How Not to Lose Your Teeth

The room was shaped like an oblong fish tank and appropriately decorated in an ocean theme. Framed pictures of choppy waters and massive ships hung from the walls. Blue chairs gave the impression of gently rolling, if textile, waves, and on one of the wooden tables sat a box of tissues, the white sheets protruding from the elliptical blow hole of a whale. On a different table, three candlesticks—the bases of which were a green fish, seashell, and seahorse, respectively—surrounded a bowl of shells and dried sea urchins, which was displayed as if it were the trophy of someone's mid-day stroll on the beach. Each candlestick held spirally green candles that resembled seaweed. Beside the entrance on a greco-roman column sat a porcelain jar upon which had been painted a frowning, long-snouted sail fish. Behind the reception window, a green porcelain fish sat beside a striped, fish-shaped teapot atop a shelf containing dental records. Even the multicolored carpet resembled the pebbled bed of a fish tank.

There were three exceptions to this maritime décor. One was the various magazines, the kind found scattered on the tables in the waiting room of any health care facility. Two was the many brochures of people smiling, baring their unnaturally white teeth from the same tables. Three, and most strikingly, was the wall paper, a swirl of blue and gold flowers in vining bouquets.

The little boy noticed none of this. He sat in one the blue chairs clutching a yellow toothbrush, the handle of which was the purple belly of dinosaur. Tiny Reeboks with Velcro fasteners dangled a good six inches from the ground. His mother, Tress, sat beside him, flipping through a TIME and trying not to feel like a confused goldfish in her surroundings. Although she was only in her late twenties, a few strands of her wavy chestnut hair were streaked with gray, and her eyes were puffy and tired.

Tress glanced from her magazine to her son, who was pumping his legs as if he were jogging in place. The legs of his jeans scrubbed to an irregular beat. "Sit still, please, Matthew," she whispered. "You're rocking the chair, and it's making Mommy seasick."

Matthew stilled his legs, squirming in the seat with his bottom instead. Tress glared disapprovingly, but said nothing, returning to the magazine. After a paragraph, she eyed the boy, who had gone back to twitching his leg.

"There's nothing to be afraid of. The dentist just wants to check your teeth."

Matthew nodded absently, staring at the toothbrush in his tiny fist.

"You could have left that at home today. They're going to clean your teeth for you."

"But I wanna show them how good I bwush," he said.

"They'll be able to tell without seeing your toothbrush."


"By looking at your teeth."

"What's that gonna do?"

"Tell them how well you brush."

Matthew frowned. "My tooths can't talk."

"Neither can your toothbrush."

He scrunched his nose, pondering this fact. "So?" he said at last.

Tress smiled, ruffling his dark brown curls. He carried his toothbrush everywhere, like a child with his blanket or her doll, and after every meal, he would gnaw on the bristles as if they were dessert. A year ago, she had the hardest time getting him to brush his teeth at all. But then an elderly man passed the family on a stroll through the park, and upon seeing Matthew, the man smiled toothlessly. Once the man had toddled on, Corbett, full of wit, leaned down and whispered, "That, my son, is what happens when you don't brush your teeth."

Matthew had been afraid of losing his teeth ever since.

She didn't mind. If Corbett had had the brushing vigor of their son when he was younger, he wouldn't have needed a root canal last month. Still, it was a little embarrassing to take Matthew places. All he wanted to do was show people his toothbrush. Taking him grocery shopping was the worst, so many new people to play Show and Tell with.

"Mr. Audet?"

Matthew looked at his mother, who pushed the strap of her magenta purse onto her shoulder. "Can I show her my toothbrush, Mommy? Please?"

Tress smiled at the nurse standing in cat-littered scrubs at the door. "I guess."

Beaming, Matthew hopped out of the chair and toddled to the nurse. "Look! You like my toothbrush? I use it everyday." He held out his arms for emphasis.

The nurse, a chunky blonde woman, smiled back at the boy and his mother. "I bet you do."

Matthew frowned when he spotted her scrubs. "Cats make me sneeze," he said.

