The women in my family have broken teeth.
My grandmother had a story she wouldn’t tell me about hers, and eventually her dentures buried the truth. My mother, twelve, fell while climbing the counter to put away dishes. She landed on a toaster. My own front teeth went the way of the horse: when I was ten I marched into our pasture and tried to saddle a pony that had been starved mean by its previous owner. I had convinced myself that he would reward my kindness and my oats with his loyalty. He let me get fifty yards before he threw me, my buck teeth split into sharp points somewhere around the fence post. My brother and I tried to track them down after I’d gotten temporaries put in, sifting through unmown grass, but we never found them.
After the dentist patched the fangs, he warned my mother that the break had happened along the nerve, exposing it; that one day the root might die and I’d be faced with another problem. Still, he said, the pony might’ve done me a favor. Pre-pony, my front teeth would’ve looked at home on Roger Rabbit — their artificial replacements actually fit in my mouth. It was a sentiment my grandmother gently echoed: “you don’t want those teeth,” she would say, gesturing to old yearbook photos of my mother, taken when she was still, herself, a bit of porcelain lodged in the cavity of Fort Wayne, Indiana. The pony, it seemed, had been the deliverer of some gift of fate, the same one that had visited the two women before me. I had never been a cute kid, and it was right around this time that I had begun to realize it: the difference in the way pretty girls at school were treated by teacher and student alike, the way their teeth lacked that diagonal hairline that occasionally made someone stop mid-sentence and peer at my mouth. “Is your tooth broken? What happened to your teeth?” And then I’d have to tell the story, until eventually those temporaries were replaced with porcelains without the fault line, and the story sunk backward into my life. After that, people would occasionally tell me I had a beautiful smile and after several years I believed them and forgot that the smile wasn’t wholly mine, accustomed to the slick feeling of porcelain like a square pearl attached at the gum.
After the dentist patched the fangs, he warned my mother that the break had happened along the nerve, exposing it; that one day the root might die and I’d be faced with another problem.
By the time I was 25 the same distance existed between me and that mouth that existed between childhood photos of my mother and the woman I actually knew. In my early 20s I wanted to be a model and booked a few jobs. My grandmother liked the photos. She was always a little mean, but funny-mean, and speculated whether my mother would’ve still hooked my father if she’d never met that toaster; if she’d had to keep the teeth she was born with in this America where your smile is your resume, is your handshake, is your foot in the door. Our teeth, it seemed, stood in the way of whatever future awaited us; losing them was the necessary shatter before we could be put back together in the proper order and on the path away from Indiana; starved ponies, exposed nerves, white trash.
Then the nerve died.
I had moved to Chicago from Kentucky, had just started my first job that actually offered dental insurance. I’d been employed for two months when I noticed one of my front teeth looked longer than the other, a stalactite descending from the cave of my mouth. It didn’t hurt. It looked normal, just that it was slowly sinking. When I finally went to a dentist in Andersonville I was told that the nerve of the tooth had died and there was a massive infection hiding behind the gum, a cavern of pus that would slowly press the tooth right out of my mouth, he said, if I didn’t have a root canal right away. What choice did I have? Almost 20 years later and my pony was back, this time drawing my teeth out slow. I scheduled the root canal, called my mother, and cried. After so many years of this smile, of believing that it was mine, it was being taken from me, the truth a shard of bone flashing out of the grass.
“They’ll replace the tooth, honey,” she tried to console me from Kentucky. “Lots of people get root canals. I’ve had them. You’ll get a root canal and then you’ll get a new tooth and that will be that.”
A new tooth. In this family of broken teeth, it was a simple matter. We broke our teeth and we fixed them; quick and neat like our other traumas. Our mouths betrayed our ambitions and we coaxed them into submission with dental work and a credit card, braces and bionators and the bridges we all must cross on the journey to teeth that disguise where we come from, the promised land of Hollywood homogeneity.
Everyone has a bad dentist story. No one likes needles. When my appointment finally came, there was a lot of grinding and whirring to remove the porcelain cap that had been in my gum for over a decade. The feeling of a drill in your mouth puts a cold, sharp feeling in your ear. I lay there and breathed in through my nose and out through my mouth the way my mother told me to, the way she must have when it was her turn to make herself new. When the drill paused, the dentist held up the tooth, the one being driven out by the stampede of a dead nerve, and it looked yellow in the white light of the exam room.
Everyone has a bad dentist story. No one likes needles.
“Now we can get in there to the root of the problem,” he punned, and I couldn’t help but think about the real roots, and mine; about the series of events that had led me here, to a chair and a drill and a porcelain lie held up to the light. The dentist told me that millions of root canals are performed every year, and yet rather than infected pulp, it felt like he was digging through a collection of frailties I had unknowingly stored in my mouth. This is why people dream about teeth. Broken, missing, rotten. Before I’d ever gotten braces at twelve, I used to dream I was standing in the bathroom of the children’s science museum in Louisville, looking in the mirror at my teeth hanging loose in my mouth, suspended by metal wire. In America we are always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and kick us in the mouth.
