My dentist and I go way back. We met when I was sixteen and he was twenty-something. Dr. Z played tennis at the same club as my parents; they loved him because when my father had a roaring toothache at 2 a.m., Dr. Z rushed to treat it.
I graduated from high school without a single cavity. I never needed braces. My teeth are straight and white. They were so perfect, Dr. Z took a model of my teeth. My mother refused to keep soda, cookies or candy in the house. She wouldn’t let us chew gum. Those privations may have had something to do with why I never got a cavity.
But maybe I just had a good dentist.
In college, I drank diet Coke all day long. I started smoking when I was twelve; sophomore year in college, I stopped smoking and started eating peppermint Lifesavers. I got my first cavity.
I’ll say this for Marlboro Lights: they don’t promote tooth decay.
I wrote for the college newspaper, majored in English. My closest friend introduced me to that nifty little writer’s helper: Coffee Nips. The CVS down the road from our dorm stocked them. I started out slow: a pocketful here and there. My tolerance grew and I started carrying them wherever I went. I snuck them into the library, made sure I had a boxful whenever I was on deadline or had a paper due, which was basically every day.
I come from candy-suckers. My grandmother was never without a stash of sugar-free coffee candies that she kept in a little plastic baggie in her purse. But Coffee Nips were better. Coffee Nips are bigger. They’re filled with real sugar, not that sugar-free crap. Originally, they just came in coffee flavor. Then, those geniuses at Pearson’s came up with butter rum, caramel, chocolate parfait, peanut butter. I chewed them all.
I got more cavities. I went home and saw Dr Z. He said that people my age shouldn’t be getting cavities. He questioned my eating habits. I confessed my addiction to diet Coke and Coffee Nips.
“Stop drinking soda,” Dr. Z said. “Stop eating candy.”
I ignored him. At least I wasn’t smoking.
I moved to New York, began writing for a magazine. When I was on deadline, I ate chocolate-covered espresso beans. I bounced off the walls, but my teeth were fine. I met a great guy. We married, had a baby. I dieted to lose the baby weight. I resumed my affection for sucking candies. I’m not talking one or two, here or there. I’m talking nothing but jawbreakers all day long. Five months after having our baby, I was a size zero at Banana Republic. Two months later, I needed emergency root canal. I got an implant from an endodontist in New York. He was tall and dashing. I kept eating jawbreakers.
I went to graduate school and became addicted to watermelon suckers, Werther’s butterscotches, Blow Pops, and Tootsie Pops. I ate those cheap peppermint suckers, the red-and-white ones no one wants.
We moved back to New Jersey. I got more cavities. Dr. Z told me to stop eating sucking candies. I ignored him. I got pregnant again. We had our second baby. I needed to lose weight so I went back to sucking candies. I lost the weight. I got more cavities. I started to chew bubble gum.
The pizza place in town has a gumball machine. Sometimes, I get my kids a pizza just so I can get myself some gumballs. The machine is a little broken so sometimes if you put one quarter in, you get two gumballs out. Or the gumball gets stuck coming down the chute and you have to bang or kick the machine to get it out. And the little silver gutter thing at the bottom of the chute falls off, so sometimes the gumballs fly to the floor if you don’t cup your hands around the chute fast enough.
Yes, I have eaten gumballs off the floor.
I know I have a problem. I go to a spa in the Berkshires and see an acupuncturist. I tell him about my addiction to sugar. He suggests – I am not making this up – that I snort heroin. Then he suggests I come to his African drum class that night. I do neither.
For two weeks, I skip sucking candies and gum. Then I discover Fireballs.
I love spicy food. Fireballs are so spicy they make my tongue swell and the top of my mouth burn. Eventually, my tongue develops sores and goes numb. I buy ten Fireballs at a time from the Station Shop near our house. The owner announces she is going out of business. I buy up all her Fireballs. The pharmacy down the block sells candy. They are my go-to place for butterscotch suckers, Blow Pops, Tootsie Pops and jellybeans. But they don’t sell Fireballs.
I know that James, the man behind the pharmacy counter, is writing a novel. Sometimes we chat about it.
“Can you start stocking Fireballs?” I ask. “I eat them while I write.” I figure we’ll bond over our bad writing habits.
He shakes his head. “I don’t think so.”
“What if I buy them in bulk?”
He looks something up in the computer. “You’ll have to take the whole container. I’ll call you when they come in.”
My right lower molar starts to hurt. My tongue discovers a hole in the bottom of it. I’m busy teaching and writing, so I do the stupidest thing possible. I ignore the pain and hole in my tooth. Food gets caught there. I stop flossing. My tooth hurts like hell. James calls. The Fireballs have arrived. I ignore his message. Then, I actually have to go to the pharmacy to get my older son allergy medicine. James shows me the Fireballs. A large, hexagonal-shaped, plastic canister, filled with 200 little balls of fire. I take a deep breath.