"That's okay. These won't; I promise."

"Okay. If you pwomise."

The nurse laughed. "This way please."

Tress stood up to follow.

"Oh, I'm sorry, ma'am, but we discourage parents from coming back with their children."

She sat back in her chair, face taut.

"There's not much room, you see, and it usually distracts the child."

Tress nodded, frowning. Matthew looked back at his mother.

"Go ahead, sweetie. I'll be here waiting for you." She tried to make her voice sound cheerful, reassuring. "You'll be okay." She wasn't sure, however, who she was trying to reassure.

"Don't worry, Mrs. Audet. He'll be fine." The nurse took Matthew's free hand, leading him away.

Tress allowed the strap to slump from her shoulder and picked up a different TIME. She and Corbett had used Dr. Rubendall for years. She had no idea he had a "No Parents" rule. Granted, it was Matthew's first trip, but if she had known, she wouldn't have brought him. Not that she didn't trust the dentist, but she didn't like to let Matthew out of her sight. He was prone to wandering off, having yet to learn the meaning of the word cautious, and if the nurse wasn't watchful, the inquisitive three-year-old would meander down a back hall and be missing for hours.

Relax, she told herself. The nurse probably gets a few kids in here. She may even have a few herself. Besides, she was holding his hand when she led him...


She didn't like the sound of that word. She needed something else to focus on. Tress glanced around the room, hoping for conversation, but the only other person in the waiting room was a teenage boy, hair long and shaggy. The waist of his pants hugged his thighs.

She wasn't that desperate.

Remembering the TIME in her hands, she opened the magazine and read the Table of Contents.

A presidential candidate has poor health...Just what Americans need.

What's wrong with the economy...A lot.

The death toll in China speeding past 30,000...That's terrible.

New program encouraging kids in Iceland to eat their spinach...

Tress had never had a problem getting Matthew to eat his vegetables. He liked to eat the leaflets off of "little trees" and loved carrots, raw with Ranch or cooked in butter and brown sugar. His favorite vegetable, however, was fresh leaf spinach with mayo. She had made the family a bacon sandwich one day, but she was out of lettuce so she used spinach. Although demanding his food be served the same way as everyone else's, Matthew had a habit of eating his food bit by bit, and after the first slice of toast, he picked off the spinach, the top greased with mayonnaise, and dropped it into his mouth. He had eaten it as a snack ever since.

It was very quiet in the back. She hoped he was okay.

She shrugged a corner of her mouth at the magazine. This wasn't working. She nearly jumped out of her seat as the nurse opened the door.

"Mr. Newport?"

Tress drooped into her chair as the teenager shuffled to the door holding up his pants. He was wearing navy Corona boxers.

That was more than I wanted to see.

Flopping the magazine back on the table, she dug through her purse, pulling out a zippy bag filled with an ice pack and several plastic tubes of Yoplait. Corbett liked to tease her that she ought to see a psychiatrist about a growing obsession with yogurt. It wasn't that she wanted to lose weight, though a few of her friends had lost 10-15 pounds eating little else. According to the Body Mass Index, she was in the dead center of her range, thanks to the leftover baby weight. She just liked the creamy texture against her tongue and the occasional bits of fruit. She had avoided another round of teasing by telling Corbett the Go-gurts were for Matthew. He'd figure out eventually that Matthew hated yogurt, but in the meantime, she could slurp it in peace. Maybe it would calm her nerves.


She had finished one tube and was contemplating another when a woman holding the hand of a little girl entered the waiting room. The woman, a stoutish hourglass with dark skin and glossy straight hair, motioned for the girl to have a seat while she talked with the receptionist. The little girl, about 6 years old with black braided pigtails, chose a seat beside Tress and smiled at her. She was missing a front tooth.

Tress returned the smile and put away the bag. "Well, hello. Did you know someone's taken one of your teeth?"

The girl nodded, pushing her tongue through the gap. "Mommy took it and gave me whole dollar."

"The tooth fairy took it," said he girl's mother, lowering herself into the chair beside her daughter.

Tress smiled, unsure what to say.

