“If you have that much money, you can just buy a new set of teeth,” a friend says to me when I ask why Trump has bad teeth. His teeth are actually quite straight and very white but for some reason I imagine they’re yellowing and gnarled. Truth is, it’s hard to find a picture of him smiling enough to tell what they look like.
At the age of twenty three, I visited a new dentist for the first time, and had flashbacks to my uninterrupted Polaroid photos on the No Cavity Club corkboard in Dr. L’s office; it was hung at an adult eye level, precariously above the toy chest I had outgrown. Depending on which hygienist took my photo, either she or I would write my name in Sharpie along the bottom of the photo. I never knew how long these photos stayed on display, likely not long, but six months later when I would return to the dentist, they would send me home with last visit’s photo. To this day, some of those childhood mug shots are on my parents’ fridge.
Those were the years that my parents’ dental insurance wasn’t great so my dad traded his art for fingers in his mouth, and as a result, his black and white landscape photographs adorned the walls of the examining rooms. It was a serene contrast to the metal trays full of sharp and blunt metal implements used to excavate the birthday cake detritus from years past. Each visit went the same, I walked away with a pat on the back from the dentist and a fresh toothbrush in my hand. Occasionally, the hygienist with a heavy Russian accent would remind me to brush all the way back behind my farthest molars, and as I got older, I was more willing to admit that I didn’t floss as regularly as I should have.
Though I never needed braces, I always wanted them. Everyone had them, a marker of adolescence. Cassie used her rubber bands to cornrow my hair at sleepovers. Each time the dentist told my mom and me that my teeth were still straight, my moment of disappointment was met with, “Well that’s book money for college.”
My tooth number thirteen had been filled three times, once by three different dentists. I imagine it something similar to a cream-filled donut with all of its moisture sucked out, like seven days stale, sitting on a counter, injected with pasty, hardening cement. In an x-ray the filling looks like an intrusion.
Everything in your mouth feels bigger. When something is wrong, you know immediately, it feels tremendous and unconquerable.
The first medical appointment I ever had in New York—other than therapy—was to fill tooth thirteen for a second time. I was most surprised to see a paper appointment book, the pages longer than they were wide and crinkled at the edges from moisture where someone had spilled a drink. They were yellow in a way that hints at age, but 2016 was emblazoned on every page.
Dr. K prescribed me Xanax before I opened my mouth. I told him that Novocain made me so nauseous I once passed out. His solution was not to offer words of comfort, or get me to breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth to instill calmness, but to tell me to come back once I had the script filled.
I have only fainted twice in my life. The first was at gymnastics camp when I covered my whole face red with face paint for the color wars—red versus blue—and the team with the most spirit won. Naïve and devoted, I did a whole workout, sweating under the paint. My face puffed up like balloon and my throat tightened. The stars I see before I faint feel like I’m sleeping, feel like a sedated, dream-like state.
I lost my virginity in a vivid dream, I think. There was the way she tugged at the waistband of my underwear while asking if I had ever done it before. I wrapped my arms around her neck and tenderly sunk my teeth into her shoulder as she touched me. I woke the next morning with a film over my enamel because I had neglected to brush the night before.
Since then the sharp quality of my dreams has pervaded, especially those in which I am losing my teeth. These dreams, commonly signifying money woes, plague me—my coffee-stained molars crumbling into my hand as I try to talk, dry and uncontrolled, like the first exhale after the saltine challenge when the only thing you can do is spew shards of chewed saltines into the air. There is a relief in the crumbling, the release of a pressure.
My smile is crooked. It has been since before I had teeth. The photos from when I was a malleable blob of baby show my mouth open and lopsided. This means that the affected state I adopted in college worked well for me. It was simple and consistent. Just don’t smile in photos and people think you’re cool, they notice, they wonder what’s going on in your head. Don’t explain that it’s because the uneven opening of your lips makes your round face more pronounced.
Years ago, alone on Valentine’s Day, I chipped a different left molar eating conversation hearts while waiting for the Metro North from Bronxville to Grand Central in the snow.
The last baby tooth I ever lost flew out of my mouth and into a gap in the front porch. I was opening the plastic around a long piece of licorice. The tooth fairy came anyway.
I love candy; I think this is what has gotten me here.
I had a twitch in my left eye all fall. I think it was a combination of stress and the inexplicable way everything in our body connects. When I visited the neurologist to make sure my blinding migraines weren’t a tumor, he told me both eyes are actually twitching. “Relax your jaw,” he told me, “why are you holding so much tension there?”
I never took the Xanax that was prescribed to me, I just never returned to that dentist. I taught myself to breathe through the moments where a needle is lodged into my cheek and gums.
Dr. M , the endodontist, walks with a limp that’s evenly pronounced on both sides. He carries a weathered tan leather briefcase in his right hand. I’m behind him walking down the street, chronically early for my appointments, and first thing in the morning, he’s hardly there before me. I cross the street to loop around the block so that I don’t arrive before he does.
