I’m at my dining table texting my family trying not to cry. The constant and throbbing pain in the back left side of my mouth has returned, and it does not feel like it will go away this time. I ask my parents how to find a dentist by myself and they tell me to ask my brother. He tells me to check the scope of our insurance and pick from there. I find an office that has painted purple pastel flowers on a light pink website. Their slogan is, “Happy Teeth. Happy People.” by Dr. Robert Walley, D.D.S.. My roommates ask what is wrong and I tell them my tooth hurts and they ask how my flossing routine has been before laughing and going into their separate rooms. I cry alone at the dining table and schedule an appointment the next morning for that afternoon.
In the fall of 2014, my family and I move from Texas to a small Los Angeles suburb. In Texas, I had gone to the same dentist for fifteen years and had a perfect no cavity record. My old dentist was kind and always let me pick a toy after the appointment, even by the time I was in high school. I assumed all dentist offices were colorful and inspiring places with children’s books and video games.
This new office had sallow tan walls covered in generic nature landscape paintings adjacent to posters raising awareness about plaque. The waiting room had old, torn, and sticky magazines right next to a pitcher of orange juice and cheap plastic cups. We had been recommended this place by a parent from my high school, a school that was founded in 1963 by white parents who didn’t want their kids going to school with the Black kids from Pasadena. My classmates and I are equally overwhelmed by each other’s presence.
This new dentist tells me I have a cavity. I almost cry but am silent with indignation when they ask me if I want to be shown how to floss properly. They inject Novocain into my gums and leave me in the room alone. I wait for about twenty minutes, then I get up to find someone to talk to. My mom is being explained the teeth whitening procedure while a Bite Block forces her mouth into a wide and demented smile. My dad is barely able to stay awake and mumbles conversation to me for about thirty seconds before I leave him in the room he was already left in by the dentist, waiting for his own cleaning. I walk back down the desolate tan hallway to my original room.
I wait for another twenty minutes while the Novocain wears off and the dentist and hygienist finally returned. The drill was turned on and I close my eyes, ashamed. As soon as the drill makes contact with my no longer numb mouth, I scream.
Between my first appointment in high school and the routine cleaning before I go off to my first semester of college in 2017, I beg for our family to switch dentist. My mom tells me that we have been busy and that I have to go to the appointment. This time I have another cavity and have accepted this life of oral mediocrity. I send silent apologies across the country to my old dentist, who once proclaimed that my brothers and I were the Abercrombie and Fitch of teeth and should stand outside the office smiling at people going by to make them feel bad about not flossing. Before they fill the cavity, they give me the “strong stuff” and it feels like my head is floating above my shoulders.
The cavity is filled and my mouth is still sore for the first few weeks of college but the discomfort is overshadowed by the immersion of being in a new city that I picked, new friends, interesting classes, and no parents. I decide not to eat on the left side of my mouth while things heal. Two months after I go to college, my dad claims our dentist tried to shave his tooth down in attempt to coerce him into a root canal and he switches our family to a new dentist in the same area.
Now, I am twelve floors above a city in lockdown, filling out the first timer’s questionnaire and resisting the urge to text my mom the questions I don’t know the answers to. I sit in one of the five low white leather swivel chairs that line the pink wall to the left of the entrance. In the large mirror across from me, I watch myself and the orange fish swimming through coral in the aquarium livestream playing on the television monitor hanging on the wall behind me.
Heaven greeted me at reception and I wonder if she was also surprised, we’re both Black because we used our white voices on the phone. I realize that no one in the office is wearing scrubs. Every office employee wears all black. Heaven wears a black button down and black leggings. Wendy, the office manager, sitting next to Heaven, wears a long sleeve button down rolled up at the elbows that barely covers tiny black shorts that go over sparkling black tights that are tucked into six-inch platform light grey snake skin lace up boots. In the large window behind the reception desk, large puffy white clouds roll over empty streets and the saxophone player in the speaker stops playing and the audience claps for them while drilling noise come from down the hall.
When I go home for winter break freshman year, I go to routine my cleaning at the new dentist office picked by my father. The walls are light blue and the windows let in empty light from a grey Los Angeles day. They run the usual tests and I tell them I haven’t eaten on the left side of my mouth for six months. They take an X-ray and tell me sometimes fillings take time to heal. The dentist comes out and squats next to me in the lowered dental chair and tells me he once had a filling take six months to fully heal. I nod along sympathetically. When I come back in the summer, the pain has dulled but I still don’t eat on the left side. Everything seems normal, somethings just take time to heal.
