And the Tooth Shall Set You Free

I’ve never had a cavity. That’s good, I suppose. My dentist once referred to my teeth as “perfect” (her word) despite my compulsive ice-chewing habit. That said, I don’t have a long history of good luck with my chompers. I’ve had five root canals, mostly due to random injury. I have three fake teeth, due to, well, let me get into that.

Despite bursting with unpopularity throughout high school, I still snagged a few friends, mostly from other schools close to me and through one of my jobs. Freshman year I worked at the local health club, babysitting and cleaning and illegally serving beer because for some reason they had a small bar. After that I worked at the kitchen in a retirement center where my Mom worked in accounting. My brother worked there for a time as well, but by my junior year he had moved away from both work and home. I had moved my room into our basement where his used to be. Outside of my bedroom there was a huge family room. Outside of that was a “fun” room that featured a large pool table in the middle and bar area where my dad kept his beer and the alcohol that my parents barely touched and thus did not notice when my friends and I would sneak a little and refill with water (I mean, shut up, I never did that).

One rare Saturday night when I actually made plans to hang out with friends, my parents also made plans to be out of the house for whatever reason. I asked if I could have friends over and they said “sure,” so long as it was small and I behaved myself. I invited my co-worker Rob over. He was a rosy-cheeked and chubby, little guy who, despite his blonde hair and blue eyes, wanted nothing more than to be Robert Smith from the Cure. We were joined by two girls we worked with and were having illicit thoughts about. For some reason, having a pool table was a draw and the three of them made their way across town just to hang out in my basement and listen to shitty music, drink shitty alcohol and watch Rob and I suck at pool. Even though we had a pool table my entire childhood, I used it more as a water setup for my GI Joe vs. Cobra battles than I ever did for actually playing pool.

We shot around for a few games. No one was really drunk, probably because my brother and I had been watering down the vodka for years, but we pressed on. For some reason, I wanted to use a different cue and I went to the rack on the side of the wall. And then I stumbled, and, well, that’s when it happened. I don’t know how exactly, it defies explanation really.

Now, I know what you’re going to say: I stumbled because I was shitfaced, but it’s honestly not true. Trust me, I’ve had to go to the ER more than once for falling UP stairs. I’m notoriously distracted from everything at all times so despite the wall being right in front of me, I was looking off to the side and misjudged the distance. I took a step too far and kicked the wall of pool cues, knocking them all forward where my face happened to be and my mouth walked right into one of the sticks. Not only did it knock out two of my teeth almost instantly, one on the top and one on the bottom, naturally, the bottom was sliced in half, but the top was knocked clean; the cue continued beyond the enamel barrier in the front of my mouth, until it found a stopping point at the back of my throat.

I fell to the floor, laughing, gagging, and then spit up blood, chalk, and two chunks of tooth. I looked up at Rob who had the widest eyes I’d ever seen. He did what any normal sixteen-year-old would do in that situation: panicked. I started to think that he may have smoked up before he got there because his reaction was irrationally freaked for the severity of the situation. It didn’t hurt, exactly. It was a tad painful, but the upsetting part was that I couldn’t swallow and kept having to spit up blood (and chalk, it did not taste good). Rob and the girls left, afraid that they would somehow get in trouble for my clumsiness, or that it would lead his parents to figure out he was drinking (and or smoking up). His parents were super religious, which might explain the paranoia. It might explain the fascination with the Cure as well.

This was pre-cell phone era and so I couldn’t just call my parents. I may have known where they were but decided, for whatever reason, to wait until they came home. Unfortunately, this was a particularly late night for them and the garage door didn’t alert me to their return until well after one a.m. I had just sat around watching TV, spitting up, and kept a wet towel on my face for the blood (oh yeah, there was a lot of blood, more than you might expect from a pool stick to the throat injury). I heard their footsteps above and I shouted up asking for them to come downstairs.

“What’s wrong?” My mom asked.

“There was an accident.”

I could feel my mom roll her eyes even though she was a floor away and nowhere within view, but believe me when I say that shit like this happened way too often. It got to the point where I would start conversations like “Mom, first off, I’m okay, but…”

My mom came downstairs and saw the cues all over the floor. I just left them there because I’m dumb. I told her what happened and she pulled me into the bathroom and looked at my mouth under the light.

