As a kid, I had perfect teeth: big, straight, white teeth, with no cavities. Once every six months, my mother would bring my siblings and me on the T to downtown Boston. My dentist, Dr. Care, looked like a movie star, with wavy blond hair and perpetually tanned skin. He would blow into the room smelling of fresh mint and congratulate me on my spectacular teeth, upon which my family would be released to go outside and buy celebratory croissants. The dentist experience was painless and novel and I looked forward to it.
Sometime during college, I lost my parents’ dental insurance and, naturally, stopped going to the dentist. For many years, I rode on the idea that my perfect teeth were invincible, but at about 27 a pang of dental guilt (or was it pain?) compelled me to find a dentist on my own for the first time. I was living on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, and finding a trustworthy dentist was a challenge. The dentist I chose was a friend of one of my students. She took one look inside of my mouth and exclaimed, “You have many, many cavities! You will have to come in another day to take care of all this.” She drilled mercilessly into four of my once-perfect teeth. The fillings she gave me were so lumpy that I wasn’t able shut my mouth completely for weeks.
“Come back soon. The hole in your right canine might need a root canal.”
I didn’t go back for two years, and when I did the hole was big enough to require a $500 gold filling. I got it in Harlem, from dentist who told me my wisdom teeth were ready to come out, unless I wanted to let them rot away for a few more years. He referred me to a couple of oral surgeons on 5th avenue and I made the appointment that day.
The doctors were handsome, and they told me I was brave to get all four wisdom teeth out at once, and even braver to do it with only local anesthesia. I cried before the surgery began because I was terrified. Afterwards, they gave me my teeth in a little plastic bag and I sat in a chair in the corner, coming down from the pain killers. The teeth were long and jagged, stained yellow and brown. Their faces were pitted with scars. They were smooth and milky, too. Precious, like artifacts dug from the earth, proof of a human experience. Except they were dug out of my mouth, and only prove that I drink too much sweetened coffee. Still, I think they’re neat. I kept those teeth, and thought about making a necklace out of them. Instead, I glued them onto a collage that I keep in my kitchen. Reminders that having perfect teeth doesn’t mean much. But regular visits to the dentist, that’s worthwhile.