Not only was Jose the youngest in the history of the village to have gone to America, he was also the first to come back. There was Miguel, of course, who had studied in Manila before he opened the only dentist’s office within forty kilometers, but America was a different story altogether. Jose had sent letters, describing and explaining, and they were passed around until everyone in the village could claim to know what snow was like, in how many different colors one could buy a pair of running shoes, the exact height of a parking meter.
His visit was to last two weeks. To welcome his return, the villagers put together a reception at the school. Jose’s own parents contributed a pig. The old schoolmaster gave a speech about what it all meant: How, even from across the Pacific, Jose had remembered his home, and how, deep in everyone’s hearts, we all crave such a home to return to. When he got to a quote from one of Jose’s letters, the one about how he’d kept his old composition notebooks for memory’s sake, the schoolteacher took off his spectacles to wipe the tears from his eyes. Mouths full of roast pork and sauce, the villagers could only respond with silence, which the schoolmaster took for genuine appreciation.
Like a generous tyrant, Jose sat at the front of the classroom and examined the faces around him as though conducting an attendance check. Under any other circumstance, he may have been bothered that he spotted neither his childhood sweetheart, Karla, nor his former best friend, Miguel. But Jose’s spirits were instead being distracted by an unexpected adversary: He had a toothache.
The pain throbbed from the back of his mouth to all the way up to his temples. His crisp dress shirt, which he’d worn just once in America, was soaked with sweat at the back. He’d braced himself through the teacher’s speech. Thinking something cold would help, he’d accepted a calamanci juice pack when the drinks were passed around. The sugar and the cold hit a sensitive nerve, and Jose had to shove his fist into his mouth to keep himself from howling. His welcome party was ruined, and, for that matter, so was the rest of his stay.
Jose went straight to bed that night to recover from the jet lag and woke before sunrise the next day. The pain seemed to have subsided somewhat, although when he examined himself in his mother’s hand mirror his right cheek had puffed up to a noticeable swell. Initially, he had considered paying Karla a visit, but his swollen cheek now thwarted those plans. Jose was just vain enough — he thought it an obligation, almost, that he doesn’t disappoint their expectations, and consequently he had to look the part of the returning hero at all times. They needed something to hope for.
In all honesty, Jose had kept sending the letters out of his own hopes that, by the time they made it over, everything he said in them would come true. My boss likes me a lot and we go for drinks together after work, he wrote to his father, he’s talking about giving me a promotion soon. And for his mother, the weather here isn’t so cold, but I had a cashmere coat tailored for the winter, and it’s dark gray the color of your hair. Cashmere is a kind of wool from a place called Kashmir. I miss you all, to his little brothers, and if you were here we’d be playing in the snow all day. And when he could not bear the loneliness, he wrote to Karla, I love you still, and pretended.
Jose was tired again when the sky outside began to lighten, but sunrise had set off all the roosters in the village, and he could not go back to sleep. The throbbing in his gums returned as a dull ache. Jose searched his parents’ house for aspirin and found none; they didn’t understand him when he tried to explain what it was. They sent him to the corner store.
It was there Jose ran into Miguel. Jose was desperately trying to describe aspirin to the storekeeper when Miguel quietly picked up a dusty bottle from the far corner of the counter and placed it in Jose’s hands. The two friends stared at each other.
“I’ve been having some sort of toothache lately,” Jose finally said, indicating the aspirin.
Miguel’s glance softened.
“Let me see,” he said, and had Jose open his mouth. It only took him a quick glance to declare his verdict. “Your wisdom tooth needs to be removed.”
“I’d be happy to do it for you,” Miguel offered. He stepped back to look Jose up and down. “Are you doing anything later?”
Miguel’s office was a room connected to the back of his house.
“I guess you don’t have a lot of time to see the dentist in America,” Miguel said, pulling on a pair of surgical gloves.
“No,” Jose answered, “my job and everything …”
Miguel adjusted the back of the chair so that Jose lay completely horizontal.
“Yes, your job,” Miguel repeated, almost to himself. “You said you work in an office?”
“Yes, an accounting firm.”
“You wear a suit to work every day?”
Miguel chuckled, and instructed him to open his mouth. He brought the lamp closer.
“You’ve left it for too long,” he said, frowning. “You’d probably be better off getting it done in America.”
No, it cost at least $150 per tooth in America.
“We read your letters. We all did,” Miguel said again. “A different world, it seems like.”
“You’ve done pretty well for yourself too,” Jose said defensively, gesturing around the room.
“No, this is nothing,” he said. “You can’t make money off of people who have none.”
Jose felt uneasy. He struggled to remember exactly how Miguel had offered to do it for him, free of charge.
“You know, Miguel,” Jose said, raising his head from the chair. “I’d be happy to pay you, if — that is, I would be happier paying you.”
“No,” Miguel replied, and turned away.
Half-sitting, Jose tried to read this gesture. Had he offended his dentist, offering charity for his work? Or did it have to do with the friendship they had once had, even though all that remained of it now was empty obligation? He heard the small clicks of metal instruments being arranged on the side.
