That strip of stores and chains of fast food places was on the way to the Silverdome or M59 if you wanted to head to Rochester Hills. There was a donut place where we never got donuts and a Coney Island that had unique offerings that tasted as if it was all fried in the same grease then stored, uncovered in the same refrigerator. We went there often. Across the street and a little farther up there was Oak Hill Cemetery. It was beautifully maintained and if you were the sort to picnic in cemeteries or celebrate Dia de los Muertos, you might go there and pass a very pleasant hour or two.
Head on to the strip mall it was more apparent that it was falling into despair but the businesses were bullishly fighting the decay. There were four or five, but I only really noticed the large beauty supply. (What kind of things sold at a beauty supply that could fill up that much space? It couldn’t all be wigs and weaves. Combs maybe? All kinds of special combs?).
My nine year old eyes saw that string of stores as: beauty supply, the dull, the monotonous, Dawn Donuts, and a store front dentist with a giant, white tooth on the roof, ever dancing and tipping a boater.
I wasn’t scared of going to the dentist. I didn’t remember having gone to one before, which is not to say I’d never gone. The experience just hadn’t left an impression. When informed of my duty of going I brushed my choppers and dusted off my play clothes and hopped in the front seat. I sat beside my silent, chain smoking mother while the sun crept to Earth, silk screening the running roads in sepia and her face in bronze. Magnanimously, I allowed that we could not have the most interesting conversation. What in the world could she have to talk about? But without even the radio on and the silence stretching with the miles, there seemed to be ominous vibe about this venture. We pulled into a spot directly below the dancing tooth and sat for a moment. My mother’s cigarette slowly dragged to ashes and I waited for instructions.
Move slowly, pressing up against the wall – back safe- when it begins to tear and twist.
With my whole back pressed against the car seat, tailbone to shoulder and head tilted just enough to see the bottom of Fred Molaire’s hat, I waited.
She reached for the door handle and I reached for mine and we made our way into the dentist’s office together. Sat down with a Highlights’, I watched while she filled out forms and spoke with the receptionist. Eventually, I was led back into the exam room, sat down again and left alone. The office’s dingy white walls were significantly brightened by contrast with my grimy play clothes and old sneakers. Every once in awhile I would even get a whiff of my little kid odor, a mixture of sweat, crushed grass, and unwashed hands. The door opened and froze me in the act of squirming around in the chair to inspect the spit pan. The doctor didn’t even look up from his clipboard as he asked me how I was doing. I mumbled something like good and scooted back into the chair. He pulled a rolling stool over to my side and smoothed the paper bib the dental assistant had clipped around my neck. Adjusting the dental chair, he asked questions and laid out his equipment. From my position I could see his face scrunch down into a frown as he went to work.
“You have to stop drinking pop. It’s very, very bad for your teeth.”
Mouth wide, my eyes didn’t even widen in protest and of course I say nothing. I was never the child who could be counted on to argue righteously with an authority figure and this didn’t strike me as a great time to start. Privately though I wondered: what kind of savage was this man in my mouth? Pop was delicious, to be guzzled down at every opportunity. Water was blecch, milk was only good in cereal or in Nestle Quik, and even I knew juice cost a lot, too much to gulp heedlessly.
Having made his pronouncement from on high, Dr. Kurjee clammed up and finished, frowning harder with every scrape of his shiny metal torture devices. By the time he was done, my mouth tasted funny, my gums were sore, and his obvious disapproval had given my armpits sweat moons. The dentist assistant led me out into the waiting room where my mother tensely conferred with the receptionist. She finished and ushered me to the car for the silent ride home. I had vaguely thought there would be treats of the sugary variety, but I guessed those were reserved for the kids who passed the exam. I got a gray tooth brush.
When things do begin to fall apart, be sure to stand with your back firmly pressed against the wall and your face turned up slightly so that when everyone starts scrambling like mad bastards trying to patch things together you won’t get trampled or choked by the flying bullshit.
My family was a noble people of high passions. Arguments and bitter silences found fertile ground in which to flourish in our home. I might walk into the room to find my aunt, grandmother, and mother watching a movie or I might walk in and see my mother beating the wall phone to pieces using the handset, showering bits of numbered buttons and crepe colored plastic all over the room. That phone always did have a sly look about it, I think.
