On 1 June 2013, I did the same thing I do every morning. I woke up, brewed coffee, and ate Muesli. It was during this time that I heard chirping birds and felt the vibrant sun ray. Like most mornings in the northeast summer, I felt the strong humidity. Unlike most mornings, I heard a jarring sound while I enjoyed the apple flavored grain. My penultimate molar tooth—coffee stained and fragile like an Erlenmeyer flask—could no longer bear to chew. It was a sound that I had not heard since 2005 when I broke my finger playing rugby.
This was a sound that caused me fear and it was an anxiety that had less to do with the tooth itself but with the impending medical practitioners and insurance companies.
That day, I happened to have a workshop in a semi-provincial town in a mid-Atlantic state. I was supposed to join my cohort—some thirty something other scholars between the age of 20 and 35. We were scheduled to discuss the ethics of our research and the feasibility of critical topics. Did thirteenth-century French cemeteries matter to the enraged serfs? Would colonial America democracy prevail with free African slaves? Together, we would produce paradigm shifting history that turned the canon on its head. For one month, we spent many hot days debating how we would present ourselves as “elite” scholars. But I could not join my peers that day.
I had to add to address this fractured tooth that hung from my bleeding gums and open cavity. I could not nibble and I was growing hungry since I never finished eating my breakfast. For a second, I was happy that I elected to get dental insurance. But then, I realized that the dentist was one town over—close of enough to bike—but far enough that you wished you had not. So I called the dentist to see if it they could see me.
“This is Eastern Dental,” said the receptionist.
“Hi. I’m part of you insurance group and I wanted to fix a broken tooth. Do you have any availabilities for today?”
“Well, we’re full for today but maybe if you come here shortly we can squeeze you in. Can you drive over?”
“I don’t have a car.”
“I will try to squeeze you in but you have to find a way to get here.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Have a nice day.”
So I did what any desperate and broke graduate student does. I contacted everyone I knew in this small town with a car and asked them if they could drive me to the dentist. As I expected, people declined. The life of the mind can not bear to address someone else’s pain.
So I biked next to the creek and the highway and with due time, I made it to the neighboring village. Like I expected, it was a sterile facility driven by the constraints of insurance companies and the need to sustain itself. Eventually, they took a picture of my mouth and the dentist shared his evaluation with me.
“So we looked at the x-ray and we determined that your tooth is broken.”
“I kind of knew that already.”
“Well, the remaining tooth needs to be extracted but we can’t do this today. You have to come back and make an appointment for another time. The oral surgeon comes once a month and he already came last week.”
“What?! I can’t eat with a hanging tooth.”
“Maybe you can use the other side of your mouth.”
“We both know that is absurd.”
So I tried to make an appointment for the coming month and realized that I wanted the tooth out as soon as possible. Consequently, I decided to go to another dentist affiliated with the dental group. This dentist was further away and would be willing to see me the next day. While it would have been nice to ride my bicycle next to semi-trucks on this eastern highway I was not interested in putting myself in a situation where I could incur another injury. So I asked another person if they could drive me to the dentist. By this point, I was frustrated and demoralized. I was trapped in a small town with no way to handle a basic need and very few people were willing to help.
Eventually, a compassionate colleague with a car allowed me to borrow his robust stick shift car. When I woke up the next morning, I had to shift my mind from being a biker to a driver. Although I had not driven in over one year, I geared up the position and slowly made it to another village to an indistinguishable strip mall.
That morning, the tooth was removed. By eleven in the morning, I was sixty dollars poorer with one less tooth. Who would date me now? A Communist boxer with a shiner? A girl could only dream.
But I wanted an artificial tooth to replace the molar that was no more. I wanted to eat on both sides. But when the dentist said the materials and procedure would cost at least $1200 the anxiety set in again. My dental insurance would not cover these costs and my meager salary did not cover luxury items such as teeth. The cavity in my mouth remained there for months to come. I did what I did the best. I avoided the problem and let it persist.
So I convinced myself that chewing is overrated.