No, it was probably more complicated than that, Jose decided. At least, that was what Jose thought as he tracked Miguel’s elbow motions from behind. The heat was beginning to annoy him.
Miguel faced him again, holding a syringe full of red liquid.
“What’s that?” Jose demanded.
Miguel pushed him back by the shoulder so that he was lying down again. Instinctively, Jose tried to shrug off his hand, only to discover that he was being pinned down to his seat.
Miguel leaned in even closer, and the syringe needle quivered precariously near his face.
“Have you seen Karla yet?” Miguel said casually, still gripping Jose’s shoulder.
“She probably wants to see you before you leave again,” he said when Jose didn’t answer.
Jose squirmed, but Miguel only brought the syringe closer.
“Don’t be nervous,” he said, removing his hand. “It’s only some anesthetic …”
He had Jose open his mouth and slowly drove the needle into his lower gums. Jose let out a small whimper as he felt the metal enter.
“Okay?” Miguel’s voice took on a soothing tone. “One more …”
Jose felt another pinprick, deeper in this time. The side of his mouth was beginning to feel like rubber. He opened his eyes just as Miguel withdrew the empty syringe from his mouth.
“You’re a liar and a bastard,” Miguel said, looking straight at him. He shoved a weighty gadget toward his molars. It gave off a shrill squeak, tickling his tongue. Then it started drilling.
Miguel caught Jose’s flailing arms and held them down. Jose tried to kick, and Miguel had to sit on his legs. Miguel removed the drill as he repositioned himself. Jose took the opportunity to jerk himself up.
“What are you doing?” he screamed.
Miguel waved the drill in his hand.
“Stop being such a child, and lie back down,” he instructed.
“What did you call me?” Jose demanded. He struggled to move his legs, but Miguel’s weight resisted.
“Just now. What did you call me?”
“I called you a child.”
“No, before that.”
“Nothing. Now if you please, I need to remove your tooth.”
They glared at each other. Miguel shifted himself off Jose’s legs. Jose conceded and lay back. He judged he must have been hearing things, what with the heat and all. The windows were open and Miguel kept an electric fan running in the corner, but Jose was perspiring nonetheless. That was the first thing that struck him when he came back — the tropical heat that he had somehow grown unable to bear. The air itself was heavy, and on particularly bad days one could almost see the waves twisting above the steaming pavement. It bothered Jose now that Miguel’s shirt was impeccably dry, with not a crinkle on it.
“You asked about Karla,” Jose offered. The anesthetic slowed one side of his mouth when he talked. Jose exaggerated his diction so as to avoid a lisp.
Miguel was adjusting the cord on the drill, and did not return his gaze.
“I did,” he said simply. “You haven’t been to seen her.”
“No, not yet.”
Miguel looked up.
“I’d rather have had you hear it from her, but we’re going to get married.”
Jose lay still and considered.
“Congratulations,” he said finally. “When?”
“I’m sorry I’m going to miss it.” A dead weight settled in his throat. “It’s about time that you did,” he added, and felt the weight slide down to his guts when he realized it was true, what he said.
Miguel switched on the drill. It squeaked again, spraying tiny jets of water. Jose opened obediently as Miguel brought it to his rear tooth, more gently this time.
The vibrations were a murmur against the anesthetized size of his mouth. He thought it reminded him of the countless times he’d rolled his tongue this way and that trying to recreate the vague feeling of a kiss. These were the times he craved human company. On such evenings he would wait by the phone hoping for wrong numbers, he would take out his notepad and write to Karla, I love you, I love you still, I’m coming back for you.
Jose suspected the anesthetic was wearing off. As he felt the drill dig deeper into his tooth, what had been a dull pressure became an acute shard of pain piercing his lower jaw. He waved his hand, but Miguel kept going. He groaned audibly.
“Now, I’m just cutting your tooth in half,” Miguel announced over the noise of the drill. “It will make the extraction easier.”
Jose tasted blood. He tried to swallow, and choked in the pool of saliva building up beneath his tongue. He started coughing, but Miguel held him down. The drilling stopped.
“Everything okay?” Miguel said.
He picked up a plastic basin from his cabinet and gave it to Jose. Jose spit. When he saw his own blood and spit in the bowl he nearly threw up. He leaned back in his chair, exhausted.
“Ready? We can rest a little, if you like.” Miguel said sympathetically.
“I think the anesthetic’s worn off,” Jose said.
Miguel reached into Jose’s mouth with the drill and made a tapping noise.
“Did you feel that?”
Jose shook his head.
“Migs,” Jose said. Miguel jumped a little at the abbreviation. “Migs, I didn’t see you at the reception yesterday. Nor Karla.”
Miguel shrugged. “I had a patient.”
“But what about Karla?”
Miguel smiled at the mention of her name.
“Come, let’s continue,” he said. He took the plastic bowl from Jose and placed it under the chair. Jose closed his eyes to the noise of the drill. Saliva pooled rapidly in his mouth once more.
The drilling stopped with a small spewing noise.
“You know what wisdom teeth are, Jose?” he said coldly. Jose jerked his head to the side and coughed. Miguel held out the bowl for him to spit in and helped him dab off the pink drool with a wet cloth.