I have counted three orchids in this pink office when Dr. Walley walks out. He is wearing all black under a white doctor’s coat and all black high-top Vans. He stands in front of me with his hands behind his back, like he is waiting for something, “Hello Zoe, I’m dealing with an emergency right now. I’ll be ready in ten to fifteen minutes.” He says in a low and warm voice.
His lanky body sways from side to side as he walks back down the pink and white halls to the emergency and his thin grey hair brushes over his curved shoulders that have been conditioned by years of leaning over wrenched opened human mouths. The dull pulsating pain in the back of my teeth continues.
My parents move to Seattle and we get another new dentist the summer before my junior year of college. I still can’t chew on the left side and it doesn’t hurt unless I touch it. The doctor examines my jaw alignment by placing both hands on my face then applying pressure on my temples and lower jaw every time I exhale. We restart three times because I keep laughing. He asks me to be still with blank indifference and doesn’t see anything usual even after the X-ray. Everything seems normal, somethings just take time to heal.
I return during winter break but the office is closed due to an unexpected power outage. I leave for school the next day and miss my routine six-month cleaning. I wonder if the left side of my mouth misses food.
Wendy says it looks like it has been a while since my last cleaning and offers me the chance to get one with the hygienist before surgery. I see the gold Coco Chanel logo on the hygienist’s black shirt, pants, and black and white high heels. She takes me to a room with a small purple orchid on a purple window sill.
I face the wall that has two photographs on it, one hanging above the other. They are each eighteen by twenty-four-inch photos in thin metal picture frames. The top photo is of a person photographed from the waist up. Their torso is naked but they are painted in a multicolored neon zebra strip pattern illuminated by LED lights and stand in the corner of a purple room. The model’s face is covered by their hands, which are also painted in multicolored neon zebra stripes. The bottom photo is the same but the model faces the corner, with their multicolored neon zebra pattern painted back facing the camera. The model looks late middle aged, their frame is lanky and masculine, and they also have thin grey hair that falls right above their shoulders. The longer I stare at it, the more I am convinced it is my new dentist.
After my teeth are cleaned, Heaven takes me back to the operation room and asks about my day and where I live in the city. She lives in The Mission and even though I can only see from her forehead to right below her eyes because of the black face mask that matches her all black outfit, I can tell she is smiling when she talks about taking her daughter to her favorite place, Dolores Park. And I feel less alone twelve floors up in a building while waiting to get my root canal. When everything begins, she rubs my arm gently while I lie in the dental chair staring up at the hanging dim yellow light while Dr. Walley injects rounds and rounds of a numbing agent into my gums and I am trying my hardest to pretend I can’t see how big the needle is. But it is okay, even though I want my mom and she isn’t here, someone’s mom is here to rub my arm while the left side of my face goes numb. It is going to be okay because right now someone who has a daughter who likes to go to Dolores Park and looks like me is giving me the love and kindness I need to get through the next hour.
“You’ve been hurting.”
“Are you experiencing discomfort?” the hygienist asks, a needle up and in hand.
“No, I said, she’s been hurting. Look, this tooth is dead.”
My jaw is wrenched open, a small green rubber tarp with only a hole for my molar to peek through is over my mouth, a copious and possibly life threating amount of saliva has pooled in the bottom of my mouth waiting for me to choke, and now my tooth is dead. Dr. Walley looks down at me again and repeats, “You’ve been hurting.”
Through the rotted inside of my tooth, he has seen the sleepless nights of the past week. He sees me tossing in my bed, searching for the position with the lowest amount of pain and resigning in the dark to just lay motionless and let what feels like all the pain in the world roll in and out of my cheek while tears fall down my face, landing on the pillow.
Name: L14 Molar 1
Date of Birth: 02/18/1999
Hobbies: Being seen in a smile, getting flossed,
and crushing Peanut M&M’s with the
help of Lower Left first Molar
Death Date: Unknown
Discovery Date of Death: 03/18/2020
Dr. Walley explains to me what happened to my tooth and the origin of the pain. He takes a four-color ballpoint pen from his white coat and takes the light blue cap off. The different inks cartridges are the canals in my tooth and they are all dead and were full of puss because of the abscess that lived on the roots. At a certain point during the surgery, he has me sit up and use gravity to drain the rest of the puss out of one of the canals because he cannot continue while it “gushes like a leaky faucet.” When it drains, my whole face feels the warm and slow rumble of infected liquid flowing loudly out of my mouth. Dr. Walley tends to other patient next door and I hear, “the nerve is gone?”
