By Jacob McArthur Mooney
I had always been early. With every major life landmark along the way, I had arrived there first among my peers: talking, toilet-training, milestones for height and reading, the whole set. I bought the first training bra and earned the first learner's permit and celebrated early menarche to a crowd of envious nine-year-olds. Even among my friends, who were generally as prone as I was to racing ahead on genetics or aggression, I was always first. So that moment five years ago when I was studying for Dr. Fisher’s Junior Econ final and felt a kind of shove from the muscles in my mouth, my thought was: there it is, another early landmark. I’d have to defer exams and maybe take a half-load in the winter or even go on leave and graduate a year after my class, but I'd get there first before Becky and even Christina. I was teething.
There were decisions to make. Maybe the pain would be too much and I’d move in with my parents full-time and live in the basement like my brother, my brother who had gotten his teeth a year earlier and promptly sank them into the cheek of the girl he was dating, bewildered by her reaction and how she went and pressed charges with him all the time declaiming, “I thought we talked about this. I thought this would turn you on.” My idiot brother who sold drugs from his Subaru and let the internet tell him what girls liked.
That evening, I dished to Christina and she did her best to congratulate me, though she did it in fits and starts and always buttressed by omens about exactly how much this was going to hurt, how she heard the pain was eclipsed only by childbirth, about which you could at least say it was over more quickly.
That morning, dressed in pajama bottoms and an old tour t-shirt from a favourite high school band, I gathered myself together and took my daily swig of mouthwash. Waiting for the sting forecasted in health books, the complaint of an open sliver where in a few months a canine or a molar would grow, I closed my eyes and got ready. But nothing. And then nothing the next day or the day after that. Nothing over Christmas, though my mom prepared a special plate with the turkey still on the bones, the white meat dry and chewy the way she and dad would eat it. I took mine with applesauce and a side of cranberry emulsifier, letting it break apart in my mouth whenever my gums squished down against the goop. It didn't hurt at all and I went to bed disappointed.
That spring, the girls in the TV show Becky, Christina and I had followed since junior high both got their teeth and the treatment was windswept allegory. The tall one went away to camp. Her friend across the street couldn’t afford it so she humbled through with ice chips and teething necklaces, “Like I had to do,” her dad said, sternly. He gave her a case of freezies for her birthday. It was the show’s last season and this was how the producers were signifying the end of adolescence. A crossing of bridges. We never knew if the actresses got their teeth in real life until one showed up married to an older businessman in a romantic comedy. The poster showed them holding hands and smiling, matching grown-up movie star teeth in the overhead lighting.
Becky got her teeth that autumn and, like the shorter friend, humbled through. We brought her food from the dining hall. Her boyfriend left her without giving an excuse though he was later overheard making a joke about dangerous blowjobs. Our commencement photos have the three of us smiling in caps and gowns, her tightly closed mouth lifting at the edges while Christina and I, heads back, cackled our victory, mouths as open as they could get, ruby reds of untouched gums just shining.
Becky went to grad school. Christina and I got into law. It was the summer break between first and second years when Christina got hers and left me as the late one. We were supposed to go help the pro bono practice of a locally famous litigator but she flaked out at the last minute. She just showed up again that September, beautiful straight teeth settled in her mouth like they had always been there and there was nothing to explain.
“What happened?” I asked. She shrugged. “Did it hurt?”
“Wasn’t bad,” she frowned. And that was all of it. A whole life spent ramping up in nervous giggles and then nothing.
I’m not a girl who thinks all day about her teeth. I refuse to join the madness: false sets, preparedness guides, “pre-pain” medications, mouth yoga. I roll my eyes at other people’s $10,000 Biter’s Balls and never attend them when invited. I don’t watch movies where teething is the main plot point, and even if it comes up unexpectedly—the willing beauty of a college sex comedy waltzing up to our virginal nerd and asking, through a face full of bloody growers, “Do you want to come up to my room?”—I’ll walk. But this was new. Suddenly I was licensed by the bar, making money, and everyone else in the room had gone through it. This was the first thing I was late for, and here I was, 25, working twelve-hour days for a billion-dollar firm where the partners still called me “the blonde kid.”
