Cavities ran in our family like dark hair y cerveza. No one, not my father, mother or auntie, had their own teeth. They had cajas, yellow teeth they pulled out at night and dumped in plastic cups of tepid water. They removed their teeth after the 11 o’clock news, when there was nothing more to say and the skin around their mouths could curl into itself.
Dentures happened to people who lived in New Jersey. If we lived in Colombia, or worse, in Cuba, my mother said, we would just have holes in our mouths. As far back as she and Papi could remember, no one in our family had kept their teeth. No one had money for such things, and so the teeth disappeared, their departures later remembered by the bigger events of life. In Colombia, Mami’s grandmother started to lose her teeth after she gave birth to a seventh baby, another girl. In Cuba, Papi’s brother had his teeth fall out during the Revolution. (“That’s how scared people were,” my father would joke.)
The thing with losing your teeth was that they went slowly, one by one, usually. My mother said it was like having your heart broken. It didn’t happen all at once.
Pictures of empty mouths arrived in airmail envelopes from Cuba and Colombia. The women and men, uncles and aunties and more cousins than I could count, they all smiled broadly at the camera, but I could see it when my mother tilted the picture to the light—the tiny dark holes in their mouths like tarot cards telling my fortune.
The year that I turned 10 and my hair was long enough so I could pull it into braids by myself, my mother learned about the dental school in Hackensack. The white women at the factory were sending their children there because the services were free. Mami decided then that I would no longer see the Cuban dentist on Bergenline Avenue. He was too expensive, she told Papi, and besides, she added, “Her teeth are only getting worse.”
I listened from the kitchen doorway, running my tongue across my front teeth. They felt like the smooth sides of dominos, not like anything that was going bad. But that had never convinced Mami or the Cubano dentist, who thought cavities were my fault. “Necesitas dejar de comer los dulces,” he’d say as he ransacked my backpack and confiscated three pieces of watermelon Bubble Yum bubble gum.
When my mother called the dental school for an appointment, she handed me the phone. The lady on the other end of the line spoke in English. She asked if we had been to the clinic before and if we were low-income. My mother did not know about the second question and I did not know what low-income meant nor the Spanish word for it. Mami and I stared at each other until I told the lady, “I don’t know.” She said we probably were but to bring last year’s tax return with us anyway.
On the day of the appointment, my mother packed an A&P plastic bag with saltine crackers, water bottles, apple juice and one speckled banana. We took three buses and walked 20 minutes and finally arrived at the dental school, a looming brick building with a parking lot. In the waiting room, I filled out the paperwork, using my best cursive penmanship. Where it asked for my dental history, my mother said to leave it blank, but I wrote, “Many cavities.”
The receptionist called my name and instructed me to go in alone. “You can translate for your mom later,” she said, signaling at Mami to stay seated.
Inside, past the large door, the dentist smiled at me. “Many cavities?” he asked, glancing through my papers. “Let’s take a look.”
His name was Bruce. Not doctor or sir, he said. Just Bruce. He held my hand as we walked past the swishing and droning of dental equipment, the rows of children arranged like dead chickens, their heads tilted back, their mouths wide open, feet dangling from chairs. Bruce helped me up and into a seat and he smiled. He had blue eyes and a little mouth, so that when he grinned, it was a small gesture, as if he were sharing a secret with me.
It turned out that I had many cavities. Bruce was happy. He counted twice and said he had everything he needed for his final exams.
So every two weeks in fifth grade, I went to dental school. I had to leave my own classes early. I went to math and then history, and somewhere between the abolition of slavery and the Great Depression, my teacher looked up from the textbook and said, “Concepción, gather your things. Your mother is waiting.”
The kids in class hissed, “Cooties!” but I ignored them. It wasn’t too hard. After all, life was different at the dental school. Grand was the word I read for it once. The dental school was just grand, and I liked it. I liked it a lot.
I had my own chair. It was carved of maroon plastic with a steel step to climb and padding for my elbows. It was bigger than my father’s favorite chair at home, and Bruce always looked as if he had spent the day waiting for me. He smiled at me each time and his coat was smartly ironed (my mother’s observation). While the Cuban dentist used to fumble around his office—a backroom in a narrow apartment—searching for cotton balls, Bruce, by contrast, always had a stack of warm, white hand towels and pink bibs ready. His drills were lined on the tray like toy foot soldiers. The spit sink was within reach and Bruce let me spit as much as I wanted.
