Sometimes I wonder what I’d look like without any teeth left in my head. Lips turned inward on themselves, gums a shocking pink. My throat a cavern that empties forever downward, and my body hollow, without purpose or power. Mine would not be strong gums, like a baby has, with nascent teeth budding just below the surface. Mine would be a mouth of death, as soft and pliant as dirt tossed loosely on a grave.
Clearly, I have some feelings about my teeth.
When I was a teenager, my parents divorced and stopped making dentist appointments for me—I’m not sure whether this was a miscommunication between them or if, as I distantly recall, they both decided I ought to take on the responsibility myself once I reached fourteen, even though I couldn’t yet drive and was afraid of making phone calls to strangers. Either way, I didn’t go, and my teeth have been a mess ever since.
Or maybe the problems started even earlier than that. The night before Easter, when I was about four and a half—old enough to have a whole set of baby teeth but young enough that I can’t quite remember—I rolled down my grandmother’s front steps, knocking loose my incisors and canines, filling my small mouth with blood. The afflicted teeth turned gray and eventually fell out, but they were replaced by healthy adult teeth to no ill effect. Well, unless you count the fact that years later, when I was drugged in a Russian bar, I broke half of my left incisor back off again, to be replaced with a very clever half crown. But that, of course, is less a matter of cause and effect than one of legacy: Your particular luck will keep coming back for you. It will find you wherever you go.
Since I started going to the dentist again, I’ve had a lot of cavities. A new one (or two or three) is discovered almost every time I make an appointment. Each new dentist tells me about something I haven’t been doing right, offering a technique or tool I should’ve started using years ago. Has no one ever suggested this to you before? they ask, with the cadence of someone gently inquiring how I’ve never been arrested. As a result, I’ve purchased an electric toothbrush and started brushing before breakfast instead of after. I got mouthwash, and then, with all due shame, I got the correct mouthwash: the kind with fluoride. I stopped rinsing out my toothpaste after brushing, and I bought new toothpaste as well as floss with enough texture and glide that I could convince myself to use it every day. Still, I get cavities all the time, and sometimes it makes me feel a despair that is out of proportion with the circumstances. Recently, the night before a visit, my husband told me, “Remember, whenever you think they’re saying ‘disappointment,’ they’re probably just saying ‘dentist appointment.’ ”
I guess I’m afraid of the dentist, but fear, as a concept, doesn’t quite capture it. The thought of going to the dentist doesn’t make me feel anxious—it makes me feel dead. When you’re dead, the worst has already happened, and you’re no more than a pile of flesh falling slowly off a pile of bones. When you’re dead, everyone is free to judge you; when you’re dead, you’re inert and beyond all hope. That’s how the dentist makes me feel.
Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin is about a hapless professor named Timofey Pnin, a Russian émigré who’s slowly losing his job at a small American college. We’re invited, from the very first page, to view Pnin as utterly ridiculous: his socks are “sloppy,” he can’t handle English idioms, he’s bald, and he’s wearing a “goon tie.” He is, from the start, on a train to nowhere—literally, in the sense that he’s consulted an out-of-date commuter timetable and is barreling happily away from his destination. The narrator is very clever at damning Pnin without seeming to dislike him, illustrating the man in much the way a person might describe their sweet, dumb dog. As the reader, you go along with this at first, thinking, The narrator says it, so it must be true.
But the narrator is not as omniscient as he would have you believe. Slowly, he lets slip brief moments of first-person recollection, memories that seem to be at odds with Pnin’s own sense of being. At some point, you realize that this narrator is actually a megalomaniacal bully who’s been shadowing Pnin since he was a child—and in that same moment, you realize you have been, for hundreds of pages, taking his word as gospel truth. So what do you do? You can change allegiances, cheering for Pnin when he escapes his tormentor by driving away in his little old car. But even so, the power you thought you had as a reader—to see things clearly and hold yourself outside the action—is gone. And as tempting as it might be to blame the narrator, he’s not the one who took it away. In a Nabokov novel, the house always wins.
One reason I’ve always been drawn to Nabokov’s writing is his relationship to power, which is so textured and so plain. He seeks to control not just the fictional beings between the pages of his books but the readers of those pages too—he’s always making fun of you, at least a little, for doing exactly what he wanted you to do, feeling what he hoped you would feel. Nabokov famously said that Pnin and Lolita were the only two of his characters he ever respected, because they were the ones who escaped him. But did they? I think he intended to let them go. I want to take him at his word, but when has that ever been the smart thing to do with someone who’s so obviously fucking with you?
Teeth are psychologically dynamic. They’re necessary for the violence of biting and ripping and chewing. Many predators kill by locking their jaws around the throats of their prey, including lions, crocodiles, and wolves. A friend of mine in a state of crisis recently told me she had a dream about contracting a disease that made all her teeth melt out of her mouth, which quickly killed her. When an idea is excellent, you say it has teeth. My own dental frailty has always felt too metaphorical for my comfort. Like Pnin’s expressive baldness, it makes me feel exposed to the world, open to possibilities I never wanted to entertain.
Once I was sitting in a bathroom stall at LaGuardia when a full upper palate of dentures clattered to the floor beside my feet. From the next stall over, a husky voice—a smoker’s voice—said, “Can you pass me my teeth, doll?” I was shocked, but I paused midstream and said brightly, “Just a second!” I composed myself and took a piece of clean toilet paper, then slid the dentures back. “Thanks, doll,” the woman said. I thought I heard her start to fit them back in, unwashed; there was a moist quality to the sound, and I hurried out of the bathroom before my suspicions could be confirmed.
Later that night, I told the story to anyone who would listen; I was at a party, and every time a new person came in, I lit up like a Christmas tree. What do you think she did next? I asked people. Got a sandwich? Kissed a baby? We all laughed. Welcome to New York! I said, spinning out that woman’s story until it was as thin as a thread. The truth is, I told that story to make sure people knew it wasn’t my own, that I would never end up that way, with pieces of me falling off onto the dirty airport floor. As if I was praying to God, or to Nabokov, I made a Pnin out of that woman, like a talisman. A puppet in which I could stick pins. We act out when we are afraid; we act out to keep ourselves safe in an uncertain world—this is true even when we’re in charge of the narrative.
Maybe that’s why I love Nabokov so much: not because he’s clever or strong or in charge, not because he’s adept at sleight of hand, but because underneath the way he pushes people around, I can see his fear and agitation and how it’s equal to my own. At my recent dentist appointment, I almost cried several times explaining my self-loathing to the hygienist, wringing my hands in nervous anticipation as I watched to see how she’d react. She was surprised—enough to make me wonder what kind of dinner-table conversation I might become. But once we got started with the cleaning, my mouth was too full to say much at all. For once, I was made to be quiet. I listened to the beating of my own heart, as honest as it is undeniable, as it will be until the very moment that I die.
Adrienne Celt is the author, most recently, of Invitation to a Bonfire.