“Can you keep them for me and just dole them out a few at a time?” I ask.
Sort of like a methadone clinic.
“I guess so,” James says. I keep thinking he must have some weird, self-destructive addiction that keeps him writing, too. But his teeth give nothing away.
I go see Dr. Z about my tooth. He shakes his head. “The sad thing is you didn’t have a single cavity when you went to college,” he says. He gives me root canal. I contemplate giving the Fireballs out on Halloween. But they are a choke food. I keep them.
I return to Dr. Z for a crown. “How many fake teeth do I have?”
He counts. “Eight.”
I go to the pizza parlor. I look for the gumball machine. It is gone.
“Where’s the gumball machine?” I ask the guy behind the counter.
“It broke,” he said. “People kept hitting it.”
I flinch. “Are you getting a new one?”
“We’re looking around for one,” he says. “But I don’t know.”
“My kids will be so disappointed.”
My friends take me out for sushi for my birthday. At the end of the meal, the waitress brings over boxes of fruit-flavored gumballs. Everyone grabs a box but me.
“Come on,” my neighbor says. “You know you want one.”
I shake my head. “I don’t want to ruin my teeth.”
“But none of your teeth are real,” she says.
I take a box for my kids.
Six months later, my tongue finds a bump on my lower left gum. I go see Dr. Z. He looks at it, and takes an X-ray. He shakes his head.
“I’m not sure what that is,” he says. “But it’s not good.”
“What do you mean?”
“You had root canal on that tooth,” he says. “There may be a crack in it. I can’t tell.”
“Should I go see that guy in New York?” I ask.
I go see Dr. K, my old endodontist in the city. Before I see him, I meet an old friend for lunch on Madison Avenue. On my way there, I spot Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg. She walks by me looking tired, but pretty. She is wearing a dress. As she hurries by, I try to make eye contact with her. She avoids my gaze. Perhaps she senses a candy obsessive coming her way?
The endodontist is just as tall and dashing as he was in the Nineties. We talk about the first time he worked on my teeth. It has been fifteen years. We realize this is an anniversary of sorts, though not the kind you celebrate.
He pokes around my gum. He touches my bump. He shoves one of his pointy metal tools into my gums. Then he takes a couple of X-rays.
“I can’t tell exactly what’s going on, but I think the tooth has to come out,” he says cheerfully. He points to the X-ray. “You have a post there. There’s some bone erosion. And there’s a fistula, and a pocket.” He shows me how far down the “pocket” he has shoved his metal tool. “We could do a lot of digging around the nerve but I think the result will be the same. The tooth has to come out. It’s not a big deal.” He smiles. I can just tell he’s never had a Fireball in his life.
Our whole appointment takes ten minutes. I am scheduled to teach later in the day and am supposed to see a student before class. I had scheduled an hour for the endodontist. Now I have time to kill.
I am walking to the subway in the rain, but I am suddenly overwhelmed by depression. I am losing a tooth. I am losing my youth. I have given up sucking candies, but what does it matter? The damage has been done. I bet Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg has never been to an endodontist.
I hail the first cab I see. It drops me off in front of Crumbs Bake Shop, a tiny bakery across from the JCC on 76th and Amsterdam Ave. One of my students took me there last Fall. The first time I went, I tried to be a paragon of virtue, and just ordered a latte so that I could discuss this student’s work without being distracted by frosting. Eventually, I started going there every week before class and got into the habit of ordering cupcakes, rationalizing that I need the sugar to teach for two hours. I’d buy the big cupcakes, which measure 4.25″ inches across, and I’d order a latte and a spoon to go with it. Then I’d sit for ten minutes, slide the frosting off the cupcake, and get high off of caffeine and sugar. There are usually at least three nursery school kids there with me. Their mothers invariably buy them the small 3″ cupcakes; I smile and feel sorry for them. I once took my older son to Crumbs and he was as smitten as I was. We sat at a little round table, wolfing down our little round cakes, when he spotted some big birthday cakes in the case. He asked in his sweetest voice if instead of baking a cake for his next birthday, I could drive into the city and spend $60 on an 8″ Crumbs birthday cake instead. Half of me thought, “Hell no, what a waste of money, time and gas.” The other half started salivating over the thought of all those acres of butter cream, prepared by someone else. “Remind me in July,” I told him.
Alone at Crumbs now, without a child or a student to see me, I order the most delicious combination in the whole world: a caramel apple cream cheese cupcake and a chai skim latte. (Yes, I had to have skim milk with my cream cheese.) The caramel apple cupcake has about three cubic inches of buttery cream cheese on it. The minute I take a spoonful of frosting, I feel better. Yes, my teeth are rotting. Yes, my addiction to spoonfuls of sugar is exactly what brought on these problems in the first place. No, I will never glide down Madison Avenue the way that Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg does, nor contemplate running for Senator of New York. Yes, my problems are all mental.
I mean dental.