By Celeste Gurevich
The scene goes like this: you are chatting with someone, somewhere, and because you’re half deaf in your right ear, you’re standing pretty close so you don’t lose the ends of words. You’re right there in the conversation, and then that thing happens. That jolt in your body when you see the person’s eyes looking a little bit crossed and aimed lower down, and you realize that they’re not looking you in the eyes anymore, but not quite at your chin either and somehow their gaze is both loose and locked.
And then, like every time, that stomach melting wallop of shame. It blasts into your nerve endings and makes you want to cry. Or run. Bolt stage left, and crawl under a rock.
Because that crossed eyed dip of the eyes south means they are staring at the crack in your front tooth.
I grew up having nightmares. Those kinds of dreams about losing teeth that you wake up all sweaty and panicked from. They say stress causes them, but not for me. I had them, and still do, because I knew I was going to lose mine, in random order, without a doubt. What started with a crack would end up crumbling.
I knew this because when I was 8 years old a dentist told me the truth.
You see, my mother had epilepsy. Since childhood, she was up to her eyeballs with anti-seizure meds. 85% of people who have it are never fully diagnosed, so they just said here, take them all. Remember, it was the end of the ‘60s when I was conceived. Still fairly medieval. And all those chemicals, of course, affected me in utero.
When I was 5 years old, I started getting cavities.
We had Kaiser insurance, and they sent us to an orthodontic specialist who talked to an OB/GYN about the situation, who then told my mom that all those meds had not only stunted the growth of my teeth, but also weakened the enamel. Like barely there weakened the enamel.
I don’t remember details beyond that, but I know it was the day I started to stuff down resentment at my mother’s body for damaging me.
The years pass, with a parade of dentist and ortho appointments, who all verify the original diagnosis of doom and gloom for my poor, disadvantaged teeth. And I had to sit through all the torturous stuff. Fillings and root canals and crowns. Dude and Dude’s assistant, always female, their fingers pulling at the corners of my mouth until they ached. That drill noise echoed in my ears for hours sometimes.
It got to where I even hated the cleanings.
Can imagine how my body reacted the first time I saw ‘Marathon Man’?
I almost puked on my shoes.
And to make the whole budding dental phobia thing even worse for me, almost a year to the day after my friend put on that movie, I went to a dentist for a yet another root canal. Who didn’t give me enough injections of that bee sting tingle numbing juice and I could feel the whole thing.
The whole. Thing.
Only pain I’ve felt worse since was vaginal childbirth, and on top of my exploding jaw, I had my first nitrous reaction and thought I was having a heart attack.
And Dr. Douchebag didn’t listen when I told him, he just kept on drilling.
So there you are, in a café or bookstore, with your friend impulsively staring at your broken front tooth, the left center top one with the darkened edge of the crack like a backward crescent moon.
And miraculously, just there, below the shame, is the fact that you think this is kind of cool. Because you’ve always secretly wanted to tattoo a blue crescent moon over your third eye like in The Mists of Avalon.
And you think having a moon in your mouth is somehow more organic.
But in that moment, the shame is fierce and your body is caught between flight or fight, so what do you do? Because if it were someone you didn’t know, you’d sure as hell call them out for it, but this person is your friend, and you know them well enough to know that they’re not aware of the fact that their eyes on your tooth is making you feel bad.
But you are lucky enough to see the meta picture of what’s happening behind your friend’s eyes, and it’s a direct line to the issue of class in contemporary America. You see this because you’ve educated yourself.
You understand how strong societal conditioning is in this culture, how people soak it up without even knowing. All the billions of dollars pushing the messages up our collective ass. Folks just can’t fight the idea that having less than perfect teeth, especially broken or missing ones, means you are poor, unintelligent, a junkie, unwilling to help yourself.
Someone to not take seriously.
Broken tooth equals BAD, missing tooth equals disaster. End of equation.
All those billions of dollars spent to desperately not be you.
You understand all of it, and because it happens to you frequently enough it becomes a swelling idea for story you’re writing. About what it’s like to live with eyes hawking your funky tooth. The judgements that sit under your skin, even from well-intentioned people that you love and who you know love you back.
So you write your story even if it is the scariest way you’ve revealed insides to the world to date, so that hopefully someone out there will feel not so alone, will feel just a little bit better about their differences.
Because differences are really strengths, disguised.
You believe that people are mostly good and would be horrified at hearing that they are making you want to collapse in shame. So you don’t blame them. You figure out a way to educate without shaming them in return, because your own dance with it has taught you compassion.
You know what to do when the dread stare comes.
Because you love your friend and you finally love yourself, you don’t feed the shamebeast.
You choose power.
You just let it go.
And you choose to try and love your moon darkened smile.
This is a very poignant piece about a subject I bet few people think on. I have a colleague who never EVER smiled, she always seemed angry, and finally after a number of years was able to afford dental repair of missing from teeth. Then I saw the smiles. All that time she knew the first and last thing people saw when she spoke or tried to smile, was the missing teeth. I have broken one of my smaller front teeth. I do not smile the way I once did because that is exactly the impression I got after I broke it. People were staring at it. Mine can be repaired if I can afford it, but a problem like yours is one to live with. We are so influenced by appearances. It can even changes how we look at people we have known for years. A dark half moon is a rather cool thing by the by, and maybe, just maybe… She recognized it. One can hope we look beyond our shallowness sometimes anyway.
Donna, thank you for sharing your experience. Yes, I think many people have never thought about our societal conditioning, so normalized in this country. And an experiment: start counting the number of tv, newspaper, online ads you see focused on teeth. It’s my story, but so so many of us out here struggling with this issue.
That you took the time to give feedback means the world, Beauty. ❤
[…] 8. This short, but moving, personal essay on teeth and class in America. […]