Tooth #7
Samantha Eliot Stier

 

The dentist’s assistant takes an X-ray and asks me how it happened.

“A door,” I say, the lie I came up with on the bus falling quickly from my mouth. “Someone opened a door right as I was walking up to it.” I notice my new lisp when I say “someone.”

This statement hangs between us as the assistant clicks another X-ray. The belly under his scrubs is cartoonishly round. My lie seems so obvious, hanging there, that I almost want to take it back and try another one. A fall? A car accident?

But then the assistant smiles sympathetically and I realize that he has believed me, that the lie is officially now the truth, at least here in this dental office.

I repeat the lie to the dentist, a short, dark-haired woman wearing a cross around her neck. She looks grim.

“The break of the tooth is too high,” she says in an accent I can’t put my finger on. “We have to take it all out.”

At this point my eyes become cloudy. The walls of the dentist’s office are yellow, like plaque.

 

“I’m so sorry,” Leonard says when I get home. He said this last night when he forgot to take the trash out and the kitchen filled with fruit flies. The two wrongdoings are equal, at least according to the inflection in his voice.

He has made me chamomile tea. Lovely, innocuous chamomile. I’m not supposed to drink anything for another hour, but I take the warm cup between my hands and breathe in the steam. I hate myself for thinking that he was sweet to make this tea, my favorite tea.

My lips and tongue are numb and the anesthesia still flows through my veins, making my skin itchy. The dentist injected me and then ground down my tooth until it was only a tiny nub with a hole in the middle. During the root canal, I could see her metal tool inside my tooth in the reflection of the lamp. She took impressions of my mouth in a paste. Then she ground some more. Another impression. Another X-ray. The insertion of a metal post, which looked like a tiny pin in her hand, but in the X-ray seemed as large as a bone.

I sat in the chair for three and a half hours.

She made me a temporary tooth and I repeated the word “temporary” just as she said it in her accent, “temp-ORR-arr-ee,” with emphasis on the consonants.

The temporary tooth feels enormous in my mouth. It is yellowish, like the walls of the dentist’s office. It is lumpy, like the couch where Leonard is sitting now, watching a soccer game. My gum aches. My head aches. It will be another week before my new tooth is ready. I’m not supposed to bite into anything hard.

I notice that the piece of tooth that broke off is sitting on the kitchen counter by the kettle. Leonard must have found it and put it there. I pick it up. It’s so small and smooth.

I hold it tight in my fist, consider perversely the idea of putting it under my pillow. Then I go into the bedroom to pack a bag.

 

Phillip picks me up at the bus stop in Culver City and we drive to his place. Neither of us says anything in the car, mostly, I think, because we’ve already done this twice, and both times I swore it wouldn’t happen again. Phillip is a good sport about it though.

His apartment is a tiny one-bedroom, very neat, consistently decorated in shades of red, white, and blue. He hates it when people say it looks like an American flag, which of course everyone does.

I put my bag on the couch and he grimaces so I take it off and put it on the floor.

Phillip looks at me, pity in his eyes. He seems to be at a loss of what to say. He ignores my swollen lip, the bruise on my cheek, and instead offers wine.

We sit on the couch and drink Phillip’s bargain brand merlot, watching a Doris Day movie. Phillip loves Doris Day. He doesn’t even mind when she sings.

I hold my wine glass between my palms like I held the chamomile tea earlier. The sour wine sticks to my new tooth. I run my tongue over it, trying to smooth it out.

My phone brightens with missed calls and texts. I tuck it under a pillow. I’m glad the lights are out, that Phillip can’t see my face.

 

I spend the weekend trying to find a new apartment. Phillip lets me use his car and I drive all over LA, looking at rooms and studios. I can’t afford any of the one-bedrooms. Each place is more depressing than the one before it. A potential male roommate asks me if I “make sandwiches” and then snickers with his friends.

 

At a coffee shop in Venice I see a girl putting up a notice for a roommate. She’s very thin and wears a long skirt that drags on the ground.

“When is this available?” I ask her. I keep my top lip over my tooth, hiding it.

“Um, like, now, I guess?” She laughs. She has big white teeth and none of them look fake.

