They emerged in the spring: three little newborn pockets of wisdom that did not settle into place until June. In the time between they rose to the height of molars and sunk into bloody caverns, unable to decide which was the better place. They had to come out—or so the dentist claimed. In the tiny x-ray pictures he showed my mother the damage they would eventually create.
“See,” he said, “here.” He pointed to a dark stain in the film.
“If we don’t remove them, they’ll crowd the other teeth and begin to push.” He leaned back in his chair and sighed. I imagined he had done this many times before and had grown tired of telling parents what was good for their children’s teeth. Or perhaps it was boredom, this minor removal too routine for his taste.
“And then,” he continued, “she’ll need braces and that’s really more trouble than it’s worth.”
My teeth were my mother’s pride, second only to my grades, white and straight without any effort and they could not be marred by outgrown bucks and crooked invaders.
The dentist handed my mother a clipboard. He smiled at me, nodded as if to mean it wouldn’t hurt a bit.
“Just sign and we’ll get started,” he said.
And out they went.
My gums were tingling. I could feel the drill begin to break holes in the enamel. My jaw cracked enough times to convince me that it was breaking and it, too, would have to be pried away. I gripped the arm rests, felt my neck tense—pulled tight by discomfort.
And then it was over. The assistant, who’d once made a game of guessing what the flavor of the fluoride she was covering my teeth in was, showed me how to stuff gauze into the holes. The dentist held up my fragmented teeth in his gloved hand. The pieces were smaller than I had expected and parts were dark and stained burgundy and black.
“That’s it. You’re done,” he said. His voice came muffled through the mask.
My lips felt numb and heavy, weighted from being pulled and stretched to their limit. I leaned back against the chair, my mouth stuffed on all sides, and waited. I watched the dentist. He swiveled in his chair, hummed a tune I couldn’t recognize, and before I could even think to ask if I could keep them, he put the teeth in the sink. I watched the water spin them away.
Before he let me go, the dentist told me that everyone reacted differently when they had their teeth removed. I only half listened, sure he was kidding, or that the mask he still wore was catching and tripping the words. Later, though, when my cousin had his wisdom teeth removed, his gums and cheeks became swollen, so that he looked like a chipmunk storing food. And then, of course, there was my father who was never sick, whose cuts and bruises disappeared as quickly as they came.
Though I was left only with a numbness that soon faded and stuffed caverns that were slowly closing, for two weeks after my teeth were pulled I was careful. I lived on a diet of Jell-O, tea, water and weak instant broth—things that eased over and past my teeth and gaping gums without leaving a mark or trace. And I grew used to it, the sensation of lightness, of near emptiness. There was a kind of power in that too, as surprising and captivating as my body’s ability to heal. Even as the cautionary period passed, as I regained some kind of solid grounding, the need for restriction, for some kind of test of strength continued.
I kept asking myself: Why, if these third molars are so useless, did they emerge at all? Later, despite having no logic or reasoning for it, I came to the conclusion that if I could lose three teeth so easily, other things could also be dropped away without harm.
I imagined it would be simple, that losing parts, pushing events and people from the past into small oblivious blips, would come as easily as the extraction. It was only after that I realized how reluctantly and how unsuccessfully I did it all. I kept remembering the dentist, his mask on, the glare of the light in my eyes. How effortlessly he had spotted what was, to him, a spot of dental weakness.
To the dentist each tooth was an expendable, disposable part, that would eventually only crowd the healthy parts of the environment it lived in. I could see that, but for months after I felt a sort of dull, faint ache where each tooth had once been.
I knew that even removed I could not eliminate they mark they had left, or pretend that they had not once been a part of me.
The first one, the youngest, responded to names like Vaca, China, Gorda, Slowpoke, Josie Grosie, or some variation of it coined by cousins, by a grandfather, by kids at school while she, at first small and pale, grew under the cushions of the gums. Even then, when it was still easy to laugh away the words, something inside her began to harden. She thought for sure someone would notice and put an end to all the games, but they were games, only words, and it was easy to laugh and smile them away.
By the time she fully emerged, stuck somewhere between the games of childhood and the actions of adulthood, she could give a look to wither and push away any person that could do her harm. Wrapped in dark jackets and sweaters, her hair perpetually held in place by a low ponytail, no one could reach her. Soon enough no one tried to and this new self solidified. Then later, when she wanted to, she couldn’t shed any of these coverings; she could not let them go. And so the slow and careful process of losing other things began: first other people and then an ounce, a pound, and finally a smile. These were replaced by other, presumably, better things—strength, shape, and the comfort of a long winter, a sort of cool and careful isolation that made her at once untouchable and lonely.
And even this was not all bad. She came to think it all for the best, that being apart and away was worth it if it meant being better. As though to confirm it, for the first time in her life someone called her pretty. And doesn’t every girl, no matter how strong, want to hear that?
The second one, this girl, emerged soon after and descended upside down, like Alice tumbling through to another world.
Her mother went away for a short time before returning as if her absence had never occurred. The girl claimed that it really shouldn’t have affected her, but even after everyone had stopped talking about it, even after the awe had left the voices of others and the incident gained a kind of flat and gray coloring, she kept replaying the events. For her, they were still a bright wet tangled mess of acrylic. She saw: her mother sick for years with a slow, burning pain that seemed to never disappear. The sickness was given a simple two syllable name: Cancer.
