I found the oral surgeon in the Yellow Pages. There wasn’t yet a website that rated medical professionals in a Useful, Funny, or Cool way, so that was how you made important decisions: alphabetically and arbitrarily. I was 22 and I didn’t have a lot of practice making important decisions, but this much I knew.
He was ancient and unsteady, his hands a little wobbly as he snapped on his Latex gloves. But he had offered me a deal: a hundred dollars a tooth, Novocaine included. I was uninsured, a holiday retail temp, and I knew a bargain when I found one.
“I’ll tell you what,” the doctor said, peering into my mouth. “I’m going to throw in some nitrous oxide, free of charge.” I didn’t know if this was good news or bad. All I could do was make the sound that “okay” makes when your lips can’t reach each other. The nurse strapped a mask over my nose and told me to breathe.
Wisdom teeth! Where to begin? They are the universe’s helpful little reminder that, for as much as we are evolving into a species that has no use for phonebooks, we are still very much descended from cavemen. The craftiest, cruelest thing about them is how perfectly their eruption is timed. You’ve finally gotten comfortable with the width of your hips and the odd secretions and the rest of the indignities of sexual maturity. You’re fully educated and emancipated and ready to charge out full force and take on the world. And then one day there’s a half-familiar twinge, the taste of blood. All grown up, and teething again.
Anyway, I breathed, and felt myself descend somewhere into the back of my mind. The nitrous was going to keep me awake but submerged, the next best thing, the doctor promised, to the general anaesthesia I couldn’t afford. I could see the light above me, his hand moving across it every so often, in quick eclipses. After a minute or so, it felt like I’d been lying there for days.
It’s almost done! I told myself. That wasn’t so bad—I hardly felt a thing! Then the doctor stood up. He heaved all his weight into my lower right jaw and I heard a terrible splintering crack. It was only just beginning.
Nine months earlier, I’d sat through college graduation, sweating in my black gown in the sun, with a throbbing abscess. For years, all four of my wisdom teeth had been shyly peeking out from under my gums, wavering indecisively between the safe security of my jaw and the vast unknown terrain of my mouth. And for years, dentists had been telling me that eventually they’d force themselves out on their own. They weren’t impacted, fortunately, so if I could just be patient and endure the occasional infection, I could avoid the dreaded adolescent rite of extraction.
That summer was sticky and disorienting. After sixteen years in school I was profoundly untethered. Did I want to move to New York or California? Work in publishing or for a nonprofit? Vodka soda or gin and tonic? I couldn’t make a decision to save my life. I’d broken somebody’s heart and I’d had my heart broken in return—a nasty lingering raw spot I likened in my journal (obviously) to the nagging infections in the back of my mouth. I temped, watched too much TV, and went to the dentist every couple of months for a penicillin refill.
In August, I took a standby flight to Europe. The idea was to “see the world” and “find myself” there, as 22-year-olds are wont to vainly attempt to do. Instead, I saw the World Trade Center collapse on a staticky TV in a dirty hostel in Budapest. And then I returned to Boston terrifically sick, steeped in debt, and with another grievous infection. The apartment I had lined up fell through—after I moved in. The job I’d anticipated getting at a labor union, maybe, or a feminist newspaper—well, let’s just say the classifieds weren’t brimming with opportunities. I was ready to be done with wayward wandering. Now all I wanted was a closet and a paycheck and a routine, and these were things nobody wanted to give me.
I had intended to change the world when I got out of college, but instead, the world had changed itself while I was on vacation. There was anthrax in the mail and a war happening. There were now things like “evil-doers” and a “homeland.” Irony was declared dead, again and again. It was simply not the time or the place for a broken heart or a toothache, for petty soul-searching or for whining when things didn’t go your way. But all day I was tired. And quiet. It hurt to move my mouth. When I went back to the dentist he shook his head. This had gone on too long! He wasn’t going to refill my prescription, he said, unless I made an appointment to get the teeth extracted.
What can you do when your world is in pieces, except to start to pick them up, one by one? Get a job, any job—a temp retail job, maybe. Get a room, any room—even one in an apartment with five strangers. Go on a date, any date, and by all means, kiss him! But first: find an oral surgeon—any oral surgeon—and sign one small problem over to someone who can fix it.
He may have looked frail, that surgeon, but the way he struggled with my mouth was truly valiant. One by one, he broke each tooth into pieces, by bearing straight down on it with all his might and some kind of blunt tool. Then he braced himself with his knee on the chair to get a grip on one of the shards, and pulled so hard with his pliers that I levitated. When it gave, I fell back down. Again and again.
I kicked and I cried. Novocaine was nothing. Every crunch and wrench and twist hurt. It was the most brutal thing and I hollered my heart out. It was animalistic. I’d never made so much noise in my life. The nitrous—a drug really suitable only for clowns—only subdued my mind enough to keep it running in a cruel loop. That wasn’t so bad, it would say. It’s over, that was the last yank. Then it would start again, from the beginning. I was convinced I was dying. I willed myself to leave my body, to pass out. I willed the oxygen clip on my finger to tell the nurse that I was not okay, that I couldn’t breathe. The doctor just kept up his grim work. The nurse once in a while patted my hand. I couldn’t make out their faces, under the druggy gauze of the nitrous and behind their masks, but their blasé medicalized manner suggested that, for them, this was all in a days’ work.
And the thing was, I could breathe. I breathed the whole damn time. I breathed. I yelled and flailed. I tasted blood. I breathed some more. I stayed squarely in my body while pieces of it were torn out. I was, by all accounts, okay.
About a hundred years later it ended, and they took the mask off my nose and sat me up in the chair, and stuffed a baseball-sized chunk of gauze in my mouth. Breathing pure oxygen felt so good I burst into tears again. Then I started to drool. Vainly, I tried to fix my hair while the nurse wiped the blood and spit off my chin. She unhooked my paper bib and I picked a big pink piece of lint from my sweater—only it wasn’t lint, it was a bloody splinter of tooth. I was still a little loopy and I held it up to the light and it seemed to glow from within. In my mouth it had felt so huge but in the room it looked so tiny. The nurse gasped cinematically when she saw what I had in my hand, and snatched it away.
The boy I’d started seeing maybe two weeks prior was waiting in the lobby to drive me home. This is the best part of the story. Wait, what!??! you’re saying. Why on earth would you bring him along? Oh you know, because it was a Tuesday and everyone else was at work and because I was adorable and 22. He took me to get my Vicodin prescription filled and then he put me into bed and the sun was streaming in because I had lived through a million years of evolution already that day but somehow it was only 11 a.m. And then he kissed me, which, believe it or not, is a very sweet and sexy thing to do to someone with a face full of bloody gauze, and all of the pain evaporated instantly. It sounds odd to say, but I had never felt better in my life.
We lasted four months. I worked in retail for four years and moved four times. But first, my mouth healed. The Vicodin made me antsy, so I gave up on it quickly. It wasn’t the ache that bothered me, anyway. The thing I had to get used to was the way my whole face felt fragile, my teeth all out of place. I could feel them shifting uncertainly, adjusting to their new landscape.
Previously in series: What Did You Want To Accomplish When You Grew Up?, Twenty-Seven, “Dear Abby, When I Was A Young Man”, The Cost Of Being A Kid In A Classic Adventure Novel and Acne Cures Through The Ages
Jessanne Collins knows a great dentist in Brooklyn!