birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Terrorist Teeth

A variety of body parts have given me grief over the years. My hair in adolescence was fluffy to the point of frizziness. No one liked a Bernadette Peters-style coif then, so no one schooled me in the ways of shaping and rejoicing in my natural curls—I brushed out my mid-back hair after every washing, and it looked like a cloud of blah dirty-blond frizz that did little to enhance my visage. But in the early ‘80s a confluence saved me—rockabilly short hair styles came into style for males and females, and I discovered Vidal Sassoon’s beauty school in Santa Monica. Suddenly, $13 got me a rock-star cut from skillful stylists who oohed and ahhed over all the “movement” in my hair.

And, also in my teen years I longed for shapely breasts like many of my female peers—like Denise Villalobos, a next-door neighbor who started developing at age 11 (in those days before all the apparently hormone-inducing food products we consume, that was pretty extraordinary). Eventually I made peace with my relative flatness, even seeing its advantages in all the dance and gymnastics I did (I still remember ballet legend Eugene Loring in a UC Irvine ballet class pursing his lips and lecturing us in class in a somber tone “Women with substantial bosoms must wear brassieres!”)

But the physical aspect giving me most concern these days is my teeth. When I was a child I had large “buck teeth” in front—quite an overbite. And when I was 8, waving at my grandmother to watch me as I did a magnificent dive into a public pool, I lost my balance on the diving board while still over concrete, and broke off one of those prominent front teeth. That meant years of a temporary crown till the tooth was grown enough for a permanent crown. I knew dentists intimately in my childhood through that and a plethora of cavities. Orthodontia eventually corrected the overbite.

But over time that front tooth nagged with its varying issues—root canal that led to abcess that led to an early-adopter implantation that aborted in infection and rejection. So to a three-tooth bridge. That lasted for years—until I torqued the physics of that fine apparatus eating a piece of sourdough bread, and broke off a side-supportive tooth. Which I just lived with for months because it did not hurt and I could work around it—because despite LAUSD’s excellent medical plan, it has crap insurance, where co-pays for large procedures are still expensive, and I had a husband out of work for more than a year.

In the midst of this I had Invisalign plastic retainer-like braces to correct crowding teeth that happened over the years. Despite my assiduous dental care while I wore these at night a score of other cavities, root canals and varying issues emerged over the years. The orthodontist insists the braces could not have caused any of my other dental suspicions, and maybe he’s right—I simply have a cursed mouth.

Now I have a five-tooth bridge in front, and too much other hardware to even keep track of. As I write this, I have a solo crowned tooth bothering me, and I’m staving off going to the dentist because… what to do? He’s tried to urge implants, and I’m still afraid of my jaw rejecting them, not to mention the thousands per tooth they’ll cost me.

When I go to the dentist I feel—sad. Lonely. Vulnerable. Resigned. Betrayed. Like my own body is rejecting itself, and I don’t quite know what to do about it. I think of a Thomas Mann novel assigned to me in college, “Buddenbrooks,” in which the reader quickly realizes characters with bad teeth are doomed for an early end. I try to laugh about the absurdity. Pray like Saint Paul about this thorn in my flesh. Rationalize that other folks from cancer-sufferers to amputees have it so much worse than me. But I still feel terrorized by my mouth. And I don’t know how to change that.