By Leslie What
13 December 2004
My toothache had grown worse overnight, transforming from an easily ignored monastic dullness to a throbbing Pentecostal frenzy that assaulted all of my senses. Forced to bow before powers stronger than myself, I stayed home from work, in more agony than anyone on Earth. My wife Abby dragged our six-year-old to school, leaving me to fend alone. She didn't call to see how I was doing. I told myself I would have called her, but I suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder and was the only one who could depend on the things I said.
My dentist's suite was a large mint green room with four mint green leather dentist chairs, and overhead lights that colored people's faces unflattering shades of green. There were four patient areas separated by portable walls, and once you sat down, you couldn't see what the dentist was doing to the others. You could only hear and then imagine, which was worse.
The assistant clamped a paper spit cloth around my neck. It was comforting in an odd way, maybe because it brought me back to my days wearing a horrific minty baby bib and having someone fuss over me.
My dentist looked in my mouth and said, "Hmmm," in a voice that conferred significance. "Don't try to talk," she said, and instructed her assistant to take X-rays. She moved away, presumably to another patient and another chair, where she made impressive noises, either drilling teeth or grinding ice for margaritas.
Was it too much to hope for happy hour?
The assistant shoved a folded waxy cardboard square into my mouth and I bit down awkwardly.
"Don't talk," she said; I held my head still as she took the picture. She held out her gloved hand for me to spit out the X-ray. I waited, in a fit of minty agony, for the film to develop. I checked my voice mail. Abby still hadn't called. I was starting to get worried about our marriage, and not for the first time.
The dentist worked her way around the room and back to me. She wore a practiced look of concern. "Here's the deal, Clark," she said, holding up the X-ray for me to examine. "You've got a colony of micro-people living in number thirty-one."
I looked at the cloudy black and white film and saw nothing. "Thirty-one?"
"Your right back molar. The one that hurts."
"We call it dental colonization. We're seeing this more and more," she said, quite matter-of-factly. "You might have seen it on 60 Minutes."
"How could this happen?" I asked.
"Do you remember getting a seed caught in your tooth? Two, three months ago?"
I shook my head. "No."
"We always tell our patients to floss," she said, "but they don't listen. Anyway, no doubt the seed sprouted and micro-people took root. Now those micro-people are building cities, terraforming your mouth, as it were. The ache you feel might be from tiny jackhammers, or maybe roofers are nailing a housing development. We still have much to learn about their society."
Ache was hardly a strong enough description for the intense pain. "Get them out!" I screamed.
"Now, Clark," she said. "You're being selfish. Getting rid of them isn't the only solution. The pain should go away in another couple of months once they've bridged the canals, but the decision you make now could haunt you forever. Think it over. I'll write you a prescription in the meanwhile," she said. She took out her pad. "While you decide what to do."
"What's to decide?" I asked. "I want them out. Pull the tooth."
"If I pull the tooth, they'll die," my dentist said. "Tens of thousands of micro-people. Wholesale slaughter of another species. That's what you want?"
It felt like hydrogen bombs were exploding in my mouth. "Yes," I said.
"Sorry, I won't do it. I'm morally opposed. These people are alive! I'm sorry that you're inconvenienced, but I can't. You're not the only one to consider, you know. Besides, we wouldn't want to lose the tooth, now would we?"
I didn't care about micro-people and cared less about the tooth, which was in back where nobody could see it. "Look," I said. "I feel bad that somebody has to die but I want them gone."
My dentist regarded me with a look conveying both moral and dental superiority. "I'll refer you to an endodontist who doesn't mind performing root canals and destroying civilizations."
"Root canal?" I said. This was sounding serious. I'd never had root canal. That was major surgery. Big enough that maybe Abby would understand my preoccupation with my mouth.
"You'd better check your dental plan," she said. "They might not cover an elective procedure." She tore a sheet from her prescription pad and thrust it my way without meeting my gaze. "Let them live," she said.
"It's them or me," I told her. I was in so much pain I could only think about myself. Abby would have said that I was the only one I thought about anyway. This was true but it wasn't my fault. It was the Narcissistic Personality Disorder—NPD. I'd been diagnosed a year ago. Thinking of myself was what I did best, and I didn't understand why nobody else understood that.
