our good dentist


I was always envious of my father’s platinum tooth, my mother’s gold molar.

I am convinced the first lie I ever told was that I had brushed my teeth. What child does? My golden mother glinting, hair and mouth aflame, would sigh and trust me and my brother to do take care of our baby-teeth, dull pearls. But I wanted gold in my mouth.

Once, her gold dull this day—I seem to remember it rained—my mother knocked ever-so politely on a huge green door, brass knocker round and heavy, a mouth that did not want to open. My brother carefully looked through cardboard children’s books, murmuring to himself. I nestled deep in my mother’s side as she filled out endless paperwork and tried not to wince at the sounds of screaming children, teeth gnashing.

My brother bit.

We didn’t like the dentist.

That night, my parents told us of the good dentist they knew who had given them back their teeth, the brightness in their mouths. And we didn’t go back to the dentist my brother bit. Instead, we took them at their word that our teeth were crooked, and went to an orthodontist whose perfect hair and teeth were as hard and composed as plastic. And for years, I had braces; years of the crooked made straight with wires and pain.

I learned to brush my teeth. My brother learned not to bite.

One day, the good dentist told my mother to let him see us.

Rockefeller Center’s murals are of workers building the new city on the hill, muscles bulging, no sweat to be seen, marble, gilt, granite. I was old enough now to know that gold wasn’t everything. Riding up the elevator, the powerful rising, my brother and I jumped as the dull bell rang and the cab stopped. We hovered in midair, twenty-two stories above the earth, for one long second before we came crashing down. The dentist’s name was written on the door in gold.

The first appointment.

Mami, this isn’t good.

He looks at the x-ray, narrowed eyes.

When was the last time you saw a dentist?

My brother was a hard biter.

Twelve years?

Mami, you have, what, count’em, four, eight, sixteen cavities, I dunno how many more.

But I went to the orthodontist!

An ortho is not a dentist, Mami.

And so every Thanksgiving, every winter break, every spring, I would come, jaw throbbing—how did I not notice the pain during those twelve years?—greet, as always, the workers building their immortal city on that eternal hill, as dedicated to their work as our dentist was to his. He hummed, he swore, he gossiped, he worried about his children, told skiing stories, and eternally mourned the Rangers—every New Yorker’s secret sorrow. He called the dentist down the hall to come take a look at my mouth while he was working on me—he was proud of a particular filling, upper left.

I still remember him after four hours of trying to save so many teeth, taking his gloves off, sighing, saying That’ll last you for awhile, now, Mami. And they do.

They say when you dream of teeth, bad luck is near. Our good dentist died on the commuter train this summer, early in the morning, I think it was. I slept late that day. Maybe I was still dreaming, but I do not remember what I was dreaming of. Maybe it was teeth.

The new dentist is good. He does not swear, so far as I can tell. He takes care of my teeth. I try not to bite. My mother still sparkles when she smiles.

The name on the door is still gold.

© 2015 Anna-Christina Betekhtin, All Rights Reserved.

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