Mayer Nissim 10th November 2017
I’m a triplet. It’s an unusual fact about me that comes up once I’ve known someone a little while, be it a colleague, friend, or repeated acquaintance.
It’s the sort of fact you end up telling people a few times. They’ll swear blind you’ve never told them and be genuinely surprised. That’s okay. I can barely remember someone’s name on the first dozen meetings.
The other personal fact I end up repeating is that four of my front teeth are fake. A mix of metal and porcelain.
I usually jump over my sentences to complain that, hey, only two of them actually got punched out, and it’s a bit of a shame that they had to file down two perfectly good teeth to fit a bridge. I should have opted for the implants, but that would have meant general anaesthetic, more time, more money, and more hassle.
I usually skate over the words “punched out” at first. I never quite tell the story right. My sentences scramble over each other as I try to get out the stock lines along with my misremembered truth. I hear the words speed up and my voice go up in pitch a few notches, and I wonder why on earth I brought this up in the first place.
Despite everything, I still know that in a few ways it was my fault. Like treading in dog shit, you mentally go over the events again and again and again, knowing that one of a hundred tiny stupid things being different would have put you somewhere else at that time.
I was living in Manchester and had been to the awful/brilliant 42nd Street with a couple of friends. They left before I did. I was off my face, and happy to stick around alone and dance a while longer.
At some point before closing time, the Red Hot Chili Peppers kick in. I can’t even remember which song, but I decide that surely this means it’s a night. Later, that will become one of my lines. “I blame the Red Hot Chili Peppers for my teeth getting punched out.” In some ways, I still actually believe that.
I walk straight out, sipping away on a plastic cup of water and feeling untouchable.
Outside, the lights and sounds are disorientating, but I feel a lot better than most of the casualties I see draped all over the place. One girl is half-hugging the pavement. I stop, ask if she’s alright and offer her my water. She barely responds but I move on.
I get myself to the bus stop, on the bus, and tune out. Before I realise it, I’ve missed my stop. Just by one, and it’s barely far. In fact, I often ride that extra stop to pick up one of the ridiculously cheap, burn-the-roof-of-your-mouth pizzas you only get from those late-night kebab/burger/pizza shops.
It’s around 3am, and instead of heading to the shops I walk up Palatine Road back towards my house. I see two guys, big guys, walking towards me, but think little of it. As we pass I nod. Maybe I say, “Alright”.
From nowhere, one of the guys hits me, and he hits me hard. I’m on the floor, and I can taste hot gravel, blood, metal. Those playground fights. It doesn’t hurt, at least not that I can remember.
I can feel something in my mouth, and I realise it’s a tooth. I scramble on the floor and pick up what I realise is another. While this is happening the two men are grabbing at me, swinging. I have very little clue what the hell is going on.
Do they want to mug me? Why not just ask me before punching my teeth out? They’re doing this all wrong. I scramble to my feet, and run, while they swing and grab. I turn round, and they don’t seem to be following me. I keep running.
I eventually I slow down and stop. I spit out the tooth that’s loose in my mouth into my hand. My tongue touches the roof of my mouth. They’ve punched them right out.
I take out my phone, and dial 999. Police or ambulance, they want to know. Surely both, I think? They need an answer and I decide an ambulance is most important here. I don’t have any milk, but they can put teeth back in your jaw, can’t they? Do you even need the milk? They suggest I walk to the hospital or get a cab, but I say I’d rather wait for an ambulance.
After what seems like forever, the ambulance arrives. I tell the medics what happened, and they seem unflustered. Too unflustered. Worried about any reactions from any medication I might end up with I tell them more about my night, and they’re even less impressed. “Was it worth it then?” says one of the two. It’s obvious that he thinks that this is my fault.
They take one look at my teeth in my hand and tell me there’s no chance of those going back in my mouth. “They’re snapped off mate”. “Sure,” I think, but don’t say. “That’s why you’re driving an ambulance and not treating people in hospital.”
We get to the hospital, and there’s a wait for triage. The lights are bright and there are drunk people everywhere. I feel surprisingly calm. I get seen to by the triage nurse, and while I keep the finer details of the night to myself, I show her the filthy, bloodied teeth in my fist.
“Those aren’t going back in, I’m afraid,” she says gently. “They’re snapped off.”
“Sure,” I think, but don’t say. “That’s why you’re a triage nurse.” Somewhere deep down I know these thoughts are nonsense, but I can’t really bring myself to accept otherwise.
After a long while I see a doctor. He’s brusque. Very much in a hurry. “Oh, those can’t go back in, they’ve snapped off.” He scribbles out a prescription for antibiotics and sends me to the hospital pharmacy. Or he hands me the antibiotics in the room, I can’t quite remember now.
I do remember making an appointment for a dentist. Holding tight on to the white box of antibiotics, seeing a thumbprint in blood on it turn brown with what felt like indecent haste. Still in a daze, I walk out and walk to a bus stop, even though I know I’ll need at least two to get home, and there’ll be hardly any at this time.
It’s only then that I burst into tears.
I decide to walk home, sometimes stopping to sob. I’m already worrying about how I’ll explain this to my parents. I keep crying on and off for the next few days.
The next morning I tell one of my housemates what happened. He’s a taciturn but lovely guy from Droitwich, Worcestershire, who I fell out of touch with swiftly on leaving Manchester. I’m a mediocre friend and even worse housemate.
He gives me a hug. He is not a huggy kind of guy. I burst into tears once more. I put off calling my parents for at least a day. It takes two or three attempts before I can let the phone connect without crying. Eventually I do, but as soon as I start talking I cry so much they can barely make out what I’m saying.
I take a week off work. It’s unpaid, as technically the whole team is on a weekly rolling contract. I’ve been there 10 months. I manage to quit that job for a slightly less awful one very soon after.
It takes some time to get back to normal.
I cancel my NHS dental appointment in Manchester. I get my face fixed by my childhood dentist, a man who also taught me my Bar Mitzvah sedra over a year of awkward lessons in the dining room of my parents’ home when I was 12.
First, they have to drill the remaining stumps of my teeth into bits and wrest them from my jaw with what is pretty much just a pair of pliers.
I become adept at talking with my mouth closed. I even get through a job interview like that, excusing the whistle when I talk by mumbling “my teeth got knocked out”.
Soon after, days or weeks, I don’t remember, I get a denture. I can’t get a bridge until my jaw and gums have healed and shrunk enough.
It’s a good gimmick. I can pop it out with my tongue and sometimes do to comic effect. I pop it into my own drink at house parties. No one finds this funny except me.
Denture paste is weird and chalky. Usually when I’m popping the thing out it’s because it always feels uncomfortable. I often feel the need to force it back to the roof my mouth with my thumb.
On one occasion, I’m spotted doing this by a bunch of lads in a Deansgate hellhole of a pub. One sticks his thumb in his mouth. I’m reminded of the time when, as an overgrown thumbsucker, a stranger did the exact same thing through a bus window, shaming me in the back of my parents’ car.
I decide to take ownership of the situation and put my thumb back in my mouth, pop out my denture and wave it in the air. He looks shocked, before he and his friends start chanting, terrace style, “STERADENT / STERADENT / STERADENT”.
Some months later I get my bridge fitted. I remember getting a colour match for the teeth earlier in the process and thinking, “Maybe they should give me a shade lighter – something to aim for with some better brushing in the future”.
I know I already mentioned this, but I still find it sad that they had to file down two undamaged teeth to fit the bridge on. That’s as many as I had punched out.
I’m told that a bridge can last 25 years if you take care of it. No-one’s told me what happens after that. I’ve got less than 15 years left.
Mayer Nissim 10th November 2017