Last week the fragile crown on a front tooth snapped for the third time in three years. I was eating toast, which had the crusts cut off as usual in order to minimise the risk to that very tooth, but it broke anyway. It's a familiar feeling by now, the veneer coming loose, and I calmly spat out my mouthful, extracted the detached chunk of fake tooth and carried on with my breakfast.
Every other time this has happened I've essentially panicked- not because it's painful or dangerous but because I'm worried about how other people will react to my gappy smile. Fearful that I would look ugly and weird and worse, that I could not pass for middle class professional just by putting on nice clothes and makeup. Losing that option has always felt untenable before, while piecing together contract work, moving from housesit to sharehouse or establishing new friendships in new cities.
This time its different. I'm secure enough to know that now my livelihood, my home and my social networks are not at risk because I resemble a caricature of poverty. Oh, I know its ugly, especially with the steel post and grey amalgam filing exposed on the remaining half tooth. There are no photos on this blog for good reason. I'm vain enough to put my hand over my mouth when I laugh, but not vain enough to beg an emergency dental appointment.
The irony is that my dental health has never been better. I just had a A+ checkup a few weeks ago which amazed my dentist who is used to doing multiple filings every time he sees me. I showed him the book I'm following: Cure Tooth Decay by Ramiel Nagel and he was very impressed with the results. Remineralising my teeth through my diet is so empowering that when this crown broke I was able to understand it as a purely cosmetic prosthetic. The absence of half an incisor has little or no effect on my chewing (the two molars missing on the other side have a far greater impact and I've left that gap for a decade because its not visible).
Nothing screams 'poverty' like a space in the front of your mouth, and I don't think of myself as that kind of poor. But I have higher priorities this month than to find another $400 for a crown that I have to mollycoddle with crustless toast and which will break off again within a couple years. I certainly am not going to borrow thousands to remove the existing tooth and get an implant. I can no longer be bothered with the pretense that I am financially middle class. In my new neighbourhood, which has a 30% unemployment rate, missing teeth are not unusual.
Learning to speak clearly around the gap is an interesting challenge that makes me sympathetic towards toddlers. It's actually quite demanding have to shape tongue and lips in unfamiliar ways while thinking and communicating at the same time. I spent the weekend with a group at Lake Tarawera and practiced talking lots, mostly inconsequential chit chat. My good friends graciously did not comment on my changed appearance at all (except once, to say how it enhanced my Billy Idol impression). The people newly met didn't seem repulsed by a woman resembling a grafitti'd photograph and engaged me in some of my most thought provoking conversations of the weekend.
The thing about this broken tooth, now that I'm not freaked out about the social consequences, is that it actually feels pretty good. It is such a relief to eat hard crunchy food without fear, because the worst has already happened. I quite like the hiss of air across my tongue. And best of all there's a sneaky sensual pleasure in the way my tongue caresses the silky inside of my lip through the small gap.