Thaïs Miller (USA)
Published in Issue 33 of The Ofi Press.
Nobody warned me that getting my wisdom teeth removed would be like watching two middle aged women play Hungry Hungry Hippos in my mouth. Well, “middle aged” isn’t fair. The oral surgeon, a thin blonde named Cindy, must have been in her late twenties and the surgeon’s assistant, a plump African American woman named Belinda, must have been in her early seventies. Average that out, they were middle aged.
After Cindy broke the teeth in pieces with a drill, she collected the fragments with tweezers. Belinda bustled after her with a suction tube. Their hands desperately scurried around my mouth like rabbits attempting to burrow before winter. Not that I had ever seen rabbits in winter firsthand. Growing up in Puerto Rico, the only things rabbits would have been hiding from were the heat and my gun-totting grandfather, Luis. My few memories of Luis consisted of visits to a dark, oval-shaped study in my grandparents’ basement. His desk was always covered in obsidian paperweights as if he had just survived a volcanic explosion and were stocking up on rocks to throw for a future rebellion. Surrounded by illegal Puerto Rican liberation flags, he would lecture about the wonders of Don Pedro Albizu Campos, the man who tried to overthrow the U.S. Military’s control of Puerto Rico “for three glorious days” in 1950 but who wound up in an Atlanta prison instead. Luis always concluded these lectures with a baritone rendition of independence songs. I would sing along, dancing in mauve leggings and Mary Jane’s.
Following each extended period of drilling, the oral surgeon shouted at me as though with the Novocain injections I had lost my sense of hearing.
“VICTORIA! CAN YOU FEEL WHAT I’M DOING?”
Wouldn’t I have informed her of that prior to her asking? Wouldn’t I have made a face or screamed in pain?
“Woh!” I mumbled through their surgical tools, meaning “no.”
By now, I figured Belinda and Cindy were fluent in dental-speak: the sounds we make while strange hands inhabit our mouths and we have no control over our tongues. My dentist back in P.R., Dr. Hurt (no joke, Dr. Hurt) was certainly familiar with the dialect.
Instead, Cindy asked Belinda to remove all her tools. Then both stared at me like Alice in Wonderland realizing that dandelions could speak.
I spit onto the blue bib on my chest. Liquid trickled onto strands of my long, brown hair. I repeated, “No.”
In less than a millisecond, the surgeon and her assistant continued working like two kids beneath a piñata.
At the end of the procedure, Belinda bent over my chair. “You can see your teeth if you like.”
The assistant wheeled around a metal lectern, stood behind it, smiling, as though she were showing me the twins I had just birthed. I stared at the ugly teeth, both broken in half, both slathered in red, juicy guts. The assistant’s smile widened.
“Huh,” I said.
As she wheeled away the stand, I realized that it resembled the cabinet in my bedroom. Both were metallic with drawers, except the assistant’s held dental tools and I kept office supplies, makeup, and hair ties in mine. When I moved into my new apartment in Manhattan, I inherited the cabinet from the girl who inhabited my room before me. My roommates also thought it would be nice to paint my bedroom insane-asylum white before I arrived. As I lay in the medical examination room, a room barely large enough to fit the chair, a sink, and a cabinet, Cindy wrote several prescriptions. Not only did the color of the surgeon’s office resemble my bedroom, but the rooms were comparable in size. My new home had the décor of an operating room.
I exited the dentist’s office through a maze of corridors, looking like a dazed cartoon squirrel. My cheeks were still numb, stuffed with cotton balls. Only when I went to the nearby pharmacy to fill my pain killer prescriptions did I notice from a mirrored security camera that I was drooling.
After I handed a stubbly pharmacist my prescription, he asked, “What’s your name and date of birth?” A simple enough question, right? Wrong. I couldn’t speak with all of the gauze in my mouth.
I never saw myself as the type of person who would lie on an orange and beige striped couch in the East Village, on a Monday afternoon, surrounded by prescription medication. Wasn’t this position reserved for artists like Andy Warhol and Hunter S. Thompson? Not business students. Or maybe I was being naïve, especially in the fall of 2008. Surely there were plenty of people in my MBA program getting high on a weekday afternoon.
