I enjoyed most pulling my teeth out during school. I was never pretty anyway, Fit for candlelight, my parents would say, so I felt no aesthetic affliction with these small forfeitures. In fact, I encouraged them because I felt they lent me character, which I was told I also lacked.
I spent evenings testing each bit with my pointer finger, nudging them to and fro, my sister snoring in the bed above me. I continued this procedure the next day at my desk, waiting for the moment when I could pinch my tongue between the loose tooth and my gum. I’d interrupt the class to excuse myself to the bathroom. From there I checked each stall to make sure I was alone, peed with the stall door open, then faced myself in the mirror to carefully wriggle and slide out the tooth with my unwashed fingers. It hung by its small roots while I inspected the previously hidden sharp points like tiny arrowheads. How long I could let it sit there, what a gag to show my classmates! Or maybe I could turn the tooth upside down and ease the smooth end into my gum, eventually filling out the spaces with serrations proper for eating the overdone meat my mom served nightly. I laughed imagining this. I would keep my two front teeth, which would be large and perfect like two white doves.
I pulled out my teeth because I didn’t want anyone else to pull them out. My parents tried, and succeeded, with my two front teeth, one for each of them, the morning after Hurricane Hugo hit. The hurricane itself was otherwise uneventful. I slept through it all. The backyard of our duplex contained a natural fencing of trees which muffled the traffic noise from the highway. After the hurricane they all uprooted against one another, eventually dragged away by the city and replaced with a metal chain link, exposing us to the hot asphalt and exhaust and road rage. This happened with much expediency; like my two front teeth, one day the trees were there, the next they were gone.
What I really enjoyed though were my trips to the cafeteria when I informed my teacher, who was fat and angry with the other students for being stupid and rowdy but fat and amiable to me because I was quiet and well read, of my loss. I wandered the empty halls while running my chewed fingernails against the ivory walls of stacked cinder block, the soft fibers of construction paper that lined the occasional bulletin board filling my swirling ridges from palm to tip. I knew if I stopped and dug my hand further I risked sanding out any identity my genetics allowed.
I loved the cafeteria because it smelled like shitty food and bleach. I would walk to the kitchen where a woman in white uniform with the darkest and smoothest skin I’d ever seen touched my cheeks with plastic wrapped hands and Oooed and Ahhed and told me what a real go-getter I was with a wink while she filled a paper cup with salt and warm water. I swished it around, swallowing the tiniest bit I could get away with before emptying it into the fountain and hurrying back to class, tooth in pocket to be added with the others in my jewelry box.
Before Thanksgiving, I experienced a rather trying embarrassment presenting a book report to the class. I was never good at public speaking, a trait my previous teachers understood and never pushed. I bungled the whole thing and cried at my desk, my head pounding. I didn’t even know how my classmates reacted. My fat teacher excused me to get myself together.
I checked to make sure the bathroom was empty. I dragged my feet along the dust-freckled tile. My insides pushed on my belly button that I scraped at for lint before entering the farthest stall, and the wire mesh lining the window sliced a puzzle of light at my toes. While I was peeing a girl walked in and I slammed the stall door shut. I lifted my feet, my pants still pulled down, legs to chest, hands clutching the seat while I tried to steady my breathing, bladder still expelling echoing trickles. Her sneakers squeaked with each step before stopping at my stall. She pressed her face to the small crack and giggled, slapped her hand hard on the door, giggled more as it swung open then squeaked away. I put my head to my knees and reached my fingers into my mouth. I chose the tooth at random and began working it, the molar farthest back on the left, my mouth opened wide and head sideways, prying it free after much debate. I pictured pushing the jagged end into the girl, quick stabs on her face to render her tender.
When I went to the cafeteria the woman wasn’t there. I peered over the counters of spaghetti-filled foils until an orange approached. She regarded me like I was some bizarre animal, not a little girl, and when I asked what she was doing she posed me the same question. I told her, nauseous with the taste of iron that filled my mouth. She handed me a paper cup of cold water and ordered me back to class. My gums ached the rest of the day.
When I arrived home I sat in the bathroom sink, jewelry box in my lap. My mom was burning a steak in the kitchen, my sister out with friends, my dad sleeping in his chair. I surveyed the contents of the box: broken earrings from my mom, a Saint Christopher’s necklace I stole from my brother’s room after he ran away, my little teeth. I put the necklace on, collected the earrings and slipped them down the drain. I smiled in the mirror, the black gaps between white nubs like buried stones. A comet of dried blood streaked my chin. Passing semis rattled the house. I pressed the jewelry box to my ear and rocked back and forth, and the teeth rolling along the velvet lining were like a murmuration of starlings. I wondered where all the birds had ended up since the trees in the backyard were gone. To be honest, though, I couldn’t recall ever seeing any in the first place.