Christina had offered to not talk about it, and I was glad to accept. Three years later we still had never spoken to one another about her teeth. We who once took flashlights to each other’s vulvas when she wondered if hers “looked weird from the side.” This was the first wall we ever put up against intimacy.
But I was thinking more about my teeth, for two reasons. One was that the shoving had come back, and that morning after I pulled a dusty black skirt from the pile on the floor of my studio apartment, I took my swig of mouthwash and spat it all over the wall.
“The fuck?” I asked to nobody. The pain was fleeting and precise. Once the Listerine was safely airborne, it was gone. This was happening now. Finally. I was about to get my teeth. Me and the 10th percentile of my peers.
That was the first and best reason, but not the only one. The other one was Alex, who was tall and a couple years younger and just effeminate enough for my liking. Alex who I had met through another first-year associate, who didn't talk much about himself but seemed to like me fine. Alex who was as toothless as I was. Alex who had just graduated from dental school.
I had been suggesting plans to Christina all day over text. Our firms had their offices on high floors of neighbouring towers and I had hoped we could get away and meet for milkshakes but the Senior Associate she always referred to as “Date Rape Face” told her to get ready with a prospectus document the firm would never need for a company that would never decide to sell itself. I had my own bosses to report to. A partner had given me a clutch of new files to “cut my teeth on” and I accepted them eagerly even though the ageist remark hit closer to home than usual. By 6 PM we both assumed that we'd be done before nine and able to catch drinks at the chain restaurant two blocks further downtown. I was done by 8:30 and in the convenience store in my building's basement trying to freshen up when she called.
“Are you okay?” I asked. She never called.
“Yes. Fine. Surviving.”
I found a single-shot container of Listerine next to the tampons. I had walked by it twice beforehand, missing it because its label was changed to advertise the company’s sponsorship of an outdoor concert that coincided with their demographic. It occurred to me that I’d feel old if I went there.
“What about you, are you okay?” Christina was worried because I had made specific plans and stuck with them even when work had made them difficult. I was insisting.
“I'm fine.” The woman at the cash was in her fifties and had stained, dingy teeth. To think that everything new will grow old like that. “I just need to pick your brain.”
“Is it a dude?”
“Exciting.” Christina muted her headset for a coworker’s question then came back without mentioning it. “The dentist? Allan?”
“Alex. Yes. And some other stuff.”
She pushed out some air. “Do you need career advice?”
“Actually, sure, if you have it.” The mouthwash was overpriced and the cashier seemed embarrassed to ask for so much money.
“Just never be a lawyer and you'll be fine,” Christina said, loud enough that the clerk heard her say it through my cell.
I was sipping a vodka cranberry by half past nine. When it had arrived, I pulled out the straw and used it to slurp up the mouthwash, trying to keep it away from the worse half of my mouth, but it didn't work. I was just self-conscious enough about my breath to power through. And now the alcohol was stinging, too. This was how it would be. Everything would hurt and my food would taste like blood.
Christina was dressed all in red. “Sorry I'm late,” she said, sliding her bag beneath her seat. “I haven't eaten. Have you?”
I shook my head. We scanned the list and both chose kale smoothies.
There was a crowd of blue-haired women in matching yellow smocks and the wait staff was busy gathering together smaller tables to seat them boardroom-style. They were a delegation from a health club that specialized in the elderly. Christina and I talked about work for a half hour and she let slip her quarterly bonus figure, which was about twice mine. Our smoothies were cold and frothy and felt good against my gums. She asked about Alex and I said he was fine, but that he seemed to get bored easily when we spoke and she snorted and said he was likely in a bad profession for the easily bored. She asked what he did all day now that he had a job and I relayed his short story about a cosmetic extraction, where a stage actress had come in and asked to have her whole set of teeth removed.
