Slow Murder Of My Face

The night before I had the second tooth extracted, I dreamed I had been drugged and taken to a tattoo parlor, and that I was just emerging from some kind of strange anesthetic which made an itchy cool move in patches across my face. Some orderlies were helping me into a wheelchair, as I didn’t have full control of my limbs—they were floppy, they felt full of some fluid that vacillated between hot and cold to the rhythm of my heartbeat.

Then I noticed the tattoo. It spread, in fine, dark-green lines, from my left wrist to my shoulder: it looked like some kind of architectural drawing or industrial diagram. Maybe a bit of Byzantine cathedral about it. "It’s okay," said one of the orderlies, a middle-aged woman in burgundy scrubs, with short blonde hair and a shiny chrome stud in her chin. "You look kind of shocked. But don’t worry. It looks great. You’re going to love it. It’s really you."

When I woke, I probed the space with my tongue; the hollow where the back half of the tooth used to be. It tasted of mild overnight decay. On the other side of my mouth, I plumbed the smooth gap where they were going to have to place the first titanium screw. I stood and went into the bathroom, looking into the mirror, sucking my cheeks in tight. I smiled. This is no longer my face, I said. I watched my mouth move. Do I always open my mouth so wide when I talk? No, it must be that I am doing it in front of the mirror. You can never smile for the camera exactly as you smile unprompted, can you? I said it again, watched myself say it again: "This is no longer my face."

Of course our faces are always in flux, aren’t they? We gain a little bit of weight around the holidays; the jowls expand, contract. The cartilage in our noses and ears continues to grow. The lines spread around our eyes, around our mouths. Across our foreheads the furrows deepen. A lot of laughter or a lot of grimacing can have about the same effect over many years. I suppose it would be more accurate to say that I have a slightly different face each moment. But this was bigger. You subtract a tooth, or teeth. You cannot smile. The flesh of the cheeks sucks in to fill the holes when you close your mouth. With time, the jawbone begins to erode. And that is where your jutting-out resides, your sticking-out-boldly- into- the-spray. When the jaw juts out resolutely, that is a form of command. A form of command I lack.

Perhaps my anxious over-analysis of all this has something to do with my sudden descent to a lower socioeconomic station: not long ago, and for reasons I was assured were strictly financial, and had nothing to do with performance, I was terminated from my lovely job, right down the street. Even a hyperbolically enthusiastic letter of recommendation from my former department head did nothing to assuage the feeling of uselessness, of being written-off. It’s tough to know that in a boardroom somewhere, a group of people met and decided over lunch that you weren’t worth keeping around.

When I looked in the mirror the morning after the extraction, despite everything I consciously continue to tell myself about our corrupt system of human value--about the worth of the poor--I saw a person who wasn’t worth keeping around, a person who fell through the cracks, who is beginning to lose his teeth, who has lost that jaw-jutting gumption, who has lost his command.

I thought about the tattoo-dream and what it might represent. An unwanted and highly visible revision of image, which—like it or not— carries with it a certain stigma. Who I am.

Poverty. Failing dentition. These things belong together. But I never imagined they belonged together in me. I certainly feel more like a statistic on a news broadcast. More like a statistic than I have felt since early in my youth when I posted a very high score on a certain test. Those tests donot matter now, if it ever mattered. Where does the person go when you feel a statistic?
On the rationalizing front, there are many reasons for the failure of my dentition:

1. I chew on things. Things I shouldn’t chew on. I recently stopped smoking. Of course I probably began the smoking at least in part because of the underlying fixation. I may be part Labrador Retriever puppy, who knows.

2. I grind my teeth at night, or as I hear music. I grind my teeth to provide the percussion for the music I hear in my head. I grind my teeth as I drive, and to propel myself through channels of intense work. I grind my teeth as I attempt to orchestrate great swells of disorganized thought into something that works, something that makes sense, a chain of dominoes falling neatly one-after-the-other.

