“Down in the Mouth,” by Elinor Kotchen

Jun 8th, 2022 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

The woman hovered over me with her sharp metal instruments, poised in concentration. Somehow I’d agreed to let a stranger probe inside my mouth while I lay on my back, passive and inert. And I probably had a spinach leaf in my teeth from lunch.

A friend had recommended this dentist, assuring me she was experienced and trustworthy. Dr. Jen looked barely old enough to drive but seemed to know what she was doing.

I stared up at the ceiling, my eyes focusing on the one colorful ceiling tile amidst the drab ones. It was a picture of Mickey, Minnie, and the gang careening down a roller-coaster. I found it strangely soothing. At least it gave my mind something to latch onto other than the metallic scouring of my teeth.

“Do you use mouthwash?” Dr. Jen asked between scrapings.

“Yeah, all the time,” I lied.

“Oh, you shouldn’t. It doesn’t actually do anything.”  

But I never use mouthwash! I wanted to say.

Despite digging myself into a hole, I liked Dr. Jen. She was both thorough and efficient. I was in and out of the office in twenty-five minutes.


When I visit a new dentist, I can’t help wonder about her mental health. Is it true that dentists have the highest suicide rates? I always look mine over carefully, trying to gauge their moods and hoping they can hold it together until the end of the appointment.

It’s a baffling statistic. Admittedly, breathing in halitosis all day would be a bit demoralizing, but there are plenty of jobs with worse downsides.

Of course, nobody likes going to the dentist. All that poking and scraping, leaving your gums tender and raw. Never mind if you need something beyond a routine cleaning. The phrase “root canal” makes me break into a sweat.

At least the hygienist has a chance to develop rapport with the patient. Mine are always cheerful and perky, as if they enjoy battling plaque all day. When they’re especially chatty, I love having an excuse not to respond.

But then the dentist comes in and announces you have a cavity. Or, at the very least, there are some spots to watch for with hints of decay. I rarely leave an appointment without feeling bad about myself, like I’m morally degenerate for not flossing enough.

If someone chooses to go into dentistry, out of all the possibilities, they must have a sadistic streak. Why else would they want to wield a drill and pliers, doing painful procedures on such a sensitive part of the body? Maybe there’s a thrill in knowing they hold so much power. One slip and they could damage a nerve. 


I’ve been to a fair number of dentists in my life, given various moves and the need to find someone I’m comfortable with. A reliable measure of a dentist’s worth, I’ve learned, is the goody bags. If there’s no complimentary toothbrush or toothpaste, I don’t go back.

One dentist I saw for a while in Brooklyn made me feel great about my teeth. Dr. Baglioni. His office was above a Häagen-Daz, which seemed like a good business move. He had meticulously sculpted hair, and the framed pictures beside the dental chair revealed a family of kids with perfect white teeth. He told me more than once that I had a high dental IQ. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I couldn’t help blushing at the compliment.

Growing up, my family went to Dr. Cushman in D.C. He had a salt and pepper mustache and a basket of stickers we’d rifle through. When I was in second grade, he discovered no fewer than six cavities in my mouth. I’d been brushing my teeth morning and night, but only the fronts. I was the youngest child, and my parents hadn’t thought to direct my attention to the tops or backs.

Over the next few years, Dr. Cushman played a pivotal role in my dental well-being. 


By the time I was eleven or twelve, I was increasingly self-conscious that all my baby teeth had been replaced by big ones except one. The tooth to the right of my two front ones refused to fall out and was smaller than the others. Dr. Cushman’s X-rays revealed there wasn’t an adult tooth above it, which explained why it hadn’t been pushed out. The good news was that I could be fitted for a false tooth, but I’d need the baby one pulled first.

When it came time for the extraction, the only thing that kept me running from the room was the promise of ice cream afterwards. The sight of the pliers approaching my mouth evoked a primal terror. But then there was the laughing gas. I was floating, flying, soaring.

Soon afterwards, I started seeing an orthodontist. He ushered me through the holy trinity of metal works: braces, headgear, retainer. (I hope they’ve improved upon the headgear by now, to avoid ruthless teasing from siblings and make sleepovers possible again.)

