Archive for August, 2019

There is a picture in a book I read about the trail builders in the White Mountains back in the 1800s; there are women and men in the picture, the women in heavy woolen skirts, and they are taking a break from their labors, sitting on boulders and looking away from the camera. The book described the notorious steepness of New Hampshire’s trails, and explains this with a character commentary on Yankees. For them, work and play were, if not synonymous, then entwined. On these idylls away from Boston, the trail blazers tramped into the woods, and, seeing a summit they’d like to visit, cut trails straight up. Shortest linear distance, with no switchbacks or grades to accommodate horses, just a track from point A to point B, come streambed, come rock ledge, come Triassic syenite or volcanic bedrock. The building of the trails was their recreation, if not a pleasure. These Yankees sought strenuous exertion and usefulness. I am an heir to this regional culture, suspicious of hedonism, which I define as anything where personal enjoyment overbalances utility. Friends have recommended and invited me to spa treatments, massages, mani/pedis, but I have always declined. What I do instead is go to the dentist.

There is an outward similarity between the spa and the dentist: the reclining in a padded chair, the turning over of control, the quiescence and resignation to be ministered to. Someone will turn her whole focus to one part of your body, and the rest of you will recede while she labors. I went to the dentist for a crown. I’d never had one, and was unclear about what the process meant, or what the crown itself was. The dentist and the assistant passed things back and forth across the space above my face, and the side of my head pressed into his flank when he reached for something on the far side of me. There were clicking sounds, and the drill’s whir. Then he used a sort of camera that he dragged all around my teeth, and up on the computer screen beside me emerged a 3D rendering of my molars against a black background. The topography emerged pixel by pixel, as he maneuvered the camera into the cramped spaces at the back of my mouth. It was like watching a documentary of deep sea exploration, an abyssal plain and mountainscape glimpsed through the lens of a remotely operated submarine. There was something unnerving about the picture, my teeth and jaw with the cheek and tongue sheared away. There was a feeling of seeing something not meant to be seen, or only seeable once something has gone badly wrong. Like deep sea fishes dragged to the surface and deformed and disfigured by the pressure difference. Like the toad I saw on the sidewalk in winter after a brief warm spell that must have tricked it into emerging, and where it died when the temperatures dropped again. Someone had stepped on it, and its innards, pearlescent as the inside of a mussel shell, were extruded from its mouth. He’d literally been downtrodden, had literally spilled his guts and would never make any sound again, and what was smeared on the sidewalk were the parts that are only revealed when you’re dead.┬áMy tooth picture was like that. I lay in the chair thinking of the phrase “obtain her dental records,” blandly technical, but summoning the same kind of dread as “dragging the lake.”

The dentist worked for a while, and then took another topography. The tooth needing the crown startled me. It was ground down, a burred nub, shortened to a squared off bolt in my jaw. The tooth itself had been drilled away, atomized, floating in submicroscopic bits around the room. I didn’t realize this was what a crown meant–replacing the whole top part of the tooth with a porcelain facsimile, shape and color matched to the original, while the original dissipated in a spindrift of saliva and rinse water.

I was left unattended for a while then, my mouth propped open on a plastic wedge, while some kind of cement dried. A timer counted down the minutes, and the dentist went to check on another patient. I thought about my ground away tooth, and my missing atoms, and about Democritus, the ancient Greek who proposed that everything, humans included, was just a temporary assemblage of particles that would eventually fall away from each other again, lose form, and dissipate. I contemplated this until, alone in the chair with no one wielding a suction tube, my saliva began to pool at the back of my throat. I could not close my mouth to swallow. I turned my head to the side, trying to keep my airway clear. Panicky, I pictured my larynx slowly subsumed by the rising tide. I pictured Tiger Lily tied to an anchor on the rock in Peter Pan as the water lapped and overtopped her. I sat up and pulled out the wedge and spat and alarmed the assistant who peered in and cried, “You can’t close your mouth!” I dutifully laid back, replaced the wedge, and calming again, thought how desperately, how dearly, I hold my atoms together. How, when threatened, keeping this assemblage of particles gathered in the form that is recognizably me draws all my focus and attention, until I am barest, narrow, instinct. No one’s teacher, no one’s friend, no one’s mother, no one’s wife, just a collection of matter around the endangered breath, and fear.

The dentist came back and popped the temporary crown in place over the ground down nub. He told me to be careful of it for the next few days, to treat it gingerly. That there’d been a fracture in the tooth that he’d repaired, but that the jangly nerve beneath would remember for a while. I would need to come back in two weeks for the permanent crown, which would be crafted in a lab somewhere to look just like my old tooth. He turned me loose and I went home and over the next hours the numbness gave way to an ache and heat in the jaw, and I avoided that side whenever I ate, and I was a satisfied Yankee, sore and tired, having spent useful hours doing something that needed to be done.

The permanent crown is in now, and it is a reasonable facsimile, though smoother and glassier than my real tooth was. The scan of my jaw is stored as bits of data on the dentist’s computer system until someone calls it forth, if they ever do. His little camera turns its light on some other person’s dental arcade, their seafloor trenches, and then afterwards what is meant to stay in darkness returns to darkness. But I remember the picture, my teeth with their cragged surfaces gray and cold as the moon. Only everyone has seen the moon, pocked and pitted, distinguished by its damage. My tongue seeks out the side of my lab-built tooth, sleek, impervious to decay, a shade brighter than the old one, and I wonder where my atoms are.

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