Once I’m situated in the back most examining room, he pulls out a square foil package, and with his blue-gloved hands tears it open. I’ve told myself I will keep my eyes closed through the entire process, but post-Novocain injections and pre-excavation tools, it seems like it may be okay to look. The sick truth is I’m curious about what he is doing inside my mouth, the way our teeth sit so precariously along the slope of our jaw. He unfolds the blue dental dam an affixes it in a metal frame. “You’re going to hear a click,” he says as he pops a hole in the thing with my tooth. I laugh. “A funny noise, right?” No, just a funny concept: of course a dental dam is for performing sterile oral surgery not oral sex.
The first time N and I fuck, I have forgotten my toothbrush and my post-coital, post-Dominos breath is repulsive. My tooth throbs into my shoulder. I don’t wear my mouth guard to sleep because that’s not sexy, and when I wake up in the morning, everything is tinted red.
The root canal doesn’t work, or I’m still in pain for some reason. The procedure marked 14 months of chewing only on the right side of my mouth. Thankfully, I didn’t rush into having a crown made. I was waiting for my dental insurance to re-up in the new year to pay for it, and America had elected Donald Trump to be its next president. I have a friend whose life will be drastically altered by the appeal of the ACA, and I haven’t talked to my father about his long-term disability benefits. I am waiting for the dental insurance I pay $12 a month for to kick back in.
After Trump was elected, the Novocain felt different. Three days after he won, I returned to the endodontist to tell him the hours of his work didn’t fix my pain. There was a distinct shift from a numbness that zinged and pulsed up my left ear into my temple and down into the sinewy muscle in my neck to something subtler and more uneasy.
The light reaching above me looks like it came from the same manufacturing company that elementary school overhead projectors came from—the ones where teachers wrote with Vis-à-vis markers on clear plastic. Its two bulbs shine down into my eyes, into my mouth, its metal and the quality of the light innocent like algebra.
I am under the remarkably false impression that your tooth doesn’t hurt anymore once the root is gone.
Wouldn’t it be a trip if you could keep little treasures inside, where the root gunk once lived?
I didn’t really expect the first root canal to work. Dr. M said I would be in pain afterwards, “that’s how you know it’s working,” he joked. It didn’t hurt at all either time, but the fourth of fifth installments—the end of the re-do—I careened through the new subway station with my left hand clamped to my jaw, as if the pressure would help. I ran through CVS in desperate search of an ice pack, crazed by the pain. An employee stopped me to ask, “Ma’am are you alright?”
I hadn’t chewed on the left side of my mouth a full year before I visited the endodontist for the first time. The right side of my jaw must be substantially stronger than the left side. When I smile in the mirror the crookedness has evened out a little and I want to keep chewing only on the side that will make it even.
Before the final root canal appointment, I spend the plane ride from New York to LA sitting in the aisle seat with the cup of complimentary ice smashed into my face. I can feel the inside vacancy pushing on the walls of the tooth as I watch the first press conference since the election. As the altitude shifts, I feel—or hear—a tiny creaking inside my molar. The woman across the aisle from me is watching the same channel, but I can’t tell if she is complacent or horrified. She keeps shifting her eyes to look at me, or the ice on my face, or my pained look.
Conveniently, the mom of the friend I am visiting is a dental hygienist. She looks inside my mouth. The tissue around the molar is purple and modeled. She reaches into the back of the kitchen cabinet and pulls out a Dixie cup with dosing instructions written in ballpoint pen on the outside: a pile of amoxicillin. I’m forever concerned about messing up the bacteria levels in my body with antibiotics, but I’m desperate. My friend’s mom also hands me copies of her late ‘80s, early ‘90s lesbian erotica, and first edition Rita Mae Brown books, and tells me in great detail about the 1993 Women’s March on Washington. The way my hands grasp first for the antibiotics tells me that my mouth is in control.
The morning of the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States of America, I’m in the endodontist’s chair again. I rode the Second Avenue Subway to get there, an urban project that took an exceptionally long time to complete. The station at 63rd and Lexington is far underground, its lighting and platform are shiny. I think this time, Dr. M has fixed the problem.
Trump has been president for 24 hours and the low-grade, constant nausea has already set in. I march in the New York women’s march because I don’t know what else to do, because the anxiety of being in a crowd of people isn’t the most overwhelming feeling right now. A person with a loud voice nearby is beginning different chants and everyone around is following her lead. She pulls out a water bottle and hands it to a pregnant woman walking next to her. Then, from her surprisingly bottomless bag, she pulls out a bag of fun-sized Almond Joys and begins to throw them into the crowd around her. One lands in the hand of the woman next to me and she passes it on to me. I get ready to refuse, conditioned to avoid sugar at all costs, to avoid the immediate electric throb into the back of my skull, but my second root canal on unlucky tooth thirteen is done. I pop the whole thing in my mouth, still avoiding the left side, and in a moment where there had been unmitigated pain, there was nothing but sweetness.
Alanna Duncan is a writer and nonfiction MFA candidate at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Entropy, Five:2:One, and Breadcrumbs, among other places. She lives in Brooklyn with her bicycle.