Loma Pietra Bridgework
Dr. Acosta had wavy black hair and the gentlest touch, and he always asked about the book that lay cover up on my lap. I brought a different book each time.
“Open wide,” he’d say, and I’d submit with faint pleasure to those probing fingers.
He knew my mouth intimately, the wretched gums, in particular, and caries-riddled molars and incisors. And yet he was nonjudgmental.
Unlike my boyfriend, who had badgered me into going to the dental school. Paul had straight white teeth I secretly coveted. My teeth were crooked and yellow, and I couldn’t eat an apple without cutting it into pieces.
“I can’t afford a dentist,” I’d told him.
“You can afford the dental school, can’t you?”
“I can’t afford the time. Do you know how long it takes to be tortured over there?”
“Babe, how long will it take before you’re a toothless hag?”
Those were the magic words. I signed up at the dental school the next day.
“We’ll be seeing a lot of each other,” Dr. Acosta drawled, peering into my mouth.
Despite sharp needles in my gums and rubber dams that kept my mouth agape, jaws aching and drool leaking down my neck, I began looking forward to sessions at the dental school. They provided a respite from work and other stresses in my life.
I worked in my home, a flat in the Haight-Ashbury shared with two quarrelsome roommates who were staging a private cold war on my turf. I liked them both well enough, separately, but why had I imagined I could live with these particular friends?
Bella was too loud and exuberant for Thomas, and could not be confined to the tiny room across the hall from his. Thomas had the largest room and kept to himself in it, hunched over a drawing table — he was a freelance illustrator — accompanied by his enormous cat Fatima, who also rarely emerged.
“Bella’s driving me up the wall,” he’d grouse. “I can’t concentrate when she’s around.”
“I know,” I’d say to soothe him. “Concentration is essential for an artist. How about ear plugs?”
He complained about her long phone calls that were audible throughout the flat. He hated the disco music she played. She complained about the smell of cat piss and was hurt by his indifference. She wanted everyone to love her.
“I can’t help it if I’m excitable,” she told me. “I’m Italian. You know what Thomas’s problem is? He isn’t getting any.”
“You could help him out,” I suggested. Bella was between boyfriends.
“Oh my god,” she spluttered. “I’d sooner fuck a toad.”
They hadn’t talked to each other in months, only to me, and only to complain. This was annoying, though not as disruptive as their sniping in the hallway had been, just as a client dropped off or picked up work.
I had quit a well-paying but stressful career and invested in a personal computer because I wanted a simpler life with plenty of time to write and paint and do as I pleased. But the word processing and spreadsheet jobs had become increasingly complex and absorbing, the clients more demanding.
All my spare time was spent with Paul. We’d been an item for over two years and were talking about my moving in with him, which would mean, among other things, a fabulous kitchen with gleaming copper-bottomed pots and pans and a vintage gas stove, and neither Bella nor Thomas anywhere near it, only Paul, whom I loved. But how would it be to live with him?
We were already spending three weeknights together and most of the weekend. We cooked elaborate meals in that kitchen and smoked enough pot to levitate.
Since we were friends as well as lovers, Paul felt free to tell me my teeth were bad or my clothes weren’t sexy. “What’s wrong with looking hot?” he asked. “That hippie look is ancient history.” He bought me a pair of tight-fitting designer Levis, which I wore, though I disliked tight-fitting clothes.
“By the way, pal,” I said, “You look like a trussed turkey in that bicycling outfit.”
He sulked all that night. It wasn’t a deal-breaker, though. We believed we could work things out. It was past time to settle down. Maybe that’s what made us irritable with each other. We wouldn’t be thirty-somethings much longer.
After dinner we’d decamp to his bedroom, where Paul would serenade me with his acoustic guitar. I’d fallen in love with his voice, a candy-sweet tenor. His full lips and pillowy kisses. The beautiful teeth clicking against mine.
“Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future,” he’d sing.
On Sundays, we’d squander half the day in bed. But if I was thinking about work left undone or the latest roommate crisis at home, he always knew it. He could read my body like a book, he claimed. It pissed him off when I was supposed to be in it and wasn’t.
The afternoon of October 17, 1989 was sultry with a thin haze over the city, but the clinic was in a windowless basement, where it was always cool.
Tilted back in the dental chair in a lidocaine-enhanced reverie, I heard classical music below the intermittent whine of drilling and scraps of conversation from the other cubicles about mesial buccals and someone’s golf score. There were hundreds of people in the clinic, patients and their dentists and teaching staff.
Everyone in the clinic was running late because of a power failure earlier. The chairs were only half full though by 5:04 p.m. when the first shock rumbled beneath us, and in one smooth motion, Dr. Bob pulled the drill out of my mouth, and switched the device off.
“Now what?” he asked, blinking. This had to be his first quake.
