"There's not an oral surgeon in the world," Dr. Eckhart says, "who is going to tell you to keep those teeth."
Sara leans back against the seat, glances again at the fuzzy x-ray, the blurry lines of her teeth that look oddly like feet. She closes her eyes, opens them, sees Dr. Eckhart standing over her with what appears to be a jolly smile, his white hair combed neatly to the side, his pen poised aloft like a scalpel ready for surgery right this moment if only someone would ask him to perform it.
"Those gums," he says, clicking his pen in and out, "are impacted. And they are going to keep pressing on that nerve. You can't clean back there. You can't floss back there. It's time for those teeth to go."
Sara clenches her jaw. "I've never had surgery."
Dr. Eckhart doesn't blink. And he certainly doesn't come over, touch her hair, tell her it's okay, sweetie, there's nothing to worry about. He is already filling out a form, circling teeth on a diagram, signing his name, scheduling a date for the operation. He tells her to bring someone to pick her up, that she will be put into a twilight state during the procedure, that she will be given Valium, that recovery will be a forty-eight-hour process. After a moment, he looks down at her, clicks his pen.
"Are there risks?" Sara asks.
"Of course there are." He sounds almost gleeful.
Speaking quickly, he tells her of the ten percent chance she will experience nerve damage, but how that's only happened to two percent of his patients in twenty years. He tells her about possible infections, bruises on her face, swelling. He does not say this is all nothing to worry about. He does not say this could never, ever happen to you, honey, don't worry. He says simply that all surgery is a risk.
Then he points again at her wisdom teeth on the x-ray screen, taps with his pen, says, "These have to come out." And he repeats what he said before, that there is not a surgeon in the world who would say otherwise.
When Sara calls her mother on her way home, the woman is hysterical. Screaming. "You have to get a second opinion." Gloria is almost crying. If they were together in person, Sara imagines that her mother would be wringing Sara's neck, strangling her. "These dentists are crazy. They are mad for money."
And then, as is always the case, her mother drops down into some infinite well of pain and says, "I so regret having my teeth taken out. The dentist told me I needed to have all of them removed..." She pronounces "all" like "awl," her Brooklyn accent stronger and rougher when she's upset like this. "And I did it. I had no idea..." idear, "that I would regret it for the rest of my life. It was a ten-thousand-dollar mistake. And now all my teeth are fake. I so wish I had gotten a second opinion."
"He did say there's not a dentist in the world who would disagree with him," Sara says.
"He's an oral surgeon!" Her mother cries, voice rough as twine. "You don't get an opinion about surgery from a surgeon."
Years ago, Sara's sister-in-law remarked that Gloria infantilized Sara. At the time, they'd all been home, in Gloria's Brooklyn house. Sara was single and looking at photographs of men on Match.com. Gloria had come into the room, pointed to one of the guy's faces, said, "Not him. He's sloppy-looking."
"Mom," Sara had protested. But before she could say more, Helsa had passed through the hallway, carrying her two-year-old son, and said, "Gloria, Sara's old enough to choose her boyfriend for herself."
It was a moment Sara hated, being stuck there between these women. Her mother constantly pushed her beak in where it didn't belong, but she could be forgiven on account of her dark sense of humor, her subversive opinions, and the simple fact that she couldn't help herself. Her opinions were born of compulsions, of fixations that could not be un-fixated upon.
Then there was Helsa, her brother's wife—beautiful, tall, blond, self-assured, foreign-born. She was not Jewish, did not know this world of hovering and opinionated mothers with thick Brooklyn accents and fake teeth. She did not know of family as a set of codependent beings bouncing off one another like malformed cells, somehow all working together to make the body function, the sum far greater than its individual parts.
Helsa had carried her baby through the hallway and down the stairs and was gone, leaving Sara and Gloria to their cloying little fucked up busybody relationship. Gloria had even muttered a little, "Ooh!" to show how she'd been hurt, stung, by her daughter-in-law's comment. And Sara had said, "It's okay, Mom, I agree. This guy is pretty sloppy-looking."
