Tooth & Nail

Stéphanie Hornstein wrote about her real life dental horror story for the Survival issue. Illustrations by Bethany Thompson (above) and Graeme MacKellaig.

For a while now, my dentist has been hassling me about my wisdom teeth. “Impacted,” says he, “high risk of infection,” says he. He wants them out, but there’s nothing exactly wrong with them; they’re not twisted or mutant or drilling their way up to my brain. So every time he goes off, I nod my head and say I’ll think about getting them removed, much in the same tone that I assure the hygienist that I will convert to floss and prostrate myself at the altars of Listerine. 

But over the years, as I watch both my sister and brother get theirs yanked out, I develop a kind of stubborn attachment to my wisdom teeth. They become the measure of my resolve, my infantile power to say no, my embrace of our neanderthal heritage and all the useless body bits that come with it. My hardheadedness eventually spills over into downright superstition. Wisdom is a sacrosanct virtue to anyone who, such as myself, has few real skills beyond putting words to a page. If only out of pride, I had to defend my right to this ambiguous quality, which for me became locatable to four kernels of calcium at the back of my mouth. I begin telling people—jokingly—that my teeth are the seat of my intelligence; only, through the broken record way I repeat anything I find clever, I come to believe it. 

Then, mere hours before the new year, disaster strikes. A dreaded infection seizes one of my precious teeth. At first, I say nothing, thinking it’s just the molar giving an especially large push. But the pain is real and I soon realize how badly I would’ve fared in prehistoric times. People died of toothaches then. I crack. X-rays are taken, my jaw is examined and the diagnosis falls again, but this time its an imperative: out, out! (Thank god my dentist is on holidays. I dodge the biggest told-you-so in orthodontic history.) Sapped by three days of torment, impressed by the medical logic put before me, I desist. 

Deborah, the maxillofacial surgeon, is lovely, but even she can’t make me feel at ease with giant syringes. Nor can she completely defuse my animal urge to bite the fingers messing around my mouth. As her needle works its way through my gums, the cornered creature inside me rears. And just when I feel on the edge of carnage, my reptilian brain is quashed and I resist. Instead, I half watch as Deborah takes dental crowbars to my teeth and heaves with all she’s got.

I don’t feel a thing when the first tooth gives; wouldn’t even have known it had I not gargled on the blood. “Look,” says Deborah holding up a gore-covered, tri-rooted specimen, “isn’t it cute?” Over the nearly muted radio, the Eagles play Victim of Love and it’s wholly appropriate. 

Once the operation is over and I manage to move the right facial muscles, the first thing I mumble for is my teeth. They are bundled in gauze, sealed in a biohazard envelope and given to me, but I have to wait—unbearably long it seems—until I’m home to unwrap my loot bag: and there they are, teeth 18, 28, 38 and 48, with all their concealed powers...outside of me. All that’s left to do is draft talismanic necklaces.

The next few days are not fun. I slurp mashed potatoes through pursed lips as my cheeks balloon and dark bruises erupt along my jawline. I wonder if it’s forever. My mother takes to calling me Bluebeard and I take to codeine. 

Three days into my convalescence, a friend hands me a poem by Boris Vian with a comforting pat on the back. “La vie, c’est comme une dent,” it begins, comparing the decline of a rotten tooth to the woes of life. The straightforward analogy makes me smile (and so wince), because it’s true. Teeth are kind of traumatizing things. Whether they’re coming in or falling out, those pearly whites are, with apologies to Deborah, anything but cute. There’s a reason babies wail when they teethe or why you shiver when told that good ole T-Rex’s canines were the length of your arm. And it has nothing to do with wisdom. Engineered to slash and tear, teeth are the very incarnations—not of knowledge as I had wanted mine to be—but of wildness. Perhaps there is no greater symbol of humanity’s caged state than a mouthful of braces? Vian’s poem works, because it makes the simple observation that life, like teeth, is not something the body gives up easily. Ask the tooth fairy, she knows. 

Oh, and while you’re at it, tell her she owes me. Big time.