Teeth

Juliet Manolias

Content warning: body horror.

My grandfather lost a few of his teeth recently. He’s since stopped smiling around the house.

For a man entering his late 70s, he’s had pretty good teeth up until now. Something that I would take pride in, although he never thought to. A few months ago, he had only been missing a single tooth, a well-hidden premolar, which he’d had a few decades to get used to already. I’ve never asked why it was missing; I only found out about it once his teeth had started becoming a hot topic around the house. Infection forced him to get the second one removed, but this time it was one of the bigger ones further back, a molar. He didn’t seem to care about that one either. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess. At peace with a loss that I could not fathom experiencing. He was still smiling back then, despite being down two teeth, so it probably didn’t bother him much.  

The next tooth to go was a canine, the upper one on his left side. It split in two one day (trying to get that tooth count back up?) while he was working in the backyard. He still doesn’t know why it did that – whatever English the dentist spoke to him hadn’t gotten through – so all he came home with that night was a mystery and another gap in his teeth. He tried to crack a few jokes at his own expense, and everyone else joined in, but not once did he open his mouth to laugh. I felt sorry for him, but within a few days he was back to his normal self.  

Two weeks later, I was sitting in the kitchen with my grandmother when he walked in from the living room. The plate in his hands held his half-finished dinner. He had a habit of taking the leg bone from our lamb roasts, gnawing it clean lest he waste any food and be reminded of his starved childhood. But in that moment, the bone lay obscured by meat.  

Before he even said a word, I could tell. He said that he thought he swallowed one of his big front teeth while he was eating. He didn’t know where else it could be. I felt a wave of nausea roll over me, tried to swallow the teeth that were now lodged in my throat. My grandmother couldn’t help but laugh at my grandfather, her disbelief echoing off the tiles. Another one? Brought out of my waking dream, I soon joined in. But a biting pain still wrapped around my heart. When he spoke, it was hard not to stare. Between two dark holes a lateral incisor sat on its own, a peg out of place where it now felt like there were more gaps than teeth.

I now sit across the dinner table from one of my biggest anxieties. Losing teeth as a kid was fun, but as an adult it is the permanent destruction of a much too fragile and irreparable body. A grim reminder that the body starts to decay before death has any reason to be near. Getting wisdom teeth removed was a necessity, but it felt like a waste. What if I need these? I won’t ever get them back.  

The dreams have always added another layer to this. They haven’t increased in frequency at all; they don’t need to. They’ve been coming often enough already. Twice a month now, at minimum. It’s not the exact same dream each time, so at least I don’t have to worry about ever getting bored. Instead, I worry that my teeth are maybe becoming just a bit too loose, no longer firm in their places. I want to be sure, so I keep wobbling them with my fingers, and eventually they start to come out, one after the other. I’ll try to close my mouth to stop them, but when my teeth crash together, they begin to crumble. My mouth feels so full I could gag, can no longer hold onto any of these precious pearls swirling around inside. I open, and they pour across my lower lip, an endless cascade that I quickly wake up from.  

I lie in bed and check each of my teeth. Running my fingers along, applying pressure to each one, but not too much (you can never be too careful). They don’t move, of course, but my heart doesn’t slow down yet. It was a dream. Dream. A dream. Nightmare. I don’t like the word nightmare—I believe that it gives the dream more power over you than it otherwise would. Admitting defeat, in a way. My chest aches, and the feeling won’t leave me for the rest of the day. My tongue moves to eat, speak, while phantom teeth rattle and roll around it, clinking against my own.