It’s a studio, but she’s written “big enough that we can totally share the space” in her ad. It’s $700, which is the cheapest rent I’ve ever seen on the Westside, even if it is a studio. I sip my expensive organic locally brewed coffee, scanning the rest of the ad. “There is a really cute garden on the roof,” it proclaims in a curly font. A roof garden! For $700! I stick out my hand. “Laura.”

“Claudine,” she says. “It’s French.” I get the feeling she says that every time she introduces herself.

I’m still thinking it’s too good to be true when we walk to her place, just a few blocks away, but when she produces a key I feel a flicker of excitement.

We go in. It’s small, and there’s little promise of privacy, but it’s temporary and it’s cheap. “I’ll take it,” I announce, as if I’m buying a car.

Claudine claps her hands together, gleeful. “We’re going to be roomies!”

 

Phillip thinks I’m crazy to share a studio. “Just stay here longer,” he offers. He puts his hand on my leg and leaves it there too long.

I sleep on a futon a few feet away from Claudine’s queen-size bed. She works as a hostess at a touristy beach restaurant, and on the days she doesn’t work she drives to auditions. She shows me a short film she was in a few years ago, a series of black and white images of her face and feet and bare breasts set to a tragic classical score. “It was going to be in festivals and stuff,” she says wistfully.

 

Leonard stops calling after a few days. I miss him horribly.

 

I go back to the dentist and get my permanent tooth. The metal underneath the porcelain leaves a dark shadow around my gum. It doesn’t quite match my other teeth, but I don’t want to have to wait another week for them to fix it, so I let her glue it in. “So beautee-ful,” she says. The glue tastes like asbestos. The whole thing costs almost $3,000. I give them four credit cards to split it on.

I go home and lie on my futon. Claudine is watching her short film again, her face only a few inches from the laptop screen. She keeps pausing it and pressing a hand to her chest. “Here, right here,” she breathes softly. It makes me think of Leonard, his hand fumbling under the sheets in the dark. I roll away, toward the window.

 

When I come up short on rent the first month, Claudine offers to get me a job at her restaurant. We spend all our time together. My only respite is the roof garden, which turns out to be a few pots of dead plants and a broken lawn chair. But it’s peaceful up there, and when traffic is slow I can hear the ocean.

 

My first day of work I meet Max, a customer who wants a very specific type of craft beer. After almost twelve samples, he is unable to find it. He can’t remember the name or the style, only that it was the most delicious beer he ever tasted. In the end he orders Bud Light.

I know from his grin and the way he touches my hand that I will see him again.

 

Over the weeks I find out that Max is forty-three and sells commercial real estate. Sometimes he will show up at the restaurant in his suit. He enjoys tossing his tie over his shoulder before he eats his lamb tacos. Whenever he asks for beer samples, I bring him a Bud Light instead, and he laughs. He always asks to be seated in my section.

Eventually I agree to let him walk me home one night. We have sex in the roof garden on the broken lawn chair.

 

Max lives in an immaculate apartment in Marina Del Rey with a view of the docks. He won’t let me sleep over. He won’t even let me keep a toothbrush or clothes at his place. Sometimes he asks me to come over when he gets off work, then doesn’t show up for almost forty minutes. I sit outside his door, waiting. When I ask him if I can have a key, he only laughs.

His apartment complex is like a retirement home for young professionals. There’s even a small golf course. I never see anyone else there. It’s an eerie place, especially at night.

I ask Max if he’s ever lived with anyone before. He says no, and he doesn’t want to.

Ever? I ask.

Ever, he says firmly.

I tell myself not to fall in love with him.

 

We go on weekend trips together. We go wine tasting in Santa Barbara. We take a ferry out to the Channel Islands. We have a picnic at the Getty Museum and go to dinner at fancy restaurants. He always pays.

One night he lets me stay over. I feel triumphant, winning this tiny victory. I curl into his arms, savor his breath on my back.

 

Claudine gets a callback for a national commercial. She practices her two lines over and over again. She stops sleeping, guzzles coffee, throws up all the food she eats. When I’m home, she chats frantically about how jealous the other waitresses are and what kind of clothes she’ll wear when she’s famous.

 

Max lets me stay over more often. I sneak a toothbrush and a few pairs of underwear into his apartment and store them under the bathroom sink.

Sometimes at night we go for a swim in the pool. Nobody else is ever there. We slip off our bathing suits and glide naked through the warm, luminescent water.

