True Secrets: American Teeth

We're launching Secrets, our 22nd issue, on October 21, 2016. Leading up to the launch, we're publishing a series of poetry & prose pieces that feature unconventional lives and secret histories.

Illustration: "American Teeth" by Kiel Torres

Illustration: "American Teeth" by Kiel Torres

AMERICAN TEETH
by Kiel Torres


On April 30th, 1789, George Washington took his inaugural oath at the Federal Hall in New York City. With his left hand on the bible and his right hand raised, Washington swore to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.” During his inaugural address, Washington was almost inaudible, mumbling with a tightly clenched jaw about his conflicting feelings of honor and unease over assuming the presidential role. Washington’s discomfort may have been physical as well as emotional. He delivered his speech that day with only one of his original teeth intact.

Washington kept his dental health a state secret. Only in his diaries did he express the pain and discomfort of his lost teeth, inflamed gums, cumbersome dentures, and underground transactions to purchase dental paraphernalia. In his political portraits, Washington’s clenched lips could be interpreted as a signal of his dignity and serious demeanor rather than evidence of a cosmetic insecurity.

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Poor oral health was a widespread anxiety for the wealthy living ineighteenth and early nineteenth century America. With the candy industry flourishing, sugar was an essential in high society parlours. False sets of teeth were in high demand, birthing economic opportunities for those who still had some to spare. Grave robbers capitalized by looting the mouths of the dead in cemeteries and on battlefields.

*

I was late to outgrow the folklore of the Tooth Fairy. I lied to my friends and told them that I only kept believing in order to reap the benefits at an age when losing my teeth was my only source of income. In reality, the Tooth Fairy was a comforting lie. She eased the trauma of watching my body disassemble by affixing a value to my detached milk teeth. I liked to believe they took on a second life as fairy currency after they disappeared from under my pillow.

While the Tooth Fairy quelled certain anxieties, she also was the source of others. I would toss and turn with anxious excitement on the nights I expected her visit, nervous that the tooth I slept upon would be rejected or forgotten. Other times I would sleep in fear that I would wake to find myself with completely naked gums because my teeth were unable to sprout. As an adult I face new concerns about missing teeth, and they follow me into my dreams. I will often wake in the night, shaken by the feeling of my teeth irreversibly crumbling under my feet like soft porcelain.

*

When we were kids, my friends and I devoured boxes of Del Monte fruit popsicles. Our lips would be stained purple, red, and orange for most of the summer. We always joked that we were lucky the grown-ups in our families didn’t like them because it kept the popsicle sharing pool small. I felt especially lucky because no one liked the grape flavour but me.

I tried a grape Delmonte popsicle three summers ago and my body seized with discomfort as it melted down my throat. I made it halfway through before admitting that it was too syrupy to enjoy. Cringing, I washed it down the drain.

As I watched the purple crystals dissolve, I wondered what stung more: accepting growth or forcing regress? My mom always said that those popsicles were too sweet for adult mouths.

*

A 1997 chain email popularized the myth that chewing a handful of mints before performing oral sex enhances pleasure. Soon enough, having a box of Altoids on your desk was a token of membership in the “Secret Blowjob Goddess Society.” This news spread across the USA, from corporate cubicles to the Oval Office.

The Kenneth Starr report on the Clinton/Lewinsky White House sex scandal claimed that Lewinsky handed Clinton a printout of the email and informed him that she was chewing an Altoid at the time. Clinton replied that he was expected at a State Dinner and did not have enough time to enjoy the intimacy.

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I stopped believing in the Tooth Fairy when I found an Altoids box full of baby teeth in the vacuum cupboard. I had assumed it was full of a mismatched assortment of small fasteners; when I opened the lid and saw what it truly held, my eyelids grew hot with embarrassment. I immediately stormed into the living room to confront my parents.

It’s funny how lies are fed from the mouth, but the sting is often soothed through the same cavity. My mom bought me a chocolate chip cookie and an apple juice to apologize for lying to me.

*

Very little information about George Washington was available to the public prior to his death. When he passed in 1799, his biographer profited from this demand and published The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington, which included the famous cherry tree myth. Ironically, the story that promoted honor and integrity, and included Washington’s famous quote, “I cannot tell a lie,” was completely fabricated.

Regardless, the myth has been reproduced in history anthologies and picture books, and is recited to children across America as they are lulled to sleep each evening. In the night, parents secretly replace baby teeth tucked under pillows with green dollar bills. Children wake to discover an image of George Washington, stern and tight-lipped to conceal his missing ivories.

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Although I am almost twenty, I still ask my dentist if I can pick a prize from the kid’s treasure box. There is a high-five shaped outline on the ceiling above my bed from a sling-shot gummy hand I chose when I was little. My hygienist says that I am sure lucky my wisdom teeth have yet to surface. She fingers the space behind my molars and reassures me that under anesthesia I won’t feel a thing when the time comes.

I wonder about the possibility of them never actually appearing. If they have to emerge, I wish they would stay resting below the surface, leaving small ridges in my gums to tease the possibility of growth. Their crowns would protrude just far enough to feel, but be buried deep enough that I could forget their presence completely. My childhood anxiety that my teeth wouldn’t come in has been replaced with relief. I now understand it’s simply easier this way.



Kiel Torres is pursuing her undergraduate degree in Art History at the University of British Columbia. Alongside her interests in printed matter and guerilla art interventions, she enjoys making zines and dreaming of teeth. You can find more of her work here.