“Outta heah,” I mumbled, with difficulty, since my mouth was held open by a rubber dam. I got to my feet, but the floor seemed more fluid than solid, and in a moment we were down on our knees, clinging to the chair as the shaking increased in intensity. It should stop soon, I thought, but it didn’t. It went on and on. Even with tons of concrete over our heads, I felt oddly serene. This must be the Big One and there wasn’t anything I could do. The cubicle walls shimmied. I heard glass breaking. People fell to the ground.
Then it was over.
We stood up and looked around. The floor was covered with debris. Tiles had shaken loose from the ceiling. An older woman wept huddled on the floor.
“Are you hurt?” I asked. Only it came out, “Awyuh hut?”
“Just scared,” the woman gasped, and then smiled sweetly. Several teeth were missing.
Many of the patients, myself included, had rubber dams on. We stumbled out of the basement into the street like techno-zombies, jaws unhinged and teeth protruding from blue latex shields, woozy from Lydocaine and the shock of the quake. A plume of smoke rose from the marina.
We were told phone lines were down.
“I won’t leave till your tooth is stabilized,” Dr. Bob assured me.
“What about your family?”
He looked around as if to reassure himself. The houses across the street—eighty-year-old Edwardians—were intact.
“My wife’s good in emergencies,” he said, at last.
After a while, a supervising dentist announced the building was safe but power wasn’t going to come back on soon. In twos and threes, we filed into the entrance stairwell, which still had natural light, and stood there while rubber dams were removed and temporary caps put on open teeth. It was almost 7:00 when I was able to leave. The buses were still packed, so I walked home, toward the setting sun. The sky shimmered, innocent and radiant.
Nothing had sunk into the ground, no abyss had opened. I crunched on broken glass and stepped carefully around loose bricks and boards. People were out on the streets talking to each other. On my own block, I was greeted by neighbors I rarely, if ever, saw. There was a nervous energy in the air, compounded of relief and angst. We’re still alive, we made it. But what’s the news? When will the next shoe drop?
Then someone yelled out a window, “The marina’s on fire!”
The front door to my flat was unlocked, which was strange, since Thomas, whose room faced the street, was paranoid about break-ins. Down the long dark hallway I saw light flicker in the living room and kitchen and heard Bella laughing. Bella’s laugh, hearty and infectious, was what I liked best about her. Thomas said it sounded like a horse neighing.
I was taken aback to find my roommates in the same room not snarling at each other. Thomas was snickering, but not in a mean way, and Bella, laughing so hard, tears rolled down her cheeks. The room was lit by candles and a propane lantern.
Paul stepped out of the kitchen, spatula in hand. He’d walked over with his camping stove, lantern, guitar, and a battery-powered radio. His eyes were damp and shiny.
“Boy, am I glad to see you, babe,” he said and hugged me to him tightly. I felt his heart beating, his warmth. The sweetness of the man. I loved him in a sudden steamy rush.
A few minutes later, our neighbors Jack and Elsie trooped down the back stairs, bearing tinned sardines, bread, and wine. Everyone had stories. It was an earthquake party.
Jack and Elsie had been walking in Golden Gate Park and saw a giant eucalyptus topple to the ground. They’d come within inches of being under it.
Paul also had a close call. He worked south of Market and was on the street when the quake hit. “There was stuff flying all around,” he said. “I got down on the sidewalk and covered my head with my arms. Then I heard this incredibly loud crash. A car was smashed flat in the very next block. Part of a building fell on it.”
“Jeez, was anybody in it?” Bella asked.
“Mr. Pancake,” Paul said, and she frowned.
Bella and Thomas had been at home. She was in between jobs and making a great ruckus in the kitchen. He’d been in his room working on a magazine illustration, but was stuck and needed a coffee infusion. When the quake hit, they were a few feet apart, ignoring each other, I was sure. A tray of uncooked lasagna slid out of Bella’s hands to the floor. She shrieked.
“I’ve never been so frightened,” Bella told us. “We crawled under the table and held onto each other for dear life.”
Thomas’s long pale face leaned toward Bella.
“He thought I was bleeding,” she said. “He looked so worried. But it was the tomato sauce.”
It had splattered everywhere. This was apparently the funniest thing that had ever happened to either of them. They’d cleaned up the mess together, laughing hysterically.
Paul twirled the dials on his radio, trying to bring in a station. He watched Bella and Thomas, bemused.
She was talking with her hands, and she touched Thomas’s arm, his knee. He basked like a cat in sunlight.
Could they have totally forgotten their grievances, I wondered. Even in the aftermath of near destruction, how was it possible to change so radically?
A radio station crackled on suddenly.
The fire in the marina was still burning. The most shocking news was the buckling of the Bay Bridge and collapse of the Cypress Street overpass. Perhaps 200 cars had been crushed. The bridge itself was truncated.
Bella began to sob, and Thomas patted her back.
