It wasn’t entirely surprising. I’d had trouble with my teeth for well over a decade. Thanks to genetics and, I suppose, rotten luck, two of my adult teeth never came in after I lost my baby teeth in the first couple years of elementary school. This isn’t a rare condition—I know multiple adults who still haven’t filled the gaps in the backs of their mouths—but in my case, the gaps weren’t exactly hidden. In fact, they were on either side of my front teeth. “Prominent” doesn’t begin to cover it. It’s almost certain I was ridiculed for the way they looked, since children can be exceptionally cruel and my teeth hit Peak Awkward around the time I was 12 (when the art of meanness is perfected).
The pronounced gaps remained through countless cavity fillings and a lengthy stint with braces. After my orthodontist removed my braces in my sophomore year of high school, he whipped up a retainer adorned with two (genuinely convincing) false teeth. Granted, I had to remove my retainer during meals, but I’d take that over glaring gaps any day of the week.
There was a more permanent solution to my problem far off in the distance: dental implantations. But those cost a bundle of money that neither my parents nor I were willing to hand over just yet. My father promised me that by the time I got married or graduated from college—whichever came first—I would have a full set of teeth. I’ll semi-ruin the end of this story by telling you he was right. But it was a complicated kind of right.
I was a senior in college when my dentist presented a solution for my longstanding problem: Tooth In An Hour. Tooth In An Hour works thusly: a dentist sits you in a chair, pumps you full of local anesthetic, drills a hole (or, in my case, two) in your mouth, sticks a screw in said hole, and covers said hole with a temporary cap. The name’s not misleading—it really is a short and relatively painless procedure if you can stand a few needles coming in contact with your gums. I wasn’t squeamish about that at the time, and I’m even less so now, since it’s happened more than a few times since. But I’ll get to that later.
My dentist was, at that point, one of few who performed Tooth In An Hour, so other dentists from around the country sat and watched the surgery on TV screens in the waiting room. I’m not exactly sure the economics of this, but I got a substantial discount on my surgery since it was 1) borderline experimental and 2) filmed before a live viewing audience. And I’m really grateful for that. I was 21 and well past the point of being embarrassed by the retainer line over my teeth, but not having to wear it, and having what could be called a normal smile, sounded really great to me. (Plus, I was getting married in a few months’ time, and the wedding pictures would probably look a bit better with a full set of teeth. Also, chewing. Chewing would get easier.)
Within a couple weeks, the recovery period concluded and my dentist placed my permanent caps. Less than a month later, my gums began showing signs of infection. They were inflamed, and they itched constantly. I called the dentist’s office and was told that infection was highly unlikely. My mouth was just getting used to its new synthetic-filled state. When I went in for a checkup, I was unsurprised to learn my gums were, in fact, infected.
I didn’t have much spare time to get upset about the fact that my dentist ignored what was a fairly obvious mistake on his part. Regardless, I was fairly angry with both the dentist and the receptionist who’d laughed off what I was certain was an infection. And there was no real possibility of taking legal action against them. We didn’t have too strong a case beyond “They didn’t believe me and I’m mad at them,” and shelling out hundreds of dollars for a lawyer on principle would’ve been foolish. But I stewed. You better believe I stewed. There was a great deal of complaining to my fiancé behind closed doors—not so much to my parents, because I didn’t want to heap guilt on them in addition to dental bills. Why would I? They paid for my fake teeth, and they were footing most of the bill for my wedding. I can’t imagine it would’ve made me feel better to tell them about my frustration.
In the months that followed, I had weekly laser treatments—preceded by four injections of anesthetic with a frighteningly sharp needle—to heal my gums. Imagine how a dental-specific laser smells when in use. (It’s like burning.) Then imagine that smell coming from your mouth. (It tastes like metallic hot dogs.) Then imagine how that laser might sound. (It’s not at all what you want it to be. It doesn’t beep or boop or bleep or anything. It just whirs menacingly. And it does so inside our mouth.) Then imagine sitting in a chair every Monday afternoon for six weeks while the same dentist you’ve seen since you were 7 aims a laser in your mouth in effort to cure the symptoms you noticed and he disregarded.
It doesn’t feel the way you want to feel when you’re completing your final semester of undergrad, working part-time and trying to find a summer gig, and making last-minute plans for your wedding—which is scheduled for less than a month after graduation day. I was already stressed out, and jetting off from History of the English Language class to my dentist’s office each week rather than kicking back and playing Katamari Damacy in my apartment was disappointing, to say the least. And no matter how used to mouth-probing needles, they’re still needles. And they’re still scary.
Four days after my final laser treatment, the dentist office caught fire after hours. (You can’t make this stuff up.) After hearing the news from my mom, I thought about the concepts of irony, coincidence, karma, and schadenfreude. I thought about forgiveness, and I thought about the kindness of the dental hygienists and the plastic bottles of water I liked bringing out of the office and re-using for weeks on end. Then I thought about finding a new dentist as soon as I switched insurance providers. It didn’t seem worth it to keep endorsing this particular practice while feeling the way I did: disappointed, disenchanted, and oddly betrayed.
Three years and approximately three preventive care appointments later, all with the practice’s other resident dentist, I moved from Grandville, Michigan to Manhattan with my husband and our two cats. In time, I got a great job at a great business and insurance in the state of New York. Then, in 2013, I had two wisdom teeth extracted. It took under an hour. I opted for local anesthetic and, when he seemed concerned with this choice, I insisted to the oral surgeon that my mouth had seen it all. Post-surgery, after telling me how well I did, he showed me the teeth, and we agreed the roots looked like claws. I didn’t tell him quickly enough that I wanted to keep them (who wouldn’t?), and they were thrown in the medical waste bin, lost but not forgotten.
The nine blocks and two avenues back to our apartment were normal, save for the gauze in my mouth and slowly fading anesthetic. We stopped at Wendy’s for a soft lunch of Frostys and fries. After ascending the stairs to our fourth-floor walkup, I parked myself on the couch and watched New Girl in blocks and whined about not being able to drink beer for an entire six days. (Fun fact: if you whine about this loudly enough in front of a bartender, they’ll set you up with free Coca-Colas for the rest of the night. At least, that’s been my experience.) Relative to how complicated it was, this was the easiest time I’d ever had with a dental procedure. I was happier, content with the competent dentists, doctors, and oral surgeons I had sought out in Manhattan. Finally, I had health care providers I could recommend. And even when you’re a relatively healthy twenty-something, that’s a crucial thing to have.
Subpar dentistry at a discounted rate isn’t, on average, worth the struggle. In retrospect, I should thought through the potential consequences of trusting that particular dentist with such a procedure, and I should have told my parents we should wait on it. But then, I wouldn’t have the implants I have. I wouldn’t know what it’s like to experience the raw power of a laser in your mouth. I wouldn’t have spent so much time with my mom as she carted me from campus to the dentist and back again on Monday afternoons. (Thanks, Mom.) And I wouldn’t be able to tell you that I know, from experience, you should only agree to a medical procedure with a name involving the phrase “In An Hour” if you’re ready for probable disaster and one hell of a narrative.
J. Longo is a designer, illustrator and storyboard artist who lives above an obnoxiously loud bar in Brooklyn with his wife and deaf cat. You can see more of his work by following J. on Instagram.