“You have a hole in the back of your throat,” she said tersely. “You need to go to the emergency room.”

“I’ll tell Dad,” I responded.

“I’ll take you,” she quickly followed. My dad may have had a beer or two too many and wasn’t in driving condition. This was bad news for me, one, because my dad and I practically had a routine when it came to going to the ER; two, he was more lenient than my mom, who was a detective when it came to catching me doing something stupid, and who had a more aggressive definition of grounding than my father; and three, being at night, my dad was likely to fall asleep while waiting, I would have to keep my mom entertained, mostly by answering questions about what the hell I was thinking, and how I could let something like this happen.

I didn’t go to school on Monday. I only told one of my friends, but by Tuesday the story had already made its way around. I know because someone I knew from a few classes but hardly ever spoke to one-on-one caught me in the hallway as I walked in and said “Hey, you wanna play pool?”

Of course, being a moron helped my status. It was easier for people to believe I was drunk so I went with it. Girls I didn’t know asked to see my summer teeth (“sum ‘er there, sum ‘er not). Luckily, I was able to scare them off with my new and disgusting habit of gagging every so often. I had temporary crowns, but I could easily remove them. I also found out I could stick a cigarette in the space in my mouth where a tooth used to be, so I would shove one up there and talk normally to the delight slash disgust of those around me. Oh, the hilarity.

It was weeks before my mouth was back to normal. I had to have root canals in both teeth before I could have the surgery to replace them, but soon enough I had a shiny new mouth, and I went back to being a regular moron with no distinguishing and hilarious features.

It was years before I would have dental issues again. I’m not even particularly fussy about my teeth. I chew more ice on a daily basis than most people do in a lifetime. I floss regularly (in the hours before every dental checkup). Falling asleep before brushing my teeth at night is not completely unheard of. So, I’m as surprised as anyone that the no cavity caveat keeps occurring. But that doesn’t mean I go to the dentist without incident.

There was a tooth on the lower back side of my mouth that needed to be replaced. The dentist attributed it to an impact trauma, and given my penchant for accidents it could’ve been any number of things (getting punched, falling while rollerblading, hit in the face with a softball, which, side note, not so soft). I’m sure no one likes foreign objects in their mouth, but I’m really bad at it. When I moved to Los Angeles and had a new dentist, I vomited the first time she had to take x-rays. The gag reflex is strong in this one. So, when she had to fit me for a replacement tooth, I expected her to be more careful.

I’m not sure how dentistry works, so I’ll just recount from my memory and perspective. My old tooth was gently yanked from my mouth (incidentally when I learned that it takes more than the normal amount of Novocain to work on me). Then the doc used a temporary crown and some form of spackling and shoved a new tooth in my mouth and positioned some device around my teeth that kept them clenched together. All was well and good until the leftover clay spackling that was around the new mold broke off. I was alone in the room, when I felt a chunk of the clay in the back of my throat. Ever since I cut a hole back there it was a little sensitive. It went from a slight tickle to a full-on choke in short order. I tried to yell for someone but I couldn’t verbalize with my mouth sewn shut like a nerdy version of what I imagine every Saw movie is like (I’ve never seen one).

I started slamming equipment and banging my hands on the walls, anything to generate noise and get someone to come running. I wasn’t chained down or anything, so I suppose I could’ve walked into the lobby, but I was mid-panic. The doc and assistant did come running in and I tried to explain that I was choking before I remembered that I couldn’t verbalize so I did the universal sign for choking as the worked to unwire my mouth. They were fast but not entirely fast enough and they got my mouth to open at the exact moment my body decided to repel the foreign object in my throat. As they pulled my mouth apart I blew chunks in the general vicinity of in front of me and for the third time in my life I had to apologize for vomiting on someone as the dentist looked at me with a mixture of horror, annoyance and embarrassment. Yeah, think how I felt, lady.

Obviously, I decided at that point that all dentists were evil and had some secret pact to eliminate me. I was working freelance and didn’t have dental insurance so I skipped going to the dentist for about three years. And that’s when it happened.