One year after we meet, he says he’s changed his mind. He wants me to move in. We stand in the roof garden beside the lawn chair, his arms wrapped tightly around me.

 

Claudine cries when I tell her. She lost the national commercial and four other auditions. She’s decided to move back home to Missouri. “I’m just so done with LA, you know?” she says.

I nod at her sadly.

 

A month after I move in with Max, he stops wanting to go out to dinner. Business is slow. He wishes I made more money so I could contribute. He wishes I would clean up after myself more. He likes the straight lines of his apartment and hates everything I brought with me when I moved in.

I take on a few more shifts at the restaurant. Max is always asleep when I get home.

Then one night he’s not there at all. He doesn’t come home for almost two days.

 

I call Claudine and ask her advice. She tells me not to worry, and that she’s thinking about moving back to LA soon. She got an email from a potential agent. He’s D-list, but still. If Max is having an affair, she asks, do I want to move back in with her?

 

My tooth has begun to ache. It started as a dull, intermittent twinge, but now sometimes the pain will last for hours. I feel the tooth in my mouth, a foreign object, the metal staining my gum black.

 

Max keeps his phone on him at all times. Then one day he goes to the gym and leaves it on the counter. I make myself a cup of chamomile tea and stare at the phone. The minutes tick by. I’m not the kind of person. Am I?

Through the balcony door, I see the glowing pool between manicured trees. We haven’t gone swimming in a long time.

This apartment complex doesn’t suit me at all. Max’s apartment with its black leather couch and flat screen TV doesn’t suit me. Not only that, it hates me. It’s trying to squeeze me out. How did I end up here?

I don’t have to look through his phone, it turns out. She messages him three times during his 30-minute workout. The messages pop up on the screen, each one a guilty little secret I was never meant to see.

In the box where I keep my piece of tooth, I find all the receipts Max left me at the restaurant with little notes and hearts. I bring them into the kitchen and place them under his phone. I wash out my chamomile teacup and carefully set it in the dish rack, because I know Max likes everything very clean.

 

I take the bus to Culver City and Phillip picks me up. We sit on his patriotic couch and watch The Man Who Knew Too Much. My phone lights up with apologies from Max. I ignore them.

 

That night, drunk, I call Leonard for the first time in over a year. He tells me how much he’s missed me. He sounds drunk too. “I want to see you,” he says.

My gum throbs around the fake tooth. My mouth wants to push it out, like Max’s apartment pushed me out. I hang up quickly.

 

I know something’s wrong. I go back to the dentist. The assistant with the round belly takes an X-ray. The dentist with the cross tells me grimly that I have an infection. “The whole thing will have to come out again,” she says.

I begin to cry, and she pats me on the shoulder.

Later, when my lips and tongue are numb and the anesthesia pumps like poison through my blood, I take the bus to Venice. I go to the apartment building where I lived with Claudine and wait until somebody opens the gate so I can sneak in. I climb the stairs up to the roof.

I have another lumpy yellow temporary tooth jammed into the hole Leonard put in my mouth. The gum around it is stained dark by the metal and the infection and the blood. I want to clamp my fingers around it and yank it out, hurl it toward the ocean.

I lie down on the broken lawn chair and stare at the sky. I think about Max, holding me right here not that long ago, promising me everything I thought I wanted.

I think about Leonard, unable to stop the bouts of rage that seized him. Him, finding my piece of tooth on the kitchen floor. Picking it up. Placing it on the counter. Boiling water for tea. Waiting for me.

I think about Phillip, always a good friend. How I woke up at 3 this morning with a wine headache to see him sitting on the floor with one hand down the front of his pajama pants, the other on my leg. I sat up and he left, muttering an excuse.

I think it’s time to move. Maybe to San Francisco. I’m sure they have good dentists in San Francisco. I can get a new tooth, a better tooth.

The broken joints of the chair creak beneath me. I keep staring at the black sky, listening for the sound of waves crashing on the sand. I lie there for a long time, not blinking, running my tongue back and forth along the inside of my teeth until I can’t tell which one is fake anymore.

 

Samantha Eliot Stier’s short stories have appeared in Spry Literary Journal, Blank Fiction Magazine, Mojave River Press, and elsewhere. In August of 2014, a selection of her stories was featured as part of the New Short Fiction Series, LA’s longest running spoken-word series. Samantha holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and lives in Madrid, Spain.