“(A)vocation” is part of a flash fiction manuscript entitled Through the Valley of Now, each piece of which begins with the phrase “In my other life right now…” The collection was conceived and written during a particularly turbulent period of my life during which what I thought of as “my identity” completely unravelled. On the up side, I was free to imagine all manner of new and different selves. Some of the stories from this collection are quite fantastical, others are more realistic, and a few re-imagine Biblical texts.
Part of the difficulty I experienced in my life while composing these pieces had to do with the fact that I was in school to become a dental assistant. While dental assisting is a perfectly respectable career path, it was a road I did not much want to travel. I enrolled in the course for reasons both practical and desperate. In writing “(A)vocation,” I wanted to invent a character who had the capacity to feel passion for what felt to me like a last resort. I sought to create a space for joy in what were otherwise grim circumstances.
Christine Simokaitis‘ work has appeared in Calyx, Natural Bridge, Thin Air and other journals, and the anthologies, Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak about Healthcare in America and Mourning Sickness. She received her MFA from Goddard College and currently teaches at Northeastern Illinois University. She lives in Chicago with her husband and two sons.
In my other life right now I am passionate about dentistry. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve had this fascination with teeth. I can still remember how, as a toddler, I would worry the edge of an erupting tooth with my tongue and gnaw on my knuckle so I could feel the hard thing shooting up through the soft tissue of my mouth. I was awestruck! There was now something where before there was nothing, and this artifact of life was formed of and by my own body. Of course at the time I didn’t have the word for “mystical,” but looking back, I can see that’s how I thought of it. Some part of me I don’t even know, knows how to make a tooth. There’s something divine in that, for me.
I kept all my baby teeth instead of giving them to the Tooth Fairy. Under my pillow, I’d leave a note that said, “Thanks, anyway, but I’m going to keep it. You can give the quarter to somebody else.” Still, she left me a quarter - quite a generous gesture - which I took as validation of my growing passion. I collected my teeth in a jar that once held pickles. I’d gently shake the jar to make a most beautiful music - enamel against glass.
When my teeth grew back in, I loved those deep ridges on the incisal edge - mamalens they’re called. Isn’t it a lovely word? In first grade, I was frequently in trouble for biting things - sometimes people - but I didn’t care. I loved seeing those ridges imprinted on solid objects, like a signature.
I wanted to be a dentist, but my vocation was discouraged. My parents would say, “It’s so practical! Why not do something more exploratory, more fun? You can always go back to that if you really need to, but what about the arts?”
I tried to find other interests, but couldn’t. Not really. You know how there’s that doll whose hair grows when you rotate her arm? That’s great, but what about a doll whose teeth fall out and then you can put them back in? Or a set of little animals with removable teeth and you have to guess whose are whose? For silly fun, you might put the snake’s teeth into the squirrel’s mouth. Can you imagine? Someday, I will act on these ideas. I think they’re good ones.
Now, having taken various detours in my life, chosen and otherwise, I feel like I’m finally on track. I’m not pretending to be somebody I’m not any more, not doing what anyone else things I “should.” I am following my bliss. Dental assisting school is pretty great. We get to wear scrubs and do x-rays and take impressions and all kinds of stuff. The only thing is that sometimes I wish we went a little deeper into tooth structure and morphology. My instructor said I ask too many questions and don’t need to know all that to do the job of a dental assistant, but it’s so interesting to me!
My fellow classmates don’t really get me, but we manage to work together well enough. Most are young and are only there for the job and don’t care about teeth the way that I do. Some of them have gang tattoos and are trying to get out of that life. Just like me but different - we’re all trying to change it up a little bit, move forward, correct past mistakes. Lupe said she’d take me to her tattoo guy so I can get a bicuspid inked on the back of my neck. I’ve chosen the perfect drawing for him to use. Bicuspids have the longest roots.
Roots interest me the most so I hope I can find a job with an endodontist. You know that there’s all this stuff under ground, so to speak, holding on down there, embedded in the gingival tissue. You can’t see it, but that’s really where the life is, the blood source and nerves. It never comes up in class or anything, but I feel strongly that having roots in our mouths connects us to other life forms, plants and trees, since they also have underground root systems.
Of course, the downside of not being able to see them is that the roots are also where corrosion can do some serious damage. It’s something to know: just because everything right there on the enamel surface looks clean and shiny, doesn’t mean it’s all okay. I learned the hard way about hidden decay, but not everybody has to. On the other hand, I’m a firm believer that the tooth can often be saved. I’m really banking on that. The discovery of rot and decay doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go the route of extraction. Maybe I’ll get a bumper sticker or a sparkly t-shirt or something with the message, “You CAN save the tooth!”
by Christine Simokaitis