I lost a tooth while eating pizza at work. "Lost" as in, like, it was nowhere to be found.
It was already a bad day. I was preparing Christmas merchandise for the boutique chocolate café where I worked and, because the hand-packaged items were selling faster than I could package them, I was falling further and further behind.
My boyfriend Ian had come with pizza to cheer me up.
It was 9 p.m., and Ian and I were the only people in the warehouse. I planned to stay several more hours to make sure there would be plenty of chocolates available the next morning for everyone who needed a quick, moderately cute, sweet, edible gift under $25.
“I think I swallowed my tooth,” I said, feeling the outside of my throat with my fingers as if the tooth might be poking out of it. I only noticed that it was gone because I would periodically check that I had all my teeth still. I’d glide my tongue across the front of them, and this time, they weren’t all there.
How long had my tooth been missing? I had no idea. The pizza had a large, thin crust with caramelized onions, mozzarella, arugula, garlic, and lemon-thyme oil. The slices were pretty big. Did any of these details help? No, not really. But it had only been missing for a few seconds, I thought. I was bound to have thought of some practical use very soon.
It wasn’t a real tooth. It was one of the two tooth-colored, tooth-shaped pieces of plastic that sat on either side of my front top teeth. These were attached to another piece of plastic, pink and semi-translucent, that had been molded to fit into the roof of my mouth.
OK, it was dentures. Though the specialized orthodontia term for it is “flipper.”
Flippers have a lifespan of less than one year and are meant to be a temporary fix for missing teeth. They are not as expensive as the permanent fix, but they are still expensive, and I didn’t have dental insurance, so I tried to take care of them so they’d last as long as possible. This particular flipper was the fifth I’d owned in eight years. I was supposed to take it out before I ate, because biting into food weakens the bond between the fake teeth and the pink plastic. But taking it out when it had recently been glued in with denture adhesive was likely to break it as well, so I would decide whether or not to take it out on a case-by-case basis. I made the wrong choice this time.
I took out what remained of my flipper and examined it. The tooth had cleanly snapped off from the thin pink plastic. I touched the other tooth. It felt firm.
I went to the bathroom, laid some brown paper towels in the sink, and ran water over them so they would stick, creating a cover for the drain. I performed each action calmly and methodically, as if I had been trained to handle this kind of emergency. I then made myself vomit.
Vomit carefully, I told myself, because there’s a good chance the tooth could enter your nasal passages. And dig through the vomit pile even while you’re vomiting. There’s no sense in wasting any time.
Also, try to keep your back straight. You have a posture problem. You’re barfing, so don’t worry about it right now. This is more like just a general reminder. It could lead to serious issues down the line if you’re not careful.
Speaking of which, weren’t you supposed to be joining the gym? Or something? And something about trying to eat better?
Oh, and don’t forget that your new showerhead is going to be delivered on Monday, so make sure you don’t leave the house until it arrives. You’re working on Tuesday and Wednesday, so if you miss it on Monday you’ll have to call the post office to figure out how to pick it up. It will be a nightmare. Just make it your business to be home on Monday.
Or, wait, maybe it’s coming on Tuesday.
I can always tell how freaked out I am by how quickly and seamlessly I lose my grip on rationality.
Ian stood behind me as I searched through the barf, horrified. I knew I was testing the limits of what I could do in front of him. As it was, we had very few boundaries. We could burp, fart, pick zits, and pee in front of each other, no problem. We had barfed in front of each other when we were sick or drunk, but we hadn’t yet broached the subject of whether or not we could then dig through vomit with our fingers. It just hadn’t come up yet.
My two missing teeth had been missing since my permanent teeth came in. My baby teeth fell out, and every tooth but those two grew in. I had evenly gappy teeth until I was 15, when I got braces to shove them all into their correct places. Once there was enough room, two fake teeth were attached to my braces, dangling there until my braces came off, when I got my flipper. The next step was dental implants, but my family had exhausted my dental plan with braces, and we had no money. Dental implants were very expensive, and would have to wait.
If I had been more forward-thinking I would have asked, Wait for what? And for how long? Until I’m done with high school? When I’m in college? After college? In my thirties? When will dental implants ever be possible? But I have never been very forward-thinking, and those questions didn’t occur to me for a very long time.
Clearlake, the town I grew up in, has a big meth problem and a big poverty problem. Ask anyone in the region about Clearlake, and they’ll tell you some variation of “no one in Clearlake has a full set of teeth.” It’s even on the Urban Dictionary page for “Clearlake, CA.”
Once, someone in Clearlake found a human skull in their yard, and the big joke was “how are they going to identify the skull without dental records?” Har har.
I knew that the joke wasn’t meant for people with congenitally missing teeth, like me. It was directed toward meth heads who used until their teeth fell out. But I felt personally insulted by the stereotype; I may not have been on meth, but I did live in Clearlake, I did have missing teeth, and I was too poor to fix them.
After high school I left Clearlake, put myself into debt to attend an expensive private art school, and got a job catering to the high-end chocolate cravings of Oakland’s most privileged stay-at-home mothers. I had done so much to separate myself from the stereotypes of my hometown, and in a single second all the shame and embarrassment came rushing back.
I was still the poor, toothless girl I had always been.
The tooth wasn’t in the sink, as far as I could see. I barfed again, and it wasn’t in the sink then, either. I barfed and barfed, until all all that came up was bile. The tooth was nowhere. I had swallowed it and my body refused to choke it up so that I would be reminded of my place in the world. Otherwise it was stuck in my nasal passages and the area around it would become infected and swollen and the mass would prevent nasal discharge from leaving my body and would build up inside my brain and slowly kill me.
I lazily stirred the sink, hoping there was some chance I had missed it, not wanting to say goodbye just yet.
“Here it is,” Ian said. He was looking into the pizza box across the room.
Exhausted, I dragged myself over to the pizza box, knocking over carefully stacked bags of homemade chocolate-covered marshmallows, and weakly examined the tooth, confirming that it was my tooth and not some other stray pizza-box tooth.
At home, I glued the tooth back onto my flipper with regular superglue. The internet said it was barely toxic.
Chelsea Martin is an artist and writer.
Contact Chelsea Martin at email@example.com.
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