By Lorri Barrier
I had the dream about teeth again last night. In the dream, I feel something odd in my mouth, and I put my tongue in the place. I feel the tooth move easily, back and forth. I find a mirror and look. It’s true. The back molar is loose. I push it again with my tongue and it falls out easily. My heart pounds. Oh god. What will I do? I‘ll call the dentist in the morning. I console myself. At least it‘s in the back. No one will see.
I look in the mirror again. This time I notice it’s not the only one. One of my front teeth on the bottom looks angled and awkward. I touch it. The tooth falls into my hand. I can feel how smooth the sides are, like one of my children’s baby teeth, but jagged on the bottom where it was attached at the root. I taste blood in my mouth. I panic. How will I go to work with a missing tooth? How will I afford getting two teeth replaced? I look again, and the cascade begins, teeth like dominoes falling into my hands. I can still feel them like tiny invisible pebbles when I wake.
My eight-year-old daughter has crawled into bed beside me again. I shove her over, and rub the place that aches on my shoulder from where her back was pressed against mine. I get up, leaving my daughter in bed, and make coffee. I am groggy and spill grounds on the counter. I wipe up the mess. I wake my nine-year-old son first by brushing the hair out of his eyes. He is sleeping tangled in covers, his head off the pillow. He mumbles he’ll get up after breakfast is ready. I go back to my bed to wake my daughter. “Time to get up,” I say. She stands, stumbling, and I turn and carry her to the couch on my back. I have done this since she was three. She flops on the couch and covers herself with the fuzzy throw. I make her brother’s breakfast.
I know she won’t eat, but I ask her what she wants anyway. She has inherited my difficulty with breakfast. I have to be awake a long while before I can eat. Most days, she goes to school with an empty stomach. I yell after her as she gets on the bus, “Get breakfast at school! You have money on your account!” Sometimes she does, but most often she does not. In the mornings my son is ravenous. It is possibly the only time of day he asks for more food.
My husband sleeps through this morning routine. He would get up if I asked him to, but there is a rhythm to the morning, a road worn smooth with years of use. Sometimes I am envious of his extra sleep, but I’ve been getting up with babies since they were born. It feels like part of me.
Once my two younger children are on the bus, it is time for my middle-schooler to begin his day.. I’ve been up for well over an hour when it’s his turn to get up, I only have to call him once or twice, and then I go ahead and turn on the water for his shower. He goes in without much prodding. He always eats a cup of yogurt in the morning, but I don’t think that’s enough. He spends nearly five dollars a day on lunch, so I imagine he is starving by noon. He swears he eats it all.
On the drive to work, I have time to think about the tooth dream again. In college, I took an anthropology course about China. During one class meeting, a woman from China came to speak to us. She’d interviewed hundreds of Chinese women, recording their thoughts on all sorts of issues. The most common dream among the Chinese women she interviewed was loss of teeth.
At work one of my colleagues comes to talk to me. Our community college is small and rural, with many of the instructors wearing various administrative hats in addition to teaching. My office is messy, and I’m embarrassed, but it’s how I work—I like to see everything. She tells me they want me to take on an additional duty, something important. I listen. It is important. I’d enjoy it. She asks if I have any questions. I never know what to ask when people are sitting right in front of me. It’s only later that I think of what I should have asked. But at the moment, before I blurt out yes, I only think to ask, “How will this affect my other duties?” She smiles and laughs a little. “It would only be a few hours a week.” I list my current responsibilities, then make a joke about giving up something I don’t like to do this. As usual in education, there is no mention of more pay. There is always more work, always the expectation of excellence, but never more money. But I do want to do it. Even as she speaks, I have ideas.
