The Toothache

I entered the house naked except for the sunglasses and presented myself to my wife like a proud toddler who had just learned how to take care of himself. But she was on Zoom for work and didn’t smile back.

Rome Coronavirus Dispatch #3

Photograph by Francesca Mancini

This is my third pandemic dispatch. The first was about my father’s hip replacement, and the second was about my marriage. —FP

At the end of my second week of isolation my teeth started to ache and I was plunged into my body, where I spent the next two weeks in a state of blissful retreat from my conscience.

My body took over at the end of a long speech I was giving to some of my students, whom my colleague and I had gathered on Zoom. The speech was about how crucial it is to identify the thin line that separates one’s work hustle from the examined life. You are more than intellectual capital, I told them. You don’t have to be invested. I logged off when the pain snatched me from my mind and threw me back inside my body, a body that hadn’t had sex or gone for a run in some time. I wrote to my dentist and asked her for advice. It had been years since we’d spoken. On my last visit, which involved a cavity, she had asked me to come back a couple months later because she wanted to monitor a situation involving a couple of molars that were rubbing each other. I hadn’t.

During the call I mentioned my collection of essential oils. She told me that her go-to disinfectant is tea tree oil. I could, she said, dilute it in water and use it as mouthwash. But the question of the pain remained before us: was it a cavity, or just gingivitis? The tea tree oil wouldn’t cut it. I bought mouthwash, floss, and interdental brushes and spent the weekend trying to fine-tune my mouth’s PH level. My mind was haunted by my wife’s response to the situation: a surge of panic. If it was a cavity, I’d have to go to the dentist’s office, where I’d catch the virus and die, and then she would die, too. By this point I was already mostly my body, but there was enough mind present for me to feel like I was being pulled down, down into that dark place of hers.

The very first thing I tried was a few drops of the tea tree oil in a glass of lukewarm water. I was barely into the first sip when my knees buckled under a chromelike pain that coated my teeth and penetrated them all at once. I knelt down in front of the bathtub, the glass still in hand. I wanted to be able to spit out into the tub and avoid crushing my head on the floor in case I passed out. The spike of pain that hit just then, on the floor, felt like somebody was holding a big blueprint of my teeth in front of my face. My teeth were finely detailed renderings of buildings, a starchitect’s dream project in a faraway place.

During those first three days I had to pop a bunch of Okis, a brand of ketoprofen. Ketoprofen is an NSAID, a nonsteroidal kind of painkiller. According to the WhatsApp groups I’m in, if you catch the virus, NSAIDs can make things worse, but during our phone calls my dentist didn’t try and talk me out of it. We kept in touch all weekend long as she examined me based on the words I said to her. Finally, on Monday morning, she came to the conclusion that it was a cavity and she had to treat it.

As soon as she made up her mind she delivered a speech she must have given to other clients who in my situation:

I’m only seeing people who are in desperate need for my help. We don’t have anyone in the waiting room. We only schedule one appointment at a time, and there’s time to completely sanitize the office between patients. My hygienists, who take the bus to work, aren’t coming in right now. Only my daughter is, and she lives around here. We’ve got all the right equipment: the fabric, the masks, the glasses. There’s no risk. The risk is on the street. I am tending to my very old mother, who is ill. She has a bad leg I’m trying to help with, so I see her every night. I myself cannot afford to catch the virus.

When my wife found out I was going she started crying. She didn’t stop for two hours. That was one of the last moments I spent not fully inside my body. I am the sort of symbiotic being who has to buy into his partner’s tragic vision, whatever it might be, but this time I felt very confident that I was not going to catch the virus in the dentist’s office, and I said that to her. She’s never been the type of person who is defiant in the face of trouble—to her, every form of resistance is an act of hubris.

I left her crying in the house and got into the car. The afternoon was cold and sunny. No jacket, just a wool sweater, fleece gloves, sunglasses, and a makeshift mask made of parchment paper tucked inside my scarf. The drive only took fifteen minutes, but it felt endless: the roads were terrifying and unfamiliar. My breathing was mechanical and fogged up my lenses. I turned into a quiet street near the train station and found the office. The door was open for me. My dentist was covered from head to toe in sage green. We said hi to each other and both laughed dryly.

The dentist and her daughter examined my cavity, cleaned it, and inserted a filling. They assessed the gingivitis. She said I also seemed to have sinusitis, and trigeminal nerve inflammation, and I was grinding my teeth in my sleep, and my jawbone was tense. But at least she had been able to take care of the cavity. An ominous ping of pain made my teeth hyperreal again as I was rinsing my mouth at the end of the appointment. The dentist gave me a worried look. I was at the door and itching to leave as she insisted that she had to see me again in a few months, when everything was back to normal. But at least the cavity was cured.

