The thought had arrived in my head a few days earlier, and I couldn’t shake it.
“I’m worried that I’m going to eat my own teeth,” I said.
“That’s why you dragged me out here?” said Valentina.
“It’s not so unpleasant.”
I gestured at our surroundings: wet leaves pressed against plastic chairs, warm holiday lights on the patio, waiters ambling by with spiked cider. But Valentina was too tired to care, and anyway I was thinking about my mouth.
It simply didn’t make sense. What mechanism was preventing me from sticking out my bottom teeth, raising them half an inch, and then yanking them back as hard as I could? Unlike my heartbeat and breathing, which existed outside the scope of my shambolic willpower, my teeth required constant vigilance. Once I realized that, I couldn’t understand how I had kept them for so long.
“You’re not trying to date me, are you?” said Valentina.
“Because I have a baby.”
“A very pleasant baby! I wouldn’t date anyone who makes pleasant babies.”
She gave me a wary look, but it was a playful look too, since she knew I was telling the truth. At one time, I had thought of Valentina non-stop. I had filled future calendar dates with her name. She was from Verona, Italy, the home of Romeo and Juliet, and had moved to the States in her teens. Her accent lingered, though. It was arpeggiated, wonderfully acrobatic. Wherever she went, her words brought music. She basked in the attention of others. She basked in the sunlight. It was like the word bask had been invented for her particular use.
But that was long ago, we were friends now, and her smooth face, which had once made my body contort out of longing, brought me some peace.
“When did this tooth thing begin?” Valentina said.
“I’m not sure.”
“Are you taking any new drugs?”
“Just the ordinary ones.”
“Does anything help calm you?”
Activity helped, I told her. The idea that I would bite my own teeth off in public — while eating blistered tomatoes with an Italian woman at my side — sounded implausible. However, when I was alone in bed, I didn’t feel like I could stop myself. The only strategy I had in place was to stuff a pillow in my mouth as I drifted off.
“How horrible,” said Valentina. “So you’re really worried.”
“Maybe I just need to worry about it more,” I said, “until I burn through the worry.”
Valentina grimaced. Her baby was teething at the time, a coincidence that may have made her more sympathetic. She gave me a long hug after dinner.
That autumn, Valentina called me regularly, asking me how I was doing and where my thoughts were leading me. We met for coffee once a week. She invited me to Thanksgiving with her family and sent me a Christmas present, although I spent the countdown to New Year’s alone — fearing that the sequence 10, 9, 8… would end with my mouth full of blood.
How can I get rid of this? I wrote in my journal. Will I always think these thoughts? How many teeth will I have this time next year? In the same journal — a thousand pages back, though I didn’t dare look — I had expressed a similar anxiety about Valentina. Will she ever love me? Will I ever get over her? Why can’t I focus? Why can’t I sleep? How can I cure myself?
But of course there was no cure. My tooth paranoia disappeared just as my lovesickness had. It slipped out the back door without telling anyone, and I only realized several months later, at a dentist’s appointment, that it was gone.
“You’re an easy patient!” the hygienist said, as he scraped my enamel.
“Be as rough as you like,” I told him.
David Yourdon was born in New York City and now lives in Eastern Ontario. He has completed a novel that he’d love for you to read.. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books, HAD, and The Oxonian Review, and he posts flash fiction on his Substack, What Will It Be Like.
image: MM Kaufman