By my fourth appointment, he had made an extensive chart about my teeth, giving each one a number, naming them, he said, so he would always be able to find them.
Bruce was what my mother called “muy simpático,” very nice. He checked on me frequently. “Do you need to rinse again?” was his favorite question. And he did not think my teeth were too bad. “Most people get a cavity every now and then,” he said, cheerfully.
“I have 13,” I reminded him. “It’s because I’m Colombian.” When he paused to look at me, I added, “And Cuban, too.”
“What do you mean?” Bruce asked, inserting a cotton ball in my mouth.
“My father says it runs in our family.”
“Well, no need to worry. We’re going to fix it.”
I was beginning to feel that Bruce would do just that. He wouldn’t let me lose my teeth. He spent many hours studying my chart, going over each tooth carefully. He told me so. In turn, I helped him by holding the suction cup that was shaped like a straw and advising him on which anesthetic was best (the one that tasted like bubble gum). He smiled and said we made a great team. That’s what he said.
At the beginning of each visit, Bruce had to find the right spot in my mouth for the needle. When it was the wrong spot, I could feel the needle’s tip jabbing at some hard part of me, and I’d poke Bruce in the arm. When he got it right, there was what he called “just a pinch” of the needle, and I gave him a thumbs up, like he had shown me. He pushed the needle into some soft part of me while I held my breath and waited. Then it was over, and the numbness crawled across my jaw and cheek. I loved not feeling half the side of my face. It felt like something big had happened to me.
After each visit, Bruce and I emerged into the waiting room. It was filled with moms, white women with baby magazines spread across their laps. They were waiting and talking in English, and behind them, back in the corner, was my mother, her small round body curled over a magazine.
I sat down next to her and Bruce told me in English what to tell her in Spanish. Tell her you have two cavities on that front tooth and we’re going to take care of them so it doesn’t look like there’s a filling there. Tell her you can’t eat for the next two hours. Tell her you need to come back next week for a long appointment so we can take care of that molar on the right that hurts you.
The white moms listened to Bruce tell everything about my teeth, and then they watched me translate. Some of them snickered, but worse, they all stared at me the way everyone in school had looked at Lenny Rico when he was sent home for lice, his head wrapped in a thick, white towel. Dirty. So dirty you had to look.
I did everything to not glance at the white moms, to not meet their accusing eyes. Instead, I listened to Bruce’s list, translated for Mami and sucked on the inside of my cheek, the side that wasn’t numb. I slipped the skin between my teeth and squeezed. It made me feel better.
My mother, though, didn’t feel better.
For while Bruce was excited about my bad teeth, my mother was horrified, and she had plenty for me to tell him. Tell him we can’t make it next week. It’s busy at the factory. I can’t get off. Tell him you don’t want to brush your teeth. Tell him that I’m going to make your favorite soup, solo caldito y papitas. It’s very soft on the teeth. Tell him your father wants to know how long this is going to take. When is it going to be over?
I, however, did not want it to be over. Everyone at the dental school liked me. They thought I was doing well, “real swell,” as Bruce’s teacher said when he checked my teeth. They liked my teeth, and they liked me. The other dental students would come and talk to me and watch Bruce work on my teeth. Sometimes they even took notes. My mother, however, was not impressed with that news.
On the bus ride home, Mami fell asleep. Her head hung slightly so that her curls fell in front of her eyes and her chin dipped into her neck. I wondered if in the middle of a dream, if she opened her mouth, would her dentures fall out?
I watched over her, noting how slack her jaw was. There on the bus, no one could tell about her teeth. The bus driver did not know. The people sitting around us did not know. That was the curious thing about teeth, how public and private they were. No one knew the little bruises we carried in our mouths.
In May, Bruce came to my house in his car (a Honda, he said) and picked me and my mother up for his final exam, because the buses did not run that early. He let me sit in front and roll down the window even though my mother told me not to. Bruce said it was ok for me to get fresh air, and when I told my mother that in Spanish, she smiled but reached from behind and pinched my arm.
