Oral apprehensions

In a feat of magnificent self-control, the dental hygienist did not flinch. There she was, peering into my gaping maw, inspecting, poking and scraping teeth and gums, and miraculously she didn’t throw up.

Pro that she is, you wouldn’t think she would. But my mouth hasn’t been examined by anyone with “dental” or “dentist” in their job description since the Obama administration for a plethora of reasons, none of them interesting, credible or justifiable. “Massacre” is the word I figured would spring to her mind as she toiled in my mossy abyss.

I’m a mad brusher and flosser, but I dumbly dropped the ball on getting my choppers checked, and after a while I just let it slide, perhaps the least responsible thing I’ve done since paying good money to see that Spin Doctors tribute band.  

Going into the eons-belated dental appointment, I braced for catastrophe. I entertained Dantesque visions of cavities, gingivitis, cracked crowns, mouth cancer, hairy tongue syndrome, or worse. I imagined my teeth encrusted with piles of plaque, towers of tartar. Dentist? Get me an archeologist.

Dentistry isn’t gorgeous. It’s violent, invasive, queasy, medieval. Still, dentists don’t scare me much. I’m not one of those characters who whines and quivers over the periodic oral exam. My mouth has been through a lot, including braces, a few crowns, scads of fillings and wisdom teeth extraction (all four). 

When I was 14, a dental surgeon propped up a few of my receding gums by slicing strips of skin from the roof of my mouth and using the flesh to support the sliding gums. That happened.

I’ve rode merry clouds of nitrous oxide and been jabbed with novocaine needles the length and girth of bratwursts. I’ve seen my own blood smeared on the minty-green dental bib. What else can they do? I’m pretty much ready for anything. 

And so I went to the dentist this week, steeled, as I said, for that scene in “Marathon Man.” I pictured drills and pliers, sandblasters and buzzsaws.

Instead, I got teddy bears and lollipops. The hygienist couldn’t have been more pert and welcoming, a living bubble machine. (Not only that, but the ceiling television was set to “The View”!) 

She proceeded to do the poke-and-prod routine with hooky metal utensils and rather than recoil at my neglected mouthful, she actually complimented the super job I’ve been doing maintaining my oral health. Clearly, she said, I take my toothsome hygiene seriously. I would have smiled if seven of her fingers weren’t jammed in my mouth. 

And so I won Round One in the dentist ordeal. Of course I had more in store, the big stuff: the x-rays and the photos and the exam by the capital-D Dentist. This gig wasn’t over by a long shot, and with my luck I’d be getting some kind of shot with the longest needle available. 

I was ushered into a new room, where the official dentist’s chair spread before me, the full-length recliner straight out of Torquemada. Once you lie back in this chair, it’s over. Once you open your mouth, you’re doomed. Rinse, spit, repeat, scream.

As it’s been 135 years since I last saw a dentist, the young doctor who eventually entered, after a pair of technicians took x-rays and photos, was of course new to me. And to my delight, she was just as chirpy, enthusiastic and calming as the angelic hygienist — a human puff of nitrous oxide. 

But she was serious, too, and got down to business. The upshot: I am a fastidious cleaner, but I grind my teeth and need a tooth guard for sleep; I have two slightly cracked molars that will eventually require crowns; and I have one “baby” cavity that did not concern the good doc a bit. 

In fact, she practically laughed it off. And at long last, relieved, disabused of my festering fears, and with no fingers and pokers clogging my mouth, so did I.

A book with bite

A girlfriend once said I have dog teeth. For real. She didn’t mean I literally have a mouthful of, say, Doberman teeth. She meant that my teeth reminded her of a dog’s. (My canines are on the long side.) Either way, it was a comment that falls under the heading “shitty.” I should have bit her. But I’m over it. In fact, I think it’s riotous, edging on genius.

Anyway, I just picked up the novel “The Story of My Teeth” by Mexican author Valeria Luiselli, whose current book “Lost Children Archive” is a literary smash, a timely drama about family and the immigration crisis on our southwestern border. I’ve read a chunk of it. It’s very good. Pick it up. 

“The Story of My Teeth” is also a hailed exemplar of storytelling, making a zillion top 10 lists in 2015 and shortlisted for juicy awards. Yes, it’s about teeth. About the teeth of folks like Plato, Virginia Woolf, Petrarch and Borges that are collected by eccentric auctioneer Gustavo (Highway) Sánchez Sánchez, the story’s kooky narrator.

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And it’s a lot about his teeth and his desperate goal to get his calamitously crooked choppers fixed. In this funny, fanciful book observations about people’s teeth abound. 

There is for example: the man with “the slightly sinister smile of those who have paid many visits to the dentist”; Octavia Augustus’ “small, few and decayed” teeth; and the remark “Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth.”

Teeth, teeth, teeth. And this is in just the first two dozen pages. By page 26 our homely hero Highway has hit dental pay dirt. 

Like how? Like this:

At auction he buys Marilyn Monroe’s teeth. “Yes indeed, the teeth of the Hollywood diva. They were perhaps slightly yellowed, I believe because divas tend to smoke,” he explains. 

Back home in Mexico, “Each of the teeth belonging to the Venus of the big screen was transplanted into my mouth by a world-class dental surgeon.”

How over the moon he is! Highway tips his hat to himself in mirrors and shop windows, awash in good fortune, elated, Monroe’s dental work now his. At long last, his rows of teeth, once tornado-whipped picket fences, are even and upright, straight and sturdy.

“My luck was without equal, my life was a poem, and I was certain that one day, someone was going to write the beautiful tale of my dental autobiography.”

And this is where I’m at in Luiselli’s toothsome feat of imagination. It’s the end of Book I — there are seven books, littered with photos and floating quotes and graphics, plus an afterward by the translator — in a slim 195 pages. I don’t know if Highway keeps Monroe’s teeth throughout the story, but I’ve read enough to enjoy a cameo by John Lennon’s molar, which fetches $32,000 at auction, rather on the low side, I thought.

But where we last left off, Highway was musing about “the beautiful tale of my dental autobiography.” Which is where I began this post — my dental autobiography, the story of my teeth. (Recall: mutt mouth.) The book aside, let’s pursue that thread. Hang tight.

Dental histories aren’t pretty. They are violent, invasive, queasy, medieval. Anxiety and discomfort are operative words, shrieking like exposed nerves. Drills, needles, pliers. Teeth are the worst.

When I was 14, the dentist noticed my gums were receding. He wanted to prop some of them up. His solution: slice chunks of skin from the roof of my mouth and use the flesh to support the falling gums. This happened. I was knocked out, but I briefly came to mid-operation and saw the surgeon’s smock and gloves smeared in blood.

I was luckier when my wisdom teeth were pulled. The dentist put me out so deeply that I woke up in a wheelchair. My mouth was swollen and filled with blood, but I was giddy.

I had braces. I have too many fillings to count and three crowns (a grisly business requiring a jackhammer). I’ve rode merry clouds of nitrous oxide and been jabbed by needles the length and girth of bratwursts.

That is the partial story of my teeth. I have crooked teeth, stained teeth, chipped teeth. I’m making my mouth sound like a massacre. It’s not. Maybe I do have dog teeth. Maybe I have teeth like Marilyn Monroe’s. Maybe I can sell them at auction. After all, some of my molars are encrusted in gold. But time is of the essence, before I get too long in the tooth.

Ha.

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