The assistant made a few phone calls and then handed me a card on which she'd written "Monday at 2:30" and a downtown address.
A whistle like a boiling teakettle echoed around in my mouth. The noise sent jolts of pain through my body that made me writhe like a worm in a mint green leather meadow.
"Sounds like the airport is a go," my dentist said.
"Why do they need an airport?" I asked, and she said, "Everything is a long walk when you're microscopic."
I heard tapping and a tiny ding, followed by another ding.
"I'm guessing they've put in the elevators," she said. "That should help relieve the pressure."
Before dinner, Jason, my son, scampered up onto my lap and thrust his chubby arms around my neck. I gave up trying to read the paper. His curly hair always smelled a little sour, like milk at the bottom of a glass. On occasion, I found his good nature charming, but I had zero patience for him now. Children could be so demanding. Not that I didn't love him, but sometimes I just wanted a little me time—quite a challenge with a first-grader around. Squealing erupted from tiny subway trains in number thirty-one and spread throughout my gums. "Careful," I told Jason, more sternly that I meant. "Daddy hurts."
Abby stood at the counter, making dinner.
"I saw the dentist today," I said, giving up hope that she would ask how things were going without my prompting.
"Good," she said. "Those bleeding gums are disgusting. I told you to floss."
"It's not that. I have a rare condition."
"Of course," she said.
"It's an emergency," I said.
"It always is," she said.
I told her about my micro-people and she said she'd read something about that in Time. "I need root canal," I said in great seriousness because I thought of root canal as the brain surgery of dental work. "Our insurance might not cover it." Instead of sympathy, I earned a scowl.
"It's genocide," she said. "You can't do it."
"What choice do I have?" My dentist had forecast two months of pain. "It really hurts," I said.
"You always take the easy way out," Abby said.
"I heard a joke at school, Dad," Jason said, beaming. "Wanna hear?" He was missing his front teeth and his voice resembled a bird chirp. He liked to hold an audience by telling jokes but it sometimes drove me nuts, how he took forever to get to the point, and I drummed my fingers on the table while I waited for him to finish his story so I could continue mine without interruption. He bobbed up and down and accidentally bumped my chin with his nose, shooting a series of paroxysmal jolts through my face.
I yelped and was a little curt with him; he tumbled from my lap and started to sniffle. "Sorry," I said. "Daddy's tooth."
Jason ran to Abby, who stopped chopping radishes long enough to flash me a look that only increased the pain. Jason clung to her waist, waiting to be picked up. Instead, she calmed him with a gentle pat to the back.
"It really hurts," I said.
"I'm sure it does," she said. "Lots of things hurt—or is this the first time you've noticed that?" Abby tossed the radishes into the bowl with the concern of a player losing at the craps table. "You never have normal things like the rest of us," she said. "Everything is always the best, or the worst, or the most difficult, or rarest. I know that's not your fault but I'm tired of it, that's all. These tooth people are beings who depend on you. And your first reaction is to kill them."
That just wasn't true, and besides, they weren't really people. "What's for dinner?" I asked, to change the subject.
"Crunchy vegetable salad, crispy fried chicken, and an ultra-chewy baguette."
"Hand me some walnuts and I'll crack them with my teeth," I said, but if she noticed the sarcasm, she ignored it. "I was kidding," I said. "Never use your teeth for tools."
"Ha ha," Abby said.
"I'm hungry," said Jason.
"Go wash up," Abby said, and Jason disappeared to the bathroom. She handed me a walnut.
"Do we have anything softer?" I asked.
Abby raised an eyebrow and opened the refrigerator door on her way to the table. "Look for yourself," she said, and mumbled something I wasn't meant to hear. She deposited the salad bowl on the table with a clatter and I took her place at the refrigerator. I gazed at sour pickles and celery stalks.
Abby brushed my back on her way to slice the baguette and it was all I could do not to reach for her. "Do we have any yogurt?" I asked.