3. Low socioeconomic status.

4. I suck compulsively on quartered Meyer lemons.

5. Sometimes I drink tea for six months, followed by six months of coffee.

6. I fail to address certain issues with my dentists, fearing I will insult one or both of them by suggesting that one or both of them have missed something that ought to have been obvious. My dentist in Virginia is of a different ethnicity. I worry that he will interpret my concern as having something to do with racial distrust. My Pennsylvania dentist is a cousin of mine. I worry that he will interpret my concern as having something to do distrust of the Irish. Sometimes I worry they believe I have two dentists because I think that together they add up to one whole dentist. The reality is simply that I am in one place at certain times, and in another place at other times. Whatever the case, you might assume that with two dentists, my dentition should be better than average. This is not so. As I am unwilling to notify either of them of any particular problems, it results in deferred care between cleanings. I know this about myself. Yet nothing changes.

7. Sometimes I go through a phase where I want to toast popcorn kernels until they are on the verge of popping, drizzle them with olive oil, sprinkle them with sea salt, and eat them, unpopped. When this happens, my wife has to leave the room, apparently because she cannot distinguish the sound of crunching kernels from that of splintering teeth.

8. I had a dream that my dentist—the dentist of a different ethnicity—and I were standing on the balcony of a penthouse apartment looking out over the city as the sun set into the darkening silhouettes of tall buildings. We were smoking some cigars and discussing the possibility of going in as partners on a restaurant project. The whole time I wanted to ask him some question about my tooth. When I finally got down to it, he was surprisingly accommodating. Later, as I walked back to my squalid little shack across the railroad tracks, some tough guys jumped me and knocked me down into the gravel, stealing my wallet and running away into the purple night. I felt around my mouth with the tio of my tongue, tasting my own blood. The tooth was loose, the very tooth I had asked about—it fell out onto the gravel and I picked it up: but it was not at all a tooth. It was a piece of blue plastic shaped like a first premolar. One of the cusps was cracked off, and I could see a bunch of little white things inside, little glass beads, about the size of pinheads.

Okay, none of # 6 has anything to do with my actual dentition, but leaving it off the list felt almost dishonest.

Regardless of the reason, I am having problems with teeth. I remember having dreams about loose teeth all through childhood and adolescence. I always associated these dreams with growing up. I was losing my psychological baby teeth so to speak. But now we are through that level, and the loss is happening in waking life. If I want the loss of my teeth to refer to something in a metaphorical way, it is going to have to refer to death. That is the only thing left for it to refer to.

Is it a sign? I want to say, or more specifically, the part of me which is vulnerable to the allure of the mystic wants to say. Is it a sign of my impending death? And then I remember. There are no signs but the ones we discern. And my death actually is impending. In a month’s time I will turn thirty. At some point within the next forty or fifty years, I will die. There is no getting away from it. Whether I choose to view the loss of these teeth as the first step in this process of final dissolution is up to me. But there is no avoiding the fact: I am no longer on the upswing. My prime is past. It is deterioration from here on out.

My wife came into the bathroom and caught me scrutinizing my own face, pulling the skin back, smiling in great exaggerated crescents. "Get over yourself," she said. I should get over myself, I thought. How?
"We have to take the kids to mime," said my wife.

Then we took the kids to mime lessons, in a great old school building with Doric columns and a huge oaken bas-relief dominating the hallway. It is either Samson or Prometheus, and in either case a highly stylized interpretation of the figure in question.

After mime, it was time for my appointment.
My daughter clung to my leg.
My oral surgeon thanked me for wearing red.
I asked him if I was getting a local in addition to the IV anesthetic.
"Yes," he said, and then told me a purportedly humorous story about a plastic surgeon who, for experimental purposes, used a local on only half of his anesthetized patient’s face. I realized that there is probably a kind of humor that appeals to surgeons without appealing to most other people.

Things went fine, though I had some doubts about whether the local had been used.
“It’s in your mind, said my wife as she drove us home. I saw the huge needle, lying on the table. Besides, it’s hard to anesthetize that particular place with a local.”

My son worried loudly from the backseat that his tooth is coming in wrong.
My son worried that his teeth will end up like mine.

I looked at my face in the side mirror. Puffed-out, maybe a bit of a black eye. General distortion of the left side. It occurred to me what a lot you would have to do to a face to render it unrecognizable, and that there are people in the world who have had firsthand experiences with these phenomena. It is very sad and frightening, and I scold myself to this day for all the pity I’ve wasted on my own face. It wasn’t much to begin with.
dorbel3 dorbel3
26-30, M
Nov 25, 2012