When I check out with Wendy at reception, Dr. Walley comes out and asks me about school. He tells me he studied art history at Berkeley until he realized there was no money in it, but it’s okay, dentistry is its own art.
I run into my friend when I walk home from the bus stop. He becomes the last person my own age I talk to face to face besides my roommates for months. The pink filtered respirator hangs around his neck and his candy salmon bike rests on his left side. We try our best to keep the mandated six feet and he asks me about my day. I exclaim him and the entire intersection that I got a root canal.
“So, they got you on the good stuff, huh?”
All I can do is smile and laugh because the numbness is wearing off and there is no pain following. I will invite him to the video chat funeral I will have for L14 on the floor of my bed room featuring a small handmade mural I painted in the lid of a shoebox with twelve of my friends from high school, college, and work. They will share their own uniquely characterizing tooth horror stories and the dress code will be all black.
By Zoe Williams
Write on the theme of "community". Images to include from the group: gardens, forklift, the subway, a painting, winning a bronze metal in something.
I leave my house in the morning and board my train to work and I wonder who I'm doing it for. The person next to me mumbles an apology when we bump shoulders in the almost-light and I think "yeah, I'm doing it for her". I smile and try to say this without saying it by telling her "no it's totally fine" in a way that's too earnest and too loud and too toothy for the time of day. I say this without saying it by moving over just enough to give her some space but not so much that she thinks I'm offended. I wonder who she's doing it for. I hop off at my stop and run as fast as I can up the steps to exit the subway but not so fast that I fall into the scaffolding and the men in hard hats maneuvering a forklift at the top. I try not to make eye contact with them, and I do that for me. I keep my head down and throw one foot in front of the other until I'm down the block and up the stairs to work and my coat is halfway off before I realize all the lights are off and it's Saturday and I don't work today. I laugh into the empty rooms and they echo and I do that half for me and half for the people I imagine to be there. I don't button my coat back up as I make my way back outside. I head to the city garden where I take my lunch sometimes, but of course it's locked because, of course, it's Saturday. I squint in between the wrought iron bars and wonder if the half-planted bushes know it's Saturday and I wonder who planted them and who they planted them for and what does it mean that they didn't finish the job. I stay there for a while before moseying back to the subway like the home team swimmer who's used to third place. I make it all the way home and wait too long for the elevator and when I decide to take the stairs instead, I'm halfway up the first flight when I see it arrive. I run up the rest of the steps to beat the elevator so I feel better about myself and I wonder if that was for me, too. Two sets of yellow-green eyes wait for me at the door and they get their little salmon treats in an act that is kind of for me but mostly for them. My coat makes it to the rack and I forgive Saturday for coming late.
By Claire-Frances Sullivan
I am drowning.
The water leaks into me,
Into my cracks and crevices,
Filling the very heart of me.
I am broken wood,
Paying the price for my weakness,
Water spilling over me like
Through the black spots dancing before me,
I see a face,
A halo of sun.
You are an eclipse.
Through the blue blankness I see
Your hand plunging down,
With the last of my strength,
I reach up to you.
Your hand around my wrist,
Water at my ankles like shackles,
You tug, but I am too much.
Come up, come up, come up for air,
Somewhere beyond t he abyss I can hear you shouting
But I cannot come up for air.
And I have never held your wrist
Like you hold my wrist.
You have never clung to me for life,
So when I slip,
You let me.
By Molly Burdick
I can only eat so many walnuts
to try and heal my heart
I heard walnuts fix the brain
It rewires things.
But now I'm covered
have a dry mouth
your name is still on my tongue.
By Amy-Catherine Welch
The sun is rising. I know I should get to bed, but I can’t stop thinking about her. I keep replaying our goodbye in my head, the way she kissed me so gently, the way she batted her little eyes. And the way she flew off, perfectly silhouetted against the full moon. It’s only been a few hours, but I miss her. I’ve just been circling the cave since then, picking at the occasional rat, but I don’t have any appetite. The butterflies in my stomach make it hard to eat.
Finally, I give in and head inside. My parents will kill me if I stay out any later. The sky is streaked with fiery red by this point, and my eyelids are getting heavy. I dive into the cave, hoping to slip into my room unnoticed, but it seems like the whole colony is up, blinking at me from their hanging places. It’s easy to pick mom out from the crowd.
“Have fun?” she pings at me sarcastically. I click back nonchalantly and dart under them, into my tiny cavern at the back of the cave. Mom and Leslie follow me, Leslie giggling the whole way.
“What are you laughing at?” I click. “Shouldn’t you be asleep? It’s well into morning.”
