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miss united states

To no one’s surprise but mine, it turns out I grind my teeth. The dentist – small, terrifyingly Slavic – delivered this news very casually, and then told me to think about whitening. (Free with Invisalign, she said. Which would help with the grinding. And those incisors won’t straighten themselves.)

Since I don’t make, you know, Invisalign money, I ended up at Duane Reade instead, crouched on the floor of the dental care aisle to look at mouth guards. There’s quite a variety. Some you heat – via microwave or boiling water – before molding them to your teeth. Some you eyeball and hope for the best. I opted for the latter, since I couldn’t bear any further responsibility while still coping with how crooked and yellow my whole dental situation apparently is. One thing at a time.

And miraculously, my one-size-fits-most choice actually fit most. So I began using it every night since, trying to teach myself how to relax my jaw. There’s a little booklet that came with the mouth guard that says “LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART” like some kind of Zen koan, and sometimes I catch myself thinking that phrase while I’m waiting for the train or walking to lunch or counting stitches in one of the blankets I’m making. Lips together, teeth apart. If I forget to put it in, or if I spit it out in the night, I wake the next morning with my jaw aching the way it always used to. It’s just that, before, I was used to it.

After about three months, the mouth guard developed a crack down one side, and I went back to Duane Reade for a replacement, which lasted another two months before splintering while I slept last week. It seems wasteful to throw them out but useless to keep them, so for now both little plastic cases are next to my bed. I even kept the shard I woke to find wrapped inside my tongue like a pearl. In case what? In case I figure out how to put it back together?

For round three, I have relented and gotten one of the models you have to heat and mold. Maybe this one will last through the summer; that would be nice, because drugstore mouth guards aren’t exactly expensive but neither are they cheap. Maybe this one will finally condition my jaw to unclench. I’m twenty-seven years old and nothing has worked so far, but I haven’t been trying long enough to say I’ve failed.

And besides, there is a part of me that thinks this particular physical quirk was inevitable. Is even appropriate. My mouth, I imagine telling someone – a biographer, an interested stranger, a potted plant – has always been the strongest part of me. Then I click my crooked yellow teeth shut and smile like a crocodile.

In 2018, even small talk has an edge to it. The news is the weather now, omnipresent and fickle, mostly bad. In New York, the president is a shadow slipping around a corner, a college friend you can’t plausibly deny knowing. His name turns up on newspapers and the gaudy fronts of buildings and protest signs at demonstrations I can hear from the turnstiles underground.

When I was a kid, I had a whole plan mapped out for the rest of my life. A sample of the to-do list: meet the love of my life, get engaged, get married, have beautiful, myopic children, win a Pulitzer, turn 30. I think that at this point I was supposed to be on my first book tour, if not my second. Adulthood is one great plateau to a child, or at least the child I was. At a certain moment you become Grown-Up and all the ages blur together, 27 and 37 and 67, like Sims who haven’t yet retired. But it turns out that you have to live your adult life one year per year, same as ever. That a decade still takes a decade, and it may not reveal the secrets you are so certain you’ve been owed.

And that there aren’t any grown-ups, especially now. And that the Pulitzer committee is subjective. And that, here in the future, I have ground my teeth so hard for so long that the molars are slick canyons. Are cartoons of teeth. As if I needed one more thing to worry about.

There’s a point at which the news is so bad that your own problems, no matter how interesting and troubling they might be to your mother, cease to hold any weight but the most shameful in your own mind. I know perfectly well that multiple kinds of pain can coexist, and that the sorry state of the world doesn’t negate what I’m feeling or vice versa – but last weekend twenty-five thousand New Yorkers marched for children in detention centers and the weekend before that I watched ACLU employees come down Fifth Avenue in the Pride parade, holding banners of the lawsuits they’d filed against the administration. It’s enough to make you feel like maybe you were making a fuss over nothing. Like you’re fixed now, or else never needed fixing.

What does a dark cloud matter. Or a racing pulse. Or a need to check your maybe-broken teeth against your tongue, your hands for invisible disease, your body for all those cancers you’ve surely been developing. What does it matter if you are spiky and worried and certain of your own futility. Isn’t that all of us now? Isn’t that everyone who has the luxury of inventing their own problems?

I bought some books a few months ago to help me further figure out how to be in the world when you have a brain like mine, but I haven’t touched them yet. That diagnosis isn’t actually for you, I have thought more than once, most recently on the train home today. You don’t suffer enough for that. Stop pretending you do. And in the corner of the train lurks some future version of myself, maybe the one with the Pulitzer, thinking, you sweet fool. I like to think she is gentle. That she keeps her lips together, teeth apart.

Wednesday is the Fourth of July and I don’t know how to celebrate. Is “celebrate” even the right word? When I saw my therapist last week, we both hesitated at the door as I stood to leave, struggling to figure out how to phrase our well-wishes. “Have an appropriate Fourth,” I said, finally. “You too,” he said.

The fireworks have been going off in Bushwick for days now, and each time I think it’s the end of the world.

Here is the truth. My jaw hurts from clenching it all night and then all day. The heat outside feels like a blanket over my mouth. I have developed a schedule for myself of when I am allowed to check the headlines, and even so I lose hours of the work week to the churning fear that this isn’t actually the worst it could get. This year I’ve learned to laugh without smiling. This year I’ve thought a lot about the college therapist who told me that chronic stress could lead you to develop an ulcer, and whether I have an ulcer, and if my ulcer could get an ulcer too.

But here is the truth, too: I am sitting in front of an air conditioner in an apartment stacked with books, with leftovers in the fridge and the person I love on the train home. And maybe this luck is a different version of the future I dreamed of, and maybe it’s okay to enjoy it. Feeling joy does not reduce the immensity of sorrow, but all that refusing to feel joy accomplishes is a reduction in the immensity of joy.