Noble we might have been, flush with cash we were not. We didn’t save much and honestly didn’t have much to save. The accepted axiom was that as long as you’re alive there will always be bills that will need to be paid. They aren’t going anywhere, but that outfit you want may not be in stock tomorrow. Money could be stressed over if that was one’s choice, but it was not generally the recommended course of action.
When our collective shit began to really hit the fan, the fact that it wasn’t a total surprise didn’t make things easier. My grandmother’s second stroke was the death knell for her independence. Her speech ability and her right side were severely impaired. For reasons that don’t need to be spelled out, my mom decided against putting her mother into a nursing home. So we (my mom and my thirteen year old self) gave taking care of her at home a go.
If one of us could have managed to brutally murder the other two, the murderess would have gone to jail, but she surely would have gone with a smile on her face.
My grandmother’s third stroke broke the bank. We contacted the county nursing home. For about a year we struggled to find some way to be at peace with leaving my grandmother to strangers who stole her body powders and afghans.
Put your back against that wall and press your face tilted up – just a little.
The topic of my own health wasn’t something on which I dwelled. There didn’t seem to be any major problems and even if there had been, there never seemed to be the precise time to bring it up.
The numbness in my mother’s extremities was a minor problem, probably carpal tunnel syndrome. Except it wasn’t that and it wasn’t Multiple Sclerosis either and it wasn’t in her head. It was Sarcoidosis and of fucking course it was the relatively rare kind that affects the nervous system. Starting with the numbness at the very tips of her fingers, it paralyzed all of her extremities and then started for her internal organs.
Things that happened:
We made frequent trips to University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor. My best friend moved in to help us. I was out about three months of high school senior year because we holed up in Rochester, Minnesota for my mother’s biopsy. I graduated high school. I started college.
I did not go to the dentist.
Base terror was introduced to Americans. Rubble was searched and I made the nine hour drive from the south to the north about every other weekend.
I did not go to the dentist.
Her funeral was arranged. I failed a class. My childhood home was lost to the bank. I wondered where my high school diploma, my baby pictures, and my mother’s dry sink ended up. What wasn’t scavenged out of the front yard was probably at the dump. My father and I bond over the realization that we did not care for each other as people. I worked at a summer camp because I could stay on site for the program’s duration. I applied and was accepted to a graduate school preparation program in Los Angeles.
When chewing ginger didn’t do the trick anymore, I went to the Matthew Walker Comprehensive Care Center - a non-profit clinic that only charged $25 for each dental visit. I thought my dental situation was probably bad, but not that bad and I was wrong; things pretty much are always that bad. I left the dentist’s office composed. It didn’t look like I had spent 15 foolish minutes crying; that I hadn’t been changed to a person with a shameful secret to hide from; that my bitter, damaged insides were starting to reflect on my rotting, damaged outsides.
An average adult human has 32 teeth.
Online dating is at first curious then tedious. To relieve that a bit, people use humor, that ultimate weapon in the war of nether part aggression. On balance funnies ain’t a bad way to go about meeting people, but you never know what insecurities lay at the bottom of the well.
“I love all kinds of music, reading, and going to new restaurants. Plus: I have all of my teeth.”
I sure am happy for this guy. I really am happy that the least of his worries are of the dental variety, because worrying about the person you’re attempting to date finding out that you are missing significant portions of your pie crushers can give you stress gas. Which in itself might be charming, but taken as a whole doesn’t really (at least superficially) paint one in the best light.
In the most basic part of my mind the monologue goes like this: My face doesn’t look the way that is supposed to be most attractive, my body isn’t particularly compelling, and my hair doesn’t come in standard beauty format. Nothing about me seems to be beautifully shaped. And I have 17 of the 32 adult teeth I’m supposed to have. All this is gift wrapping, we’ve not yet begun to plumb the depths of the murkier innards. Well.
I have dentures. Metal and resin, I take them out every night clean them and put them in every morning. I consider Fixodent in drug store aisles and research implants and how I might afford them. I worry about losing bone mass before I can afford implants and if people are able to feel my dentures if I perform oral sex, if we kiss.
How did you lose so many teeth? By pressing my back and turning my head up, just so.