to look like. It was underwhelming, all convex and beefy, without any pits for seeds.
When it was fitted and sealed, the dentist told me it could be sensitive for up to a week and to be patient, but it’s been two months, and I still can’t chew on the right side of my mouth. Last week, on my way home from work, I tilted the rearview mirror down at a stoplight and dropped my jaw for a look. In the daylight, I could see a shock of black emerging beneath the opaque surface, like ink a glass of 2%.
Every day, the black gets blacker, the tooth still aches, and I’m still short a paycheck because I agreed to the handwritten deductible scrawled on a sheet of letterhead. And I know I need to call the receptionist, to tell her about the black and the ache so I can open up my mouth again for the people, so they can get it right this time. But every day, I drive past the storefront and keep on driving. Every day, I don’t make the call.
Brenna Womer is a Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Louisiana State University and the author of honeypot (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019) and Atypical Cells of Undetermined Significance (C&R Press, 2018). Her hybrid chapbook cost of living is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in North American Review, Indiana Review, DIAGRAM, The Pinch, and elsewhere. She is a Contributing Editor at Story Magazine and Faculty Advisor for New Delta Review.