On the way back the roads were a little busier. It was 5 PM, the ghost of rush hour. I undressed in the yard and dumped my clothes right there. I entered the house naked except for the sunglasses and presented myself to my wife like a proud toddler who had just learned how to take care of himself. But she was on Zoom for work and didn’t smile back. Work was probably going to stop for a while, and the fears associated with that imminent reality had distracted her from the fact that death had returned from the dentist’s office and had just entered the house.

All this washed faintly against my mind, because there was no longer a mind left. I was only a naked body who longed for the shower, and that’s where I went. I washed away the fear from the streets, and the cold sun, and the pallid fluorescent vibe of the dentist’s office, and the assortment of mouthwashes I had tried, and the quiet haste of the procedure.

The pain didn’t stop, as my dentist’s face had suggested at the end of my visit. In my effort to avoid making a big deal out of it, to normalize it, I commented on it aloud, constantly. “Oh, see? Now the pain is doing this.” “Huh, now it’s doing that.” I was inside my mouth, all of me, all the time. I could barely sense how my wife was reacting. I knew she was mad: “You never heal,” she said. “Every time you have a problem, it goes on and on and never ends. Do the doctors not know what they’re doing, ever? Are you just nuts?”

By then I was somewhere in the remote region of my back molars, but in a moment of clarity I realized that there’d been a misunderstanding. “You know I have mental issues,” I said. “I always have strong psychosomatic reactions to everything. My family never wanted me to emote, so I developed weird, nagging, physical issues. You shouldn’t make too much of this, you know the process. The trigeminal nerve is triggered by stress. The sinusitis has to do with allergies. It’s a perfect storm.”

She brought up our trip to Iceland last year, which I spent so stressed out that my head started buzzing and then kept buzzing for two weeks straight. I had to drive our rental Jeep for hours every day through the stoned gray cloud between my eyes. The only thing that made it go away, briefly, was when I would stop the car and break down crying. During the long trip we’d taken a year before Iceland, she’d been in mourning for a relative, and this had wreaked havoc on her body. The trip had been ridden with IBS and panic attacks, and more than one hospital visit. On one particularly scary afternoon in a Los Angeles hospital, the doctors had suspected a blood clot. They got it wrong, but had tested her with appropriate urgency. The Iceland trip had unearthed a sorrow I had kept quiet in California. Now my wife was saying that my prolonged toothache during the lockdown reminded her of the psychosomatic buzz that had needlessly worried her on the Iceland trip. She was right, I told her, but this was who I was and she should simply stop paying attention. “In that case,” she said, “you must stop informing me of every variation in your pain.”

My body perceived the sophisticated reasoning she had concealed behind what only seemed like harshness, and so I started to pretend I wasn’t in pain. I asked to be excused from all meals, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat at a normal pace, and that would upset her.

Two days after the trip to the dentist’s office, while juggling paracetamol; a lesser drug; and the occasional dangerous, happy, trippy Oki, I remembered that the acupuncturist I’d been visiting for the past two years was also a doctor and that she could help me with the toothache, the trigeminal nerve, and the sinusitis. (I realize now, as I write this, that I met her when my wife was trying to cure the physical breakdown brought on by the mourning I mentioned. The doctor had solved her kidney issues and her colon issues in a single sitting. My wife stopped seeing her after that because the visits reminded her of death, but I had become a regular, monthly client. I didn’t go for specific reasons—I just liked the tweaking. Acupuncture can give you a high that will arouse you and make you write a chapter of your novel in your mind and make you feel love for humanity and energize your liver all in the span of a brief nap. All it takes are those weightless needles in the ankles and face.)

I wanted to call her because the Oki and the paracetamol were worrying me, and especially the amount of time I’d been taking them. Oki is dangerous for the heart and paracetamol bogs down your liver. My liver was already bogged down thanks to an intense cocktail-mixing regimen during the first two weeks of quarantine. Paracetamol gives you a tiny, gentle buzz but doesn’t last, and Oki feels like dancing while lying down, like a robot geisha at your bedside.

One night I wake up at 2 AM, pop an Oki, and spend time reading about painkillers. According to the site I’m looking at paracetamol is the least dangerous of the bunch, which says a lot about the heaviness of the entire painkiller genre. The rest of the list is made up of the most dangerous stuff. There’s fentanyl and that whole family. I’ve been practicing yoga and qigong since I turned 40 and have found out that any pain that comes from inflammation—lower back pain, for instance—can be healed either with slow continuous exercise that helps you find new dimensions in what your body can experience, or with the most dangerous drugs. Those are the two teams, the two opponents. On one hand, the most boring practices—but also the most rewarding; on the other, drugs that kill you with pleasure.

My acupuncturist hears my story and gives me some natural drugs that will cure the inflammation of the trigeminal nerve. There’s a boswellia-based thing that tastes harsh and wizardlike. It functions as a painkiller, but a bland one. All these drugs play the long game, and the pain is such that I still wake up at night and take paracetamol. When I pop an Oki it feels like cheating on your girlfriend when you’re young—a sudden urge that cancels everything else.

