(Copyright © 2002 Al Aronowitz)


Shortly after winning the state lottery, Len became obsessed with his teeth.

It wasn't a huge win---$205,000 after taxes---it was just enough to change everything.

It all began when Len was lying back in Dr. Sherman's chair in the dentist's tiny office---a wood-paneled job with a few rusty ferns and some dark Degas prints---with Dr. Sherman breathing his clovey breath in Lenís face and giving Len the usual painful needle.

"You know, Len," said Sherman. "I'm going to replace this cracked cap and fix up your cavities today---but you really should think about doing some cosmetic work.  I mean, now that you've got the dough. I've been studying up on that veneer stuff."

That afternoon, Len marched into his house past his wife---she had quit her day job and was sitting at the kitchen table pouring over glossy travel brochures---and locked himself in the bathroom.

He smiled at himself in the mirror and his teeth smiled back at him, although frankly, there was nothing much to smile about. Len had always known his left front tooth slightly protruded beyond its partner; he had never given it much thought. But now it was as if the weight in his wallet had taken the film from his eyes, and he could see himself clearly and objectively for the first time. He could see that his unbalanced front teeth gave him a look that was at once rebellious and incompetent, like a man who might attempt to rob a bank but would trip over his untied shoes in the process.

Len also found the color of his teeth to be less than satisfactory. If he had been pressed to categorize his tooth color a few months before, Len would probably have deemed the shade a sort of pre-war, Antique White. Now it was obvious they were the color of yellowed piano keys. Or canned corn.

"I'm glad to see you grinning, darling," said Len's wife, when he bared his teeth at her that evening.  "You've been a little glum lately, and we've all--"

"Why didn't you tell me?" Len said. "For God's sake, why didn't anyone tell me?"

"Now, Len, it's not so bad," she said, when he told her he needed a new mouth.  "I'll tell you what's really bad. Our entire kitchen."

"A kitchen!" wailed their daughter, Dee. "What about my summer wardrobe? I mean, it doesn't even exist!"

While his wife shopped around for new appliances and his daughter shopped for clothes, Len shopped around for the perfect dentist.  Someone a few shades

Len finds
the perfect

more sophisticated than Dr. Sherman. Someone who knew his implants from his extractions.

The instant he walked into Dr. Martini's office, Len felt he had to go no further. The waiting room was big and white, flooded with natural light from tall windows. A few pieces of colorful, original art hung on the walls with two or three tasteful African masks. The furniture was all Swedish, comfortable, unpretentious.  Len's favorite song was playing. The receptionist shot him a winning smile.

He was kept waiting just minutes---each one of them exceedingly pleasant---before Dr. Martini entered to personally escort him to the inner offices. Dr. Martini was a man's man, a dentist's dentist.

He had a princely chairside manner, an absolutely painless approach and when it came to discussing the pricier options he was matter-of-fact and casual rather than putting on the hard sell.  He made Len see that a little bonding here, a little gum-redefining there, perhaps a veneer, maybe just one or two tiny implants and---bam---it'd be a whole new, happier Len.

Len looked forward to his twice-weekly visits with Dr. Martini. The vanilla-toned waiting room was always filled with funny, famous and discreet people.  That cover girl and her English rocker boyfriend.  An Olympic skater who'd flown out from San Francisco just to be seen by Dr. Martini.

That film director who had been in the news a lot the year before due to his unfortunate dealings with the IRS.  Len was extremely interested in the other patients---not in their fame or real-life personalities, but their teeth. He always waited for them to smile so he could see the perfection of their bites, how much of their teeth were exposed between parted lips, how bright was their shine, what kind of image they sent to the world.

Len had mapped out a very specific dental plan with Dr. Martini; as this plan drew near a close, Len found himself panicking. He began to study magazines to look at the way other people smiled. He began to think he needed a bit more gray in his now-blindingly white teeth. Or maybe longer front teeth. Or a tiny gap. Or a slight chip in his right tooth, perhaps, a nearly imperceptible curve to give him some character so his smile wouldn't be so damn perfect and sincere.

Dr. Martini tried to convince Len that this dental separation anxiety was natural; it was like ending things with a therapist or a bookie. He told Len that his smile was the best of smiles now, charismatic and mysterious, not too perfect, just-right perfect. Sophisticated. A touch European.

Len was not convinced. Hoping to ruin his bridgework or at least cop some cavities, he ate a whole bag of chocolate covered caramels on his way home from his final visit with Dr. Martini.

And when he got home, he stared at himself in the mirror and realized that it was not the teeth that were the problem. They were only the visible portion of the problem, which of course was his skull, and the other bones which lay beneath the surface---this one maybe too recessive and this one creating too much of a bump, but all of that could be changed under the hands of a skilled surgeon. And really, Len realized with a quick spiral of joy in his chest, you can take it with you, you can. You just have to know where to invest it. ##



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