Leslie rolls her eyes. “I stayed up for the drama.” She latches onto the ceiling and hangs next to me, grinning innocently. I look to mom in exasperation.
“Walter, we just want to make sure you’re being safe,” she coos. I had almost settled in on the ceiling, and I nearly lose my grip.
“God, mom!” I ping. “Don’t be gross!”
We have a silent hang-off, neither of us blinking. Finally, mom sighs.
“Fine. Just be back by curfew next time.”
I grumpily wrap my wings around myself as she flaps away to rejoin the adults. Leslie starts humming “Here Comes the Bride” next to me, but I swing my wing out and knock her off the ceiling. As a warning. Then, I drift off into dreams of my love.
By Molly Burdick
by Amy-Catherine Welch
pt 1. (in August)
The rain came down softly on my skin the last time I saw her
All I ever wished for was a cabin in the woods for us to run away together
so I've been looking up flights to Ireland
looking at borders
looking up masks and Hepa filters
holding on to hope like a thread above me swaying
Early mornings make me think of her
what is second person third person anyways
except a device
and a way to remember.
Is it a sin that I just want to abandon my acting career and grow vegetables?
I miss theatre with every fiber of my being.
Maybe I can put on a production of Hamlet, lying under tomatoes and cucumbers
and I can feel the drama in the rain and shout these stories to neighbors
and through screens
I want to dance loudly here.
pt 2. (in October)
I sit in silence
vines grow in cracks
around the bend
Tiny gardens in a concrete jungle
aching to be wild
but confined by a fence built by man
I want love and wind to sweep me away
to live inside the scarecrows my neighbors put up
to see the world through straw
Will it wash away my fears?
The ruins around which we gathered
were smaller than we’d expected.
The photos that
upon a cursory glance
had seemed to express views
from mountain tops
and precarious paths,
had, by generous estimation,
been taken from a stepladder,
or perhaps a milk crate.
What we all came to see,
the central figure
we had thought to be hundreds of feet high
was a stepping
and golden pyramid.
We had all seen it
so often in movies
we could all picture it with our eyes shut.
But what no photo could capture
and what none of us knew to expect,
was the sand.
After we removed our packs
leaving outlines of sweat
on our shoulders and backs,
we kicked off our boots
and peeled off
the thick woolen socks that
would have taken us
up to the precipice
we had planned for,
our toes sank into the silken surface
as into liquid
as we paced around the tiny ruins.
came up to my hip.
It was curved,
slouching off to one side
like melting ice cream.
We all looked to each other
and sweaty shoulders
Had it changed,
or had we all remembered it wrong?
By Laura McCullagh
"One of your characters is a piece of furniture."
I used to work for Peewee Herman. In a chair’s world, that’s becoming a god. On the show, Peewee talks to you like he’d talk to a human. You have lines to say in response. Peewee doesn’t talk to you in between filming, but I knew the man loved me like I loved him. Knew. It isn’t until years after the show ends and you stop watching the reruns that you put it all together: I had lines to say, but they weren’t chair lines, they were person lines coming through humanity’s most valuable player: the chair who wanted a seat at the table. You get an ego, think of yourself as a high chair, but every human who ever saw me still assumed I was their salvation should they be tired. My only rescue was having a reserved sign: they don’t sit on me because they’re afraid of disrespecting another human. That’s why I tell people Paul Reubens was just like his character Peewee Herman, because the closest claim I had to autonomy was to be reserved by someone benevolent.
By Maxim Vinogradov
Wildflowers sprout up beneath
The deck chair you loved
Still sitting where you left it
You built this desk with your hands
Its aspen veneer
Peeling and stained with spilled ink
We borrowed the chair
That sits in the living room
Too heavy to move
You built my bed wrong
It’s creaked since its conception
It will creak always
By Molly Burdick
It's been lonely these days, at work. I sit in the corner of the room, waiting for customers to come in. It's hard, though. With COVID. Less people to drink coffee, less people to want to stay awhile. I miss the feeling of it. I miss the gentle scrape of my legs against the floor in anticipation of someone carrying a mug and a book. I miss the pressure in my back when someone finally sits down. Sitting, perched on my sturdy form, talking to someone or working on their laptop. I miss wondering if they'd stay in my embrace for a few minutes, or even hours at a time. I stay here, my rectangular wooden frame pressed back against the wall, wondering when I'll feel the warmth of a soul in my arms again. It could be days, could be longer. So I sit. And wait.
By Claire-Frances Sullivan
We are a group of multi-disciplinary writer-types who are committed to collective creation. Writing doesn't happen in a vacuum, it happens at a table.