I went to the dentist today. I was lying back on the dental lounger or whatever it’s called, looking at this big photo hanging on the wall in front of me, a picture of the Santa Monica boardwalk, all blue blue ocean on one side and carnival colors on the other, and the sky, and I reminisced about the good old days of having higher-end health insurance, when my dentist was this great Cuban mom who had the whole set up where you can watch Netflix while they drill into your mouth. I would have preferred it to the photo of the beach, where part of the water is a glowing green that is really pretty until you realize that when water is green like that it’s generally not a good thing.
I did not grow up going to the dentist. My sister did; I think her teeth were more obviously wonked, she’d need braces, she’d get the dentist. My eyes were wonked; my mom caught me making grotesque faces at the television screen, and when she asked what I was doing I said, I’m straightening my eyes out. Turns out, I have a pretty severe astigmatism, which means my eyeball is shaped like a football rather than a baseball (the patriarchy and its sports metaphors, I swear) and I guess I really was trying to work the orb into its proper shape. So, I got I doctors and glasses, which my sister did not. So it goes in a broke family, I guess?
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I went to the dentist for the first time when I was fifteen, Dr. Block, a real asshole. It doesn’t hurt that much, he scolded me as I wept in pain during my first cleaning. And maybe it didn’t - I would go on to realize I have a full-blown dental phobia, which manifests as deep weeping during all dental procedures. Dr. Block took my impacted wisdom teeth out when I was nineteen or so, and gave me a bunch of fillings when I was conveniently knocked out. I remember my boyfriend coming to visit me at my parents’ home, where I still lived. He had brought along Lydia, my metamour, a beautiful girl he was fucking while I lay about on pills with a bloody, crusty mouth and sickly pallor. I really liked Lydia – she wore her chestnut hair in very neat, shiny twin buns, and had lovely vintage clothing and bright red lipstick. With my boyfriend she had brought me a bouquet of get will flowers, and while partly I was mortified to be witnessed in such a repulsive state, I was also truly happy to see them, and felt so cared for, that they would make the trek all the way to Chelsea to check in on me and deliver flowers before setting off on their date.
Thinking about Lydia makes me think about how much I loved having metamours – it was one of my favorite things about being polyamorous and, at the moment, the thing I most miss about that romantic arrangement. A metamour is, simply, your partner’s other partner, your date’s other date. I always took seriously the good cheer and well wishes one needed to have towards one’s metamour in order to make the whole thing operational. Not only did I intuitively understand that it was the perfect antidote to jealousy and insecurity, but it gave me a great platform to really test my feminist love for my fellow femme. I liked to hold a stance of humble admiration for these various girls, as well as the unconditional positive regard I heard a therapist holds for a client. I also liked to give them gifts, the way a maiden would bring tribute to the queen. I tapped into the aspect of my personality that is naturally devotional, swirled it around with the part of me that really likes to pledge myself in service of radical ideas, and embraced my sister wives. Once, I baked a batch of cookies for my lover and her primary, decorated with little toothpick flags sporting their initials. In that instance I wanted to communicate that I wasn’t looking to bust them up, that I celebrated their connection (though they did break up, and it was at least in part due to me, but that’s polyamory for you). Another time I bought a metamour a bottle of Dori Midnight’s sexy Pleasure Activist tincture the exact same day she bought me a cauldron for my spellcasting! I burn shit in that little iron pot all the time and think fondly of this person. I legit felt like a dirtbag the night I met another metamour for the first time and showed up empty-handed; I hadn’t planned properly and I do believe a femme deserves a giant bouquet of flowers when she’s meeting her lover’s new lover for the first time. This metamour was also solid; when our common lover did us both dirty we hopped on a zoom about it and spilled some hot tea all over that player. One metamour never said a word about the gifts I sent in her direction – a book, some charmed full moon water – no acknowledgement, or thank you, no anything. It spiked my bitch’s intuition and I ruminated on it until my partner said, Maybe she doesn’t want to be friends. I was gobsmacked. I just didn’t think that was an option in polyamory. And it really isn’t – not if you want things to roll along merrily, which this particular arrangement most def did not. I never gave gifts as a litmus test to suss out sinister vibes, but after that experience, I realized it could be. An un-sisterly sister wife is no sister wife at all!
Anyways, this is about my TEETH. As an adult drug addict in my thirties, I was haunted by the way my teeth seemed to rattle in my head when I did too much speed, like I was just becoming skeletal, mouth first. And of course speed and all those other brisk drugs I enjoyed also came with a side of jaw-clenching and teeth-grinding. Haunted by my oral health, I did what any run-down druggie would do when needed dental care in San Francisco – I registered at the free dental school in the Marina, and hoped that a student would find me suitable for experimentation.