Fortunately, the headgear was short-lived, and I soon graduated to the retainer. It was at that point that Dr. Cushman fitted me for a false tooth, which he fused to the retainer.

Overnight, my gap was filled. At thirteen I had my first denture.

For the retainer, the orthodontist gave me a choice of designs for the part that rested against the top of my mouth. If you’re going to have a tooth hanging off your retainer, you may as well add embellishments. It was around the Fourth of July, and feeling patriotic, I chose an American flag. You couldn’t see the design when it was in my mouth, but I’d sometimes take it out to display the flag—and the tooth—in safe company.

While other kids wrapped their retainers in a napkin while they ate, I kept mine in to avoid revealing the space in my teeth. I sometimes had to contend with bits of hamburger stuck on the roof of my mouth, lodged underneath the plastic. The upside was that I never had to search through the McDonalds trash can, elbow deep in greasy French fries, to find a retainer I’d mistakenly thrown out.

When the orthodontist deemed that my teeth were officially straight, or as straight as he could get them, I could retire the retainer. Dr. Cushman would then use a bridge to connect a new denture to the teeth on either side of it.

By this point, it was the summer after ninth grade, and I’d just met my first boyfriend. In a few weeks, I was due to transition to the bridge. All I could think about was how our first kiss would line up with this schedule. I managed to put Jason off a little longer until the day I emerged from the dentist’s, relieved to have a nearly perfect row of teeth.

The kiss was even better than I imagined.

Now I didn’t have to give my denture another thought. But something Dr. Cushman said stuck with me. The bridge was supposed to last ten years, but there was a small chance it could come loose before that. I was terrified the tooth would fall into my punch glass at a school dance. To this day, I have a recurring dream about it coming out in awkward situations.

As it turned out, the bridge held up faithfully for the next fourteen years. By then, I’d moved to Brooklyn, and Dr. Baglioni was ministering to my teeth, above the Häagen-Daz. He convinced me to build a new bridge, before my nightmare scenario occurred.

I happened to have just started a new relationship. Again, I had to carefully sequence the dates between appointments. Anything to prevent Chris from getting his tongue stuck to the hot glue on my teeth.

Dr. Baglioni ended up doing a nice job, but things with Chris didn’t work out. The relationship’s demise had nothing to do with the denture. 


At this stage, I no longer only have my own teeth to worry about. Depending on how you count, I have sixty-seven or sixty-eight teeth to look after. My husband Matt attends to our kids’ nails, and I do the teeth. Though there are the same number of each, a lot more hinges on the latter.

When my son turned six and still hadn’t lost a tooth, I began to worry. Maybe I’d passed on the gene that cheated him of an adult tooth. Or maybe he was missing all his adult ones. It was with great excitement, then, that we confirmed he had a loose tooth.

Matt and I discussed the options. Was it better to let it fall out on its own, or would Alex swallow it with his fish sticks? Should one of us pull it out, or should Alex do it himself? Finally, Matt grabbed a napkin and yanked out the tooth. Alex barely felt a thing. He ran around the house with it, hollering with excitement.

Then he dropped it somewhere between the kitchen and the front hall. A frantic search ensued, until Charlotte, his sister, found it on the carpet. Later, when we were eating tacos, Charlotte mistook it for a shred of cheese on the table and nearly ate it. Alex finally brought it to his room to await the tooth fairy. 


I’ve thought about cataloguing my life by my dentures. I’m coming up on twelve years with my current one and may be ready for my third. This time, I’m not as worried about the transition impacting my love life. I’ve been married close to a decade, and Matt sleeps with a mouth guard because he grinds his teeth at night. So he’s got nothing on me.

Given all that dentists have done for me over the years, I’m starting to realize what short shrift they get. It’s a dirty job without a lot of glory. Unlike the tooth fairy, they’re the ones with the real magic.

Eventually I may need a whole set of false teeth. I can imagine Matt and I in our twilight years, kissing each other goodnight before removing our matching dentures. I hope I’ll have a skilled dentist then—someone who’s trustworthy and gives out great goody bags.


Elinor Kotchen is a psychotherapist and writer in New Haven, Connecticut. She writes nonfiction because life has too many hilarious and absurd moments not to capitalize on.

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