by Soyini Ayanna Forde
I am at the orthodontist, getting photos taken of my mouth to be placed inside my file by the new dental assistant. My mouth widens, a pink chasm. She smothers a soft gasp, stifles it in her throat, but I hear it anyway.
“You have no molars below,” she says. “How do you chew?”
I look at her, wary. “I don’t know,” I say, “I just do.”
“So, you’re Caribbean?” She asks me during another appointment, with a smile that is too excited to see me, that I know cannot be real. Her teeth are impeccable, clean, pretty. I am convinced I’m the kind of patient about whom serious briefings are held before any appointment. She will already know the inside of my mouth well, its secrets and its deficiencies.
I’m not interested in any ol’ talk. I want to recline in the chair and stare quietly at the big lights overhead. I want to find a way out of appointments and money and teeth fixing and anxiety. I want to know why the tooth fairy only services children and doesn’t grant wishes. Isn’t that what fairies are supposed to do? I also want to tell her that I don’t want to explain about the Caribbean, I’d rather not talk now but of course, I don’t.
“Yes,” I say.
“But you sound so British.” She says this like a compliment. A congratulatory tone drips from the statement, resonates within the brilliant room. The American ear can be so strange; I’m sure I don’t sound British.
“Thank-you,” I say. I chuckle feebly, as fake as the wide curve opened across her face. Pleased as puss, she moves towards my mouth with a shiny band remover in tow.
People can make a lot of assumptions about you when you’re an adult still in braces. A guy hitting on me once included this observation: “I know you got good credit. You know how I know? You got on braces!” People also love to try to get you to ‘smile and show all your teeth’—men especially. Like Bartleby, I’d also prefer not to.
I started tracking my dreams a few years ago after someone gave me a dream dictionary for my birthday; however, I don’t usually dream of teeth. I do not. This is not something that I do. A friend, on the other hand, has a recurring nightmare about her teeth, painlessly cracking and falling away from the gum as soon as she tries to eat anything. She tells me that this terrifies her and awakens a shrill fear in her gut each time, but in reality, her teeth are glorious, straight and pristine white.
But my teeth are never far from my mind. When I smile, talk, eat, drink, wake up in the morning, exist. Teeth are reminders of the money I don’t have but couldn’t afford not to spend. They are harbingers of work still left to do. My teeth are errant children with no “broughtupsy,” corralled and being told what to do. The last time I felt a predictive twinge deep in my gum, I healed it by holding a piece of amethyst geode against my jaw. Damn, teeth, how are you both incorrigible and abatable at the same time? Every single time I knock them against a glass, I’m surprised they don’t break or chip. My front teeth are the real MVPs.
I can remember when I was a little girl and my front teeth fell out. At home, when this happens, people might call you a “no-teet’ ganga” (a kind of term of endearment)—not to be confused with the West Indian batsman or an aberration of the transcendent herb. They were little, smooth milk teeth, slightly rippled at the top edges and bloody. I rinsed them proudly in cool water from the tap, watched them emerge, clean like a baptism. It was the last time that I held any of my teeth inside of my hand. My hand, a small oyster, encasing what’s within. I still recall my excitement over the money under my pillow the next morning. Small change really: a few shillings, some red dollars, but I was ecstatic.
Later, I will have whole rows of teeth in my jaw, above and below, that never rupture the gum. A whole row becoming doubled into two like a great white shark. I can see them, some only vaguely, others more pronounced, in shapes and shadows in the x-rays. They are translucent renderings in shades of grey and black. “Supernumerary teeth” they are called. They reminded me of headstones, jostled around on an expanse of ground, a few even lying sideways. My body never gave them the cue to come down—or up, as it were—my body doesn’t send out these kinds of cues on time. My body is on “colored people time,” incessantly. Late, sometimes sheepish and embarrassed, sometimes indignant: “But at least I reach!”
“So, this is what we’re working with” is the kind of preamble oral specialists will often give. X-rays are always grandly displayed with an epic resignation before me. Dr. S was the only one who didn’t give me the sense that he was feeling sorry for me. Or he hid it well behind his glasses. He was a stout, white American man, confident in his expertise. Thick silver hair speckled his temples and the nape of his neck as he pointed out all the extraneous teeth, telling me that they would need to be removed. We will tackle one set now, and the other later, he assured me. His smile was kind. He was clearly up to the challenge. I felt sad seeing them wasted, like people who never got the chance to realize their full potential.
When my orthodontist attaches a chain to my engulfed canine (one of two) that has never seen the light or chewed food—I wonder if one day I could just will it out if I tried hard. This business of adult tooth emergence is a long, arduous process. Each month, the orthodontist tweaks the pressure on the chain, coercing, applying more pressure, pulling, and easing the tooth from the depths of the gum. It is almost like giving birth to an inanimate object; watching it painstakingly excavated, white sliver by white sliver. And if I attempted to will the tooth down, would my body even listen to me?
