Third Place in Construction Literary Magazine’s Summer Contest
I wake up trembling and flushed in the cheeks, sticking my fingers into my mouth to make sure everything is still in its right place. I’ve had the dream so many times, you’d think it wouldn’t scare me anymore. Tonight, I was in an elevator when it happened. Like always, it began with a cough that I could not stop. Then, a sensation as if I was holding marbles in my cheeks, before I doubled over to spit nearly a dozen white teeth into my cupped hands. There was no blood, no pain. Just a feeling of lack, acute enough to thrust me awake. Now I lie in bed running my tongue back and forth along my gums until the sun rises hours later, not even daring to drink water. It’s an old paranoia. From a ghost story I heard at sleepaway camp, nearly a decade ago, about an old woman whose teeth were so decayed that when she had a sip of water, they came loose and she swallowed them. When it is no longer dark outside, I leave my room, take a shower, call Sloane. The story loosens its hold. Even so, I know it will only be a matter of time before that same thing happens to me, in or out of sleep.
This is not the only of its kind.
I cross bridges as quickly as possible, sprinting or going miles over the speed limit, never looking at the water below. Even the ones that have stood for hundreds of years — I can’t help but feel as if they will begin to crumble under my feet.
There was a story on the news one evening, about a boy in Canada who ended up in the hospital from eating fish that contained parasites. A rare case. Still, it stayed in my mind through the next day, when I had a piece of salmon while out at dinner with a few coworkers. Before dessert came, I excused myself to go to the bathroom and stick my fingers down my throat, terrified of worms. I do not eat fish anymore.
What I fear is everything that is near-impossible, the lightning strike and the plane crash and the stranger outside the hotel room with a gun.
At eight, I had a tooth pulled for the first time. The dentist used too much Novocain, and played some grainy kung-fu movie on the TV to keep me from crying. Afterwards, my mother took my brother and I to a bowling alley. I had thick pads of gauze in my cheeks to stop me from biting myself by mistake, but I pulled them out even before the numbness had worn off, showing them to my brother as we sat together in the backseat of the car. His eyes went wide when he saw how the white fabric was soaked in blood.
“Does it hurt?”
I shook my head. “Can’t feel a thing. It’s just cold.”
Curious, my brother rapped his knuckles lightly against the side of my mouth. “Nothing?” He grew bolder, pulling at my lips, turning them up at the corners. “Nothing?” As we arrived at the parking lot of the bowling alley, he grabbed my lower lip between his fingers and stretched it outwards, both of us stifling our laughter. I kept anticipating a pain that never came. That night though, when I looked in the mirror, I noticed the raised crescent-shaped scratches that he had left, without realizing it, around my mouth.
There’s nothing like living in a city to make you realize how easy it is to forget your body. Going to the doctor’s, getting a blood test or even a flu shot — I often get so focused on all of the lives of those around me that these things never cross my mind.
I had just started working for the consulting firm, and was meeting Sloane for drinks almost every night. One of my molars began to ache, second from the back on the right side of my mouth, to the point where even brushing my teeth would make my eyes tear up. But in that season, the days seemed to fold over each other, caught up in a rush towards some type of end. So I learned to eat on the left side and thought nothing of it. Then one weekend in December, while the snow was still melting from the year’s first blizzard, I felt a searing pain in the tooth, as if someone had put the tip of a match to my gums.
“We can put you in for Tuesday afternoon.” The receptionist wouldn’t move the appointment earlier, even as I begged, twisting the cord of the landline around my wrist in loops. I was told that I likely had a bacterial infection, from a cavity left untreated too long. “You shouldn’t have waited.”
It was the longest three days of my life, lying in bed with nothing to do but bear it. I didn’t call anyone, or answer my friends’ calls, didn’t even leave the house. Fell into a fever, as my cheek began to swell and pulse with heat, the sign of infection that the receptionist had told me to watch out for. The knowledge that a part of me was rotting was what kept me from picking up the phone, from letting someone know about this thing that disgusted me and that was no one’s fault but my own. Besides, I had always been fascinated by those stories of people who die in cities, alone in their apartments, with no one noticing until days later when the smell of decay reaches another floor.