When I was little, I remember that my red-haired English teacher, Señora Nancy Smith, would constantly say, “Think about how lucky you are! You’re citizens of the wealthiest country in the world: you’re American citizens. You’re free,” I would add: to be a non-self-governing territory denied the right to vote for Congressional representation, to have our agricultural produce and manufacturing capabilities exploited by foreign businesses, to be a tourist getaway, to have our social welfare neglected. I always wondered what she was smoking. Why did she think so many members of my grandfather’s generation emigrated?
But I did have to thank her. If I wasn’t so pissed off during her regurgitation of ineffectual Great Society-idealism, I probably wouldn’t have applied for business school. Without her, I couldn’t be a vessel, extracted from my home, to change perceptions here, I mused feeling blissfully superior. I also wouldn’t be drugged up on a couch.
Halfway through my euphoria, I started to count my blessings. Who would want to leave this? My lower jaw was completely numb. I felt like someone put a very soft, slightly chapped pillow on my face instead of lips. My roommates gave me dominion over the living room. All I had to do was watch TV and drink smoothies while not using straws or overdosing. I was completely removed from the Señora Smiths of the world. I’d have to be crazy to escape this delirium. As the codeine kicked in, it felt like smooth sailing.
Then came the smoothie party.
I had somehow forgotten that prior to my wisdom teeth extraction I had planned for fifteen of my nearest and dearest to come over for smoothies afterwards. I had wanted to show everyone a good time and have a sense of humor about the procedure. As I had described it to my friends, “I’ll be incapacitated, you’ll have to stop me from using the blender as a hat, and we’ll drink banana-chocolate smoothies. What fun!”
Silly me, I thought I’d be able to talk.
When my friends from the MBA program came over, they brought more alcohol than dairy products and fruit. I couldn’t drink any of it because of my prescribed codeine, unless I wanted to wind up at a medical center a second time that day. By this point, conveniently, the codeine had already caused a series of nausea spells rendering me fully incapacitated. That plus the gauze I had to pack in the back of my mouth prevented me from saying anything articulate. I just lay on the couch watching my friends sip mojitos.
I have to redecorate my bedroom, I wrote on a Post-it.
Sheri looked at the note.
“The closet?” she replied. That was the nickname we had given the room because of the small size and the fact that I slept on a shelf, i.e. a loft bed.
After taking a look inside, Sheri added, “Okay, so it’s small and sterile. Would you rather have that and Manhattan or my sketchy Brooklyn combo: Hasidic Jews and drug dealers?”
We have those in Manhattan, too. I wrote on the Post-it.
“You got it all, Victoria!” Sheri laughed.
As Mira poured her mojito, she spilled some on the couch. I reached over to wipe it using my blanket.
“Don’t you have someone to take care of you?” Mira asked, pouring another glass.
“You guys,” I mumbled, “I guess.”
Mira looked around her awkwardly. “Well, I mean. Really?”
My mother had her wisdom teeth removed when she was also 24. But by that age, she was already married to my father. On a long-distance phone call from Puerto Rico, a week before my surgery, my mother had described how after her surgery, my father made her “the most delicious banana smoothie” she’d ever had.
I didn’t have anyone to make me a banana smoothie. My friends just wanted to drink rum.
But wasn’t this some rite of passage? Shouldn’t I have been proud that I went through this alone: the inability to talk; the sweaty, hot feeling I experience on the outside of my cheeks as the bruising began? Shouldn’t I have felt important with yellow jowls? More mature?
When I worked in Miami, my former sales manager informed me that “MBA programs can be cutthroat.” He added, “Are you sure you know what you’re signing up for? Especially being so far from home?”
