By Dahna Cohen
Snake fangs appeared in the mirror. Sharp and grizzled white, pointed towards the surrounding emptiness, drawing more from the dark space than the matter they occupied. The powder room by the kitchen, small and poorly ventilated, smelled acrid, but still vaguely reminiscent of a home cooked meal, not the strictly bathroom smell of piss and shit, but like food that had only just begun to digest, a little too sweet. And sweeter still, masked by the air fresheners and toilet cleaners her mother used. Jordanna could not differentiate the smell of what had landed in the toilet from the chunks that stuck in her nostrils.
The smell was more familiar to her than her own reflection. She had not felt her teeth fall from her mouth. They exited with the same force as the hunks of brown meat spilling from her esophagus. Had the porcelain crowns even felt loose frantically chewing the leftover meatloaf she had eaten with her hands, standing in concealment from her mother? It was just by chance that she even looked at her face in the mirror, because in all those years, when had she ever even noticed her own face, let alone her teeth?
She had already flushed the toilet. They were gone. Three of them, in the front. Her top six front teeth, which had been whittled away in the name of cosmetic dentistry, her mother’s idea, to transform a bulimic’s enamel thin and yellow smile into something that could at least pretend to look happy, were now unmasked. The other three crowns hung on, fused together, on the left side of her face. She touched them gently and they fell too.
Snake fangs, in her black hole mouth, then she knew what trepanation that dentist in Scarsdale had eagerly performed, she felt her skull freed of the reptilian burning, the confused prefrontal cortex, the traumatized limbic system, all transparent in the light of sacrificed incisors and canines.
For a moment of shock she clawed at the possibilities of what to do next. Tell her mother? Call a dentist? Her phone buzzed. It was Monk.
“My teeth fell out,” she told him.
“What? Oh my god. I have to see this.”
They met at Dunkin Donuts, he was sitting outside on a milk crate by the dumpster.
“Let me see,” he said.
She showed him.
He smiled and shook his head.
“Come on, let’s go,” he said.
They walked to his apartment, she felt dizzy and unable to speak. Her tongue slipped and slid. She was empty, had nothing, not a word to give. She felt the jagged space with her tongue. She wasn’t sure how to feel humiliated in front of him when she was so uncertain that she was even a person anymore. When he asked “Are you going to suck my dick?” she thought well of course he wants me now.
It was a few more days before the pain registered, and she could not get out of bed. She stayed in her brother’s room, while he was away at school, watching reruns of Roseanne, with her mother’s cat perched on her belly. When the infection got worse, her mother took her to the dentist.
“I feel bad for you,” her mother said.
Jordanna accepted her pity, since it was as close as her mother could come to empathy.
The dentist was not the soft spoken woman Jordanna had seen all her childhood, who always offered Vaseline for lips that chapped and cracked as they stretched and stayed open during long sessions of prodding. The new dentist was curt and male and failed to disguise his disgust at a young woman’s face distorted.
“Are you a drug addict?” he asked.
He gave a nod that did not deign further contemplation of what an eating disorder meant; that peculiar stratum of addiction that no one was quite sure how to morally judge.
The air was sterile and the drill came down or rather up against the middle top of her mouth right where her lip met her nose, touching the edge of the tooth right where it met the gum, just with a crack and it was in there, while white dust flew around the whirling needle. The goggled face looked down at the newly formed wrinkle in Jordanna’s forehead, tried to gauge the effects of Novocain, which was never enough, yet she declined when he offered another shot of anesthetic, another needle to dig into the softness of her gums, less pink than they should have been, but flesh nonetheless, while the sharp shocking pains worked through her.
“You need crowns on these teeth,” the dentist explained, but her mother was not happy at his fees, and they left.
On some far flung edge, dropping off into a numinous sea, apart from the interlocking pieces of the mass, the spiraling jigsaw of human existence, Jordanna began adjusting to her new face. She began to let go of the pictures she had drawn from the words people had used to describe her, took an old bicycle from the garage and rode it to the Long Island Sound every day, the hot summer wind and waves gasping. She felt an orgiastic release from the prison of pretty faces her mother had built for her. For the first time, feeling weightless and invisible, movement felt like the only grounding thing, and she relished her newfound ability to move through space, encumbered. The need to drape herself in thick sweatshirts and cross her arms over her breasts, which had descended on her in seventh grade, had made it too awkward to write on the board or pass out graded papers, finally lifted that summer.
Her parents went away on vacation, leaving her alone in the big, empty house, with the big empty bed and the cat perched on her belly. She would come back from her long bike rides and her feelings would vacillate from freedom to fear. There was nothing for her to cling to, she could finally let go of the fetters that bound her to superficial struggles, but instead she made Monk into the measure of everything she could not have or be.
When the terror of her parents’ house became too much, she would go to him. He met her outside the bodega and led her up the shadowy stairwell into his kitchen, where they would smoke hand rolled cigarettes by the window. He drank tea excessively, his own teeth were stained yellow, his smile always slightly sinister. They would fuck quickly, usually on a chair in the kitchen, quietly when it was night and his mother was sleeping in her room. It was like drowning, and when she looked up, she saw his face, thinking “He’s coming to save me” when really he was the one holding her under.
It cost four thousand dollar to fix her teeth, and fixing meant covering the snake fangs with a strip of porcelain fused to metal. The first set of fakes, the one she had not known were fakes until they came out, had been convincing in their replication, all porcelain, all white, in two sets of three that left space between them. This new prosthetic was one long strip, and anyone shorter than her, which was mostly only children, could see the blackness of the backing. Insurance would not cover it, and it took two months for the lab to fabricate. Her grandfather paid.
The procedure had been painless, having already had the root canals, and the dentist had only whittled away a little more of the fangs so that they were ground to nubs at this point, securing the fake teeth along her gums. She’d seen them in their little petri dishes before he’d bound them to her with cement, the six little tombstones bristling, hideous, and she stood outside with them in her mouth, waiting for her grandfather to come pick her up, suddenly accessible to the world again and in wonder at how easy it was to fool them all when it was now impossible for her to hold up the veil against her disillusionment. She appeared whole again, but the world for her would never again be this smooth, simple surface of appearances. It was bitter vindication that she would only ever again smile a fake smile, a smile that stung a little, reminding her of her pain. Her grandfather’s Cadillac pulled up and she got in.
Copyright Cohen 2019