And one did! She totally reminded me of this trashy girl with big, bleach-blonde hair who was in the dental hygienist shop at my shitty vocational high school. Same big, bleach-blonde hair, same orangey tan. She was gentle and kind and seemed to really care about my teeth. When I told her I was a writer she shared her love of romance novels with me. I recall arriving in her chair at the school one day after having inhaled some sparkly crystals of meth up my nose; velcroing the blood-pressure cuff around my arm, she was perplexed, maybe concerned, at my heart rate. It’s really fast, she told me. Did you run here? The dental school was at the top of a hill. Yes, I lied, nodding my head tweakerly. She kept futzing around with it, taking my pulse. It should have come down by now, she mused. I drank a lot of coffee, I told her. She looked unconvinced. A lot, I pushed. She shrugged and made a note of my unusual vitals.
That should have been a red flag for her, because less than a month later, after getting a call from a friend that a dirt-cheap apartment had opened up in Hollywood, and the property managers were friends, and if I wanted it I could just have it, and didn’t I want to finally move out of that old Victorian I shared with a hundred other dysfunctional gays, didn’t I want to live alone with my boyfriend, so that I could wear lingerie in the house while making him a frittata – I swear, this was the notion that got me to leave a fucking $800 a month flat in the Mission, that I could live the life of a horny trad wife. That and I needed a geographic – a situation common to the alcoholic and drug-addicted, when you can feel that something is very fucked up, but you cannot handle that it might be you, so you decide that your city has bad vibes, man. It was the start of the first tech bubble in San Francisco, and the city did indeed have bad vibes; just the other night I had to waste an entire carton of eggs, hurling them out the window at a bunch of rich people who’d been bussed into the neighborhood to attend a web launch party at the warehouse across the street from me. Not the chop shop warehouse that dismembered stolen cars, the other one. The eggs rained down on the yuppies in their slip dresses and suitcoats and I wish I could say I was delighted but little gave me joy right then. I was mostly angry. Fuck San Francisco. I moved to LA.
The aspiring dentist freaked out when she learned I was no longer in town. I guess it goes without saying that I did not consider how my absence might fuck up this kind woman’s wholesome life plan at all. She begged me to return. She offered to buy me a plane ticket. She would work with my schedule, she would pay me money. She was so desperate, I couldn’t handle it. I tried to overwhelm her with the vehemence of my refusal. I’ll fail if you don’t show up, she said. This seemed terribly unfair, but surely not my fault. Why is this school letting their students future rest on the backs of people who can’t afford a normal dentist, who feel okay letting a marginally trained child experiment on them? I mean – surely, many of these people were completely responsible, functional humans. But also, I couldn’t be the only flighty thirty-something with a drug problem trying to fix their rotting teeth for free.
I’ll be 20 years sober in less than a month, and wish I could find this lady and make an amends to her. I like to think it all turned out okay for her, and she’s got a booming practice, rolling in tooth money, her bookshelves filled with signed first editions of all the Harlequin classics.
Los Angeles was a bust. I needed a geographic for my geographic, and returned to San Francisco after about six months, having given up my two-hundred-dollars-a-month-room for no reason. Now I was paying the steep, steep price of $400 a month to live with my boyfriend and a rotating cast of lousy roommates in Bernal Heights. One lousy roommate was a trans guy who seemed to be in low-key competition with my boyfriend; also, his girlfriend was a psychopath who enjoyed hitting pigeons on her bike. The next was my boyfriend’s twin sister, who was a fucking brilliant genius, like lost member of John Waters’ Dreamlanders crew, an academic who liked to party and had exquisite taste in rock n roll. But – news flash – twins are fucking nutjobs. They fought like wild animals, and then make up by speaking mournfully to one another in a baby-talk language called Cute. It was a lot. She eventually moved out and was replaced by a poet who would lie to my face about our relationship, claiming to remember being in my life at various points when I did not know her, making me feel gaslit and insane. She also smuggled a pet chihuahua into the no-pets-allowed flat, which she denied, even as the trembling dog’s shrill barks filled the air.
Anyway. One night, watching television, this commercial came on that me and my boyfriend loved – Dr. Chang and Associates. It was great because it was one of those super low-budget local business commercials, starring Dr. Jang and a host of former patients praising him with awkward, stilted delivery, then giving us a big, fake smile so we could see the proof. After obsessively loving it for a few months, it actually occurred to me that I could go to Dr. Jang and associates – the whole point of the commercials was he was a cheap dentist who did good work for uninsured patients. I called and made an appointment. It pays to advertise.