I ended up paying $1,300 for the root canal, and the dentist had to make me a new crown to replace the one he removed. When trying to match the enamel to the other front tooth, he ran into problems.
“The old one’s too yellow,” he frowned, studying my mouth through a magnifier. “I think we’d be better off matching the new one to your lateral incisors. The fact of the matter is, you’ll likely need a root canal on the other front tooth at some point. More nerve death is probable.”
I nodded through all this, avoiding looking in the mirror affixed to the ceiling. It was like standing at the edge of a wormhole: looking too long might pull me in, send me through time and deposit me, bucktoothed and barefoot, in a field in Kentucky.
“What do you think?” he asked when he was finished, and I couldn’t find the words to express the relief and disappointment that flooded simultaneously through my body: relieved that the new tooth was exactly like the one it replaced, if a little whiter; disappointed that this new adventure in the dentist’s chair had not improved me somehow, as the pony had so long ago.
“There’s only so much that can be done unless you replace them all,” he said, waving his hand to indicate my whole mouth, all the teeth whose wrongness had not yet occurred to me. I’d been too focused on buckteeth, one spindly tree in abundant forest. “Also, have you considered braces?”
I didn’t tell him I’d already had them, that my mother would cringe from her soul to her savings account if she knew that the work of her carefully paid for corrections had been undone by my clenched jaw and a lost retainer we couldn’t afford to replace. The dentist made small talk, and his receptionist took my credit card, and I left feeling that the wormhole I was so careful to avoid may have pulled me in anyway, that all those adolescent horrors we think we have to survive only once — braces; prom; hormonal acne — are landings on a Penrose stair.
“There’s only so much that can be done unless you replace them all,” he said, waving his hand to indicate my whole mouth, all the teeth whose wrongness had not yet occurred to me.
I rode the bus home, surrounded by advertisements of people with better teeth than all but one of mine. I now had one tooth in my mouth that passed the test. One good front tooth to lean on until the other root dies, when I will cross the next bridge my teeth demand. It will happen: my mouth is always looking to betray me, a cave inside me, empty, waiting to be filled. I need only be patient. My next slow pony will come.
Five years after that root canal and I have a daughter. She is 18 months old with ten perfect teeth, each one descending or ascending from the pink joy of her gums. She doesn’t know that I watch them carefully, that when she stumbles on a Lego my jaws clench and in my ear burns the cold buzz of a dentist’s drill. I am watching the world for kidnappers, for men like my 6th grade science teacher, for white women with hands outstretched for her curls. But I am also watching for toasters, for ponies, for the silent anything that could swoop down and drag her into line with her mother, her grandmother, and beyond. These teeth of mine might have been a blessing in disguise, but for my daughter I want only the blessings she prays for; those that come without cloak, dagger, drill.
Last week the dog knocked her down in the driveway. He was chasing a ball I threw with my own hand, and I watched as my daughter ran from the grass, too far away to stop her or him or it. When I picked her up, there was blood in her mouth and from the roots of my molars came the galloping of ponies.
She cried while I rinsed the blood out, while I tried to see. I sang frantic songs and told her it was okay, and in my head I asked myself if the wormhole was unavoidable, if I was already in it and had drawn her to me with the strength of my trauma. Teeth. Teeth. Teeth. So many other traumas — Men. Money. Electric fences. — but always, always teeth.
With the blood gone, I could see.
So tiny only a mother would notice — a sliver gone from the front left, the width of a fingernail. I stared at that spot, where a piece of her was missing. A tiny piece, but something that was hers and that I had helped her grow. I stared and stared, caught between horror and relief: something terrible had happened to her — already — something that I could not stop. And yet when the blood was rinsed away, she was okay. “It could’ve been worse” — the thing every parent will say a thousand times in our lifetimes, the thing we will be most grateful for every time these tiny precious people have to cry or bleed.
The first time I saw my mother after my root canal, she studied my mouth, her hands on my face.
“It’s better nowadays, I think,” she said. “They couldn’t take me to the dentist for two weeks. My tooth had turned gray by the time they got me there.”
For her, the porcelain in my mouth was an arrival point. She had crossed a bridge on her way to this place, and the one I crossed was even shorter: the shattering I endured had fewer pieces, a quieter crash. I think of this when my daughter smiles, the near-invisible slice that will exist only as long as her baby teeth do, when her permanent teeth appear to close all the gaps. It’s as if a curse placed upon my grandmother fades with every generation, the trauma present but shrinking, each splinter smaller and less painful than the one before. My grandmother had brandished my mother’s yearbook like a threat. My mother looks at my pre-horse photos with fondness, shushes me when I say Roger Rabbit. She knows teeth shouldn’t matter as much as they do, not in that way.
I still cringe at horses, but my daughter is not afraid of the dog. When I throw the ball, she goes after him, calling, laughing. When he comes running back, she smiles, and smiles, and smiles.