Liz Howard | Nonfiction

HOW TO RESPOND AFTER YOUR DENTIST PULLS THE WRONG TOOTH FROM YOUR MOUTH:

  1. When you realize that the tooth you thought would now be a hole is still a tooth, firmly rooted in your mouth, your first thought will be “surely no.” You will stand in the mirror for a long time poking at the should-be hole that is still a tooth and the should-be tooth that is now a hole. That’s okay. No one will really judge you. To be fair, your dentist just pulled out the wrong tooth, which basically never fucking happens. Poke away.
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  2. Once you’re done poking at your tooth, you will at least partially accept that your dentist has pulled the wrong one. You have a history of intense paranoia stemming from a lifetime of trauma, but you have pretty concrete evidence that this has happened which is: there’s still a tooth back there that you can see and touch and, in front of it, a hole. This is a lot like the time your therapist asked if you felt like anyone was after you and you named your abusive ex-husband and she said, “Yeah, but that’s real.” To be clear, you absolutely do suffer extensively from paranoia; this just happens to be one of those times your paranoia was right. Now that you’ve partially accepted this, it’s your job to convince other people that this is real, which is going to be at least moderately difficult because of that whole history of paranoia thing. There’s a long list of people you’ll need to convince: your partner, your older sister, your abusive ex-husband, the fucking dentist that pulled out the wrong goddamn tooth. You start easy with the first two people on the list: your partner and your sister. They both respond exactly the way you knew they would. They both take you at your word. Your partner is outraged but somehow simultaneously reassuring and gentle. Sometimes you can’t believe this balance they’ve struck, where they can perfectly satiate your need for coddling and your need for someone to go the fuck to bat for you, but Jesus is it sweet and needed now. Your sister never even hints at doubting you—never even asks a question. She reads your words and she is floored, talking lawyers and a spectrum of possibilities for seeking revenge—you knew she would. She’s loved fiercely for you since you were a baby. Unfortunately you predicted your ex’s response too, but only because he is evidently unable to peel away from that default: domineering asshole. He starts cursing and yelling, more angry than you, demanding the name of the dentist, insisting that he would go “pay that dentist a visit right now.” You end up reassuring him that it’s alright, somehow, a theme of your marriage apparently carrying through into your divorce. At this point you’ve moved through the list as far as you can from the comfort of your own bed because, even though you’ve never had a dentist pull out the wrong tooth before, you’re pretty sure you can’t just call the guy and be like “Hey asshole, you pulled the wrong fucking tooth.” You have an appointment with him in two days anyway, and you can wait, you guess.
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  3. When you finally meet with the dentist, you are nervous as hell. You’re resolute in the fact that he pulled the wrong tooth, but you know your trembly, uptalking, anxious little self well enough to know it’s not going to be that simple. You can honestly say you did not anticipate the direction this was going to take, though. When you sit down in the dental chair you are all smiles and nervous laughter the way you are frankly almost always all smiles and nervous laughter, but especially when you have to break it to someone that they fucked up on something so incredibly fundamental to their profession and something for which they are now super liable. It makes you even more uncomfortable that for some reason you can’t just say flat out: “Hey so not to be any trouble or anything” (which absolutely is how you would’ve said it), “but do you think it might be possible you pulled the wrong tooth?” Instead, you lean back and he slaps a glove on and he flicks the overhead light into your eyes and he starts poking around in there. It’s immediately weird to you that he doesn’t say anything along the lines of: “Oh fuck! Your wisdom tooth is still in there and your second molar is missing; how could I have let that happen!?” and this absolutely should have been a red flag but it’s a little hard to see red flags when you’re traumatized because Jesus Christ a dentist yanked out the wrong tooth and it’s this fucking dentist that’s got his fingers back in your mouth right now. He pulls his fingers out, snaps off the light, and says, “your stitches look good and you’re healing well—you can come back next week” clean and simple, just like that. You sit there toying nervously with the nearest strands of your hair knowing full well you’ve got seconds before he walks away and the appointment is over and you yell “Elizabeth please fucking say something” to yourself in your head, which jars you enough to manage: “This is going to sound really weird but… can you check and make sure it’s the wisdom tooth you pulled?” You expect him to be angry and are surprised when he’s instead warm in response, though you later realize this kindness is actually condescension and misogyny. In a few seconds he’s back in your mouth and you watch his face as he pokes at what is absolutely your wisdom tooth and his eyes bug a bit and he says “well look at that…it’s a tooth.” You assume with a rush of relief that this is the validation you’ve been craving, but it takes this motherfucker half a beat to come up with: “I did pull your wisdom tooth, but it looks like you’ve got a second one. This does happen; I’ve seen this before. Some people even have three!” This time, you are effectively defenseless. You are dazed. You want this to be true and you begin to try to believe it is true even as that old paranoia is kicking and screaming that he’s lying to you.
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  4. When you left the dentist office that day a lot of things happened. You believed. You didn’t believe. You texted everyone you could. You worked through all the possibilities. You went back and forth. You came to conclusions. You changed your mind. You Googled like hell. You stared at your son. You wondered what was wrong with you that makes these things happen to you. Eventually, you made an appointment with a new dentist, an oral surgeon, an orthodontist. Eventually, they all confirmed what you’d originally known to be true: your dentist pulled the wrong tooth and then lied about it.
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  5. When your dentist pulls the wrong tooth, you will hold your own body at a distance. When your dentist lies about it, you will question what you know to be true—you will question your own sanity. When your dentist pulls the wrong tooth, you will sob for weeks about the pattern in your life of men taking something from you and insisting that they didn’t. When your dentist pulls the wrong tooth, you will become angry in a way you’d forgotten that you could, and you will draw strength from it. When your dentist pulls the wrong tooth, you will be justifiably enraged at all that you have had to survive, but you know you will, and so you pick up and move forward.

Liz Howard is a queer single mom living in Philadelphia with her troublesome three-year-old & very loud beagle. She has work in: Split Lip Magazine, FIVE:2:ONE, Hypertrophic Literary, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @Mother_Faulkner.

2018-11-03T01:30:21+00:00