Mouth open as he presses cold metal against each tooth. Leaning over me, he recites codes I don’t understand to his assistant. When it’s over, he smiles and tells me, to my surprise, that I have good teeth. Good, straight teeth. It means more to me than it should. I tell myself he says that to all his patients. Within reason.
Decades earlier, in a playground which is little more than a concrete pit carved out between two housing blocks, playing out past nightfall. There are steps into the playground which we decide are more fun than the plastic swings and slides. We find milk crates from somewhere and create a game of sliding down the steps on the crates. This is fun, for a while, and then I dare myself to try going backwards. In my efforts to push off I end up rolling over myself backwards down the hard steps. The kids I am friends with don’t even laugh because they can see I have done myself an injury. I don’t realise my front teeth are smashed until I get home. In the meantime it just hurts.
As a teenager I get tired of returning to the dentist to get the caps on my teeth replaced. I’m oddly un-vain at that time of my life or at least brazenly self-confident. It’s only when I go to university and grow up a little that I start to feel self-conscious. The friends I have made have more money and an easier life than I do. Boys notice and comment on my chipped front teeth. I realise where I’m from and that it wasn’t that nice a place to grow up, and my poverty seems to show even in my smile.
My two right wisdom teeth ache on and off for years until it is excruciating and I don’t care how much it costs to get them out. I am willing to put it on my credit card along with all the other debts I have accumulated. At this appointment he tells me that the wisdom teeth don’t necessarily need to come out. It’s a matter of whether I can manage the pain as they have grown at a slight angle and are touching a nerve. He stresses the importance of a small filling instead. The filling costs £85. The extraction of my wisdom teeth costs £350. After that, he’s earned my trust as a dentist looking after my wellbeing rather than screwing me out of money. I swiftly agree to both the extractions and the filling. I get the filling done almost immediately and this is when he compliments my teeth.
Then there are the two teeth to be removed. One is so deeply embedded in my jaw they have to crack the tooth in two first. My gum has to be partially sliced open. One dentist does this for me, and then I am sent down the corridor for my original dentist to take the other one out. The process is painful and bloody and I am weakened and hazy from the local anaesthetic, and grateful that I at least have friends in the waiting room to take me home.
Afterwards my face balloons and I send amusing pictures of my golf ball cheek to my colleagues at work. It’s over. The immediate corrections that needed to be done have been done. If only I had the money for my two front teeth. The cosmetic work.
A job in Sales helps me get a firmer grip on my spending. I save up the tuition fees for my MA and eventually quit my corporate salary to complete my studies. My boyfriend accompanies me to the graduation ceremony. On the train he lends me his laptop so I can do my make up using the web camera after forgetting my mirror. He doesn’t tell me that he is recording, but I half know he probably is. In the video, I apply my lipstick and tell him that as soon as I have paid off my debt and we’ve moved in together, the first thing I am going to do is get my teeth fixed.
The day comes when I can afford it. The dentist tells me the part of the tooth that has been chipped away is delicate and thin and caps might not work. He also tells me that if I am thinking of whitening I will need to do that first before putting caps on the teeth. I prevaricate for a while but ultimately decide to go all in. My teeth aren’t discoloured badly but for once, I would like to have some part of me that is as it should be. He gives me the stuff I need to paint my teeth white and I go home and for about ten nights I wear a ridiculous plastic contraption smothered with chemicals over my teeth and gums. I don’t go overboard and try to get them looking a natural shade.
The dentist seems to approve of the colour. He spends time finally putting the caps on my two front teeth, and I am uncomfortable and squirmy being underneath a stranger. But I submit.
After doing a last check he tells me once again that I have good teeth. He’s forgotten telling me that years prior. Maybe he means it.
The caps don’t fall out. I feel gratitude towards the dentist that I will never express. But on close, very close inspection, I can still see the lines where the cap meets the tooth. Most days I run my tongue over them, checking they are still there. When I wear lipstick the colour sometimes catches in the lines and my mouth feels like it will always be nothing more than a cheap trick.
Cover image courtesy of crafty_dame via Flickr