I eat my lunch around noon. It’s usually a microwave meal, which I eat at my desk. I figure I can stop grading papers, stop planning my online classes, stop jotting down ideas for this new duty for a little while. I love the beach, and I look at beach homes for sale on the internet. My tastes are not fancy. I look at what we might really be able to afford with just a little more money. Not beachfront, but cute and cozy. We could walk to the beach, or buy a used golf cart to drive around. I imagine how our lives would be different if we had this beach house. I imagine the clean line of sand and aquamarine water next to the shore, my three children floating out on the waves, their distant laughter lost on the wind. It is always summer at this beach house. We are always happy.
By the end of the day, I am mentally exhausted. My younger son meets me at my car as soon as I pull up and asks me if I brought pizza. Pizza? “No, honey. Not today. I’ve been at work.” My oldest son tells me his sister broke the remote and now no one can watch TV or play the Wii EVER AGAIN! I look at it. It isn’t broken, but the back did come apart and the batteries are missing. I find one battery under the couch, squatting, still in my heels and skirt.
I make afternoon coffee before I change my clothes. My husband is working in the study. He still has more to do. “She lost privileges for throwing the remote,” he says as I walk by. “Okay,” I say, already wondering how to keep her out of the living room while the boys are watching TV. “Let’s just turn it off for now,” I say to all three of them, doing exactly what my students hate—punishing the group because of the one. I put on yoga pants and a T-shirt because I need to go to exercise class at 7. I have to go, even though I feel too exhausted to stand. Somehow, I make it through. On the drive home from exercise class, I wonder what I’ll find when I get there. Have the kids been fussing? Is the homework done? Are they ready for bed?
Inside the house it’s eerily quiet. It’s just before 8:30. Surely they aren’t all asleep? I look in on my daughter. She’s reading in bed. She sees me pop in my head and says, “Get out.” I look in on the boys. They are both in bed, my oldest on the top bunk with a book light, my youngest already asleep. “Mom,” my teenager says from the top bunk, “When you go out, close the door.”
“Good job with the kids!” I say to my husband as we settle down on the couch to watch a show. This is the only time of day we spend together, these meager hours once the kids are in bed, both of us exhausted. “They do fine at bedtime when you aren’t here!” He smiles and I know it’s a joke, but there’s some truth in it. They are always talking to me, clinging to my arms, sitting in my lap, wanting a story, even though they read easily enough themselves. They become babies again at bedtime, or close to it, when I’m here.
In spite of my best efforts, I fall asleep during the show.
“We can watch the rest of it tonight,” my husband says in the morning. He’s talking to me through the door while I’m in the bathroom. I’m flossing my teeth, watching for signs of decay, being careful around the one with the crown. I should have had braces when I was younger, but they didn’t do that as much when I was a kid. If your teeth were mostly okay, they let it go. No one expected perfection.
When the woman from China finished speaking, students peppered her with questions. Everyone wanted to know more about foot binding. After a little while, I tentatively raised my hand and asked what I wanted to know. “The dreams of teeth—do you know what they mean?” She nodded her head a little. “It’s hard to say what someone’s dreams mean, but I think,” she paused, trying to find the right English words. “A loss of voice. Like, you have no say, no voice.” I was twenty then.
I look at my reflection in the mirror. The same blue-green eyes. The same fair skin. The same reluctance to be too noticeable, too bold. Twenty-five years later I’m still spitting dream teeth into my hands. I feel like the life-clock is ticking. I want desperately to begin shouting my truth, whatever it is, if I can just find a voice in me loud enough.
Author’s note: It’s been a little over a year since I wrote this piece. Many days I still feel like I’m treading water with the business of parenting, working and being a good partner to my husband. It’s hard to nurture the self in a sea of activity, meeting the needs of others. I have tried to find my voice more at work by starting an LGBTQ awareness club for students. I have also decided to stop dyeing my hair (after 17 years of color) and go gray. That might sound superficial, but I’m learning it is a journey of self-discovery and reflection. I write about my gray hair and my journey at https://graysitions.wordpress.com/.
Lorri Barrier is a mother, wife, teacher and writer. Her other essays for Brain, Child include “Faithfully,” “The F-word,” “Unplugged” and “Idle Threats.“