By Julia Slavin
I once loved a woman who grew teeth all over her body. The first one came in as a hard spot in her navel. It grew quickly into a tooth, a real tooth with a jagged edge and a crown, enameled like a pearl. I thought it was sexy, a little jewel in her belly button. Helen would bunch up her shirt, undulate like a harem dancer and I'd be ready to go. Then one day I came home from the mill and Helen called for me to come upstairs. She sat at the foot of our bed wrapped in a towel, still wet and shiny from the shower. She lifted her arm. I felt around. With her arm raised I could see the outline of a row of upper incisors pressing out just under her skin. My God, I thought, the soft underside of her arm looked like a crocodile jaw. She said it'd been itching and painful there for some time. I told her not to worry. It was nothing. It would go away. I even managed to make her believe me long enough for her to go to sleep and for me to lay awake all night wondering what the hell to do. But in the morning when she scratched my thigh with a molar that had sprouted in the crease behind her knee, I called Dr. Manfred.
"Yes, well . . . yes, well . . . " Dr. Manfred murmured as he examined Helen's body with a small magnifying glass that looked like the kind jewelers use to appraise diamonds. With each "yes, well" my chest expanded, tightening my shirt at the buttons. I thought my ribs would burst out of my shirt and pile up on the floor like sticks.
"Well what?" I asked. He drew the glass away from his eye and smiled a phony smile. "I can see how you thought they were teeth." Then he produced a little scalpel from his white coat and began to scrape away at one of the teeth on the inside of Helen's elbow. It came off in thin translucent strips like the layers of an onion. Helen squeezed her lips together but didn't complain. She was brave when it came to pain. In a metal bowl, he ground the tooth with a marble pestle into a fine white powder like sand. "You have calcinosis, my dear," Dr. Manfred said. "It's a calcification condition." He pushed up on a turquoise soap dispenser and rubbed his hands into a fat lather cloud. "Sometimes there's a build up of calcium deposits in the body," he said over running tap water. "We don't normally see the calcification externally, perhaps a plaque in the dermis, a deposit in the nodule. Not a worry, though." He shook his hands dry in the air. "We'll run some blood, check the thyroid. These things usually just go away. Poof."
Helen pinched the sand in the metal bowl between her thumb and index finger, rubbed some into her palm, let it run through her fingers back into the bowl. Dr. Manfred wrote a prescription for a calcium substitute and told her to lay off salt.
In the morning Helen rolled over and I saw a long series of evenly-spaced holes in the sheet, like boll weevils had been eating the bed. By scraping off the tooth on her elbow, Dr. Manfred had just made room for more. Helen had teeth sticking out all the way up her arm. Her shoulder looked like the back of a stegosaurus. A fool could have told me Dr. Manfred was the wrong kind of doctor.
Dr. Freedman's waiting room had little chairs and little tables with crayons and coloring books. Some kid had already rifled through and scribbled everything green. Green duck, green cow, green Bo-Peep, green sheep. "The dentist sees grown-ups too?" I asked the receptionist. "Yes, grown-ups too," she assured me in a little voice. I gave Helen the last grown-up chair and sat in one of the little ones. My knees came to my head. The kid at my table was really upset about all the coloring books being colored in and his mother was telling him to try drawing his own pictures from his imagination. He looked at her like she was stupid. Then he noticed Helen. All the kids were looking at her with their mouths open even when their mothers told them it wasn't polite. Even when Helen smiled at them and said hello they couldn't stop gaping. The row of lowers across her cheekbone was too much. She was in his office for an hour. I started pacing. Then two hours. The other patients were agitated and the receptionist was making apologies on the dentist's behalf. "I'm sure it's an urgent matter," she said. "You'll want him to give you the time you need when it's your turn."
"What took so long?" I asked driving home.
"I have hyper-stimulated dentin," she said looking out her window at the shadows from the trees.
"He wants me to stop taking the calcium substitute. And he wants to see me in a week."
"He says I have twelve cavities." She flipped down the cosmetic mirror on the visor and freshened her lipstick.
"Leave this to me, Hel," I said. "You concentrate on getting well, and leave the rest to me." I reached over and touched her knee.
She turned towards me. "Can you pull over?" She asked. "I need to walk."
"Whatever you want," I said, stopping the truck on the shoulder.
"I'll see you at home," she said, climbing down.
"I'll come too," I said.
"I need to be alone for a while," she said, and closed the door.