The doctor knows my liver, though, and writes to me that the maximum amount of paracetamol I can afford to take is two grams a day, a bit lower than what the box says, three grams.

She invites me to a free video qigong session with the other clients. The physical work is very light, aimed only at stirring the energy inside you and boosting your immune system by stimulating some pressure points in your arms and shoulders that can jump-start your lungs and intestines.

The next night I wake up in pain and start pressing on my jaw, warming it and numbing it, and I manage to fall back asleep. That happens three times, on and off until 10 AM. I wake up smiling.

This pain I’m writing about, it’s time to put it into words. It’s a ghost. Sometimes it’s in the lower molars. When it’s there, it starts when I unwittingly clench my jaw and one of the lower molars touches the upper molar just above it, the one that had the cavity. It’s deep, it feels like dirty gold. Then the pain moves to the jaw. That must be the trigeminal nerve. It arrives at the juncture of skull and jaw, at which point it seems to take the shape of a halo: I feel it reaching all the way out to the temple. From time to time it retreats and moves toward the front teeth. At other times, the pain limits itself to the sinusitis, concentrated on my right cheekbone, in particular.

I am confined to my house for the duration of the quarantine, and I now have a deeper understanding of the different vibes every room offers. I can tell how the light of one specific day’s sun will affect the spirit of each room. But also, I am not really allowed to be in the house anymore, because I spend all my time forced to explore the brutalist villa that has been expanding rapidly: a wing in my cheekbone, a wing near my ear, and a basement in my mouth.

The story now gets to its happy ending, and to redemption. Thursday, March 26 is the seventh day since the pain started; the trip to the dentist’s took place on Monday. In the meantime, Italy’s Covid numbers have started to improve, and Rome’s case growth is no longer exponential. We might soon emerge from the first stage of this new life, at which point we’ll have to figure out where to go next. Inserting this Covid recap into my narrative feels so abstract. I have detached myself from my mind, which was the last thing in me that had been connected to society, through my friends’ and relatives’ preoccupations.

From the moment I put an end to the neurotic shtick of describing my pain and began keeping this journey to myself, my life entered a different stage. It feels that life has become mine again, after decades. This place at the intersection of the jaw, the sinuses, and the molars, this tense place where paracetamol can come and comfort you the way masturbation can on a depressed day, this place where the vapors of fumigation—boiling water in a pot, baking soda, eucalyptus oil—can create a miniature spa under the towel that I hold over my head, this place has created something that is mine. It is mine like writing was mine when I had two friends in the whole world and I didn’t like the life my parents forced me to live, when writing became a place where I could stop being inside society, that false friend who was calling me over and always leave me unhappy and hollow. This place, my jaw and my cheek, this model house is my new safe space, generous and loving and rich with possibilities.

On Friday afternoon, I realize I haven’t taken paracetamol since 9 AM and I’m managing. Around 5, the pain comes back, so I write to the acupuncturist and say: maybe there are some pressure points you can teach me that will ease the pain? Otherwise I will have to take more painkillers than you want me to.

Five minutes later we’re on Zoom and she’s pointing at her face. There’s one pressure point where my jaw seems to form an angle. A half-inch above it, there’s a ligament thing, and when I touch it it makes me feel like my face is a roast chicken. It’s turgid and it gives me an entirely different idea of what a face really is. I keep pressing onto it with my index finger, mimicking her. There’s this other “secret” point, she says, this off-the-grid pressure point that will help, too. It’s right under this sort of small rock that you have at the farthest end of your cheekbone, near your ear. A small jutting rock, like a cliff. Press a finger in the hollow right under that cliff.

I should also touch the base of the nostrils. And I can look for that hollow place right under the center of each cheekbone.

I’m only ever imitating what she’s doing. I’m touching my face with intention, going through these new yet familiar motions. It occurs to me that if we had all been taught to touch ourselves in order to get more diverse, assorted kinds of satisfaction and well-being, then stroking your genitals would be a simple part of a bigger regimen focused on how to love yourself.

Twenty-odd minutes into this Zoom session, I have one of the strangest realizations ever. I was completely absorbed by imitation, I wasn’t even thinking of succeeding in what I was doing, and suddenly I find myself telling the doctor, “Oh . . . the pain is gone.”

A whole week has passed since that supremely emotional moment. I have started doing qigong every other day, and I have kept touching my face anytime I’ve needed to, and I can now predict the result. It’s not a prayer, I’m not keeping track of when I do it, but I am still well aware that there’s a pain in front of me that has come in with the tides, and I have let it drown me. So even now that it’s not coming, it’s there.

I live on this imaginary beach that has a sea of pain in front of it. The tide has come and gone, and now I’m lying here watching the sea, its salt still on my lips. A week of pain was followed by a week of touching-induced pleasure, and it has left me on that beach, away from the quarantine, in a buzz of my own, occasionally distracted by work calls, but for the rest just here, in the body, alone with the writing.

April 3, 2020

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