My mother loved me so much that it did not even hurt her, that’s what she told me.
“Sometimes, you love somebody, and it hurts like crazy,” she said in Spanish.
I understood, because that was how I felt about Bruce. I did not mind the needles. “But Mami, it’s not like that with me? It doesn’t hurt to love me, does it?”
“No. Of course not. Don’t be silly.”
“But it could hurt?”
“Ay, sí. Some days, I’m ready to tell your father—”
“But not with me?”
“Who else does it hurt to love?”
“When your grandmother died, that hurt very much.”
“Because you loved her?”
“Do you think it hurt her?”
“No. No, I don’t think so.”
I knew it didn’t hurt Bruce either. He had this way of saying good-bye to me, all chipper the way people did on television, as if they would see you soon. “OK, bye!” But I wanted it to be different. I wanted it to hurt him a little.
The dental school was closed during the summer. Bruce went on vacation down the shore. I spent the days with my father, who worked night shifts at the factory. He hooked up a hammock, attaching one end to the fence and the other to the lone tree in our front yard on Fourth Street. He helped me get settled into the hammock and then he sat on the blue plastic lawn chair. I had my books (the new series of Sweet Valley Twins from the library); my father had his cigars and Budweiser beer.
“Papi, when are we going to the beach?”
“Beach? Whatcha need a beach for?” He waved his hand in the cigar smoke. “You got all this, and you want the beach?”
The yard was long and narrow. The grass trimmed as short as my father’s hair.
“No,” he said. “Who needs Florida, huh? Not when we got all this.”
I rolled my eyes and bit the inside of my cheek. My father was always seeing things that weren’t there. My mother teased that he was so cheap, he made things up. “That’s how he got me to marry him,” she’d say, laughing.
“My teeth are almost done, Papi,” I said. “Just one more visit when school starts.”
He exhaled smoke and said, “Take care of your teeth, mi‘ja. Look at what happened to your mother and me.”
“We didn’t take care of our teeth.”
“But you said it was because bad teeth ran in our family.”
“Forget about that. Just take care of them.”
I sighed. “Mami said it was because you were poor.”
“That’s right. See what happened to us? You don’t want to be poor, mi‘ja.”
“How do you get not poor?”
My father burst out laughing. “If I knew that, I’d be a rich man in Florida.”
That summer was the longest ever. I thought about Bruce a lot, if he liked it down the shore, if he was happy and swimming and getting a tan as he had planned.
I also spent that summer, if truth be told, chewing the inside of my right cheek. It became a daily routine. I slipped the skin between my teeth and held it there, sucking on it like an orange. The skin became round and soft. It bulged against my teeth. Sometimes I chewed on it, and blood filled my mouth. I got nervous, but then it tasted so sweet, and besides when I tried to stop sucking it, I couldn’t. I did it everywhere I went, and no one ever saw me. Not even my mother.
When we arrived at the dental school that September, I raced to the receptionist’s window, put my hands on the ledge and propped myself up. No one was there. “Hello!” I called out. “Hellooooo!”
Janet, the receptionist, opened the window. “You think this the circus or something?”
“I have a two o’clock.”
“I know. I work here, remember?”
She handed me a red lollipop. “Suck on this and calm down. I’ll tell Brucey Bruce you’re here, and tell your mother I need you to fill out paperwork. It’s a new year.”
My old chair was now someone else’s. But that was ok. Bruce had a new chair, a new spot, he said, because he was almost done with his studies. The new chair was stiff, but it didn’t matter. My folder was there, and Bruce was almost as brown as me and grinning like always. Yes, he had liked the beach. He went for two weeks and every weekend. He ate too much ice cream and watched a lot of movies. Next year, he wanted to go to Italy.
Looking at my teeth, Bruce grew quiet and brought the lamp so close that it grazed my nose. “I need you to open as wide as you can.”
I did, shutting my eyes and tilting my head.
“A little wider. Ok, great.” Bruce moved inside my mouth, asking, “Does anything hurt?”
Keeping my mouth open, I lifted the tip of my tongue to the roof of my mouth and brought it down to eke out the word “no.”
I shook my head.