“I've heard about those,” she said. “People get them now to look younger. My dentist offers it. Though I'm sure you stop convincing anyone eventually.”
I decided this was as easy an entry into my target conversation as I would get. “You could have gotten tooth food,” I offered, pointing at her shake. “If you wanted a sandwich or something, I can join you if we took our time.”
Christina shook a bit of greenery from her straw. “No, no bother. I felt like comfort.” I had friends who ordered steak every time we ate and it never got away from me that they might be rubbing my face in it. Christina always suggested smoothies, hot cereal, yogurt, foods that were smooth and slightly juvenile and then sucked them down like she missed them. She was good to me.
I arranged the unused cutlery and just came out with it. “I got the bite,” I said, and felt an immediate flush of embarrassment. Twenty years to prepare to tell Christina this one thing and the best I could do was crib the title from a Public Health video we had laughed through together as kids. The protagonist told his mom about his problem and she placed a hand on his shoulder and said, “Congratulations, chipmunk.”
Christina put her smoothie down and tilted her head. I could see her jaw moving a little and I realized she was chewing, as if maybe that was a thing she did now absent-mindedly, when thinking. I had never noticed it before.
“Ouch,” she said.
“I know. It's so silly. Here we are having this conversation now after everyone else has gone through it but to be honest I don't know what to do—”
“Did you see a doctor?”
“But you know.”
She pushed back a bit from her seat. “Well. Congratulations, chipmunk. How are you going to handle it?”
I told her all my ideas. There was a special spa in the north end of the city where you could go and they would take care of you while it happened. Massages and pain-management classes and tantric this and that. One of the associates got to go before law school. Also I had read somewhere about a new method to do with gum chewing and jogging. Christina dropped her hands into her lap and looked around the dining room as my list of options slowly dried up.
“I don't know, honey,” she said when I was finished.
I finally took the opportunity to ask her for her story and nothing in my tone or posture suggested I was nervous.
“What did you do when you got it?”
It was like she knew that had been coming, and was either bored or insulted by my telegraphed lead-up. She sat up straight. “I don't like to talk about this.”
Christina bit her lip. Not hard. Her top front tooth just poked out from behind her lipstick to hold her bottom lip in place. It was gorgeous and mature and I felt for not the first time a wave of generalized envy. There were things she could say with her face that I couldn't.
“My dad got me a spot at a camp. He worked overtime all that last year at college because he knew it was coming and a co-worker had talked up how much of an ordeal it was for his son. Kids are getting it earlier and earlier because of hormones in the milk or something, and they just aren't ready to deal with it on an emotional level. Anyway. The place costs like twenty grand a month. They take your phones when you get there and you take turns getting pampered and pep talked and there’s also classes in, like, public speaking or Mandarin if you want them.”
I remembered trying to reach Christina all that summer. New content dried up on her profiles. I asked her if she liked the camp even though I knew she didn't. She bit her straw for a second before answering.
“All I remember is being lonely,” she said. “You get psyched up for this transformative experience and told it's about so much more than just your body but then you get there and it's a giant brown building that’s just so fucking fascinated with your body. The pain, the change, everything. To be in pain is the point of being there. All you are left to think about for eight weeks is your body and how it hurts. My grandparents teethed their way through World War II and here we all were writing essays about delayed gratification. If I had to do it again, I'd bite down on a turnip for two months.”
“How bad did it hurt?” I asked, almost so quickly on the end of her sentence it came across as an interruption.
She furrowed her brow a bit like I confused her. “I actually don't remember,” she said.
I sat back in my seat and sipped my drink. Christina talked a bit more about her dad wanting to rent the curling club to throw a Biter’s Ball, how they fought over it and eventually settled on a family-only barbecue in the backyard. We moved on to work. Tables filled and emptied. The women in the yellow smocks raised their glasses as one among them, a tall woman in pearl earrings, began talking. It was somebody’s birthday. I didn't hear the number because Christina leaned forward in her chair and slurped the last bits of her smoothie.
