artwork for Andrew Arthur's short story Toothache

Andrew Arthur

I’m told that you exist and that you have a toothache. It’s not a toothache exactly. The gums between the molar and bicuspid in the lower left side of your mouth are inflamed, making the molar sensitive to cold, heat, and pressure. You don’t feel as sensitive to heat, as most of the food you eat isn’t that much hotter than your body temperature.

You feel the most sensitivity to cold. Eating or drinking something room temperature is too cold for you. There is a delay you feel with the cold sensitivity, from the time you eat something cold to the time you feel the overwhelming icy feeling that you can’t do anything about. You just have to wait until it’s over. The time delay tricks you every time, but especially in the morning after you rinse the toothpaste out of your mouth under the bathroom faucet. You think that it must be getting better, and then you’re hit with the cold feeling that keeps building. Your tooth feels better at first because you’ve been sleeping and you’ve gone hours without tonguing it or clenching your jaw. But you having just been asleep makes that part of your mouth especially sensitive to the cold as it hasn’t come into contact with anything that was a different temperature.

It’s worse than most pain, because most pain isn’t cold. Pain is usually hot, caused by an excess of friction; it’s also hot because your body is trying to attack the source of it and heal itself. You can tolerate most types of pain. You can slam your elbow into a doorframe and barely feel anything. After a while you don’t even realize you’re in pain because it’s such a constant in your life. You have to sit and think: this actually hurts.

The tightness in your left hip, the tightness in your right knee. It’s a muscle around your knee, not the joint or the tendon that acts up when you go downstairs and makes you glad you were never a pro athlete, having to push through pain even when you aren’t competing. It’s a nagging kind of pain that won’t go away. It makes you want to cut your leg off and just be done with it. You also always found competition to be stressful, and talking trash made you feel gross.

You stand in your kitchen with all the lights off and feel the urge to kill yourself while you grab your nightly slice of bread out of its plastic bag. You feel this way whenever you do any one thing enough times.

You’ve created a set of rules for yourself that have to do with what foods you can eat at what times. No protein bars before 7 and no bread slices before 9. Neither you nor I know why you do this, but you never break these rules.

You take out the two end pieces and put them into a different bread bag filled with other end pieces and shove it into the back of your freezer. One day you’ll use the ends to make breadcrumbs for a dish that calls for them, you tell yourself.

You have to go to the store tomorrow. You probably won’t be able to go until the late afternoon at the earliest because you’re going to have workers in your house for most of the day. The bread you’ll buy will probably be on sale for what used to be the regular price.

You hope you’ll see a particular woman who works at the grocery store. You think about how she works a half-mile from where you live. You wonder where she lives. She has a quiet dignity about her. She’s older than you. You think she might hail from Thailand or somewhere near there. You try not to stare when you see her. She doesn’t hide her lines with makeup or dye her hair. A lot of the time she’s stocking a shelf on an aisle you don’t need to go down. She seems to ignore you, which could be a sign that she doesn’t like you or a sign that she’s attracted to you. You wish you could say something to her while you’re going through the self-checkout and she happens to be there. You imagine staring at her, and her noticing and asking why you keep looking at her. And you say it’s because she’s a real pretty lady, and she laughs uncomfortably because she hasn’t gotten that kind of attention for a long time. You tell her you’re being serious.

But it probably wouldn’t work out with her because of your age difference.

Depression runs in your family, as far as you can tell. Your family doesn’t really discuss such things, which could be an argument for or against that claim.

You once dated an older woman from China who was surprised to hear that American families are about as uncommunicative as Chinese families when it comes to such things.

It didn’t work out between you two because of your age difference. You still have her number in your phone and wonder from time to time how weird it would be to text her. When she broke up with you it was because of the age gap. You told her that you didn’t care about each other’s age, but never got a response. And she knew your age when you two first started talking. If it was such a dealbreaker, why would she even begin communicating with you?

Anyway, you’ve tried to let your gums heal by chewing your food exclusively on the right side of your mouth (after you chop up your food with your front teeth). You remind yourself to watch out for the seeds in the bread, and wish you were more outgoing.

The right side of your mouth starts to get sore too and eating becomes a chore. It gets sore as the left side starts to heal. At one point, the left and right side are equally uncomfortable, but they feel different, as one side’s discomfort is going up as the other side’s discomfort is going down.

The right side is more tolerable since it was the second to start hurting and is probably going to start feeling normal again soon.

You try to remember to chew your food more softly. You don’t have to chew your food so forcefully all the time. I don’t know why you do that; it’s probably why you have such frequent problems with your teeth.

Your mouth aches at the end of the day because of all the eating you had to do, as you sit in the dark before you go to bed. Going to bed is harder when you go from having all your lights and screens on to total darkness immediately. You read that in a medical pamphlet you found at your grandmother’s house next to her fireplace.