But that was years ago, when Sara was just out of college. Now she's in her early thirties, working multiple jobs, building a career as an artist while hustling as a waitress, a tutor, whatever will pay the rent, and she is starting to come around to her sister-in-law's view. That her mother does infantilize her. That her mother does press her too hard. That her mother is just too much in her face, in her business. But how do you get away from the only mother you have?
You don't. There's not an oral surgeon in the world who can perform that operation for you.
"These dentists," her mother is going on, and she's back to the sad voice, the voice that's been defeated by life, brutalized by other people and their dark, corrupt interests, "they are just trying to earn a buck. In the eighties, the kids started using fluoride. And the kids stopped getting cavities. And so the dentists had no way to make money. So now they just tell you you need to get an operation, to get this or that removed or replaced. All so they can drive their BMWs over to visit their mistresses."
"Well," Sara says. "I'm not sure that's..."
But there is no reasoning with Gloria Cohen. "SARA," she says, "You have to get a second opinion."
"All right," Sara says, "Jesus, Mom. Shit."
That night at dinner, Sara reports the facts as she understands them to Claude, her boyfriend. They are sitting in the kitchen, eating a dinner of salad and spaghetti, the fan by the table stirring the lettuce leaves and doing little to cool Sara down, only pushing the sweat on her face off to the side so that it doesn't drip into her food.
"I think I'm going to have it done," Sara tells Claude. "Get them taken out. The dentist said there's not an oral surgeon in the world who would tell me to keep them in."
"I thought you don't trust dentists."
Like any good child, Sara often argued with her mother, refused to take her mother seriously, and then came home and repeated everything her mother said as though the opinions were her own. Several times, she had expressed to Claude a skepticism about dentists. She had even once referred to her sister-in-law as a Shiksa, a word Sara would never even think to use unless it had been implanted by her mother.
Of course when Sara had spoken negatively about dentists in the past, Claude had said nothing. Claude is a man who rarely forms opinions without the basis of fact. He is what, in some circles, people refer to as "rational."
"I don't trust dentists," Sara says.
"But you're going to trust this guy," Claude says, turning from her to sip his wine. Claude is half-French and so, Sara has often reasoned, he gets to drink as much wine as he wants. He also gets to follow up his dinners with bread and soft cheese, an activity that Sara never partakes in, only watches, as though she were a zoo animal, observing a human partake in some curious feat of civilized activity.
"Well, here's the thing," Sara says. She swallows a bite of pasta. She feels the pain from her molars radiating in her gums, down her throat. "What's the point in getting a second opinion, I wonder? If all dentists are out to make money and swindle me, won't the next guy also just tell me I need surgery? How can I get a true second opinion if they're all scammers?" She pauses. "Plus, anyway, I'm in pain. I sort of do think I need the surgery."
"Wait a second," says Claude, sitting upright in his chair. "You are saying contradictory things."
"Right," Sara says. "I know." Though she doesn't know. Or rather, she knows she is saying contradictory things, but she doesn't know why that's a problem. People in her family say contradictory things all the time. That's the point of family.
But Claude is not family. She loves him, of course. They have been together for nearly seven years. Still, he's a stranger, an Other, a French socialist who reads Althusser and subscribes to Philosophie and listens to Le Monde radio and is capable of seeing America from the outside as only a foreigner can, just as he can see Sara and her family from the outside as only a stranger can. In the case of America, he sees what's good, while also maintaining a healthy criticism. As for Sara's family, there are good days and well, there are other days.
Now, he shakes his head. "You are saying on one hand that your dentist's view is legitimate, that you trust his advice. Then, on the other hand, you are saying that you can't get a second opinion because all dentists are liars."
"Right," Sara says. "So?"
"You cannot maintain a skepticism toward the medical establishment on one hand, and yet agree with their opinions on the other."