The teeth started coming in pretty regularly. Every morning there'd be something new to report, something pressing against the skin, a toughening between her toes, a hard place on her ear. Then a few days would go by with nothing, and I'd think maybe the whole business was going to go away like Dr. Manfred said. But then the cramp Helen had been rubbing on her hip would explain itself with a freshly cut tooth or a red spot above her eyebrow would open up to a molar. "Just how ugly am I, Mike?" She asked one morning, staring out the front at some squirrels who were draining the seeds out of her bird feeders.
I moved her hair away and looked at her face which was botched and speckled with incisors.
"You could never be ugly, Hel," I said. And I meant it.
I spent a lot of spare time chopping and stacking wood in the back, trying to figure out how to keep Helen from being scared, thinking about how much I loved her and how going through this experience together confirmed to me how much I loved her. One afternoon I heard her singing in the downstairs bathroom. "Delta Dawn," to be precise. I leaned my ax against the stump and moved over to where I could see her, in front of the medicine chest mirror, rubbing the teeth on her body with peroxide and a chamois cloth like they were little pieces of carved crystal. She had her hair twisted into a new do with a big sunflower barrette and shimmery pink gloss on her lips. She'd bought a new dress. A yellow gabardine that pinched in under her breasts, fit tightly at her waist and buttoned all the way down. I watched her put on earringslittle zircons that picked up the lightand hook a matching necklace behind her neck. Then she looked over and saw me standing there with my hands against the window, my breath fogging up the glass, and screamed bloody murder.
Helen was at Dr. Freedman's office every other day for this or that. "He says I need another cleaning," she'd say, or, "He wants more x-rays." I'd sit in that kids' waiting room for hours, listening to Helen giggle and squeal in the office. Once, when things got too quiet I went in. I found her giddy and stupid on nitrous.
"You can't expect her to get treatment with no anesthesia," Dr. Freedman said snapping off latex gloves. Helen pulled one out of his hand, blew it up into a five fingered balloon and let it zip across the room. I pulled her out of the office by her wrist. In the car Helen was furious. She said I was way out of line. I tried arguing with her but she told me not to bother her, she was cutting a tooth on her neck.
Freedman suggested a support group for people with unusual conditions. They met at our place a few times. There was a fifteen-year-old kid with an advanced aging disease who looked like an old man in Air Jordans and a Charlotte Hornets T-shirt. I couldn't figure out why another guy was in the group until he picked up a glass of lemonade with his seven fingers on one hand. They weren't very nice to me. I'd walk through, say good evening, and they'd quiet down like I had some disease. Once I was gone, they'd start laughing again at a joke told by the woman with Bell's Palsy who looked like she was always frowning. Excuse me for being normal.
I came home from the mill one night and Helen had left a note saying she had her group. I made a sandwich with a couple of slices of cheese which had hardened around the edges and about a half cup of mayonnaise to mask the taste of some old turkey. Then I watched men's volleyball on ESPN. Helen was undressing when I woke up. Naked, she was a vision in gold, a treasure from King Tut's tomb, a gilded statue covered in jewels. For one sleepy moment I thought she was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. Then I realized what I was looking at.
"Are you insane?" I asked about her rows upon rows of gold fillings. "We can't afford those. What were you thinking?"
"They were a gift from Dr. Freedman."
That put me over the top. I wasn't going to lose the woman I loved to a dentist. I pulled on my pants, threw on a shirt and shoes and grabbed Helen by the wrist. "I thought you'd like them," she cried as I yanked her bathrobe off a nail on the door and dragged her from the house. "I did them for you." I forced her in the truck and peeled out of the driveway. With Helen screaming and grabbing onto the strap above the window, I swerved and cut corners, thirty miles over the speed limit.
Dr. Freedman lived in a new brick split-level connected to his office. He opened his huge front door with a gaudy lion-head knocker. He was in pajamas. Blue silk. Helen was trying to wiggle out of my grip and kicking me in the shins with her sharp little feet.
"Why don't you come in, Mike, and we'll talk it over," Freedman said, trying to sound like he was the one in control and I was the crack brain.
"We don't want any of your handouts," I yelled.
"They were a gift, Mike," he said. "Professional courtesy. For all the business Helen's brought."
"Take 'em out."
"That's not reasonable, Mike. You're not being reasonable." Freedman held his skinny little hands up, his only defense as I moved towards him to bust his mouth in. Helen was screaming. I was hurting her wrist. I let her go and she ran across the lawn. The dentist and I just stood there, like a couple of lazy dogs and watched her run, her feet cutting divots into the dentist's lawn, her teeth opalescent in the moonlight.
I didn't go to work the next day. I couldn't get out of bed. I called the mill and said I had the flu.