We didn't talk any more about Alex but when I checked my phone on the cab ride home he was there. Texts had started at half past nine and continued hourly telling me he had a mixer for the new hires at his office and wondering if I wanted to come over after. I was about to beg off on account of an early morning meeting when he called. The noise in the background was enough to make me turn down my speaker.
“Are you having a good time?”
He said something but I didn't hear it. I ended the call and texted to ask if he wanted to hang out later. He said yes and I suggested my place. I had the driver take me by a pharmacy where I bought condoms and aspirin. When I got out the cabbie was waiting by his cab, smoking. I asked him for a cigarette and he gave me one and held out his lighter.
Once I had it lit, I drew in a long pull and stifled a cough. The driver glanced at me. He was a soft-looking man with a bad sunburn. “Meter is running, miss,” he said, gesturing into the passenger-side window.
“It's okay,” I said and sucked on the cigarette again. It was my first one since college.
He tilted his head a bit and pointed to his jawline. “You have the teething now?”
I touched my cheek with an open palm, as if reacting to a slap. “Why do you think that?”
He gestured. “People think that smoking helps.”
He shrugged and took his cigarette out of his mouth, flicking ash onto the concrete with his thumb. “Probably not. Girls where I grew up, you know, they tried it. They tried anything, they were desperate.”
Something about how he said the word desperate made me feel scared and ashamed at the same time. This was becoming the central double gut punch of the whole operation: that I could feel scared and also ashamed of the fear. I thought about Christina’s summer camp, its wall-to-wall servitude. How do people process pain when they don’t think it can be avoided? Not that there haven't always been pain medications, but the idea you could push the pain away with cardio or music therapy, this was all new. What would the farmers and coal miners that came before us say?
“Only the girls took up cigarettes?” I asked my driver.
He pursed his lips and seemed to think for a moment. “I think maybe the boys were all smoking before it started.”
I had changed into a pair of boxer shorts and a t-shirt and was running through a briefing with a highlighter, sitting on my bed so I could see the front door of my studio. I had my laptop up and paused at the point in the movie when Alex and I had left off the last time he was over.
It would take concentration to get somewhere where I felt I might have sex tonight. I wondered if Alex and I were at the point now where we could enjoy a night off without bad feelings. I chewed on the highlighter and the pain shot across my gums, to the back of my throat, and up through the roof of my mouth to my eyes. I closed my eyes and saw spots. I had heard about the headaches but never understood where they came from. They came from the roof of your mouth. I had taken two aspirin in the cab and another the minute I got home.
Just before buzzing into my building, Alex sent up a text message to say that he was drunk. I told him not to worry. When he knocked on the door, I kicked my slippers off and used my bare foot to push a pile of junk mail under the couch.
He had a small red stain on the pocket of his work shirt. He used the doorknob to balance himself as he slipped off his shoes.
“I can go home,” he mumbled. I took his coat and kissed him.
“It’s okay. If you like, we can just watch the rest of that movie.”
I had guacamole and we shared it with warm pita bread curled up in the corner of my bed. His office had welcomed their two new dentists with drinks and a dinner that spilled out into a neighbouring bar and then a karaoke place. I smiled at the thought of ten drunk dentists with dirty shirts, filling a dark room in Koreatown with what they remembered of their favourite songs. Alex’s breath smelled of beer and mint.
“How old was he?”
“The other new guy.”
“Oh. About my age maybe.” Alex was 23.
“What’s he like?”
“Funny, um, confident. Professional. He looks older.”
This was all I wanted to talk about. I had gone months without mentioning teeth in conversation. But now.
Alex shrugged. He needed a haircut. His blond bob shifted noticeably with every movement of his head. “He’s balding a bit, plus he has all his teeth.”
