Lauren W. Westerfield
I grind my teeth at night. So my dentist tells me. Her smile is fluorescent, the same electric white as her white coat. "It might be stress," she suggests. "Perhaps a night guard." I try to picture such a thing, but think instead of orange slices: orbs cut into crescent moons, consumed at soccer games. All us kids, slipping our incisors flush against the quick of dry white pulp. I remember how we'd tuck our upper lips over the rinds, bare citrus smiles, let the juice explode inside our mouths.
"No thanks," I say. "I'll try to meditate or something; cut back on coffee."
She has an office by the beach. Moonlight Dental, South Coast Highway, Encinitas. Seashell décor, bright yellow walls. The place screams CALIFORNIA, and so does she. She's blonde, of course, and always wears a dress. Black pumps from Tory Burch, and tasteful strings of pearls. Invisible pores. A perfection that unsettles—that suggests I'll never quite shore up the mess of me: a wine stain here, stray eyelash there, one sock forever slumped inside my shoe.
"Get a Sonicare," she says. "They're the best." So I stop at Target on the drive back home, back up the coast to Los Angeles, back to the apartment my aspiring actor boyfriend and I share in Silver Lake, and pay $39.95 for a toothbrush labeled "Essence." In the checkout line, I waver, wanting something more. Maybe lipstick. I pick a color that is bright and bold—a color I would probably describe as very unlike me.
"Revlon Matte Balm," the label reads.
The color: "Standout" (Remarquable).
Here are my teeth. I am looking in the mirror, homing in. They form a crooked line. A chipped incisor, second from the left. An upper canine, twice as sharp as its mate; the whyand how of this unknown. Whole bottom row at slant, bearing west—like full sails in a breeze. When I smile, the composition is a little off: slight gap between my two front teeth, the pink of gums encroaching from beneath the too-high rise of an un-plump upper lip. My teeth are whiter than one might expect—that is, considering the coffee. Lipstick heightens this. Sets them off in tones like "Peony" or "Hope."
At 30, I don't know, yet, whether this night grinding is something that will get worse, or go away. Whether it is stress, or acid reflux. Whether the damage will be visible, or hidden—unbidden dips and smooth spots only I can feel against my tongue. All I know is this: you work with what you've got.
Seven years ago, I spent a winter eating fruit in Baja: mangoes, apples, oranges, papaya. I was 23. I got a tan, and abs, and lost five pounds. I fell in love. It was the healthiest I've ever been—or so it felt. Afterwards, back home in California, I learned my teeth were full of holes. My hometown dentist botched the fillings: cheap composite, maybe, or perhaps the fault of shaking hands. He was getting old. At any rate, the fillings were not built to last.
By definition, "composite" should be made of recognizable constituents; the product of at least two factors greater than one. Composite things may start out fractured, or duplicitous. As in, not normally found together—but ultimately, capable of joining into some single entity: compound, alloy, picture. Stronger, possibly, than each would be alone. Provided that the different factors fit.
Such evidence suggests my fillings would have stayed in better tact had I asked for gold. At the time, I don't recall my little hometown dental practice (or, for that matter, my parents) touting this option. What likely was offered was a range of other blended materials—silver amalgam (a medley of copper, silver, mercury, zinc and tin), for instance, or an off-white blend of glass and plastic, or what's vaguely and mysteriously known as composite resin, like the sticky stuff that's tapped from trees. All of these weaken with time. All of these bear toxic risk. The trick, it seems, is balance: of risk and reward, of safety and stability. Of finding a composite you can trust—and even then, still checking every several years to test the infrastructure, to look for rot.
Not long after getting those first fillings, I moved south. I was with my Baja lover (who had followed me back home to California for a San Francisco summer, a South Lake Tahoe winter, before we both agreed to settle down in San Diego). I got referrals—doctor, dentist, OBGYN—as one does in a new town, and ended up at Moonlight Dental. The first time we met, the blonde dentist stuck her tools inside my mouth, then shook her head. "These fillings are all wrong." She put a plastic tab against my cheek and flicked a switch. I heard a beep. "See those lines?" she said. The x-ray image sprung up on the screen: my teeth, close up, less white than I would like and glistening with spit. "Those cracks in the composite? They've got to be replaced."