I wasn’t sober when I first became Dr. Jang’s patient, and I remember this because my checkbook had a sticker on it that said DRUGS HELP A LOT. I can see myself slapping the checkbook ironically onto the reception desk, going to pay for the nitrous I requested, in spite of the extra charge. Yes, I was broke and cheap but I always had money for drugs, even at the dentist.
It was later, after I got sober, that my dental phobia really exploded. I think there’s a few reasons for this. Before I got sober, I was always, always in an altered state due to my alcoholism. If I wasn’t drunk, I was feeling the physical repercussions of my most recent drunk, which was never more than a day behind me. I was also likely metabolizing the effects of whatever drugs I’d taken the night before – crappy cocaine, fairly good speed, disgusting nuggets of heroin snorted in spoonfuls of water. Every das was spent in a state of physiological stress as my body tried to detoxify; every night was spent replenishing my toxins.
I don’t know about you, but cocaine hangovers make me weep. At the end of my using, I would actually start to weep in between lines, if they could not be sourced swiftly enough, the crash came that hard and fast. Surely this may have had something to do with the way I would begin to sob during cleanings. Because these hygienists were normal people and not monsters like old Dr. Block, they were quite alarmed and had thought they’d hurt me. And it is true that an unkempt mouth of teeth is painful to have cleaned. But it was more than that. I fell into such an existential khole during a dental visit, and this strange phenomenon only worsened as I sobered up.
Well, sober there was no veil between me and my GAD (that’s Generalized Anxiety Disorder). My moods were pretty wild. I don’t think I started using to self-medicate – I started using for the adventure, the amped-up good times it initially brought, coupled with my OCD-level obsession with good times – but I do think that my GAD probably was progressing, as untreated mental illness does, beneath the mangy carpet of my addiction, and once I really had detoxed all the shit from my body, and was clean and sober and lucid for the first time in decades, well, hello GAD!
While initially I would shamefully emote at the hygienists, I’m so sorry, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, you’re not hurting me, keep going, suffering through the cleaning feeling like a complete lunatic, trying to get it together even though no one knew better than myself how near-impossible it is for me to stop crying once I’ve begun. I would try to make myself stop crying by imagining situations of extreme cruelty – Guantanamo Bay was a frequent meditation point, humans torturing other people. My logic was along the lines of I’ll give you something to cry about – the one-liner most often spouted by my parents when I’d erupt into childhood tears. I believed that these mental images of actual nightmares would put my present situation into its proper perspective – this was what people in 12-step called a luxury problem, I was a white, American woman getting her teeth fixed by a capable yet reasonably proceed dentist. What was there to cry about. However. As one might imagine, tripping out on the worst of humanity only made me sob harder. What is this fucking world anyway? What is LIFE?
Eventually, it just became weirdly normal, the dental weeping. This just happens to me, I’d tell the hygienists. Just ignore me. Once, while quietly breaking down, I realized there were tears splattering my cheeks that did not belong to me. I opened my eyes and saw that my hygienist was also crying, shedding tears into my cranked-open mouth. I am so sad, she told me, and went on to tell me about the married man she was in love with. He would never leave his wife. I love him so much, she said, scraping plaque from my gum line. I tried to murmur sympathetically with a bunch of metal tools in my mouth. It was actually very helpful; her drama distracted me from my own gloom, and I eagerly listened to her complaints. I wished I always could be treated by heartbroken dental workers involved in doomed love affairs.
Once, while being love bombed by a particularly charismatic Borderline, I made it through a cleaning without tears for the very first time. I’ll call him Tyler, because that was his fucking name. He insisted on coming with me, sitting in the office and reading me the favorite book from his childhood while y teeth were cleaned. I don’t remember what the book was about but there were rabbits involved. The staff were as charmed as I was, cooing over him and telling me how lucky I was; it didn’t hurt that he looked like Johnny Depp before he went bad. The soothing, lispy sounds of him treating me like I was an adult baby did the trick; it healed some part of my inner child, and kept the tears at bay (I’d also practically overdoes on valerian capsules beforehand, and was feeling naturally groovy).
I feel like I’m never not working on my teeth. Maybe it was all the years of youthful neglect, the drug use, the shabby adult habits, the too-long breaks between cleanings when I’d fall off. People in recovery joke that getting your teeth fixed is the 13th step, and it is very common for people who have a history of drugs and alcoholism to have ratty teeth. I once had a dentist in Boston tell me there was an excess of plaque in my saliva, that’s why I needed repeat deep-scaling (I probably just wasn’t flossing right, if at all).