This annoys Sara. Not just what Claude is saying, but the cool and ordered way he is saying it. Aside from being French, Claude is a Philosophy PhD candidate. He's always looking for the logical foundation, always if-A-then-B-ing. Rarely is he interested in the objective truth of a claim, but rather in its internal truth, the truth borne from a logically consistent argument. All dentists drive BMWs. Dr. Eckhart is a dentist. Therefore he drives a BMW.
Furthermore, Claude is a man who knows not to waste his own time. "I don't want to spend this entire dinner talking about your mother," he told her not too long ago, when Sara was in a particularly steam-blowing mood. Fair enough, Sara had thought. But what else is there to talk about?
"Well I do," Sara says. "I maintain both those ideas. Simultaneously."
"That's impossible," Claude says.
"Not so," Sara says. "I will probably get the surgery, even though I don't trust dentists, and I don't even know if this dentist is telling me the truth."
"Well, that's no way to form the basis of your decision." Claude places his wine glass down, dabs the corners of his lips with his cloth napkin. "You can't maintain those two contradictory ideas simultaneously."
The differences between her boyfriend and her mother have never been more clear to Sara, as though she's put them both through an x-ray machine and one has emerged white, the other black. It seems that if only she could combine the two of them, she might come up with the perfect person, the perfect blend of logic and emotion, reason and instinct.
But she cannot do this. And so she sits at the kitchen table and feels as if her head is going to explode, like a knife is slicing through her brain, tearing it in half.
"Look," Claude says, and he does something with his mouth, so that each of his words are as enunciated as ice cubes falling onto the table and sliding, coldly, into Sara's lap. "You either trust dentists and therefore want to get a second opinion, or you have a skepticism about them and you believe that no second opinion will do. It has to be one or the other. It can't be both."
"But it's how I feel."
"Perhaps then," Claude says, and sips his wine. "You should try feeling less and thinking more."
"Well," Sara says, "Perhaps you should go fuck yourself."
Claude raises his eyebrows at her. It is a joke, was a joke. That was how she meant it anyway. Ha ha. Just kidding! But the timing wasn't right, and anyway there was a bit more venom in there than she had intended. And now as Claude sits in silence, sipping his wine, Sara knows there are a not a million apologies in the world that can undo this, not in a million languages. Because even if Claude forgives her, she won't be able to forgive herself.
She reaches for his hand, but it is just when he is lifting the wine to his lips, and then it all sloshes in his glass, spills onto his fingers. Some other night, they would laugh. In some other context, they would giggle and shake their heads. But not tonight.
And this is what Sara's mother does. She spreads like vapor through every room inside a house, through other people's lives. So that even when she's not there, she's there. She's in the conversation you're having about whether or not to see a dentist and she's in the food you're eating or not eating and she's hovering over the discussion when you're talking about whether it's a good time to start trying for a baby. She's there, always there. And tonight she's spilling wine all over a perfectly good relationship and wondering how much shit it can take. Because that's what her mother does. And, evidently, that's what Sara does too.
Alone at the computer, while Claude has gone off to sleep, Sara clicks in and out of websites, learning more and more about wisdom teeth. She learns that the average mouth has thirty-two teeth. She learns that wisdom teeth typically grow in between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five, and that's why they're called wisdom teeth. Though really, who is actually wise by age twenty-five?
She learns that the name for her pain is pericoronitis, that it is a common infection problem in young adults with partial impactions that is often exacerbated by occlusion with opposing third or second molars.
She learns that common symptoms include a swelling and redness of the gum around the eruption site, difficulty in opening the mouth, a bad odor or taste in the mouth, and pain in the general area which may also run down the entire lower jaw or possibly the neck.
She learns that untreated pericoronitis can progress to a much more severe infection.
She learns that forty-to-fifty percent of first marriages end in divorce, that people who get married later in life are more likely to stay married, that people with college educations and who earn more money are also more likely to stay together, and that for second marriages the rate of divorce is sixty percent.
There is no statistic on what percentage of people divorce their parents. But she learns it is a real thing, something one can hire a lawyer for.