"Daisha thinks she's too good for the things I believed in growing up," said the woman. "She's also too good to brush her teeth. She's getting a cavity filled today."

Daisha crossed her arms and pouted, practically touching her upper lip to her nose. Tress tried to suppress a chuckle.

"Are you getting a cavity filled, too?" Daisha asked Tress.

"No, my little boy's getting his first check-up."

"How old is he?" asked the woman.


"That's about the age I brought this one in." The woman yanked gently on a pigtail. Daisha frowned, holding the dangling braid to her head. "She had the biggest fit. Screaming, crying, waving her little fists. She even bit the dentist first time he stuck his fingers in her mouth."

Tress' eyes widened, her blue irises appearing to shrink. She touched her fingers to her chin. "And Dr. Rubendall still sees her?"

Daisha was grinning. Her mother shrugged. "He said to give it a year, that she would grow out of it."

"Did she?"

"Oh, sure."

Tress relaxed.

"I only pretend to bite him now," said Daisha. "I like to watch him jump."

Biting the bottom of her lip, Tress forced a smile. She didn't hear any screaming from the back, cries for mercy that might arise from the unrelenting clamp of a three-year-old, but maybe Dr. Rubendall was used to having temporary teeth marks embedded in his fingers. Maybe that was how he cast molds.

The first time Matthew had bitten her, he was a little over a year old. She bit him back, gently of course, but hard enough to get the point across that it hurts. He hadn't bitten anyone since. Surely, he wouldn't bite a stranger. But if he were afraid...people often lash out when they're afraid, part of that animal instinct of self-preservation. And if foreign fingers holding shiny objects approach your mouth, reflex would be to bite them before they could do any harm. She suddenly found herself hoping there was something wrong with Matthew's reflexes.

She jumped at the shrill cry of a drill. Surely they weren't working on Matthew! They couldn't do any dental work without her permission, could they?

"I felt the same way you do," said the woman. "You've just got to learn to relax. These kids are heartier than you think. I should know. Daisha's my third."

"How can you relax with three kids?" Corbett had better be happy with the kid he had because with all the stress of raising Matthew, another one—let alone three—would have her wrapped in a straitjacket by the time she was forty.

The woman smiled, patting her daughter's head. "The first one was the worst, constantly worried about being the perfect parent, making sure your kid's getting the right food, enough sleep, shots at the right time, but once the silly thing jumps out of the swing after you repeatedly telling her not to and you see that aside from a twisted ankle she's okay, you come to realize that kids need interaction to learn. They aren't passive sponges soaking up the rules. That and they think they've got the whole world figured out, so your telling them their going to break their ankle doesn't mean a thing to them. They've got to experience it, and they'll do it whether your stressed out over it or not so you might as well relax. Be there to dry their tears and make sure they've learned a lesson, but don't get yourself worked up about it."

Tress nodded. It made sense, but it didn't help her relax.

Daisha had lost interest in the conversation, flipping through an illustrated book of Bible stories she had taken from the table.

"Tell me, is your son afraid of the doctor?" the woman asked.

"He's suspicious. He thinks he's going to get a shot, but otherwise he's fine."

"What makes you think today's going to be any different?"

"I'm not back there with him."

"Honey, I guarantee you're suffering from more separation anxiety than he is."

"You think so?"

"How long has he been back there?"

Tress glanced at her watch. "About thirty minutes, I guess."

"If they hadn't brought him out kicking and screaming yet, they're not going to."

"I guess you're right." Tress settled back in her chair. She had probably been overreacting again. Matthew was a brave kid, just like his dad. Everything was fine.

The door creaked open, and the nurse poked her blonde head out. "Mrs. Audet?"

Tress straightened her back as if someone had pressed the muzzle of a gun against it.

"I need you to come with me."

Tress glanced with wide eyes at Daisha's mother and stood on wobbly legs. "What's happened? What's wrong?"

"Oh, it's nothing serious," said the nurse. "Follow me, please."