Not my fault. She made it clear.
Still, I felt this guilt. All that fruit, acid-sweet against my teeth.
Growing up, no one ever told me: how much sugar—acid—rot—might live inside sweet fruit.
This is how the teeth come in. First there are incisors: four each, on top and bottom, used for biting. Then the primary molars, to chew and grind—called deciduous, like trees, because they shed. Their roots give way for premolars, bicuspids, grown-up teeth that creep in from the gums. Not until age nine or so do canines come—a set of four, to rip and tear at flesh. Finally, with age, the wisdom teeth (though some pairs fail to sprout).
There is a pattern. A prescription from within—for what to eat, and when, and how to chew.
A way in which my body will expect—that is, permit—me to be hungry. My teeth assert control. Their shape, their fitness—solid first, then filled with holes, then ground. Gum recession might someday change the way I chew. A rotted filling leaves the cavity, the price for too much sweetness, open like a wound. The pain each time I bite down hard (broccoli florets, burnt toast), a warning: shore up this mess.
I get home from the dentist in a funk. It's Friday night. I pull into the driveway, wishing I had plans. My aspiring -photographer-turned-aspiring-actor boyfriend, A—still the one I met in Baja, freshly severed from the Air Force; still the one I fell in love with over mango and papaya—doesn't like to go out much. He doesn't like the noise, the press, of crowds. It reminds him of too much (Kuwait, Afghanistan). Back in San Diego, we learned to avoid the local pizza place on busy nights because the shouting children and audio barrage of frat boys playing Big Buck Hunter gave him panic attacks. Now, despite our address just off Sunset Boulevard, we stay in a lot. We haven't made too many friends.
But it's Friday night, and I'm in Los Angeles, and I'm craving lights and stranger's faces. I think about Blonde Dentist and her pretty dresses, my new lipstick, and feel the urge to tidy up; look put together. I check the mail, climb the stairs. Maybe we could wear nice shirts and jeans, walk hand-in-hand to the quiet French bar down the street—the one with all the darkened wood and oil paintings on the walls, strong drinks, big ice cubes, Moroccan pillows strewn across the giant L-shaped leather couch.
Except that when I turn the key and walk inside, A isn't home. Must be at the movies. He does this sometimes—for research, he says; but also when he needs to be alone, out and silent in the world.
So I tear the foil off the bottle of Shiraz, then the plastic wrapper from my tube of Revlon Matte Balm lipstick. Pour a glass of wine. Stand alone in front of the bathroom mirror and smooth on "Standout:" first along the border of my lips, then filling in the plumper parts.
Press both pads of flesh together. Dab with tissue. Bare my teeth.
The color looks good: flame and cherry, dark and rich against my pale white skin. Not remarquable, perhaps, but close.
Still, I won't go out. Not like this, alone, and with my lips all red and loud, my teeth, by contrast, whiter than I've earned. These teeth belong to someone else—someone brazen and seductive that A doesn't know, that even I don't know particularly well. Someone who intrigues and frightens me. I don't think I trust her. She will stay inside with me, and drink Shiraz, and maybe move and sway around the coffee table in the dark, her arms outstretched. Our fingers barely touching.
The medical term for "grinding teeth" is bruxism. Bruxism might be caused by stress, anxiety, anger, tension, rage. Or there's hyperactive personality, or acid reflux, or malocclusion, or psychiatric backlash. There's the simple need to cope, and force of habit. There's alcohol and coffee, sleep apnea and snoring and fatigue.
In other words, the root cause of bruxism has nothing to do with teeth. It's borne of minds in motion; nocturnal churn of language hitting bone. In other words, the brain—the jaw—revolts at night. Fights, perhaps, against prescription. Rules for how to hunger; how to chew. As for me, I never know if I've been grinding. I only know those nights A wakes me: tells me he can feel my jawbone working hot against his shoulder as we sleep.
A night guard, it turns out, is nothing like an orange slice. It bends dreams—makes them darker, stranger. More nights than not, I err on the side of risk. That is, I prefer the grind.