500-300 BC: Hippocrates and Aristotle spend time talking about teeth. They write about treating dying and dead teeth, extracting teeth with forceps, and how to use wires and other fine, metal materials to stabilize unruly teeth and fractured jaws.
2013, 8:55 AM: I walk down Albany St., burrowing hands deeper into jacket pockets. My teeth are sensitive to the winter air. I cover them with my lips.
I walk inside the front doors of the Boston University School of Dentistry, take the elevator to the seventh floor. I speak to the woman who sits behind the front desk, surrounded by posters of happy, cartoon teeth and photos of laughing, shiny-haired women whose smiles sparkle. She asks me to please have a seat.
1746: Claude Mouton, an 18th-century French dentist innovates the luxury of the gold crown retained in the root canal. He also introduces a more “esthetic appearance” of dental work, recommending white enameling for these gold crowns.
“Why don’t you smile, honey? I bet you have a really pretty smile.”
A white-haired man coming out of the exam room grins as he walks by. I flash my teeth reflexively.
I read an old copy of Improper Bostonian. My eyes hurt looking at the page. I stayed up late last night writing an essay and then watching too many episodes of Seinfeld and I didn’t have any coffee this morning because I wouldn’t have had time to brush again. I run my tongue over my teeth. They feel ok…
When I was younger, I always got gold stars for good brushing and flossing. But I’ve been slipping.
Home late, drunk after a party, I shove leftover cake and pizza into my mouth by the light of the tiny refrigerator bulb. A friend rented out a club for her seventeenth birthday. I wore a short black dress and towering heels. We had all snuck in Poland Spring bottles of vodka and Gatorade. Dancing until I was sweaty and breathless, sometimes in giddy circles with my friends, sometimes close and low with a boy who would catch my hand and pull me up against him. My head spinning in a delicious haze, my body rubbing against his, sometimes his hand would creep up, over my ass, under my thong…
I flop into bed without brushing. And I definitely don’t floss. It’s only my teeth. Not a big deal, I guess.
A slim woman’s torso leans out from behind the corner as if she is poised on the edge of a cliff. She has a short blonde ponytail and she smiles, calling out my name expectantly.
I follow her along the smooth, plastic hallway into a small room. I sit in the mushroom-colored chair. “Crazy” by Gnarles Barkley pipes in through a speaker in the ceiling. Reclined, I look up at a bright, fake-cloud-filled sky covering over the fluorescent light. I shut my eyes.
1832: James Snell invents the first reclining dental chair. It probably made it easier to get right in there with people flat on their backs.
Another blonde woman enters the room, wearing light pink scrubs and sipping a paper cup of coffee, which I eye. Her name is Sarah, and she’s going to be the one with her hands inside my mouth all day.
She explains what exactly she’s going to do, but I don’t really understand what exactly the procedure is. Some sort of filling. Or maybe a few. Porcelain? Sealant? Amalgam, resin: sleek words, hard to grasp. My mom doesn’t come with me anymore to my dentist appointments, so sometimes important information slips by undetected.
Sarah tells me about her fiancée who is in business school as she snaps on gloves and adjusts the slim tools beside her. They are elegant, silver flower stems with long necks.
She begins to offer me a paper bib, but then thinks better of it and simply lifts the sweaty hair off the back of my neck and attaches it herself. Her latex hands are cool.
She asks me to open when I’m settled. I stretch my jaw down as far as it will go and let my tongue slide back in my throat. She begins to poke with a small tool. She prods as gently as I assume she can, but can’t help exploring my soft gums a little too hard. I wince and breathe in half a quick breath, but there is nowhere to retreat except further back into the chair.
1846: William Morton conducts the first “successful” demonstration of a dental operation on someone numbed out. The previous year, another dentist had performed a similar demonstration but was deemed a flop when the patient dared to cry out in pain.
Sarah smiles apologetically, takes her hands out of my mouth to let me speak. A thread of saliva sparkles between us for a moment. I break it with my tongue to wet my lips and swallow the metallic taste she leaves.