I called all of Helen's girlfriends to see if they'd seen her. Around noon I drove around to places
Helen liked to goHatcher's Boutique, Sweet Nothings, Flower Emporiumknowing full well she wouldn't be seen in any of those places now. I bought some roses at the Emporium, came home and watched TV. Five o'clock that afternoon Helen came in. She'd had the gold replaced with porcelain. She thanked me for the flowers and went upstairs for a bath. I stood outside the bathroom door and asked her if she wanted a glass of wine, cocoa, warm towels from the dryer, a sandwich, some music, an inflatable pillow for her neck, anything. No thank you, no thank you, nothing.
"If you want to do something," she called when I ran out of offers and started to move away from the door. "You can wash my back."
I pushed open the door. She sat with her arms resting on the sides of the lion-claw tub like a queen. I lowered myself to my knees. She opened her mouth a little and I kissed her. She didn't kiss me back but she didn't push me away either. I dragged my tongue down her neck and around a circle of pointed teeth that surrounded her nipple like a fortress. She raised her chest. Then I scooped the soap out of the dish and rubbed up a lather. She bent forward causing little murky waves to lap at the sides of the tub. The water was filled with lumps of chalky powder. I looked up at the ceiling to see if the plaster had come loose. Then I looked at her back. The skin was peeling like she'd had a bad sunburn, rolling up and coming off in shavings.
"I know what it looks like," Helen said before I could say anything. "Wash along the edges. It'll help it along."
"Help it along to what?" I managed to ask. Underneath the old skin she was tender, wrinkled and pink like a newborn. I was afraid to touch, worried I'd hurt her. She said it didn't hurt, that it just itched and stung a bit. Then I saw a couple of teeth bob to the surface of the bath water like a row of miniature buoys on a dark and rocky bay.
For a little while it seemed like everything was getting back to normal. Every morning we'd find a couple more teeth somewhere in the bed or swirling around in the shower drain. Throw them out, get rid of them, I said, but Helen saved them in a little Zulu basket. "For jewelry," she said, holding them in her hands like precious stones. "Maybe a necklace." I was so happy and giddy during that time, she could have worn the basket on her head and I wouldn't have objected. I bought her things. I took her dancing even though I'm no dancer.
Freedman cautioned otherwise. "Helen needs very special care during this period," he said. "She's completely defenseless." He'd called me into his office to talk about her recent blood test. There was an excess of calcium carbonate in her blood. He was concerned about the shedding. "You're looking at me like you think I can't take care of my wife," I said. Freedman shrugged. I knew he was in love with her. I mean, everybody was in love with Helen. I used to sit on a stool at The Mug, where she bartended, drinking diluted whiskey just waiting for a chance to talk to her. Two other guys did the same. But it was my car she slid into after work one snowy night. My lap she swung her leg over. And my hand that slid the ponytail holder out of her long brown hair. Now, she was getting better. She wasn't going to need him anymore. He was losing her and couldn't bear it.
More of the teeth dropped out and the skin on her back healed and in time the calcium in her blood dropped way down.
But then things started to get bad again.
One beautiful Spring morning I came out of the mill and Helen was sitting on the hood of our truck kicking her heels against the tire like a little girl. "My wisdom teeth are coming in," she smiled proudly.
I froze. "Where?" I finally asked.
She lowered her eyes bashfully and raised them. "Down there," she said.
"Oh," I said. What are you supposed to say when your wife tells you something like that? "Oh." She put her arms around my neck and slipped her butt off the hood. She felt like a wisp of grass. Then my brain bucked into action and I realized she was falling. And I was dropping her. I caught her under her arms before she broke on the asphalt.
"I'm fine, Mike. Really fine. Just a little wobbly." She moved away from me and did little herky jerky pirouettes around the parking lot like a glass ballerina on top of a busted music box.
To say the teeth started coming back in would be an understatement. They knocked down doors and busted back in. Bing! Bang! Bing! They grew in mounds on top of one another, in notched clumps like fallen stones from a temple ruin, in clusters like tiled mosaics. They grew straight and crooked and upside down and ingrown. You could sit and watch them grow, see them force their way out. Helen said it didn't hurt. She even got excited when she felt one coming. "Look at that one," she'd squeal. "Oh! Here comes another." And she'd brush and rub them with baking soda and peroxide, spend all day in front of the mirror singing and polishing.
Helen wasn't in Freedman's office fifteen minutes when I lost patience and barged in. He looked at me like he was really tired of my intrusions. Well, too bad for you, I thought. When I came around the chair I saw he had her legs in stirrups. "They're impacted," he said.