You wonder what the white splotches on bricks are and where they come from, as you feel the little balls of muscle at the corners of your jaw that you don’t know the name of (you don’t even know if they’re muscles, they might be tendons or something else entirely). They feel about the same size. If you were to feel them for long enough, you’d feel a difference between the two, that the left side feels bigger. And if you were to look at them long enough in the mirror, you’d see a difference too.

You look over at the blank TV and wonder if it cares that it’s turned off. You don’t always mute the commercials when you watch TV, but when you do you feel like you can still hear them very faintly. Especially if it is a commercial you’ve seen before.

The mute button on your remote doesn’t work as well as you think it should. It usually takes a few pushes for your TV to mute, but only one push for it to unmute. You don’t want to admit this to yourself, or anyone else, because you think it’ll make you look like a conspiracy theorist.

You look out into your backyard. The moon is bright enough to cast shadows. And bright enough for you to see that faintest bit of color. The green of the leaves in the trees, the blue of the pool.

Your dinette set is on the back deck because you’re getting your hardwood floors refinished tomorrow. Your four chairs that never go outside are silhouetted against the moonlit backyard under your pergola, and they remind you of gravestones for some reason. You think about how your eyesight is getting worse and how it takes longer for your eyes to adjust to the dark.

Darkness moves like static, whether your eyes are open or closed. I can see your face in the dark. Your left eye is in my blind spot. I can see you better with my eyes closed. You open your eyes wider, but you still can’t see any better.

You think about how everything in your house is falling apart and how it all seemed to start falling apart at the same time and how you’ve been spending years trying to renovate it. It makes sense that all the stuff would fall apart at the same time, as it was probably all installed new at the same time. It’s hard to make progress because you’re so tired at the end of the day.

You worry about the people coming over to work on your house tomorrow. You recently had a horoscope tell you that you dislike strangers in your home. It’s not because you’re racist, and you don’t know why you jumped to that thought so quickly, or why you had to explain it away to yourself. The people coming over could be anyone, it’s just that your routine is going to be off for a few days as they work on your home. You like to watch people work with their hands, but you don’t do it because you don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable, like you don’t trust them. And you know no one likes being watched like that while they’re working. And you were told you by a classmate in community college that you have the type of face that makes you seem judgey. He had recently cut his hair short, and you told him the top of his head had wrinkles on it. He came to class the next day with a hat on.

Besides, everyone is making judgments all the time. It doesn’t mean they’re negative.

You think about the people coming over tomorrow and how one of them might be your future best friend, but probably not.

And you think about how this is just another step, how there’s a lot more to do before your house is finished.

As you look outside at your dinette set sitting in the dark, you think about how you need a new table and chairs.

In your dark house, with most of your furniture moved out, you wish you had more money, so you could hire one person and have them fix everything in two to three weeks while you stay in a hotel. Instead of hiring a bunch of different specialists whose rates are reasonable.

Sometimes when you’re out of the house, you picture all the different rooms and what they must be like with no one in them and no activity, and you wonder if the house cares, or even knows, that it’s not in use.

You stand at the kitchen counter and pour yourself a cup of water. You drink a lot of water before bed because you don’t think to drink enough throughout the day. It’s a chore for you to have to keep filling your cup. Having to constantly get up and walk around with your sore knee.

You filled up a cup without ice because it feels like a waste to use ice at this time of night, and you also don’t want to make your mouth too cold.

You’re very territorial over your water and you don’t know why. You don’t like people drinking out of your cup. You feel obligated to let them when they ask nicely, though. Their definition of a sip is different from yours. Drinking close to half of your cup in large, audible gulps is not a sip. They usually make a loud ahh sound when they’re finished, which feels unnecessary, like someone sitting on your head and then farting in your ear. It makes you want to tackle them and bite their face.

You would share cups of water with your older brother when you were growing up, and he would always hold the cup and drink most of it. He would put his hand on the cup while you were drinking from it, because he wanted it next. It angers you now to think about it. You want to tell him to fuck off, but you didn’t have the words back then. You wish you had hit him in the face, closed fist with a big windup. That would’ve been nice.

You were completely transported back to that moment just then, and your heart is humming.

Your brother was somehow both very nervous and absentminded growing up, and still is to this day. You have dreams where the two of you are fighting, sometimes with fists, which is strange because you two have a great relationship now that you’re both grown up and don’t live together, and hardly ever see each other, and don’t ever speak.

You still have his number in your phone. You wonder how weird it would be if you texted him.

Your body gulps down as much water as it needs, while you shield your tooth with your tongue. And then you force yourself to drink the rest while you wish, again, you were more easygoing.

Your brother tells you that when you were little you had a recurring dream where a witch would give you a bottle of milk, but you have no memory of that. You do remember a dream where everything was purple. That was the first one you remembered.

You heard from a doctor on the internet that if you drink a lot of water before bed, you’ll have to get up to pee more often throughout the night. And because of that you’ll remember more of the dreams you have. You found that interesting because dreams only ever seem to end when you wake up, and those seem to be the ones that stay with you.