"Do we have any yogurt?" she said in a cruel mimic. She transferred the bread to a serving bowl and sent that skittering across the table. She opened and slammed shut a drawer, in the process retrieving a large fork with which she speared the chicken pieces.
The clatter made me wince. I felt like I'd lost control, like everything around me was falling apart. I guarded my tooth with my tongue and settled on a bowl of cottage cheese and a Big Gulp of wine.
Jason returned and the three of us sat together for a nice family dinner.
"I made the appointment," I said. "With a specialist. Monday at 2:30. For the root canal," I reminded her.
"Clark!" she said. "I can't believe you're going through with this."
"It's them or me," I said.
"It's always them or you," she said. "Clark against the world. That's how you operate."
"It's not my fault," I said. "The NPD."
"Right. The NPD. It's not your fault. How could I forget?"
"I know a joke," Jason announced.
Abby revved up her emotional engine from the speed of scorn to tepid enthusiasm and said, "Tell us, honey."
"What time is it when you have to go to the dentist?" he asked.
"I don't know, what time is it when you have to go to the dentist?" Abby prompted.
"Daddy, do you want to guess?"
"That's okay," I said. "Just tell us." And get it over with.
"Two thirty! Get it?" Jason asked.
Abby said, "That's so cute."
It hurt to smile. "Sorry, son. Daddy doesn't feel good."
"Take a pill."
What had I done to make her so angry? "All right. I'll keep them," I said. "If that's what you want. I'll endure the pain, for you."
She pretended to play a tiny violin. "Don't do me any favors, Clark. I don't buy it. You've never done anything for anyone who wasn't you. By the way, did I mention I'm seeing the lawyer next Monday? She'll want you to sign forms."
"But I'm seeing the specialist. My root canal!"
"What happened to enduring the pain?" she asked.
"I forgot," I said. "I have to do something. I can't stand the pain."
"Neither can I," she said.
"I love you," I said, the best I could come up with.
"I don't think you know what love really is."
Abby was wrong. I did so know what love was. If I had to, I'd let the micro-people live.
If I had to.
Maybe I wouldn't have to.
But if she wanted me to, I would.
I offered to do dishes, even though I had only dirtied one bowl and a spoon. It wasn't too late for us and I'd prove it! Nothing showed you cared like doing the dishes.
The endodontist was named Dr. Best. His rooms were private and painted a tasteful shade of healthy-gum pink. He glanced scornfully at the X-rays my dentist had sent over. "I can't see anything from these!" he said, and told me I'd need some sort of Boson microscopy, and that insurance might not cover it.
"Generalists," he said, referring to my dentist. "Well, at least they know enough to know what they don't know."
The microscopy produced a film that made Dr. Best shake his head. "Whoa, there! You have five canals," he said, obviously impressed. "That gives them lots of room to expand," he said. "Most people have two, maybe three, but this tooth could be complicated," he said.
I felt important. I was a complicated case; very satisfying.
Dr. Best showed me blowups of stick figures and little blobs he said were tiny automobiles that ran on spit and bacteria. He pointed to a stair step formation and said, "Dang. I suspect they've started on the power plant. We'll have to go in quick before something blows up."
"That something could be me," I observed. Just then, I remembered my promise to Abby. "Is there another way?" I asked. "My wife thinks killing them is genocide."
He wrote out a new prescription for codeine. "They're parasites, not people. Maybe you should see an exorcist instead of an endodontist."
"Can you give me a referral?" I asked, not picking up on his sarcasm.
"I'm kidding. It's you or them, Clark. If you think you hurt now, it will only get worse. Excruciating pounding pain. Up to you, but I advise you to take care of this as soon as possible. I have an opening Friday at eleven," he said.
I nodded. There was no other way.
"Get someone to drive you home afterward."
"That could be a problem," I said, remembering Abby.
Dinner that night was crunchy tacos with stringy beef and corn on the cob. I nursed a beer and ate guacamole with a spoon. I was becoming quite fond of things that could be swallowed without chewing.
Jason ate two tacos, burped, then burped again when neither of us corrected him.
"The specialist says I have a complicated case," I said. "Five canals. Most people only have two, maybe three at the most."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. You're special," Abby said.