On our first date, Alex shared a handful of tragicomic stories about the plight of the toothless dentist. He seemed to know it showed he had a sense of humour. An octogenarian retired soldier once told him that he’d just as soon “get his dick poked at by a eunuch” as be examined by a kid with “a mouth like an asshole.” We were both the only toothless people at our workplace. It limited me to a kind of perpetual kids’ table, something that always framed my ambitions and talents, matured though they may be, as aspirational. But for Alex it left him lonely as a punchline.
“Why did you want to be a dentist?” I asked him once we had slowed down with the guacamole and he had started to relax about being drunk while I was sober.
He covered his mouth and wiped some neon green avocado from his chin. “I like helping people. And I think I’m good at it.”
I may have rolled my eyes.
“Really,” he said, clearing his throat. “I like the people.”
We sat there for a minute and I listened to the traffic. Alex opened his mouth once or twice like he had something more to say.
“And I don’t want to be around people our age,” he said.
I must have looked askance for a second because he felt the need to rephrase himself. “Not too many people, I mean. I don't mean you. It’s like: they say teaching school would be a good job if you don’t want to be around too many adults. In the same way, dentistry is a good job if you don't want to be around too many young people.”
I hadn’t thought of it before.
He changed the subject, clearly worried he had insulted me. “Why did you want to be a lawyer?”
Instead of telling him that, I told him I was teething. The whole story, beginning with the mouthwash. He listened, eventually leaning over and rubbing the soles of my feet. I told him about dinner with Christina and my smoke with the cab driver. There was a crack of lightning and faintly in the echo I could hear rain hit the street outside.
When I was done he waited a minute to see if I was finished, then adjusted his seat and slipped his hand into his back pocket. He pulled out a blue and white tube about as long as my pinky finger.
“Here,” he said. “Open your mouth.”
At first I formed a small O but when he brought his hand to my lips he gently pushed them open wider. I made eye contact and moved my leg until my foot was resting in the crotch of his pants. Alex smiled shyly and I felt a cool pressure on my gums. He dragged that pressure from one corner of my mouth to the other like he was drawing on a wide smile.
When he was done I licked my lips. “What was that?”
“How do your gums feel?”
I had to think about it. If I concentrated, I could still find the pain, but it was like it had been picked up and carried into another room. It wasn't like the aspirin, which had just sat on top of it. It was like I was experiencing the pain’s echo, like it was calling out from the past tense.
“What is that stuff?”
“It’s prescription, but they’re hoping to make it o-t-c. It’s new.”
“A pain reliever?”
“Sort of. I mean, yes. But the mechanism is different.”
I looked at the small tube in his upturned hand “The mechanism is different,” I repeated.
His tube was half empty. “Are you using it too?” I asked.
He gave a weak grin. I could tell he was running his tongue around in his mouth. “I am,” he said.
“Are you scared?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, and cleared his throat.
I nodded a little, then leaned over and rested my head on his shoulder. For several minutes neither of us moved except Alex would occasionally stroke the back of my knee or one of us would shift their weight in the bed. Eventually, he brought the computer screen up and pressed play and the movie scene cut in mid-sentence. A pair of small-time crooks were planning a heist. The rain picked up and after about an hour you could notice a sudden drop in the flow of traffic. The display on my monitor said it was midnight. At some point I asked Alex if the actor playing the mother was still alive, and he didn’t answer. I looked up and his eyes were closed, his breath whistled faintly in his nose.
Slowly, I wriggled out from my place beside him, took the tube from his hand and put it on my table. I went to the bathroom and swigged some mouthwash and didn’t feel any pain. For a little while I stood next to my couch and watched Alex sleep in the bed, his socks still on and the blue din from the movie illuminating his shirt and his small red stain. When I had looked long enough, I turned to my door and locked it.
Jacob McArthur Mooney's three poetry collections include the most recent Don't Be Interesting and the Dylan Thomas Prize and Trillium Poetry Prize finalist Folk. He lives in Toronto. This is his first professional fiction credit.