She learns that a significant percentage of men and women in their prime baby-making years indicate that the economy has directly influenced when they will have those babies. A recent survey of more than eight hundred eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds—a group hit hard by the economic downturn—found that approximately one in five recently delayed having kids because of the economic recession. She learns that birth rates are going down for middle-class women in the United States. There are many reactions to this, ranging from a sense that women are becoming more narcissistic to the idea that women are becoming more empowered.
She learns that one advantage of keeping your wisdom teeth is that they can take up the slack should other teeth fall out or need to be pulled -- as commonly happens as we age. And when a person needs a dental bridge, wisdom teeth provide an important anchor.
She learns that there are photos of her brother on the internet. She clicks on them. He looks professional, settled and happy. She marvels at the differences between herself and him, how he could be so calm, so driven, so focused, so certain of what he's always wanted and so sure how to get it, while she, well, not that. She wonders if moving to another country, as her brother did, was the answer. She wonders if he deliberately chose someone so unlike their mother, just as Sara has also chosen someone so unlike their mother. She wonders whether at times that's made him feel closer to their mother, like he's had to become her, to fill the void left by her absence. She wonders if he even has time to think about all these things, with his success, his children, his life that is happening while Sara, just six years younger, waits for her life to begin. She wonders if he has good dental care. She tries to find a photograph of her brother in which he's smiling, showing his teeth.
As she explained to Claude, or wanted to explain to Claude, what she needs is an impartial observer, someone who will give her an honest assessment of her teeth, with no interest in his own bank account. She needs someone who is motivated by reason, but who can listen to Sara's concerns and worries. The perfect dentist, the dream dentist, a dentist who puts an end to all other dentists.
Sara scrolls through the names of some local dental services. Bright Smile. Forever Dental. Happy Dental. She thinks that these places could also be Chinese food restaurants. She chooses Happy Dental because it is close, because the website shows a diverse array of smiling people of all nations and creeds with large white teeth and happy white-teeth children, because they accept her health insurance.
When she calls Happy Dental to make her appointment, she waits for the receptionist to say, "Pick up or delivery?"
Her phone is ringing even before Sara fully closes her apartment door to leave for the second opinion. When she sees that it's her mother calling, she hesitates, thinking of not answering. But she feels the vibrating little machine in her hand, hears its rings as though each one is getting louder and louder. It's not a phone. It's a Guilt Box. Each sonorous little jingle winds a thread tighter and tighter around Sara's heart.
"Hi," Sara says.
"Yeah," her mother says, her Brooklyn accent turning the word into Yare. "What happened? What's going on? What's up with your teeth?"
"Nothing," Sara says. "What's up with your teeth?"
"My teeth are terrible. These doctors, they don't know shit. Another thing I regret is having my bunion removed. I so wish I could take that back."
Sara holds the phone to her ear and walks toward the subway. Around her are men and women returning home from their office jobs. They walk quickly down the cobblestone streets, with purpose and intention, eager to get home and change into their running clothes or to get to the supermarket to pick up ice cream or to relieve the nannies of their duties. Sara feels her eyes latching onto all of them, big and moony, and she feels them looking at her and then quickly away from her, as though dealing with one's overbearing mother on your way to a dentist appointment were a kind of plague spread through eye contact.
"I'm sorry that happened to you."
"I'm sorry too," her mother says. "But what about the dentist? Did you make another appointment?" She pauses, and when Sara says nothing, she goes on. "Your teeth, Sara. There is nothing more important than your teeth."
"Really?" Sara says. "Nothing?"
Her mother doesn't laugh.
"This is serious, Sara. You have to make an appointment with another dentist. You have to get a second opinion. Please. Don't make the same mistakes I did."
Sara nods against the phone. She thinks, I've been trying to do that all my life.
