By Emma Burger
“I like your hair.” When she smiled, the pink rhinestone embedded on her incisor caught the fluorescent light, gleaming. The reflection made her mouth look wet and glistening. She emerged from behind the counter with a mop and a bucket of sudsy water while I waited by the trash for my order. She ran the mop in tight circles across the floor close to where I was standing, barely avoiding my feet.
I looked down at the toes of my scuffed black Converse and stepped away from her, toward the garbage can. “Sorry,” I said with a tight smile. An apology for standing where I’d been standing, where she’d then decided to mop. Unnecessary, but second nature.
“Oh you’re totally fine! I like your dress too.” Her voice was high-pitched and sugary. If I were Dr. Drew, who I’d been listening to on my drive, I would’ve asked if she was molested as a child. The baby voice was a giveaway, he always said.
“Thanks so much,” I said, instead of inquiring about her childhood trauma. She was cute. Her bleach blonde hair was pulled high and tight in a scrunchy over her McDonald’s visor. She was stick skinny aside from a little pregnant belly bump. She had to have only been 18 or 19, I guessed. Still a baby herself. “I like your –” I started, unsure just what to call the glinting jewel on her tooth, gesturing instead with my ring finger at my own mouth.
“Oh, my tooth gem? Thank you,” she ran the tip of her tongue over her front teeth. “I did it myself.”
Order #273 came up on the screen. I grabbed the brown paper bag and opened it to make sure they got my food right. My cheeseburger sat wrapped in paper. A perfect 313 calorie package I could order over and over again, at every stop along my route. I’d had the same lunch in Kingman, Arizona, and Albuquerque, New Mexico and Sterling, Colorado and then here, somewhere between Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. “I had a medium Diet Coke, too,” I said to one of the cashiers, who filled a paper cup and pushed it across the counter without a word. “Thanks,” I said, and jabbed a straw through the X.
I ate my cheeseburger in the corner booth, with a view of the grazing cows across the road. When I finished, I crumpled up the last of my napkins and stuffed them in the paper bag. The girl stopped me, again, at the trash can by the exit. “I can do it for you, if you want.”
“Sorry, do what?”
“A tooth gem. If you want, I can do one for you. I’ve got my kit here and everything.” I nodded, surprising myself. “Oh my god, really?” She said, grabbing her phone out of her back pocket, glancing at the time. “I have a break in five. Do you have a toothbrush?”
“In my car, yeah.”
“Perfect! You brush your teeth and I’ll meet you in the bathroom.”
She knocked on the door and I spat and swished, watching the foamy toothpaste swirl down the drain. “Smile,” she instructed, stuffing two cotton balls between my gum and upper lip. “You want it in the same place I have mine?” She asked, and I nodded, unable to speak as she smoothed a cotton ball over the area where the gem would go.
She squirted glue into a Dixie cup, stirring it with a wand, which she took to the surface of my tooth, applying just a dab to the lower right corner. She picked up a pink rhinestone from her kit with tweezers and held it to the spot with the glue, applying pressure as it set. “Last thing.” She said, and flicked on a handheld UV lamp, holding it an inch from where she’d placed the jewel. It was hot and I tasted bitter chemicals. “Smile!” She told me, as she removed the light. “You can take the cotton out too,” and I plucked the two soaked cotton balls from beneath my upper lip. “What do you think?”
I smiled wide and admired the way the light danced in the mirror as I turned my head. “I love it. Thank you.”
When I asked how much I owed her she said nothing, and that she needed the practice. She gave me her number, and told me to call if I got bored on the road or if I was ever back in Nebraska, which I wouldn’t be. I found her on Venmo and sent her $50. For diapers or baby bottles, maybe. A small price to pay for changing my smile forever.
As I turned the key in my car’s ignition, Dr. Drew’s voice came back on my stereo, picking up exactly where I’d left off before lunch. “So, there’s an important link between oral fixation, addiction and unresolved childhood trauma,” he explained. “Freudian psychologists would consider alcoholism to be a form of oral regression that might develop in someone who had experienced trauma during the oral stage of development. Even habits like nail biting, gum chewing, thumb sucking. We would describe all those behaviors as characteristic of oral regression. ” I rolled the windows down and turned the volume knob up all the way.
Corn fields whizzed by and I tongued the stone glued to the otherwise smooth surface of my tooth as Dr. Drew spoke. I couldn’t believe it was my own smile I was feeling, underneath the same pair of lips I’d always had. The gem felt like a candy I might suck on forever. No thoughts but the compulsive pleasure of tonguing its rigid surface. Soon, it would become a part of me. I’d forget it was even there, only remembering when I’d catch someone staring at the sparkle between my lips.
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Emma Burger is a writer, healthcare professional, and end-of-life doula who splits her time between Ann Arbor, Michigan and New York City. She is the author of Spaghetti for Starving Girls (2021), and her work has been featured in Schuylkill Valley Journal, Across the Margin, Idle Ink, Memoirist, and more. You can find her on her website, emmaburgerwrites.com.