You look askance at one of the chairs outside. It’s just far enough away to be in one eye’s blind spot, but not the other, so you are able to both see the oblong dowels that make up its back rest and not see them at the same time.

And you think about how dreams are all you have, and how your jaw might be out of alignment because of your recent tooth problems. It might be all the little teeth clenches you do throughout the day to test how your tooth feels. When you clench your jaw, it’s focused on the left side of your mouth where the bad tooth is.

You do one more. Clench. And now you think the right side might actually feel worse than the left side.

Your gums are inflamed and that’s probably pushing some of your teeth out of alignment, so your mouth doesn’t close the way it normally does. Your bottom teeth seem to have the most problems, most likely because they are attached to your lower jaw, which does most of the mashing.

The sleep scientist also said that you should never sleep in, but I say fuck that.

You walk up to your bathroom and reach around the doorframe, feeling the textured wall back and forth until you find the hall light switch and flip it on. You wonder if you never woke up would the dream you’re having ever stop, which is something that I don’t know.

You use the hall light and not the bathroom light so you can see what you’re doing and not have to completely readjust to the dark, and so you don’t have to look at your tired face. You floss between your molar and bicuspid and feel a tangy kind of pain that you find addicting. You press the floss harder, and your gums make a sound like ice crushing. You spit dark blood into the sink and brush your teeth. Your tongue points at your toothbrush and follows it around your mouth as you use it.

You sometimes get the feeling that you’re mispronouncing your name when you introduce yourself to people, but that’s unrelated to your tooth problems.

You lie on the floor next to your bed and listen to music. You recently heard a sleep scientist on the internet say that your bed should only be for sleeping and that you shouldn’t watch anything there. This change allowed you to fall asleep quicker for the first couple weeks. One downside is that you can’t lie down and watch videos of people tie-dye shirts. How they draw circles with a child’s marker and crimp the fabric with strong, wiry fingers into accordion-style folds, bending the circles into straight lines. How they hold the pleats together with rubber bands or twine before squirting dye onto either side. And then you try to sleep after the final reveal.

You would picture the sinewy, tattooed tie-dyers living in a tent deep in the middle of a forest where park rangers won’t find them, working a communal garden for food and, in their spare time, listening to tracks of a woman reciting local police reports over the sound of someone stroking the sides of a ribbed aluminum can attached to the back of an unstringed ukulele so that it resonates better, which was recorded on a secondhand tape deck in an abandoned belt factory from the 1920s in Michigan’s upper peninsula because it has history in its walls, and the sonic information it provides is amazing.

You feel relieved that you don’t live that way.

You find tears streaming down your face while you listen to slow and repetitive piano music. It makes you think of a mother losing her child, specifically her daughter. It also makes you think of the composer who died prematurely, years before you were ever aware of him. In interviews he never seemed like a person who would overdose on cocaine, but you never can tell.

You crawl into bed and wish you could bear children. You pull the sleep mask you recently ordered over your eyes. You feel like you can see the shadow of your hand through your sleep mask as you move it in front of your face. The shadow tracks perfectly with your movements even when your eyes are closed.

The mask has been helping. You wonder how long that’ll last. It makes it so your eyes don’t feel puffy and sour when you wake up. It also blocks out the light which is good in the morning and on nights when the moon is bright.

You exhale and think about your commute home from earlier today. How you saw a red Prius with a Blue Lives Matter sticker in the window. You tried to look but couldn’t see the driver’s face.

Pain throbs and pulses in between your teeth as you try to clear your mind and sleep. But it’s the metallic kind of pain that comes with healing. Or it might be you anticipating tomorrow’s cold on your molar.

In a way, you feel at home in this pain. Because when you’re not in pain you’re just waiting for things to go wrong. As you drink cups of water throughout the night and wonder how your dreams might’ve ended and what glimpses you might still get. The dreams you forget until you see them happen again, offering you another chance.

Andrew Arthur’s Comments

There is something immediately gripping about a story told in second person. It seems to engross me; I don’t know if it’s all the “yous” or the fact that it’s not done very often. Like everything, it’s probably a mix of both. I decided to break with it at times and add a first-person narration because there always seemed, to me, to be a narrator outside of all the “yous.” I never really thought of the “you” as a disembodied “I”; I thought there was an omniscient narrator speaking to you. So, I leaned into that and made the omniscient narrator its own character.

This story stems from problems I have had with my teeth and how physical and emotional pain never seem to be too far from your consciousness. In both ways, a person can be forced to suffer in silence. Others might check in and ask you how you are, but they are unaware of the extent of your feelings since they’re not living in your body. I guess I tried to combine the reader and the “you,” so you are living as someone else.

Thanks for reading.

Table of Contents

Frigg: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 60 | Fall/Winter 2022