While her mother was away the girl learned to wait, she learned to quiet the words of others. And when her mother returned, the dangerous pain having been quenched and calmed and finally removed, there was only what was tangible and visible.
On the day of her mother’s return, the girl and her siblings were pulled into an embrace. Of all the days, of all the moments in that period, it is her mother’s embrace that she remembers most. That day, her mother smelled sweet and fresh, a strange but wonderful mixture of Oil of Olay, Tommy Hilfiger, and savila, that freshly cut my mother used to soothe our cuts and her fingers, burned by oil and iron pots.
Though her mother’s grip was strong, all that the girl could think of was frailty, of all the things that could slip from palms, crumble in fingers. The feel of her mother’s skin, soft, dewy and scented, was the only part of her that seemed real—at once familiar and foreign.
The last one, she lost her mind.
She could have been thinking of staying out late, of letting the dark haired boy who smiled at her do more, or her schedule for next semester, meticulously planned so that it might save her early rising, when the dark, brooding fantasies began to play themselves out. She began to imagine pictures and scenes that if spoken out loud, if written out on orderly, unmarred white sheets of paper, would have had her committed. But these thoughts had the foresight to mull around inside her and from there they never left.
It all seemed sudden to her, unexpected, and source less, born of its own will. But it gave her small and flickering warnings: lips frozen into silence, eyes unable to lift and rise to see others, a body that eased into rudimentary movements and that slipped out of her conscious control. Its origin, though, seemed harder to explain; there was, it seemed, no moment she could point to and say, “There, see it, that’s why it happened.” It came, instead, like the dust balls she found, sometimes, underneath the sofa, soft and bloated, hundreds of particles rolled together, fragile enough to fall apart between her thumb and index finger, but there all the same.
It was there long enough for others to notice. Even strangers could see it in the quivering of her hands, the watery blending of her eyes, and the lack of movement in her lips. No one ever said anything. And she learned that there were other things that could only be whispered but not spoken about. Wide circles were made to avoid having to come too near to her and she saw that such a state, though not catching, had the ability to seep slowly into the lives of others and that it could poison, muddle everything.
One day when she was sitting outside on a bench, watching pigeons pick at the concrete, someone stopped and asked her if she needed a hug. She declined though already her arms had tensed, ready to reach out and hold on, only, she told herself, for a moment. She had almost broken down completely then, almost succumbed fully to this loss of mind, but managed, somehow, without understanding how, to suppress what threatened to burst from her.
This sudden need to weep at every instance, to collapse at the first kind word, prompted her one Friday morning, when she thought for sure she would fall to the ground and melt into the cracks and ooze into the grass, to walk and not stop until she came to them. These people, doctors and counselors trained to catch such breaks, trained to treat invisible illnesses, helped her calm the madness down to a murmur.
They held her, in their own sterile, watchful way until they were sure they’d dripped her dry.
It would be easy to say that these girls are gone. That the girl who found comfort in winter, the girl who lost, but didn’t lose her mother, and the girl who lost her mind have been erased, dropped like the molars into the sink and down the drain. But the dull, fleeting ache of them remains. And that ache makes it impossible to fully forget.
The day my teeth were removed the dentist gave me part truth and part lie. He said it wouldn’t hurt and that after the wounds had healed it would be as if they never had been there. He was right about the healing. I run my tongue across the smooth gums and there is nothing but the give of flesh and the iron of bone beneath. But he lied when he said it wouldn’t hurt. I felt when each tooth cracked and was pulled out, the roots bloody and dark like those of trees clumped with the flesh that held them.
Most days I accept the truth with the lies and I don’t attempt to blame anyone. How can the loss of something that was meant to go all along be blamed? Most days I know that losing them was what was best, but I wonder, sometimes, what would have happened if they had remained, if they were now more than aches? It is a kind of self-imposed torture perhaps, to keep that kind of grip on the past, but more so a fear that the best parts of myself were lost with them, that as they disappeared so did a carefully rationed hope or a much needed innocence or even a simple sweetness that might have some day tempered future bitterness.
Still, I see now that as much as I have taken in the fragile bits, the parts that somehow retain their sharpness, I have also taken in the other, less tangible parts: my father’s strength, his ability to heal, to grow, his resoluteness. I have, have had from an early age, the knowledge that life is unpredictably fragile, if not already broken and cracked. I know that touch, in particular my mother’s, seems the easiest and yet the hardest remedy. I know that even with this sadness, even with the fear that it only sleeps, that it only waits, quiet and unassuming, ready to push through tongue, eyes, throat, chest and color everything, most days, if I let them be, are happy, full of curiosity and miniature adventures. Most days are surprising and beautiful.
Not that knowing that, having all of it, will make me eager to sign away another tooth to the drain. The extraction was necessary; the loss ensured there would room for the other teeth. But the extraction was also painful and damaging, requiring the breaking of bone and the tearing of tissue for it to happen. The aftermath, the days filled with waiting for the wounds to heal, was slow and measured, longer but already fading. Like the days that followed the extraction, the pieces can be dropped down the sink or put in a porcelain box for safe keeping, the x-ray can be placed in a file, detailed records can be kept, but it’s the events and actions that remain suspended in memory even if no visible evidence of them remains.
Belen Lopez lives in Madera. She is pursuing an MA in English Literature at CSU Fresno.