As a child, my front teeth dangled over my lower lip like escapees from dental prison. Braces fixed my overbite, but not my diastema—the space between my front teeth—which men found alluring although I did not. Cosmetics aside, they were serviceable teeth, up to the challenge of corncobs and steak bones.
My college roommates were dental hygienists. They arranged a free cleaning with a student hygienist. She noticed a ridge inside my cheek and consulted her supervisor. “It’s probably from oral sex,” I said, demonstrating how suction might wound the mouth’s soft flesh. The supervisor blanched and left. The student finished.
My husband always flossed and brushed. He had quarterly cleanings with a hygienist whose special equipment prevented gagging. Yet he needed root canals, bridges, crowns and various appliances, all purchased on time with a Care Credit account. When he died in November 2019, I owed on the latest $7,000 appliance, which he’d only worn twice. There was no money-back guarantee. It’s in a blue plastic clamshell in his nightstand.
When my aunt had cancer and needed dental work, she chose the cheaper crown since she wouldn’t need it long.
In high school, my mom, brothers, sister and I visited Aunt with our dog Wink—her dog Monday’s sister. In her yard, Aunt tied Wink to Monday’s lead. Monday raced into the path of a car and was killed. Aunt wrapped Monday in a blanket and dug a grave. She may never have forgiven my mother, who never forgave herself. Either the anger or guilt was redundant.
I keep a ratty beige Pendleton blanket of Aunt’s in my car’s trunk. Her fancy turquoise Pendleton blanket is in a cedar hope chest. A burgundy Pendleton blanket protects my couch from my dog. The blankets have Indian designs. Aunt would wear beaded and fringed Plains Indian dresses, call herself Ogimaqua, and lecture children about life on her reservation. Aunt’s grandparents were Russian and Lithuanian Jews. Her name was Helen.
After the November 2020 election, my colleagues sent me a tin of Garrett’s popcorn. The card said, “Even superheroes need to eat.” I bit down on the caramel corn and broke a molar. I spent Election Day in my dentist’s chair. Her congenial hygienist passed the tools and poured me water. I admired the rebuilt tooth in my car’s rearview mirror before I watched the returns. Trump—destroyer of all I’d achieved—was leading. I drank wine, chewed Xanax and ate a chocolate edible, wanting to wake up in Biden’s America. And like Dorothy and Toto, my world was prettier when I did.
Days later, I walked my dog and fell on my face. I’d tripped on the broken pavement before, where the alley met the curb cut. I dropped the leash, made whoooing and hoooing noises through the pain. My dog did not run into the nearby busy thoroughfare. He stopped, puzzled. We loped home through the alley, my COVID-era surgical mask drenched red. I dragged my tongue across a jagged, broken front tooth and tugged incisor shards out of my lip.
This time my dentist worked solo. She’d fired the congenial hygienist, who’d been uncongenially embezzling money, although less cunningly than the last congenial hygienist, who paid for a wedding, Nordstrom’s merchandise, vacations and food with my dentist’s cash. That case file languishes on a prosecutor’s desk, waiting for COVID to end.
This time my rearview revealed a nice new tooth, and torn, bloody lips. The tooth angled out but didn’t broach my sealed mouth. By evening my lip swelled. Next day I saw a nurse, who scolded me. I filled prescriptions and watched my cuts form giant scabs, like crusty old Milkduds. They dropped off one by one, as if their glue had evaporated.
My lips were fat and lumpy when a friend stopped by. A COVID mask obscured my injuries. A baseball had smacked him in the mouth when he was ten, and he still has a lump in his lip. He grew up, kissed girls, got married, despite the lump.
Aunt’s lips had accordion folds from too much tobacco and sun. My husband was sun-baked too, but his lips never wrinkled.
No one had been home when I unlocked the door, my tooth cracked in half and askew, blood painting my neck, my husband dead barely a year. I found his cloth ice pack in the freezer, stained with his own blood. I pressed it to my mouth.
Gail Louise Siegel’s short stories, creative nonfiction and flash fiction have appeared in journals including Ascent, Post Road, StoryQuarterly, Wigleaf, Zoetrope All-Story Extra, FRiGG, Elm Leaves and, happily, New World Writing. She has an MFA from Bennington College and lives just outside of Chicago.