Tress could hear her pulse in her ears, pounding away as if it were a steam engine. Nothing serious? Oh, no, he must have bitten Dr. Rubendall. Is he going to tell me I can't bring Matthew back? I knew I should have told Matthew 'no biting,' but we haven't had a problem in so long. I hope he didn't make him bleed.

Lost in her thoughts, she nearly bumped into the nurse, who had stopped at the door of an examination room. Dr. Rubendall, a man in his forties with graying temples and beak-like nose, stepped from the room. He wore a band-aid over the knuckle of his first finger.

"Oh, Dr. Rubendall, I'm so sorry. I hope he didn't draw too much blood."

The dentist bunched his lips to one side, looking around the hallway as if for a hidden clue. The nurse shrugged.

"Your cut," Tress supplied.

Dr. Rubendall looked at his hand. "Oh, this? I'm just trying to get rid of a wart. It's remarkable, they make these medicated band-aids. No, the reason we asked you back here was we can't get Matthew to leave."

Tress peaked around the dentist. Matthew sat in the chair trying to look into his own mouth with the tiny mirror. He was holding two toothbrushes.

Her pulse returned to its normal, slow chug. "Oh, I'm so glad that's all it is. Matthew, it's time to go, sweetie."

He looked up and pulled the mirror out of his mouth. "Mommy!"

"His teeth are in great shape," said the dentist. "He's quite a brusher."

Matthew set the mirror on the shiny tray beside the chair and hopped onto the floor. "Look! I got nother toothbwush!"

"That's great, honey." She hoped they could throw the old one away. Its bristles were frayed beyond usefulness, almost wrapping around the back of the brush. "Tell them what color it is?"

He held it up against the light. "Wed!"

"No, try again."


"Tell Dr. Rubendall what color sour apples are."


"Good. That toothbrush is green, too." Tress took Matthew's free hand and lowered to his ear. "What do you say?"

"Thank you!"

"He wasn't any trouble?" Tress asked the dentist as the nurse led them back to the waiting room.

"None at all, Mrs. Audet. Normally, I would say I'll see you in six months. But since he's taking good care of his teeth, unless he starts complaining, you can wait a year before bringing him back."

Matthew frowned, shuffling after his mother.

Tress wiggled his arm. "What's wrong?"

"I wanna come back tomowow. I like his toys."

The adults laughed. "Those are tools, Matthew, not toys," Tress explained. "They're not for playing with. Tell Dr. Rubendall bye."

Matthew waved as the dentist returned to his office. The nurse opened the door, and he started to follow her.

"Stay here. Mommy's got to pay for your visit."

He obeyed, leaning against the wall. The nurse returned from the waiting room with Daisha trailing behind her.

"This your son?" Daisha asked Tress.

"Yes, this is Matthew."

"Hi! You like my toothbwushes?"

"Sure, they're nice." She look up at Tress. "He's little. Did he bite the dentist?"

Tress shook her head.

"Come along, Daisha."

Daisha shrugged. "Too bad," she said skipping after the nurse.

Tress shook her head, retrieving her debit card. She scooped Matthew into her arms, and shouldering her purse, she kissed him on the cheek, glancing back at Daisha's retreating skip. "Thank you for being a good boy," she whispered into his dark curls.

"Is everything okay?" Daisha's mother asked as Tress carried Matthew across the room toward the exit.

"Yes, thank you." Tress hoped the woman's other children weren't as mean-spirited as Daisha.

"My advice to you," said the woman, "is to keep him away from Kool-Aid. All that sugar's not good for the teeth. Daisha can't get enough of it. That's why she's got all those cavities."

"Thanks for the warning," Tress said, ducking out the door. Luckily, Matthew only drank apple juice and milk, a lot of milk. She was hoping for unbreakable bones.

"Mommy," Matthew began, laying his head on her shoulder, "what's calf-tees?"

She tried not laugh. "A cav-i-ty is a small hole that forms in your tooth when you don't brush well."

"That's what that girl has?"

"Yes, honey."


She reached the car, a red Cavalier, and strapped Matthew into his car seat.



He shivered. "Does that mean she's gonna lose her tooths?"