There Wasn't
Any Tooth Fairy
In Havana

Virgil Suárez

Part II
Nothing that was ever tried has worked at getting my teeth straight and clear. I was a teenager by now and rebellion had set in. When my parents spoke of checkups and teeth cleaning, I said no. After much pleading, my mother would take me in to this other Cuban dentist who worked on my teeth and who gave my parents credit. Pay later for the pain today. Great idea, I thought, but this man was and still is the only dentist I've ever trusted. Needless to say, the day he informed my mother he was retiring was the last day I've ever been to the dentist.

This was 1983. I was in college. I had found out I didn't have to worry about my teeth. People no longer made a big deal about it. Women liked me or disliked me for other reasons, none of which had anything to do with my teeth.

Once in a while they'd come up in friendly conversation. I would say, "Look, look at my teeth," as if to put everything on the table. "Look how stained." It's not that bad, they'd say. And I would tell them the troubles I've had. The last dentist --- who I had started to call Christ Dentist (Cristo El Dentista) after the beginning of Miss Lonelyhearts, a wonderful novel by Nathanael West --- tried a final time to do a new procedure that was guaranteed to mask my kind of problem. It didn't work. It left a couple of off-color spots on my first and second premolars. And somewhere between the dentin and enamel, the stain lingered. I will take my stained teeth to my grave.

Since 1983 I have spared myself any more humiliation and pain. The rootcanals so many dentists have promised I'd need never happened. The wisdom teeth came forth and praise be to god, they behaved on their path. I refused braces. No more of those hellish instruments. I know other generations have had it worse. Imagine having a toothache in the wild west, a barber would do the pulling.

My friend David Kirby told me once that he read in Life that soldiers during World War I sat on a bicycle type of contraption and pedalled fast to motor the drill. Imagine, the faster you pedalled, the better the drill worked. Then came AIDS in 1987 and it's given me a better excuse to tell people when the subject of my teeth comes up. "What are the chances?" they ask. "What are the chances of contracting AIDS from a dentist?" I don't want to find out. There was Kimberly Bergalis who contracted the disease from her dentist.

Anyway, since 1983 I have not been to a dentist and neither do I intend to go, which brings me to the epigram of this piece by Dostoyevsky. For the longest time I had not remembered how Notes From Underground opened, having read the book a long time ago in college. I always thought that it went something like, "I'm a sick man ... a mean man. There's nothing attractive about me. I think there's something wrong with my ... teeth." I like that.

And I thought I had managed to repress all of my dentist-going experiences when one day I find myself being Lamaze coach to my wife. It's the meeting next to last and the instructor asks us to gather in a circle. There we are, my wife leaning back against me, totally comfortable and relaxed when the instructor asks all the men to relate their most painful (excruciatingly so) moment and it's my turn, and I'm sitting there thinking of all the things that have fucked me up and scarred me, and I think immediately of Dr. Mengele in Los Angeles, the man who worked on my teeth without anæsthesia. All the other guys in the Lamaze group look at me as if I'm making this stuff up. Then they see my eyes water. They see the same rage my father saw that afternoon, a rage that, thank heavens, has never reared its ugly head again.

My wife didn't know this story. Surely, we had talked about teeth, but I had never told her. Of course, now that we were having our first child, I was worried. I kept thinking about my mother's biggest fear, which is that the stained teeth is in our, mine, genetic pool. Luckily, both my daughters have beautiful straight, clear teeth. Alexandria, the oldest, has gaps between her teeth, which the pediatrician says will be all right. Gabriela has perfect teeth. Soon they will be having their first dentist visit, and I keep thinking of great medical advances in dentistry. For their sake, for mine. For fear that I will have to take them in and that when I smile in the office, the dentist will stop what he or she is doing, look at my mouth, and say "OH, MY GOD, COME EVERYBODY, HAVE A LOOK AT THIS."

--- From Spared Angola
(c)1994 Arte Público Press


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