I nodded, and a little swell lifted in my heart. I had a cavity! It was almost certain. I began tapping my right foot against my left one. Surely, this would mean more visits with Bruce.
“You can close now,” he said, looking at my folder.
“A new cavity?” I asked, hopefully.
“No. I’ll be right back.”
Waiting for Bruce, I wondered if he would say something today. It was supposed to be our last time together. Would he ask to see me again? He had said that I would need checkups every six months. Maybe he would ask me to be his first patient when he opened his own office.
Time passed, and Bruce didn’t return, so I eavesdropped on the dentist a few feet away. He was asking a boy the questions I had come to know by heart: Did it hurt when he ate something cold or hot? What kind of hurt was it? A sharp hurt or a dull hurt? Did it wake him up at night?
Bruce returned with his teacher, who looked in my mouth, and then they talked with words I couldn’t follow, until Bruce turned to me and asked, “Does anything hurt?” I shook my head, and he asked, “You don’t feel something over here, on the inside of your cheek?”
I shook my head again.
His teacher said he would get things ready and left. Lowering his chair, Bruce rubbed my right cheek. “Do you ever get bothered over here?”
“No,” I said.
“That’s good.” Bruce said, nodding.
We were quiet, and the more time passed, the smaller my throat felt. I had done something wrong. I could feel it. So I stared at the drills, hard and gray, and whispered, “It’s ok.”
“I see,” he said, nodding. “What does it feel like?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Does it hurt?”
“Does it bother you?”
I looked him in the eye. “It’s fine.”
Bruce nodded and gave me a small smile, but it was not his usual grin. I recognized the gesture immediately. It was the same knowing smile I would get from Lizzie Guccini, whose mother donated her old clothes to me at the end of the school year. Lizzie Guccini would smile at me as if she knew my secrets better than I did just because I was wearing her woolen undershirt. Now Bruce was looking at me like that, like I had nothing, not even an undershirt of my own. How could he look at me like that? Before I could help it, I opened my mouth, but instead of words or even a small cry, the only thing that came out was the tuna fish I had for lunch.
Bruce didn’t jump out of his seat quickly enough. “Shit,” he muttered. His white overcoat was dripping with my vomit. He pulled the spit sink toward me and wiped my mouth with the pink plastic bib. I leaned into the sink, but nothing came.
He removed his coat, wiped his pants, had me rinse three times and then said, “I’ll be right back.”
Bruce did not return. Instead, the receptionist took me to the bathroom to clean up and walked me to a small room with just one chair, a large lamp and a long counter with a sink. She left, and I watched the clock and waited, slipping the little knob of skin in between my teeth and sucking on it. The more minutes passed, the more furiously I sucked on the skin. I wanted to rip it out of my mouth and throw it at Bruce and tell him how I hated him. And then I would get on the bus and go home with my mother and never see him again. Ever. And I would wait until one day when all my teeth fell out and I would be fine. Just fine.
But that didn’t happen. The more I sucked on the skin, the more my mouth filled with blood and saliva, all of which I swallowed when a group of men arrived in white coats. They were dental students and told me how brave I was today. But I wasn’t brave. I was just waiting for Bruce.
The teacher, a man with a bald head, inserted a needle into both of my cheeks. They all leaned over me, peering into my mouth, and I shut my eyes and hoped that I would puke on them, too. But my stomach was empty, and when the numbness set in, they probed my mouth, asking, “Can you feel this? And this? Anything?”
I could not. But I could see the teacher taking a piece of floss, making a loop and putting it in my mouth. I closed my eyes and tried to feel something. The floss. The little mirror in my mouth. The cotton balls. But I could not feel anything. I opened my eyes in time to see the dentist pick up a pair of scissors and put them in my mouth, the back of the blade sliding along my dead lips.
When I opened my eyes, my mouth felt big and empty the way it does when it’s numb. I had fallen asleep, and the dentists were gone. My mother was seated next to me, moving damp hair out of my eyes, murmuring about la cirugía. The surgery. I stared up at her and felt that I had so many questions, but I did not have the words. And I did not have to ask her. I did not even have to feel for it. I knew. I knew the soft part of my cheek, the little piece I chewed on all summer long, it was gone.