In the dentist's office, a mother is there with her small child, a little boy with fat cheeks and straight brown hair and the kind of striped red and brown t-shirt that a toddler in a cartoon might wear. The child looks to Sara like a quintessentially cute kid. She suspects that his name might be Timmy or Tommy or something quintessentially cute like that. The mother has set him down on the carpet and she sits, staring at him as he picks up a small block, then throws it away, then reaches his tiny hand out for another block, then throws that one away.
"Here," the mother says, and she goes and retrieves his blocks and hands them to him, so that he can smile and toss them away all over again.
There is a magazine on Sara's lap, but she has not even opened it. She is watching the mother, watching the child, watching the mother, watching the child. She wants to say something, to tell the mother to let the child retrieve its own blocks, that hovering like that is only going to teach all the wrong things, that the child will never learn how to get blocks or choose blocks if the mother is always there.
Then again, there is something she wants to tell that child also. But she doesn't know exactly what. She hasn't figured out what the child is supposed to know about mothers. All she can think is, Yes, go get your blocks. Those are your blocks, goddammit, and you should enjoy them.
The dentist, Dr. Apianni is in a hurry. He is tall and blond and comes in as though he's been pushed by a great gust of wind. "TGIF!" he announces gleefully. Then he makes eye contact with her and says, "Huh? Am I right?"
Sara only grunts. She hates cute phrases like "TGIF" and "At the end of the day..." because her work week never ends. And that's true for most poor people too, who have two jobs, even ones on Friday night, people who don't get to spend the weekend driving their BMWs over to see their mistresses.
"So, let's see those pearls, shall we?"
Sara opens her mouth. It takes about thirty seconds for the dentist to look inside and say, "Oh yeah, you need to have those teeth taken out." He then proceeds to list everything that Sara already knows, thanks to her copious internet research. He tells her about the bacteria that could get under there, the infection that could arise. He tells her about the risk of oral cancer and a host of other horrors. He tells her that the worst thing in the world would be a popcorn kernel.
"Those things are the devil. All it takes is one kernel to get under there, while you're on vacation somewhere—"
"I don't take vacations," Sara says. There is a strain in her voice. She knows she is talking to her mother as well as to the dentists. Saying, look how hard I work. Saying, look how serious I am. Saying, let me live my life the way I want to live it.
"Well, all-righty," the young dentist says, oblivious to all these psychological layers. "But you do eat popcorn?"
Sara nods noncommittally.
"Anyway, you're going to be in pain, a lot of pain, if some food item gets stuck under those gums and an infection flares up. Better to take them out now, before that happens." He smiles, claps his hands, starts to rise. All done, and this little visit will cost her just over one hundred dollars. There's got to be more that she gets out of it.
"Pain," she says, just as he's standing.
"That's right," he says. "A lot of it."
"Can I ask you one other thing?" Sara says.
"Do you drive a BMW?"
"Ha," he says. "Me? A BMW? God no."
Sara leans back, relaxed. She will get the surgery after all. She will trust dentists, do what they suggest. She will have faith in the world. In spite of her mother's hysterical anxieties, her frantic admonishments not to.
As he stands and peels off his gloves, Dr. Apianni smiles once again. "Personally," he says, "I'm more of a Mercedes man."
That night, she climbs into bed next to Claude, who is sleeping with a face mask over his eyes. Claude takes a lot of measures to fall asleep: a face mask, a mouth guard, ear plugs, and half a sleeping pill. It's comforting to climb into bed with someone like that. Sara has often felt like he's encased in mummy wrap, like she could sing songs and wave her fingers around his face and bounce up and down on the mattress and he wouldn't know.
Of course, it's not such a wonderful thing. Sometimes even when he's awake Sara feels as though she's singing songs and waving her fingers and bouncing up and down on air waves, and Claude is wrapped up in the mummy wrap of logical thinking.
She curls next to him, flops her arm over his chest, kisses him. It is summer and they haven't put an air conditioner into their room. His chest is sweaty and the fan blows his little chest hairs against her cheek, tickling her skin. Then, for what feels like no reason at all, she bites him, softly, her teeth barely sinking into the smooth surface of his flesh.
Title image "Feet" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2016.