Bookstore Blindness and Dental Deformity

For a long time I’ve had these terrible recurring nightmares that I’m going blind in a bookstore. This could be because since I was a small child I’ve spent a lot of time in bookstores, browsing myself into a narcotic stupor until my eyes actually do give out and my vision begins to blur.

My bookstore blindness is related to my dental deformities. After I lost my baby teeth, my permanent teeth came in at radically different angles, each one pointing in a different direction. I wore braces for seven years. I had headgear. I had a palate expander, which is a medieval torture device cemented into the mouth of a minor child and tightened each night with a metal key by the child’s parent. My parents would chase me with this key and I would hide under the dining room table. Over the course of my transformation from a dentally deformed child to a reasonably normal-looking adult, I had fourteen teeth removed (eleven baby ones and three permanent ones, not counting my wisdom teeth years later), one of them under general anesthesia in the hospital.

“Most of my cases are purely cosmetic,” my orthodontist would say. “But not this one. This one is a medical necessity.”

My orthodontist was a chichi operation on Central Park South, next to the Plaza Hotel and across the street from where the horse-drawn carriages line up to take tourists through Central Park. To this day I associate the smell of horses with the taste of metal, the poking of stray wires, the bitterness of probing latex fingers in my mouth, the dread of the orthodontist announcing that another tooth needed to come out before he could enact his vision upon my crowded jaws.

The oral surgeon was also a chichi operation, somewhere in the East 50s. He was a tiny little man who collected antique dental equipment. My mother was very concerned that some of this equipment might still be in use and was perhaps not up to modern safety standards. The oral surgeon had a German nurse named Margaret who would hold my hand while he pried my teeth from the bone. At some deep and ethnophobic level of my Semitic body, I found Margaret’s accent and smile deeply disturbing as she squeezed my trembling hands with her efficient, gloved one.

My parents bribed me into withstanding these heinous acts of orthodontic torture with books. After having my braces tightened I would be allowed to buy books at the nearby Doubleday bookshop, which I loved for its glass elevator. After my oral surgeries I would be permitted to buy many, many books. After one oral surgery, blood started dribbling out of the side of my mouth where the cotton packing had come loose from the latest crater in my gums, and still I wandered the aisles of the Doubleday Young Adult section, my arms full of books, the other children shrinking from me in terror.

Books were my first addiction, and it was also through my orthodontic travails that I had my first drug experience. It was discovered that one of my cuspids was about to grow out from underneath my nose instead of descending to where it was supposed to be. The orthodontist decided that it could be exposed, lassoed with a little wire, and slowly dragged down to join the rest of my teeth. (This did come to pass and for a while I had a tiny, S&M-style chain inside my mouth. It was kind of punk rock, actually.)

This was a complicated surgery that would require general anesthesia. An operating room was booked and I was promised many, many books at Doubleday bookstore if only I would go willingly to the surgery. I was twelve and just beginning to understand that the world was a terrible place and life sucked and would suck for some time. I actually believed it would suck forever, having no inkling that things would ever get as good as they are now. This surgery was just the latest in a stream of indignities being visited upon me. First suburbia, then middle school, then puberty, now this.

I recall a rather embarrassing episode in which I was dragged up the street bodily by my parents, having frozen in protest and fear outside the hospital. I recall being somewhat shamed by the idea that there were kids in the hospital having far worse surgeries than mine, who stood no chance of getting out of the hospital that day, that week or ever, for that matter.

However, when I was given a hospital gown to put on my self-pity returned. I was about to remove my clothing so that strangers could knock me unconscious and go at me with sharp objects. There was no amount of books that could make up for this indignity and very soon I would run away to a place where people had teeth growing out of their noses just like me and I could live in peace, like on that episode of the Twilight Zone where everyone looks like pigs and the beautiful woman thinks she’s ugly.

Some very kind residents came over and I was petulant with them. Then they inserted a needle in my arm and put something in it and instantaneously all my troubles disappeared. I found out later that this needle conveyed to my veins a combination of Valium and sodium pentathol. “Cut me open, I don’t care,” I sang as the gurney went down the hall. “Do whatever you want. I love you all so, so much, do you know that, do you, do you?”

They let my mom come into the operating room to watch them put me under. Her face, upside down, was the last thing I saw as I counted backwards. I didn’t understand why she had tears in her eyes, in this, the most wonderful place in all the world.

I woke up in a distinctly less positive mood. My first (and only) experience with intravenous barbiturates was over and I now had my first hangover. My parents were standing at my bedside, my father wearing a scrub shirt and carrying a canvas sack. They only allowed one parent in the recovery room at a time, so my father had stolen a bag of laundry off a cart in the hallway and snuck in, posing as an orderly. My parents had this terrible look on their faces I thankfully wouldn’t see again until I totalled the family station wagon six months after I got my driver’s license. It was the expression of parents looking at their child lying in a hospital bed.

In the end, they lassoed the tooth down but they couldn’t make it fit. “I told you when we started that her mouth was crowded,” said the orthodontist defensively. His bold, risky move had failed, like when they dropped paratroopers into Belgium in the summer of 1944, or tried to dock blimps on the Empire State Building.

I went back to the oral surgeon and he and the German nurse collaborated in defanging me, leaving me with only one canine and a slightly lopsided smile. For a long time I carried my fang in a small pocket of my bag wherever I went, fingering it compulsively from time to time. I would run my fingertip along the smooth surface of the tooth part, up the root and onto the curved hook at the end. Baby teeth break off from their roots when pulled, but permanent ones are meant to last a lifetime, and come out with the root intact. I was perversely proud that I had this part of my body, perfect and complete and knowable in a way it wouldn’t have been if it was still attached to the rest of me. There is a hole between my front teeth and molars not big enough for a tooth that I can probe with my tongue, another nervous habit. My room is full of books, and when I stay in bookstores until my eyes blur, I feel strangely brave and safe.

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