"The pain is only going to get worse the longer I wait."
"Look," she said. "Do what you need to do. You're the one who has to live with it."
It hit me that she wasn't talking about molars. "I don't want a divorce," I said. "Can't we try again?"
Jason asked, "Is Daddy going to move away?" and seemed worried until Abby brought a bowl of Laffy Taffy to the table. "Dessert," she explained.
He grabbed a handful and ran out to watch TV.
"Abby," I said, pleading. "Give me another chance. I'll do anything."
"It's too late," she said.
"Please," I begged, gazing out to the living room. "It can't be too late. For Jason's sake."
She stared at me, confused.
I had found her weak spot: our son.
As if on cue, Jason jogged back inside for more candy. "Daddy, I'll really miss you," he said. He looked covetously into the bowl of Laffy Taffy. "Can I have some more?" he asked.
"Go ahead," said Abby.
"Come here, son," I said. I patted my lap. "How was your day? Learn any new jokes?"
His smile broadened. He scampered up and I tried not to grimace at the pain. "How can you tell Ronald McDonald at a nudist colony?" he said, and we both said, "I don't know."
"He's the one with the sesame seed buns," Jason said.
I forced a laugh. Abby smiled.
"What is a nudist anyway?" Jason said.
"Ask your father," Abby told him.
Before I could answer, there was a loud knocking, like someone was tap dancing in my tooth and the sound was shuffle-ball-stepping up my jawbone.
"What's that?" Jason asked, pointing to my mouth.
"Sounds like Morse code," said Abby. "Di-di-di-dah-dah-dah-di-di-dit. SOS. Daddy's micro-people are signaling distress."
Jason made me open my mouth. "I don't see any people."
"They're microscopic," I said.
"Oh. Can I watch TV now?" He jumped down and ran back to the living room.
Those micro-people had a lot of nerve, signaling distress, when I was the one suffering excruciating pain. "They have a lot of nerve," I said.
"You control their destiny," Abby said. "What choice do they have?"
"Five canals," I said. "It's very complicated."
"It's not so complicated. They want to live," Abby said. "But you don't care about that."
"Give me a reason to keep them," I said. "I'll do anything." She let me come close enough to stroke her hair. "Give me a reason." I didn't care if I sounded as if I were begging. I was Abby's first lover; we'd been together fifteen years. She must have been terrified of trying to find someone else as good as me. Surely, she wanted to believe we could still work it out. I rubbed her neck and felt her tension melt away. "I love you so much," I said.
"Oh, Clark," she said. "I just don't know. We try and try and it never gets better."
"Let us help you," whispered a man's voice in my ear. The voice emanated from number thirty-one.
"Excuse me for one second," I told Abby, and sneaked into the bathroom for a private chat with my mouth.
"Who's talking?" I asked.
"Clark? Are you there?"
"Of course," I said. Where would I be?
"It's me. The Supreme Ruler," said the voice.
"Supreme Ruler of what?"
"Of number thirty-one. Listen, Clark, we want to help you. I have an idea. I'll tell you exactly what to say to your wife and then you relay the message. It'll sound like you thought things up yourself. She'll really go for it," he said. "Our species is very skilled at interpersonal relations."
"Now, why would you do that for me?"
"To keep you from making a huge mistake. To prove that we're your friends and not your enemies. Let us live," said the Supreme Ruler, "and we'll help you save your marriage."
This was starting to get weird. "How are you talking to me? The mechanics, I mean?"
"It's complicated," he said. "I don't know how the technicians arranged it."
"Who are you?" I asked.
"You can call me Cyrano."
"No. I mean in the broader sense. Who are you?"
"We're colonists," he said. "Probably from outer space."
"How would people from outer space know anything about marriage."
"Aha!" he said, and I realized I'd made a tactical error in acknowledging he might be people. "Couples in our society mate for life," he said.
"How does that help me?"
"We'll save you from yourself. Warn you when you're being a jerk. Tell you what to say to her. Your own inner marriage counselors. Just let us live."
My mouth hurt so much I couldn't think straight. "I love my wife," I said.
"We know. We love our wives. We know how to treat them. We know the secret of true love."