They drained my abscessed tooth, gave me a root canal and a small plastic sheet of antibiotics. When I got home afterwards, dizzy from the drugs, I spat out blood in the shower and watched the water wash it down the drain. Then I was rid of it all.
I never did tell anyone about my root canal. This was the first time that I realized how easy it is to keep a secret, even one as irrelevant as this. When asked what I had done that weekend, I answered in few words, and I never complained about the pain. That was enough to erase the event, and now it only belongs to me.
My mother didn’t like superstitions. I was jealous of the other people in my first-grade class who got to believe in the tooth fairy, even though I knew that it was just their parents lying to them. Whenever I lost a tooth, my mother would just hand me a one-dollar bill on the spot, saying she didn’t want to go through the theatrics of trying to lift my pillow without waking me up. I still slept with my baby teeth next to me the night after they had fallen out, hoping that something would happen.
“You both want money in exchange for your teeth?” I heard her say to my brother once. “I wish I could pay this month’s rent in teeth. Just take a pair of pliers to my mouth, and be done.”
All the psychoanalysts in Chicago will tell me that the dream is about sex. A Freudian theory, one of them explained to me, that involves castration anxiety and the repression of desires. Anticipation of touch, so strong that it knocks your teeth out. However, I know that this is not the case. The dreams didn’t stop when I fell in love, so they have to be about something else entirely. The manifestation of a fear that I’ve only recently begun to understand, on those times when I dare to look into the mirror and imagine myself with empty gums. Unable to smile, yes, but also unable to eat like my body is meant to. I would be always relying on other people and machines to make every meal palatable and soft. Knowing that, if left to my own devices, I would die — even in a nature replete with food. A fate less than animal.
Minutes before I am to leave for work, my mother calls. It ruins everything I’ve been doing to try and forget my nightmare of losing teeth in an elevator, the shower and breakfast and the talk with Sloane about the new records she bought. Before I answer the phone, I stand up from my chair and walk over to the window, so that I can watch the construction going on across the street.
“Hey, is everything okay?” I ask. Unlike her to call so early.
My mother doesn’t respond for a moment, and all I can hear is static as the connection adjusts. “Drop the front,” she finally says in a low voice. “For once, do it for me.”
I need someone to know what I’m thinking and laugh and say I’m paranoid, so paranoid. Outside, a few workmen step back as a metal bar is dropped from two stories up, sending dust in the air as it hits the torn-up pavement. I involuntarily recoil from the window. “Sorry, what’s…”
“I met someone at the grocery store who works with you. We got to talking and he told me about you and this Sloane, thinking I knew already.”
“Look,” I cut in, voice sounding weak, muffled as if I am hearing myself from another room. I begin to pull at strands of my hair, trying to focus on the burn from my scalp. “If you hang up right now, you never have to think about it again. Please, please let me keep this.”
“You think I’m like you? Things don’t just go away.”
“Can’t they?” My jaw begins to ache, I watch the scene outside blur as a jackhammer kicks up clouds of smoke.
“No. There’s no forgetting now,” she says. “You must understand how I feel about this, my only daughter. God, it makes me—”
I end the call.
As I back into the center of the room, I feel sharp edges brush against my tongue. I know then that I need to expel whatever it is that’s filling my mouth, falling back into my throat. The body’s natural reflex. Remove what threatens. The phone rings again — in another corner of this country, my mother is holding a disconnected receiver as she tries to bring more words out of me. My lips part, and I fall to my knees on the wood floor, the room spinning. There are voices from outside, the building still being demolished, but I cannot understand them anymore. Eyes wide, I watch as my bloodied teeth clatter onto the ground.