COLUMN SIXTY-NINE, MARCH 1, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 Al Aronowitz)
THE PERFECT SMILE IS NOT PERFECT ENOUGH
winning the state lottery, Len became obsessed with his teeth.
It wasn't a
huge win---$205,000 after taxes---it was just enough to change everything.
It all began
when Len was lying back in Dr. Sherman's chair in the dentist's tiny office---a
wood-paneled job with a few rusty ferns and some dark Degas prints---with Dr.
Sherman breathing his clovey breath in Lenís face and giving Len the usual
know, Len," said Sherman. "I'm going to replace this cracked cap and
fix up your cavities today---but you really should think about doing some
cosmetic work. I mean, now that
you've got the dough. I've been studying up on that veneer stuff."
afternoon, Len marched into his house past his wife---she had quit her day job
and was sitting at the kitchen table pouring over glossy travel brochures---and
locked himself in the bathroom.
He smiled at
himself in the mirror and his teeth smiled back at him, although frankly, there
was nothing much to smile about. Len had always known his left front tooth
slightly protruded beyond its partner; he had never given it much thought. But
now it was as if the weight in his wallet had taken the film from his eyes, and
he could see himself clearly and objectively for the first time. He could see
that his unbalanced front teeth gave him a look that was at once rebellious and
incompetent, like a man who might attempt to rob a bank but would trip over his
untied shoes in the process.
found the color of his teeth to be less than satisfactory. If he had been
pressed to categorize his tooth color a few months before, Len would probably
have deemed the shade a sort of pre-war, Antique White. Now it was obvious they
were the color of yellowed piano keys. Or canned corn.
glad to see you grinning, darling," said Len's wife, when he bared his
teeth at her that evening. "You've
been a little glum lately, and we've all--"
didn't you tell me?" Len said. "For God's sake, why didn't anyone tell
Len, it's not so bad," she said, when he told her he needed a new mouth.
"I'll tell you what's really bad. Our entire kitchen."
kitchen!" wailed their daughter, Dee. "What about my summer wardrobe?
I mean, it doesn't even exist!"
While his wife shopped around for new appliances and his daughter shopped for clothes, Len shopped around for the perfect dentist. Someone a few shades
sophisticated than Dr. Sherman. Someone who knew his implants from his
he walked into Dr. Martini's office, Len felt he had to go no further. The
waiting room was big and white, flooded with natural light from tall windows. A
few pieces of colorful, original art hung on the walls with two or three
tasteful African masks. The furniture was all Swedish, comfortable,
unpretentious. Len's favorite song
was playing. The receptionist shot him a winning smile.
He was kept
waiting just minutes---each one of them exceedingly pleasant---before Dr.
Martini entered to personally escort him to the inner offices. Dr. Martini was a
man's man, a dentist's dentist.
He had a
princely chairside manner, an absolutely painless approach and when it came to
discussing the pricier options he was matter-of-fact and casual rather than
putting on the hard sell. He made
Len see that a little bonding here, a little gum-redefining there, perhaps a
veneer, maybe just one or two tiny implants and---bam---it'd be a whole new,
forward to his twice-weekly visits with Dr. Martini. The vanilla-toned waiting
room was always filled with funny, famous and discreet people. That cover girl and her English rocker boyfriend.
An Olympic skater who'd flown out from San Francisco just to be seen by
director who had been in the news a lot the year before due to his unfortunate
dealings with the IRS. Len was
extremely interested in the other patients---not in their fame or real-life
personalities, but their teeth. He always waited for them to smile so he could
see the perfection of their bites, how much of their teeth were exposed between
parted lips, how bright was their shine, what kind of image they sent to the
mapped out a very specific dental plan with Dr. Martini; as this plan drew near
a close, Len found himself panicking. He began to study magazines to look at the
way other people smiled. He began to think he needed a bit more gray in his
now-blindingly white teeth. Or maybe longer front teeth. Or a tiny gap. Or a
slight chip in his right tooth, perhaps, a nearly imperceptible curve to give
him some character so his smile wouldn't be so damn perfect and sincere.
tried to convince Len that this dental separation anxiety was natural; it was
like ending things with a therapist or a bookie. He told Len that his smile was
the best of smiles now, charismatic and mysterious, not too perfect, just-right
perfect. Sophisticated. A touch European.
Len was not
convinced. Hoping to ruin his bridgework or at least cop some cavities, he ate a
whole bag of chocolate covered caramels on his way home from his final visit
with Dr. Martini.
And when he got home, he stared at himself in the mirror and realized that it was not the teeth that were the problem. They were only the visible portion of the problem, which of course was his skull, and the other bones which lay beneath the surface---this one maybe too recessive and this one creating too much of a bump, but all of that could be changed under the hands of a skilled surgeon. And really, Len realized with a quick spiral of joy in his chest, you can take it with you, you can. You just have to know where to invest it. ##
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