There Wasn't
Any Tooth Fairy
In Havana

Virgil Suárez

Part I
I brush after every meal. I brush when I've had too much coffee. I brush when I think I have bad breath. Growing up in the land of scarcity didn't help any. My mother took me to every dentist in Cuba and they all told her the same. Even after I lost my milk teeth, the new ones would come out stained. Milk teeth, I've often wondered what that really means? There wasn't any tooth fairy in Havana.

When my teeth started loosening up, my relatives showed me how to pull them. It was painless fun. The softening and jiggle one day, and the gap the next. My mother saved all my teeth as I shed them. I never asked what she intended to do with them; and she never offered any clues. I dreamt she'd make pendant teeth earrings out of them. A necklace. A brooch. But my teeth were stained. Ruined for life.

Everybody on my mother's side of the family always offered milk. Calcium, they said, calcium was the answer. Nothing helped. I was a sickly child. There was nothing attractive about me. I think there's something wrong with my liver. How many bottles of Scott's Liver Emulsion have I suffered?

People kept saying it was my diet. I was sickly and skinny. The dentists told my mother there was nothing to be done. The new teeth came in stained, crooked. I was born in 1962 --- there'd be no braces for me. The dread and fear of dentists was inflicted upon me early, from so many visits. There was always the faint smell of clove lingering in the air in the waiting rooms. It made the child gag. We sat and waited.

It begins with my mother in Havana, Cuba, taking tetracycline during her pregnancy. She didn't know it at the time, but this would have a terrible effect on my teeth, turning them yellowish green. It was my name and my teeth which gave me the most trouble during my adolescence. Other kids picked on me, either because of the name or because they said I didn't brush my teeth.

Oh, I brushed my teeth. I still do, so hard in fact that I make my gums bleed. Even today, I will not walk away from the bathroom without looking at my teeth in the mirror.

My mother would not give up, she'd not have a child with stained and crooked teeth. She took me all over Havana looking for an answer, for the right dentist to save me from a life of ridicule. On those leather chairs I always sank in and braced myself for the worse. The scraping, the picking, and the drilling which came later on. I hated it. I still do. There are statistics that say dentists are among the top professionals to commit suicide. No wonder. Who likes the sons of bitches? Ah, but how I suffered at their hands.

When we moved to Madrid, Spain in 1970, the first thing my mother did was take me to a dentist. They, too, confirmed what the Cuban dentists had said. My teeth were stained. It was to be. There, under the enamel, lay the clouds of yellow-green venom. But the diet improved in Spain. I drank milk on a regular basis, and though I hated it, I drank it to please my mother. Cheeses, too. Everything dairy was supposed to have some kind of magical effect on my teeth.

But my parents wouldn't give up. In 1974 we arrived in the United States where my parents quickly found work in the factories in Los Angeles, California. They worked hard without insurance of any sort. Still, every year my parents saved enough money for my annual teeth checkup. The dentists who looked into my mouth in the United States all did the same thing, they looked, then stopped and called in their colleagues, come look at this, they'd say. Have you ever seen anything like this recently?

With every visit I started to feel proud, specially when they found cavities because I knew they wanted to get in there and scrape, poke, drill. People who are dentists must have been anteaters in another life, all that digging and rooting.

There were a couple of years when my parents didn't have the money. Someone told my father about this retired dentist from Cuba who worked out of his garage. He was cheap. He did good work. The only problem, as I was to find out later, with this dentist was that he didn't use anæsthesia.

The first and last time I went over with my father, he drilled my teeth without it. He worked in the garage all right, on an old barber's chair. "Grab the arms real hard," he told me. "When you feel any pain, lift your finger." I looked at my father, who didn't say anything. He knew we needed to go through this. I kept my fingers clawed to the arms of the chair. I tore the leather. The pain sent chills up and down my spine as the drill dug deeper, and the smell of rot came up to my nostrils. This guy had nothing on the dentist in Marathon Man Played by Sir Lawrence Olivier. "If I had anæsthesia, the man told my father, "I'd use it. But, I'm not insured for doing this here." My father saw the rage in my stare. I didn't speak to him for weeks.


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