The whole business with Dr. Freedman had made me crazy. They were always talking on the phone and laughing and having appointments every day. In my mind, I saw them together, passing the rubber tube of the nitrous tank back and forth. I saw her legs hung over the arms of the chair with Freedman crouched down. "Hope you don't mind the drill," he'd say and think he was so funny as she'd laugh and wrap her arms around his neck, pulling him up into her. I started following her, listening in to her phone calls on the other line. But I was a bad spy. I kept getting caught. "I know you're there, Mike," she'd say on the phone, talking to one of her girlfriends about a beauty makeover in a magazine. "I hear you breathing." And I'd hang up, sit on my hands on the bed. Once she tapped on my car widow in the parking lot of the Price Chopper where I'd fallen asleep watching her shop. "Relationships have to be based on trust, Mike," she yelled through the glass. "Or there's no relationship." She was getting nasty. She snapped at me all the time. I couldn't do anything right. One night she stormed out of the house on the crutches she had to use now that her legs had gone so stiff. She said she and Dr. Freedman were going to the symphony. "The symphony?" I said from the front stoop.
"Yes," she hissed back. "The symphony."
"What for?" I said.
"For culture," she growled, right up in my face, three little canines on the end of her pointed chin. "You and me Mike, we have no culture."
That was the night I tried to be with another woman. Robin was a waitress at The Mug who always wanted to get together with me when I only wanted Helen. We went back to her apartment but I didn't like touching her. She felt too soft, squishy. I missed Helen's rough spots, her premolars and molars, her pointy canines and wisdoms, the soft areas next to the hard areas. I missed being inside Helen and the challenge of going around the sharp places. Robin felt like Silly Putty, like I could stretch and bend her and tie her up with herself. I apologized to Robin and got up to go. When we were putting our clothes back on she said there were doctors that could help me with my problem. She said this in a mean way, not in a helpful way.
Helen was in bed when I got home, the sheet pushed down to her waist. In the cool streetlight that shined through the window, I could see the phosphorescent glow of the thick clumps of teeth that stuck all over her back like barnacles. I shucked off my clothes and slid in next to her. We slept on satin sheets, not because they're sexy but satin was the only material that didn't catch on the teeth that covered most of her body now. She perched herself up on her elbows and waited for me to talk. "I want things back the way they were," I said. "I miss us."
In the morning we went to Dr. Freedman's and Helen told him to pull the teeth. All of them. I expected him to tell me I was a hateful son-of-a-bitch but he nodded professionally and spread out his tools. He offered gas, Novocain, a sedative. Helen waved him off. He started with the molars on her rib cage. He used tweezers to pluck out the little teeth on her face and pliers for the bigger molars across her collar bone. He yanked, twisted and pulled and went on to the next. But something bad oozed out of those holes where the teeth had been, not the red blood that inevitably flows after a pulled tooth. This blood was black-red, the kind of blood that comes from deep inside you and doesn't want to be disturbed. Helen let out a low sorrowful moan. "Stop," I said finally. "No more."
I took her to the beach. She wanted to smell the salt and feel the air rush through her teeth, let the sounds of gulls and waves lull her to sleep. By now her beautiful face was covered in teeth. But she was still beautiful. I wrapped her in a satin quilt and put oven mitts on her hands which had become rough and bent. I laid her brittle body against a dune and we stayed there together like that for three days.
She said she was sorry time ran out on us and she wished we'd had kids. She apologized for going to the symphony with Dr. Freedman. "He made me feel pretty," she said. "I know it was wrong."
"I always thought you were beautiful," I said. "I still do."
After the second day she couldn't talk anymore because her tongue had calcified. I told her stories. I made them up out of nowhere. There was the giant turnip that crushed a big city; the eyeballs that took over the world. Her favorite was the talking stadium who fell in love with a cheerleader, got his heart broken, then realized, too late, because he'd already caved in and killed everybody, that his real love was the hot-dog lady in one of his concession stands who had been there all along inside him.
On the third day I woke up at sunrise and saw her looking up at pelicans flying in formation over the dunes. I'd seen pelicans in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, but never this far North. They flew southeast and faded into the horizon. Helen was still looking up. "Whatcha lookin' at, Hel?" I asked and looked where she was looking. But there was nothing up there. Not even a cloud.
Now and then, I stumble on an oasis, palm trees, blue water, and there's Helen leaning on a tree in the yellow dress she was buried in and yellow shoes, holding a banana daiquiri she made for me. I take a drink of the daiquiri but the cold hits my brain and gives me a headache. She says, "Poor baby, let me rub it," and holds out smooth ivory hands. Then she slips through my arms. Dissolves into sand. I grab at her but the more I grab the more sand caves in around me and it's not until I'm buried to the waist that I realize she's gone.
"Dentaphilia" © 1997 by Julia Slavin