I would do anything to keep Abby, but I knew better than to tell them that and tip the negotiation. "You have until Friday to win her back," I said.
Cyrano promised to teach me some new tricks that he promised women loved.
"What more does she want?" I asked. I had a job. I was faithful. I put down the toilet seat after I peed. To me it seemed the problem lay with her.
"She wants you to listen," he said. "She doesn't think you understand her."
"What's to understand?" I asked. "I'm the one in pain."
"Her pain is just as real as yours," he said. "Except that it's emotional." His voice took on a conspiratorial tone. "Here's the secret to true love," he said. "Empathy."
"Who cares?" I said. "Just tell me how to win her back."
"Work with me, Clark," he said, and he told me how to modulate my voice to sound sincere, even when I wasn't. This was a great thing to know!
I cornered Abby and fed her a line. "Let's see a counselor," I said, taking my cues from Cyrano. "We can't get through this on our own."
"Admit your vulnerability," Cyrano whispered, and I said, "Help me, Abby. I'm afraid. I'll do anything. Please, don't give up on me."
Her face went soft. "Clark," she said. "It can't go on."
"Tell her you're sorry to have caused her pain," said Cyrano.
Caused her pain? I was about to deny it when Cyrano said, "Supreme Ruler calling Clark! You won't help your cause if you say something like that. I tell you what. Let's change tactics. Don't talk. Let me try ventriloquism."
What did I have to lose?
He made his words come out my mouth and said, "I think we should give therapy another chance. I'm ready to try medication if that will help my condition. I don't want to resist getting well."
"You'd try medication?" She'd always wanted to believe things would get better with pills, especially when I took them.
But I didn't trust pills and would have retracted my offer except that Cyrano said, "Yes. Pills. Behavior modification. Anything."
"What about the sexual side effects?" she asked, because that was the excuse I'd given the last time for refusing drugs.
"Losing you would be worse," Cyrano said.
I don't think so, I thought. We were talking about my manhood, here. This was a crock!
But Abby loved it. "Oh, honey," she said, and I saw how I could use this to my advantage. Maybe the little guy wasn't so bad after all. I had a strong feeling I'd get sex, and pretty soon forgot about my toothache.
It was going well at the therapist's and I thought I was saying all the right things. But when Dr. Epstein asked about our sex life, I said it was great and Abby said it was just "Okay."
I wasn't quick enough to keep my shock from showing. "Last night was great," I reminded her.
"That's one night out of fifty," she said.
I was about to say something about how no other woman I'd ever been with had complained, and maybe it was her, when the Supreme Ruler told me, "Don't talk," and spoke to Abby through my tooth. "Tell me what you need," he said. "I'm not good at picking up the signals. Try to remember it's my disease, and not me, who can't listen. I'll try harder but I need your help."
I couldn't figure out how he did it.
"Is it hard for you to talk about your needs?" Dr. Epstein asked, and Abby nodded.
"That's not uncommon, especially for women," said Dr. Epstein. "We want our partners to intuit our desires. We think that means they care. That's not always a realistic expectation." He stared at me. "Your NPD makes it difficult for you to be sensitive to other people's needs. You need to overcome that, find a way to show you care about your wife."
"I could work harder to draw her out," said Cyrano. "I can check in with her instead of waiting for her to initiate the dialogue."
"Good ideas," said Dr. Epstein, and Abby watched me with a newfound appreciation.
"Can I ask a favor?" Abby said. "If I tell you something, will you try not to get defensive, like you usually do?"
"I'll try," Cyrano said, while silently, I seethed. I never got defensive!
"What are you going to do about your dental colony? I really need to know where your priorities are."
Cyrano. Epstein. Abby. They all conspired against me. "I know it's difficult for me to nurture," said Cyrano, talking through me. "But I know that how I treat the colony reflects my ability and desire to care for my family, and I want to work on that."
Bullshit, I was thinking, and I tried to speak. "Don't talk," Cyrano told me.
"Clark," Abby said. "What's gotten into you? This is a side of you I've never seen. I like it."
"I've been doing a lot of thinking," said Cyrano. "About what's really important," he said.