There are few things I want to discuss less with a lover than my teeth or certain other aspects of my body.
“So how long yuh have to wear yuh braces for again?” He asked me. Instantaneously, the question tired me. My teeth act of their own accord, my body does what it wants, when it wants. And it often pays me no mind. I fight with tooth-gravity and it fights me right back. Like my slightly off-kilter spine, my body and all its skeletal extremities are filled with obstinacy.
“Who knows anymore, yes. Whenever my orthodontist ready, I guess.” Flickering under his brown eyes, I looked away. We moved around each other like pieces on a chessboard. We calculated space and implication and consequence. I wondered and I wondered, why does he even need to know this? But I didn’t ask. I carve a space out for that question, like so many things, inside of my chest and pack it tight in there with the rest.
The first time he kissed me, I wouldn’t let the soft muscle of his mouth enter my own. Pressing my tongue forcibly against his own, I blocked his way. He would always tell me (not just about his tongue but on many things in general): nobody have tuh tell me nutten twice, yuh know. Once is good enough. There were several times when I longed for him to charge into my mouth, bowling over my insecurities, my worries, my fears. I wanted to be soul-kissed past boundaries. But he never did. We kissed like our mouths held hidden unknowns, or a black hole that we were afraid we wouldn’t return from.
The last time I went to see my then-boyfriend, inexplicably I woke up with an unrelenting yearning for soca parang although it was mid-June. His house felt like a cave might, on the inside, all closed off from the gleaming light outside. Its innards were hidden (or protected, depending on one’s perspective) from the street outside. Smells languished in the far corners, the kinds trapped by too much closed-up air conditioning and not enough outside air: food, incense, sensi and the faint base notes of cologne.
The tucka, tucka, tucka rhythms of the claves accompanied the shak-shak, box-bass, violin and cuatro, all following behind the sweet refrain of Madame Jeffrey oi, wake up is Christmas morning as it rang out clearly inside the house. I shuffled through the kitchen to the beat, doing a cross between a chip, a slow two-step and the occasional rock-back; easy drop on the beat to the floor, picked up some runaway napkins, cleaned the sideboard, washed dishes, and made myself some lemongrass tea before he returned from his “errands.”
His brother showed up and nonchalantly wondered out loud about when I would leave. The brother was always bemused around me, like I was a flitting aedes aegypti needing ushering through any opening. I stayed in defiance and stretched the day as long as I could, watching the man I drove to see pulverize ginger root inside his punch. I enjoyed watching him bustle around the kitchen, sizzling chopped onions, seasoning, and soy crumbles. I knew few young men then who were truly at ease and capable in the cooking arena. All the while we saw each other, he never once let me cook him a pot. I doh eat from woman just so; I might find mehself driving to see you all hours of the day and night and don’t even know why, he explained; his voice was light, but real fear bubbled inside his irises. Up close, I “Eskimo-kissed” him, watched the tiny holes sprinkled across his nose like the pores of dried orange peel as the bristle of his facial hair swept my chin.
Small flecks of him could be found embedded in the tight spaces between my teeth, like chicken, which he does not eat. No deadas, only life. He knew me well in so many ways, then. And if I were a soucouyant, he would know where I hid my skin. He would have protected this knowledge, I’m sure, from heavy-handed, salt-wielding folks. Or else, doom me to a fiery existence himself, as a heaping ember mass dying out under a rising morning sun. Yes, I would have trusted him with my skin, but I don’t know if I should have. Turns out, I am that kind of girl after all, still loving the hell out of love without a whole lot to show for it.
During the unfolding day, we sat around his small wooden table after eating. I had a clear view through the open blinds by the sliding glass door and out into his small garden in the backyard. The tomatoes, peppers, and other plants wilted pitifully, barely clinging to the soil. A long Florida winter and not enough rain had left them in this condition. My feet were propped up on an empty chair as we talked around the things we really needed to say to each other. Invariably, during the course of our conversation, and before I picked myself up and drove back to my city, he said something to make me smile big and laugh. Unselfconsciously and with no protective restraint from the palm of my hand, joy erupted freely. My teeth, from behind their wired cage, gleamed like a supernova against the darkest sky, or so I believed.
Soyini Ayanna Forde grew up in Trinidad and Tobago. She has work forthcoming and in Moko, Black Girl Dangerous, Apogee Journal, SX Salon, The Caribbean Writer, Tongues of the Ocean, The Guidebook, St. Somewhere Journal, and Black Renaissance Noire. Her poetry chapbook Taste of Hibiscus was published by Dancing Girl Press. She is very interested in West Indian identity, diasporic connections, and what she can learn from the resilience of strong women. She blogs about race, her love life, and West Indian culture at www.soyluv.wordpress.com.
Image credit: Henry Gray () Anatomy of the Human Body