For some reason, I thought my front tooth, the fake one, felt loose. In some ways, you can convince yourself that any tooth is wiggly if you move your thumb under it the right way. In other ways, it turns out that a replacement tooth is only good for about ten or so years. So, roughly ten or so years after the incident with the pool stick, I was working at a marketing agency, chalking up my loose tooth to general hypochondria, and as I was talking to my friend Georgina I turned away to sneeze. It was an aggressive sneeze and while I covered my mouth, I obviously didn’t do so tightly enough. I heard a weird clink, clink, clink sound right after I sneezed and I turned to ask George if she heard it. She looked back at me, her face a mixture of abject horror and pure delight as she stifled her laughter and merely pointed at me. I turned back to my computer screen and in the reflection, I saw a gaping hole where my tooth generally resided. Oh shit, was my first thought, where the fuck is my tooth.

I searched all around my desk while Georgina had a complete laughter breakdown and honestly, I was laughing as well. But finding my tooth was the more pressing concern and when I pulled my computer tower back from the wall, I found the hard, white-ish chunk amidst the dust and dirt behind my computer.

“What do I do?” I asked no one in particular. I was not especially adept at handling adversity.

“Call your dentist,” George managed through guffaws.

“I don’t have one.”

Now, timing being everything, I was supposed to travel for work the next morning, which was Saturday. And it was already six o’clock. I wasn’t excited by my odds of solving this problem easily, but luckily, I found a dentist that was able to get me a temporary crown right away and could schedule me for surgery once I came back from my trip and the permanent crown came in. The only downside was that the temporary crown didn’t stay in my mouth easily, gravity constantly pulling it downward. It would slip out fairly often, three or four times a day, and I couldn’t eat with my front teeth, lest it fall right out while I was eating a bean burrito from Taco Bell (which obviously happened). Thankfully, I didn’t swallow it.

Before I could get my permanent crown though, I was a further victim of circumstance. When I moved from Nebraska to LA, I never bothered to change my driver’s license, which the law requires you to do upon establishing residence, which I learned the hard way. About two years after establishing residence in LA, I was driving to a party at a friend’s house up in Hollywood with my friend Bill. My license plates had expired a couple months before and I hadn’t gotten them changed because I would have to get my license transferred first and that was dealing with the DMV and effort, and at that point in life my modus operandi for dealing with any issue was generally ‘ignore it and maybe it will go away’ (pro tip: it rarely does).

I saw a cop car behind me as I was driving and I wanted to get away from him as fast as possible, hopefully escaping before he noticed the expired plates. Unfortunately, in attempting to escape, I didn’t stop fast enough at a stop sign and as I turned right on Melrose, the cop followed me, flipping on his lights right after.

The cop asked if I knew why he pulled me over. I responded “because of the expired plates?” not realizing the illegal turn, and that he hadn’t noticed the plates. He ran my plates after that and everyone learned that there was a bench warrant for my arrest because of an unpaid ticket from a couple years before. In a staggering display of white privilege, the cop let me go without taking me in, but said he had to impound the car. Honestly, it could not have been a nicer interaction with the officer, especially given how much everything was a direct result of my own stupidity. I waved goodbye to my car and we had another friend pick us up for the party where I proceeded to get drunk and let future Jonny deal with the ramifications of the evening.

When I went to the police impound a couple days later, I dressed up in a nice, collared shirt, and was ready to drip the full extent of my Midwestern charm in order to get my car back. There was an order to the events that they required-get my license renewed, get new plates, get my car back. But I was set to travel for work and if I couldn’t get my car back that day, it would be weeks before I could get everything done. Not to mention that getting my license would be easier if I had transportation to the DMV. As I talked to the officer behind the desk, I pleaded my case. But, as luck would have it, my tooth took that moment to execute its latest escape and no matter how convincing an argument is, it will always be undermined if your teeth are falling out in the middle of it.

“I swear I’m not on meth,” I said when my tooth dropped onto the counter between us.

It was too late. I had lost her. There would be no exception given and it took weeks of hassle, and thousands of dollars in impound fees before I had my car back. There’s a valuable lesson here. I don’t know what it is. Don’t do meth? Maybe it’s as simple as go to the dentist regularly. But even while doing that my perfect teeth fell out. Maybe something about following rules. Who cares. All I know is for fifteen I couldn’t bite into an apple because of a pool stick. And there’s not much you can do with that.

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