Caroline O'Donoghue: Six unexpectedly enlightening things about losing your front tooth on an airplane

Caroline O'Donoghue: Six unexpectedly enlightening things about losing your front tooth on an airplane

Back in November, a series of events resulted in me getting my front tooth removed. For the insatiably curious, the “series of events” was an accident involving a bike rack outside Douglas Shopping Centre in 2003, and a “temporary, emergency measure” that my dentist warned “would need regular checking up on”. The regular check-ups were, unfortunately, never administered.

Finally, 17 years later, I bit into a bread roll on a 22-hour flight. At this stage, the roots of my front tooth had slowly rotted to a mushy pulp and the tooth turned 180 degrees sideways. I went to the bathroom, tilted my head back, pushed the tooth back into my skull and waited for another 11 hours to land in Paris.

After a series of excruciatingly painful operations (one which included a bone saw), I now have no front tooth. Oh, I’m getting one: but not for months and months. If you’ve ever had a dental implant, you know the drill — literally. You know the drills. Endless appointments, endless drilling, endless discussion about titanium screws and viable bone. In the meantime, I have a fake tooth that lives inside a clear retainer and that I pop in when I need to be presentable.

1. When I was first presented with the fake tooth, I swore to everyone that I would never take it off, and if that meant never eating in public, then so be it. Six days later, and I am toothless at least half of the time. I walk the dog toothless. I eat dinner at fancy restaurants toothless. I smile for photographs toothless. I attend parties with the tooth in, and then, as an icebreaker, take the tooth out. You would be amazed to find how a toothless woman brings a table of strangers together. Suddenly the most repressed ofEnglish dinner party guests are crowding around you, telling each other their worst tooth stories, or bike accident stories, or dislocated shoulder stories. The tone of the room goes from prim to primal, and it’s usually an energy that is treasured and welcomed by the host.

2. The missing tooth throws men in particular. Men who aren’t quite sure how to deal with a woman who is dressed in 2020’s Zara but has a smile like 1972’s Deliverance. I see them clocking the huge gap in my smile, and they have a deer-in-the-headlights moment of pure panic. I watch every thought like a musical movement. They go from “Does that girl have no tooth…?” to “oh my god, she has no tooth” to “is she… a pirate?” to “well she doesn’t LOOK like a pirate” to “God, Pete, stop, you’re staring at the tooth, ask her a question, but don’t ask about the tooth”

3. Then, something strange happens. In their confusion, they get flirty. They flirt with the gaping maw in my mouth. There is suddenly a lot more physical contact, a lot of attentive questions, a lot of firm hands on the small of my back. I wish I could tell you I’m the kind of woman who is appalled by this kind of thing, but the truth is, I’ve been in a relationship for six years, and I live for the occasional hand-on-the-small-of-the-back. If only so I can run home and tell my boyfriend about it, puffed up like a robin.

4. Maybe you think it’s terribly unfeminist for me to feel this way, and maybe it is. But this is not the kind of attention I’m used to getting. In the words of my own partner, I am “girl-next-door” pretty, the kind of woman men don’t usually remember to flirt with. I begin to think that the missing tooth has added a sense of danger. That maybe men are thinking “well, she’s clearly been in a couple of punch-ups, so she’s probably a bit up for it”.

5. The missing tooth also has a strange effect on women, too, Or more specifically, the kind of stunningly pretty woman who I am usually too afraid to talk to because I’m afraid she’ll crush me under her heel. I am at a house party when I strike up an unusually close friendship with one. The kind offriendship where you find yourself taking up an entire couch together, feet on the cushions, knees locked in conspiracy. I wonder why she wants to be my friend so much. Am I the toothless Quasimodo to her Esmerelda? Do girls like this just like having disfigured friends?

6. She tells me she envies the tooth. “I once burst a blood vessel in my eye,” she says. “So I had a big red eye for two months. And do you know what? I miss it. I miss the red eye.” She tells me that the red eye made her uninhibited, bolder, and braver. “It was like I didn’t have to worry about being perfect because I had this huge flaw right on my face that I couldn’t do anything about. I was falling so short of perfect that there was no use in trying. I could just be myself.”

My new tooth is slated for September, and my dentist tells me that, once the procedure is complete, I will be in the 1% of people with perfect teeth. He tells me I’m going to be so, so, happy with my new smile, that I’ll never stop smiling. And I’m already wondering, even though it’s nine months away, whether I’ll smile easier with a perfect tooth or no tooth at all.

Caroline O’Donoghue is a Cork-born writer living in London. She is the author of Promising Young Women and the forthcoming Scenes of a Graphic Nature, out June 2020

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