San Juan is 1,603 miles from Manhattan. The students in my MBA program from California were 2,795 miles from home. I wondered if my boss thought I wouldn’t succeed in the program not because of the distance but because I’m Puerto Rican. That was in 2007. I had hoped that attitudes would have changed by then.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. I was a citizen of a country where my vote didn’t sway the military rule of the government controlling us. I was a citizen of a country that most “domestic” Americans couldn’t point to on map. Those were the ones whose votes mattered, who decided my fate.
Mid-party, I woke up not realizing I had fallen asleep.
Shari stood over me. “Hey, how’d your cheek get so big?”
“What?” I whimpered to the diminishing party crowd.
Shari passed me a small compact mirror and I looked.
I should never have looked. Within the past few hours I had somehow transformed into a red-nosed chipmunk, growing a double chin. I looked like a different person, so much so that I didn’t want to look at myself in the mirror anymore.
“Away! Get it away!”
That was when the party officially ended.
I retreated to my room. I decided to brood by reading Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Two hours later, I hit chapter 35, where a woman described hating her face and being unable to accept it. I threw the book against the wall.
My rite of passage had turned into a hermitage. Instead of becoming more self-sufficient and mature, I felt removed from society like a leper. I had never been so uncomfortable in my own skin. I had never felt so alone and displaced. I was unproductive, dysfunctional, and double-chinned. I was segregated from everything that was supposed to matter: my family, friends, classes, Wall Street.
For the rest of the week I lay like this, alone in an apartment with three roommates who worked full time. One was a stenographer, one was an engineer, and one was an actor/waitress. I had no more visitors. How did these New Yorkers do it: pretending as though they didn’t care about anyone else? How did they force themselves to survive?
I was depressed and unable to pursue my main means of comfort: overeating Cheetos, Oreos, and, a recent discovery, Crumb’s 550 calorie cupcakes. When I ran out of foods to puree, I went to buy peaches from a local street vendor who’d become familiar with my new identity as a sunglasses-covered, head-scarf wearing madwoman. I became the type who comes out at five in the morning to avoid the commuter rush, desperate for a day’s worth of sustenance.
The vendor must have been in his late twenties, though he looked much older. Standing outside in the sun had not only tanned his face but wrinkled it. Most of his skin wasn’t visible. Even in the heat of September, he had covered himself in a long-sleeved shirt. Most days, he and I would briefly mutter greetings in Spanish before I’d retreat back to my four-flight walk-up. But every so often we’d strike a conversation.
Once, the fruit vendor muttered in Spanish, “Are you a student?”
I had regained some feeling in my jaw and I gently pressed the rows of my teeth together, unsure if I should respond. I hadn’t spoken to anyone in five days.
I relented. “Business student.”
I sounded better, more like myself. The swelling around my mouth had dissipated, I had attained some control of my lip movements, and I wasn’t spitting.
“Oh.” He handed me some peaches without my needing to ask. “Must be pretty smart.”
I twisted my plastic bag of fruit and backed away. When I got home, I realized that I had mixed up my pain medication with the antibiotic I was told to take every eight hours following the surgery. I couldn’t have been that smart.
The following week, after another doctor visit, the swelling went down but my mouth was still sore, too fragile to eat crunchy foods. I continued going to the street vendor to make my pureed meals. He was the only person I’d had human contact with all week, the only person who would look me in the eye, even with my ballooned cheeks.
But I was young and apprehensive. On Monday morning, as he reached for a mango, he leaned very close to me. I felt his breath on my cheek. I jumped, expecting him to grab me.
“Wo! Calm down!” He called out and raised his arms to his sides as though I had pointed a gun at him.
I relaxed and he picked up the mango, held it in front of my eyes, and then put it in a bag.
He muttered, “Not from here, are you?”
I wondered how he could tell.
“I grew up in San Juan.” I wanted to add, where fruit vendors kept their distance from female 20-somethings.
“Me, too.” He smirked as he tied up the plastic bag with my fruit. He must have found my self-righteousness, mistrust, and insecurity hilarious. Only years later, I would, too.
He handed the bag to me and I snatched it from him, narrowing my gaze.
“Newby,” he said in a way that made the word mean: just wait, you’ll see.