She looks into my eyes every time she asks “Are you ok?” I can tell she is trying her best to make me feel comfortable. Her eyes are blue and clear, almost matching the surgical mask she wears over her mouth and nose.
Is this ok? I don’t know if he ever asked that, guiding my hand downwards. I couldn’t even see straight, I was laughing, I think, so drunk. I woke up in my friend’s bed, unsure how I had gotten there. She laughed, shaking her head, “You were all over him!”
It wasn’t a big deal, I guess.
When Sarah asks, I tell her how my year is going, what colleges I’m applying to. I tell her about my sister, what my parents do for work. I tell her what I got for Christmas. I ask her what she got.
She has now moved onto two tools called a hatchet and a straight chisel, and alternates between them. My body goes rigid as she scrapes and digs. She rubs the metal edge of the hatchet along the wall of my tooth like you might remove shit from a boot. The stroke shudders down through the root and ricochets throughout my whole body, sending out a shiver that I strain to suppress.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) describes dental phobia as a “marked and persistent fear that is excessive or unreasonable”.
I blink my eyes when tears well. I flex the muscles of my jaw. I would grit my teeth if I could, grind them together to hide every trace of discomfort, but they are bare and vulnerable. Too open.
Sarah is talking about the delicate balance between her and her fiancée’s schedules. They are both so busy. It’s hard for her to find time to exercise. She’s getting fat, she laughs. I make a garbled sound of attentive listening, but my mind is honed in on the razor-sharp hatchet that is quietly mauling the skin between my molars. Sarah picks up the drill.
The grinding motor whirrs. Her hand moves slowly towards my mouth to penetrate the soft darkness. I shut my eyes tight as the whine of it approaches. Each rotation spins it shriller, the Doppler effect in miniature, a scream ricocheting down my ear canal. My body is frozen solid.
In 1871, James Morrison invents the first widely manufactured foot-treadle dental engine. Revolutionizing the speed, and ease with which we pulverize teeth.
On the couch in his TV room. Not drunk, but shy. He does ask, but I don’t know how to say that my own body feels foreign, that I am scared of his fingers, of what lies in wait inside his jeans. I let him take the lead, swallowing discomfort that feels excessive. We move together…feeling good, good, good, until…not so good…but I can’t say anything now, it’s too late…
I am unable to stop this from happening, it seems. I am laid bare before this blonde woman wielding sharp tools with deftness and a constant stream of cheerful chatter. My mouth is at the mercy of her slow grinding down.
I guess it would be feasible for me to slap her hand away, to scream at her to “STOP! STOP! NO!” But it’s on such a small scale, the violence. And all with the purpose of healing, of re-building, smoothing. It’s only my teeth.
Sarah talks to me about her preference for Dunkin’ Donuts over Starbucks. I am sweating and tears are pooling in mascara puddles at the corners of my eyes. There is too much saliva in my mouth, too much of the dust from my own teeth flying down my throat. I swallow when I’m not supposed to, swallow part of my own obliterated body. I start to choke.
Sarah pulls out. She wipes her forehead with her sleeve and reaches for a small plastic cup as I gasp and sputter for air. I am heaving, looking down, knowing that in just a moment I will have to open wide again…
And I do. Obedient, always. Brave, blasé. The corners of my mouth crack, my tongue falls down the back of my throat. I apologize to her.
“No worries,” She says. “I know it sucks.”
But, before she starts it up again, Sarah looks into my eyes. She says simply, “I know it hurts. I know, I’m sorry.”
Then, she starts again. Only teeth. I don’t even cry out when the drill grows shriller, shriller, shriller still, in my mouth.
Statistics are taken from:
Rosie McInnes is a queer, white woman, recent college grad, deep feeler and frequent laugh/crier. She is originally from Newton, MA, and currently living in Cambridge, working with young people and as a theater artist.