“You —,” Jose began, but Miguel shushed him.
“No, you shouldn’t move yet. You shouldn’t have done that, just now.”
Miguel reached over and took a blunt pick from the side table.
“Wisdom teeth, you see,” he continued calmly, “are a vestigial trait. It’s something left over from when we were living in a more primitive world.”
He pried open Jose’s mouth and scraped the sides of the exposed tooth. The dull blade of the pick aroused an odd sensation in the area that felt like a tingle. Starbursts, Jose thought, little bursts of electric nerve awakenings. He remembered an acrylic blanket he used to have that always produced a lot of static. Once he and Karla had wrapped themselves in it in the dark shed, at once fascinated and horrified by the sparks that lit up on its surface.
“Things, ideas, people, I think, want to remain, even when they’re no longer wanted,” Miguel said, picking away pensively.
Jose wasn’t listening. But while he was too busy visualizing what was being done to his tooth, he was aware of the tension in Miguel’s voice and resented him for it.
Miguel put the pick away, and Jose spit into the bowl again. He looked away so as not to see the blood. Miguel watched him with cold distance.
“She still hasn’t forgotten you, you know,” Miguel said, shaking his head in disgust.
Jose wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“She waited for you,” Miguel said. “Your letters. She showed them to me. For a while she believed you would come back and take her with you.”
“But she’s still marrying you,” Jose pointed out. It was a tactless response.
“Lie back down,” Miguel instructed without looking at him. “We’ll be done soon.”
Miguel took a pair of wrench-like pliers and maneuvered it into Jose’s mouth. His lips enclosed the large handles. Jose stiffened automatically once he felt the pressure on his tooth. He was sweating profusely by now.
He saw Miguel’s gloved hand tremble from the effort, gathering momentum. He pulled. Jose shut his eyes. The tool had slipped.
“Open wider,” Miguel said.
Jose obeyed as best as he could, his eyelids squeezed tight. The metal rubbed against his tongue. Miguel’s other hand pushed his forehead down. The hand with the pliers rested on top of his chin. Miguel was pushing again. He pushed down, then jerked to the side. He shifted his arm and pushed again with the pliers. Jose moaned.
“Relax,” Miguel whispered.
“Look at me,” he said again. “Look at my eyes.”
Jose squinted upwards. He was almost relieved to see that Miguel’s forehead was shiny with perspiration.
“My eyes, Jose.”
Miguel glowered down with the lamp shining behind his head. A lock of hair had fallen out of its neat part. His eyes were a deep brown.
“Go back to America,” he said, “and stop sending your letters.”
Jose screamed. The pliers broke free and toppled to its side on his tongue. Also on his tongue, towards the back, a small weight rested precariously. Panic gripped him as he realized it was a piece of his tooth.
He gripped Miguel’s arm and tried to sit up. Miguel pushed his forehead back. The tooth rolled down the back of his tongue, and Jose tightened his throat just in time. He shook Miguel’s arm desperately, but Miguel leaned over with the pliers again.
“Let’s try that again,” Miguel said, perplexed.
The effort of keeping his throat closed kept Jose from breathing. For a wild moment he considered swallowing — surely the tooth would just pass through his digestive system. But Jose was paralyzed by an image of his tooth stuck somewhere midway, along the inner lining of his throat. He shook Miguel’s arm again. Miguel pulled his arm out of his grip.
Miguel shifted his weight, almost leaning on Jose’s chest. Metal filled Jose’s mouth once more. He pressed down on Jose’s forehead.
Jose discovered that he could breathe through his nostrils without opening his throat all the way.
“I removed a part of the tooth, but the root is really deep,” Miguel said, peering inside.
Jose made a choking noise.
“You waited too long,” Miguel continued. “It looks like the root is hooked onto the jawbone.” Miguel tapped the tooth with the side of the pliers.
Jose shoved Miguel’s arm with both hands. The pliers flew across the room. He rolled to the side and coughed. Blood and saliva splattered onto the floor.
“Jesus, Jose,” Miguel said, catching his balance. He found the bowl and offered it, but Jose ignored him. Jose coughed again, bending his head as far down as he could manage it. The enamel spun from the back of his throat. A string of pink saliva hung off the side of his lips. He retched. There was a small tinkling noise on the floor. Jose kept coughing and was only relieved when he caught a flash of white amidst the pink mess below him.
Jose hung over the side of the chair, unable to lie back as Miguel was instructing him. He considered lifting his hand to wipe his mouth. Staring into splashes of spit and blood, Jose was overcome by a vast sense of loss. There was no going back now. He was ridding himself of the last teeth that would ever grow on him. One by one they would chip and rot and fall away with the years to come, and he would grow old with them, as would Karla and Miguel, his parents, and his brothers. They were part of a different past now, and Jose, with unwiped mouth and a broken tooth, lamented everything inside him that was screaming to be called back.
He heard his dentist’s voice ringing in his ears.
“Can we proceed now?”
He clenched his eyelids shut and opened his mouth as far as he could.
The author acknowledges “One of These Days” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.