The summer before sixth grade, I zipped my lips shut for what I predicted would be the rest of my life. All because of a neighbor’s pool.
Playing Marco Polo with Chris and Johnny and Robin and Carol, I dove underwater and popped up near the edge of the pool, mouth open in laughter. Due to an unfortunate overbite, I chipped one of my front teeth on the concrete, instantly transforming my once fat pearly-white into a permanent dagger.
This meant a trip to the dentist. I was terrified of dentists. I avoided them. But there I was, trembling in the chair, as the dentist conferred with his assistant in the hallway. I heard the words “too scared” and “anxious,” and then the dentist returned, unhooked my paper bib, and told me he wanted to leave the tooth as is.
“I’m saved!” I thought, and then, looking in the mirror again, “I’m doomed!”
All through sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, I aimed for invisibility. I slunk through the hallways as teachers and classmates said, “Why don’t you smile? Smile, smile!”
In high school, I mustered the courage to get the thing capped.
Zoom ahead twenty years.
I’m flossing after dinner, and—ping!—the cap pops off. In the mirror, I see that scraggly tooth again. I’m back in junior high, slinking along with buttoned lips, hounded by teachers, by classmates, to “smile, smile!”
I grab the phone. “My tooth fell off!” I tell my friend, whose father is a dentist. “I mean the cap, the cap! What do I do?”
He gets his father. The dentist-father tells me to buy dental glue from the drugstore, glue it back on, and see him at nine a.m.
In the morning, I bring my own father for support. He picks up a magazine in the waiting room, and I follow the receptionist down the hallway. The dentist-father is standing by his tools, wearing a white smock. He looks like Ed Sullivan. He invites me to sit in the dental chair.
Invites me. Like we’re having tea together.
I grip the arms of the chair. He reclines me slightly.
“Are you comfortable?” he says.
Is a cow comfortable before slaughter?
He shows me his new gadget, a camera that looks like an oversized thermometer. He inserts it into my mouth. On a large screen, we view my teeth and gums from every nook and cranny. Gone With the Wind was shorter than this viewing.
Can we just get to it?
At intermission, he gets to it.
He pries off the glued tooth. Shows me his fancy drill, pointing out the features. I’m afraid he’s going to ask me to feel the heft of it.
“Now, if at any time you feel uncomfortable, raise your left hand. I’ll see it, or Bubbles will see it, or Ramon will see it.” Bubbles the receptionist, also his wife. Ramon his assistant, also People Magazine’s reject for most handsome man in the world. “One of us will see it, and I’ll stop.”
Zzzzzzz goes the drill. Zzzzz, Zzzzz, Zzzzzz. He leans in and drills that tooth down to a stump. While he’s at it, he shaves the tops off a couple of bottom teeth to make them more even. But not too even. “You want them to be like the columns of the Parthenon,” he says, and gives a long-winded discussion about Greek architecture, holding the drill aloft. Finally, “Would you like to take a break?” he says. “Have a cup of coffee?”
A cup of coffee? I want out, is what I want. I want to collect my purse and my father and ride home. “Let’s finish this,” I say.
He glues a temporary cap to the stump, and holds up color samples like an interior decorator, finding the perfect match for my teeth. Bubbles leaves her desk so she can peer into my mouth, along with Ramon and some guy in a leisure suit who pops by to discuss golf scores. They all make appreciative sounds as my eyes dart from one to the other.
Finally, Happy Hour at the dental office is over. Bubbles, Ramon, and Leisure Suit return to living their lives, and Ed Sullivan backs off, nods, and puts down his toys.
“We’ll call you when we have the permanent cap,” he says.
God help me.
I stagger out to the waiting room.
My father is staring at a wall. He’s aged ten years.
At home, I look in the bathroom mirror. I smile. The temporary cap makes me look like Bugs Bunny.
I zip my lips shut.