My mouth has always been the strongest part of me. There’s a David Foster Wallace line I think about a lot (everyone has a problematic fave, right?) and it goes like this: “Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it.”

Well. I bite. Lips together, teeth apart. The future isn’t what I imagined, but it’s coming, and I intend to swallow it whole.

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personal

i must not think bad thoughts

The bagel I broke my tooth on at work wasn’t even hard – that was the humiliating thing. For all I know, that particular lower canine just had had enough of being associated with me. When something like this happens, it’s hard not to take it personally.

In any case, I was totally unprepared to feel something familiar floating in the wrong place. I spat out the bite – my first of the morning – as delicately as I could. And there was half of my tooth: bloodless, inevitable. I hadn’t seen one of my teeth outside of my mouth since I was a kid. Six and twenty-six; I’m taller now, but it felt about the same.

It’s hard to concentrate when the geography of your mouth has changed. (It’s hard to concentrate in 2017, period.) I made an emergency appointment at the nearest dentist’s office, and within two hours I was lying back under lights and mirrors and a stranger’s gloved hands. I’d brought the half-tooth in a Ziploc bag, for reasons that now baffle me. Did I think they could put it back in? Did I think I was a jigsaw puzzle? Maybe I was worried that they’d need proof that I hadn’t always been like this, i.e. wrong-mouthed and imperceptibly broken.

When the emergency dentist took his fingers and his mirror out of my mouth, I swallowed and said, “Do you ever have dreams about your teeth falling out?” This is maybe not good small talk, but the day was already off the rails, and I was leaning into it. Besides, he was a very nice man who hadn’t judged me for bringing him half a tooth in a Ziploc bag.

Of course,” he said. “All the time.”

“Oh, thank God,” I said, and we both laughed.

Someone else did my filling a couple weeks later and then my check-up, so I haven’t seen my dentist friend since. But I think about that exchange a lot. Even dentists, I tell myself approximately one million times a day, have that fear. It’s okay. It’s okay. And I tongue my reconstructed tooth, which is subtly but definitely different-feeling from its predecessor, to make sure it’s still there. It always is, but I’m never convinced until I feel it. It always is, but every time I bite something, I’m sure I felt it breaking. I’d better check. I’d better check.

When my teeth fall out in my dreams, they all fall out, one by one and then in impossible handfuls. To be honest, I think that dreams are mostly the brain composting its leftovers. To be honest, I still look up dream meanings anyway, hoping one of them will explain myself to me. So far, no luck. And I am running out of places to store the things that come out of my mouth.

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I just read the newest John Green book because the reviews made it sound basically like a book about my brain and because my therapist just read it too. And really, what is therapy but a chance to form a book club that’s unusually difficult to tell your friends about?

The most frequently invoked image (no spoilers, it’s literally on the cover) is a spiral. The main character gets stuck in her thoughts frequently and at random, in loops that get smaller and smaller and smaller. The farther down, the harder to describe. The more wordless, the lonelier.

But at one point, she observes that spirals go the other way, too: endlessly moving outward, sweeping up everything. At my best, I’m like that. I can make connections between ideas faster than I can reason my way into them. The words appear and I take them. A friend once told me that I must live five seconds in the future, which remains both the best compliment I’ve ever received and my pitch for a terribly mundane Marvel superhero movie.

If I’m fast, I’m fast in both directions. Here I am, saying the right thing at your party. Here I am, checking my tooth for the fiftieth time, cracking my knuckles till they’re long past sore, returning again and again and again to the same thought, as if I ever really left it.

As a little girl, I had rituals. Of course, I’ve come to understand that little-girlhood is more or less comprised of rituals. Adulthood, ditto. But mine were different, urgent, inexplicable; I always felt that the entire world would go sideways if I didn’t do everything right. This door has to be closed twice. This faucet has to be checked and checked and checked again. This is the moment you have to touch something to prove that you’re real, and so is this one, and so is this one. I was, in other words, a small DSM-IV set loose to agonize itself into any number of beliefs and self-loathings, all of them intensely private and shameful.

The first inkling I had that I was not uniquely wrong and broken was in 2001, when I saw an episode of Invader Zim – one of the few I ever watched – called “Germs.” The plot, which I’ve somehow remembered for all these years, involves Zim donning a pair of germ-vision glasses. His fear, when it arrives, is all-consuming; he spends the remainder of the plot feverishly sterilizing and disinfecting everything he can, though the germs always come back. I think it was supposed to be funny. For me, at ten, it was very serious. How did you know that? I wanted to ask. I didn’t tell you. 

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I’ve eaten approximately a hundred and twenty bagels since I broke my tooth, and so far, none of them have sent me back to the dentist. I would relax, if relaxing were a thing I did. Who knows? I might still give it a shot.

I’ve had this mantra since I was a kid, sort of like an incantation to ward off bad thoughts, a command to myself to please just be normal for once. It’s shut up, but you have to say it over and over again. Shut up shut up shut up shut up shut up. (Or else what? Or else it doesn’t work?) Over the last few months, I’ve been trying to replace it. Over the last few months, I’ve been trying to explain myself to myself the way a friend would. There’s a first time for everything, I guess. This is the year I learn to be gentle with the little girl I still am.

For the record, I am trying out okay. I am getting used to the geography of my mouth with that word in it.

My tiny book club meets tomorrow, and there’s a lot to discuss. It’s not going to be the way it sometimes is, when the words just appear and I take them. So let it be messy. I am no longer collecting my proof in Ziploc bags. I will still exist without it.

I think. I hope. I’ll check.

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