Once I was dating a person who had the unfortunate habit of losing their libido when they fall in love. Being wonderful, this person did fall in love with me, and, sadly, was unable to fuck me, and right as I had cracked open their inner pervert. My primary partner, spun out on a new relationship, was barely letting me stick my finger up their butt. I was distraught – how had polyamory led me to a spot where I had two lovers, yet no one wanted to fuck me? I could feel my self-esteem perilously trembling. But also – I was poly! My lover, having also been reminded of this by the shaman they used as a therapist, shared her suggestion that I fuck other people while my lover sorted out this intimacy tangle. I said sure, and promptly arranged a date with a strapping Texan who legit wore a cowboy hat and everything. My lover was upset about this, though it was their shaman-therapist who had made the suggestion. Just so you know, your breath smells bad sometimes, my lover helpfully informed me one night as I put my clothes back on, readying to leave. . . . Okay, I said, in a tone. I just thought, if you’re going to be kissing new people, you should know that.
I felt a few ways about my lover’s helpful info-drop. Firstly, if I have bad breath – and, with my dental history, why wouldn’t I? – I guess I want to know about it. I believed it was true. I’m never really bothered by people’s breath myself, so I just crossed my fingers and hoped that, if my breath did reek a bit, it was somehow ok. I guess I was in denial? Being in denial is bad! I was grateful to my lover for hipping me to this problem. Sort of.
I mean – it’s pretty obvious that, true or not, they said it at that particular moment to, if not hurt me, at least make me less confident in my kissing skills as I went out to kiss people who weren’t them. This didn’t make me mad at them either – it was sort of weirdly touching, or at least, I felt tender towards them. I loved them, and it was the lashing out of a child – p.u., you stink!
Of course, they fully denied that their comment was meant to be anything but helpful; they were legit offended that I would accuse them of such a thing, sharing a perhaps real observation to hurt my feelings and/or kill my game. When we broke up a week or so later - as I realized I did not wish to have an extra-marital lover who was unable to fuck me, regardless of who else would – the Bad Breath Comment became a source of conflict during our failed post-break-up process, with my ex insisting they’d meant nothing by it, and me insisting that they did (I was willing to accept it was a subconscious sabotage, but we couldn’t even agree on that).
When I told my primary partner what my lover had said, they gave me probably the last sympathetic face of our marriage and said, not unkindly, Aww, that’s because your teeth have problems. While I appreciated being handled gently, as our marriage was decaying faster than my molars, and such kindness could no longer be expected, I also felt a zit of self-loathing pop upon my heart. Gross, everyone knows I have bad breath! And kissing is like my favorite thing in the whole world!
I didn’t quite cast a spell, but I did make a very deliberate wish to the universe that my next real lover, in addition to enthusiastically wanting to fuck me, should be someone raised in a poor, chaotic household, whose family struggled with caring for him properly, whose teeth were often neglected, and who turned to the solace of drugs in their youth, causing their teeth to decay at a faster rate (but also giving us even more in common, as well as providing them with an addict’s insatiable libido). This dream lover would of course no longer be abusing drugs, and they would be on a path to fixing their teeth, as I am. And reader, I found him.
Presently, I get my dental treatment at a community clinic, and I love my dentist – she’s very kind and was truly interested in learning about Cookie Mueller when she asked me what I was reading. Her whole team seem like daggers to me, but maybe it’s the scrubs. I just had a crown put on one tooth, and today I went to an endodontist referral – also very nice – about a broken tooth that needs a root canal. It’s possible the teeth around it have also gone bad; in addition, I have five cavities to fill. My community dental clinic is impossible to get an appointment at; you have to wait at least a season, but also, they let you call them and nag them for cancellations, and they try to get you in sooner. At this point, my Effexor keeps the sobbing at bay during cleanings; for more challenging work I do want to be drugged, but I’m not sure I want to pay for it. Nitrous for my upcoming root canal would cost me an extra $150 – but then, can you really put a price on a freelapse? I’ll probably read my cards about it. To drug or not to drug is really my only source of dental stress these days. It feels so good to be actually dealing with the problem of my teeth in a consistent way, with a team I feel warm fuzzies for, that I truly don’t care what my diagnoses are or what it costs, I’m just fucking grateful that I can do it, am doing it. I want to be able to pant hornily in my husband’s face with full confidence that the only corrupt thing in the room is our minds.
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Just wonderful in every way. As someone who also grew up in a family were the dentist wasn't even a thing, I know what it is to remember shitty housemates, lovers, good and bad times via the pain in one's tooth!
I freaking love your brain so much. The photo of kittens was perfectly placed!!