"Thank you, Clark," Abby said. "That means a lot to me."
I had to give him credit. The little bastard knew exactly what to say. Our session ended and we walked out to the elevator. Abby squeezed my hand and turned to kiss me. Things got a little heated; I found myself kissing her so deeply that she gagged. My tongue sought out the hidden depths of her mouth; I licked her gums. Or was Cyrano directing the kiss? We broke apart. I ground together my molars and worked to hold back the tears. It hurt like hell, but I was counting on it hurting them more than it hurt me.
When I called to reschedule my dental appointment, Dr. Best got on the line to ask me why. "I don't mean to pressure you, but you have two weeks, at most, to get rid of these guys before it's too late."
"No pressure," I said.
"Some patients have second thoughts. They attach to their colonies in ways I'd consider unhealthy. I don't understand it but it happens. You've always got to remember that you're number one! Take care of yourself first!"
"Oh, I'll remember," I said. "I want them out. Just not this week."
"Good," he said. "If you change your mind, give me a call and I'll talk you through it. These things are parasites. Like tapeworms, only in your mouth."
"Thanks," I said, and hung up.
Holding up the phone against my ear had left my face aching. Tapeworms! A few more days, I thought, feeling gleeful. I hated this. I was losing myself inside my pain.
"You'll need more than a few days to make up with your wife," Cyrano said. "We're talking a lifetime of habits to address."
Was he reading my mind, now? "I'm a quick study," I said.
"So are we," said Cyrano. "Listen, I had my assistant arrange for your mother-in-law to pick up Jason so you and Abby can have private time. Go ahead, take her out for dinner and a movie."
"I can't eat," I reminded him. "I have a dental colony in my mouth."
"It's not about you," Cyrano said. "This is for Abby. She needs an evening out."
A tapeworm was telling me how to save my marriage. In my desperation, I figured, well, they mated for life, so it sort of made sense. Then it hit me. "By the way, how long do you live?"
"About a month," he said. "I catch your drift, but the principles still stand."
The week Jason stayed with Abby's mother was the best since he'd been born. I realized how much effort it took to have a kid. Not that I didn't love him, but it was nice having Abby all to myself. Jason took away some of the energy she'd otherwise give to me. My new working plan was to use my molar minions for as long as it took to get Abby back, then kill the tooth, and try to get Abby's mother to watch Jason every weekend. Cyrano would be dead in a month anyway. Who said I owed his descendents anything?
For the time being, things were going great. I was getting as much sex as when we'd first married. Abby seemed genuinely happy. Child's play, I thought, as I kissed her. I was about to ask if she liked what I was doing with my tongue in her ear.
"Don't talk," Cyrano whispered, not that I had any choice anymore.
"Kiss me again," she said, and I did.
"Try this," Cyrano whispered, and sent a current of electricity through my mouth. I ran my tongue along the back side of her teeth, a new trick for me.
"Did you just have an orgasm?" I asked.
"I think so," she said. "Do that again."
"Thanks, buddy," I told Cyrano.
"Who are you talking to?" Abby asked.
"I told you not to talk," Cyrano said.
The next day, I placed a call to the endodontist. But instead of arranging an appointment, my mouth spewed out obscenities and accused him of quackery. He got on the line. "You're an ignoramus," I said. "I could find a more qualified endodontist in the Tijuana Yellow Pages."
"There isn't anyone more qualified than I," he said. "Don't ever call again."
Nice move, Cyrano.
I should have seen it coming. Abby was pregnant. In her mouth. With Cyrano's dental spawn. Her full lips grew fuller with expectancy. Her appetites increased. Her fixation on oral stimulation went over the top. Some of that was fun.
"I adore you, Clark," she said, and tongued my uvula. My gag reflex didn't bother responding. She looked lovingly at my mouth; clearly it was my tooth and not me that she was speaking to. I realized just how much of myself I had lost to those parasites in number thirty-one. The bastards.
My one comfort was knowing that Abby's life would soon be taken over by her molar. She'd suffer and lose herself to the whims of another civilization. Maybe then, finally, she'd understand exactly how I felt.