“I’ve expected this all my life,” he said quietly. “After the Great Quake, my mother’s family lived in a tent for months. But you’re never really ready for something like this.”
“Wow,” Bella sniffled. “I didn’t know your family went through that.”
“She’s a beautiful and dangerous city,” Paul declared, his enthusiasm barely muted.
No one but Thomas had grown up in San Francisco. We talked about why we had chosen to live here and what kept us living here. We drank wine and ate sardines, cheese and bread, and some eggs Paul scrambled on his camping stove. Thomas broke out his stash and we smoked a few joints. We were grateful to be alive. It was good to be with friends. Paul took the guitar out of its case and sang “Give Yourself to Love.”
Oh, I will, I told him silently.
It could easily have been otherwise, I thought. What if Paul had been walking by that car when it was smashed to smithereens or Bella, whose last job was in Berkeley, had been in the evening commute on the bridge? What if the drill had shot up through the roof of my mouth? That was when I felt the first twinge. After a while, the tooth with the temporary cap began to throb.
“This is classic earthquake weather,” Bella announced. “And the moon’s in Mercury. We should’ve known.”
“Earthquake weather’s a myth,” Paul informed us. “It’s pseudoscience.”
“No, it’s not. It’s true, isn’t it, Tom?”
Thomas shrugged and said nothing.
“You’re just a bit gullible, Bella,” Paul said.
“That’s why we love you,” I put in.
“I am not gullible.” She glared at us.
Luckily, Bella had some Percodan in reserve and I took one. That got the pain in my tooth down from excruciating to a dull ache.
“I’m going to lose this damn tooth smack in the middle of my mouth,” I wailed.
Paul looked smug but kept quiet. What he wanted to do, it turned out, was make love all night long. In the event of aftershocks, sex would be “cosmic.” No one was going to work tomorrow, so we could sleep late. Get up and do it again.
My bedroom faced Twin Peaks, where the TV towers usually glowed in the night like a two-masted ship. Tonight they were dark. Candlelight pricked the darkness here and there. I lit a fat votive candle and got into bed with Paul.
“I can’t go down on you tonight,” I murmured.
“Understood. Just lie back and relax, sweetie.”
I did my best. But pain niggled at pleasure, worried me out of the here and now.
After a while, Paul said, “I want you to come.”
“I can’t. The tooth hurts too much.”
“Get another Percodan from Bella.”
I was shocked. “You’re not supposed to take more than one every eight hours. And besides, I can’t ask her now. Listen to that.”
We listened. From down the hall, Bella’s moans rose and fell. She sighed, she gasped. Not a peep out of Thomas. His cat let out one guttural yowl, then subsided into hissing.
“It’s unbelievable,” I said. “How long will it be before they murder each other?”
“Sounds like a terrific fuck to me,” he observed.
“Maybe we should swap. You screw Bella. I’ll take Thomas. He’ll let me sleep.”
“You know I’m not attracted to Bella. Are you to Thomas?”
“That’s not the point.”
He took a slow, deep breath.
“I’m just trying to please you. Any other woman would be grateful.”
“Any other woman with a toothache would throw you out of bed. Even Bella.”
He turned away from me then and didn’t say another word. He grew still beside me, snored. Oh, how I wanted to put a leg over his, hold him and be held.
I couldn’t sleep for a long time. In the dead of night a mousetrap went off in the hall closet and a mouse squealed. It was Thomas’s task to clear out the traps, since his cat was too fat and neurotic to scare mice away. But no one stirred and the mouse was going to die anyway.
By the time I got an appointment at the dental school, it was too late to save the tooth.
The supervising periodontist, a tall, stooped man with sparse white hair, apologized. “It was high risk to begin with,” he said.
Dr. Bob cleared his throat. “Could we have saved it, if not for the quake?” he asked.
“Probably not. We’ll have to trim a tooth on either side to make room for a bridge. You can think of this as your Loma Prieta bridgework, Nora.”
I smiled weakly. “I feel old all of a sudden.”
“But you’re still young,” old Dr. Perio assured me.
And Dr. Bob said, “It sure beats the alternative.”
“No teeth at all?” I was thinking of the woman weeping on the clinic floor after the quake.
“No life at all,” he said, and told us he knew of someone who had died under the collapsed Cypress Street overpass.
“She was a single mother with two kids in my daughter’s pre-school. My wife is devastated.”
I didn’t know what to say. I thought about Paul crouched on Market Street, the car smashed nearby. How close he’d come to dying, and now we couldn’t talk without an argument breaking out.
A tear slid down my cheek.
Dr. Bob handed me a tissue.
“We might be expanding our family soon,” he said.
I sank back in the chair. Two men were fussing over me. Gentle fingers probed my gums. At least Paul will like my new teeth, I thought, and imagined a photo of us leaning into one another with wide happy smiles.
Jo-Anne Rosen’s work has appeared in Other Voices, The Florida Review, The Summerset Review and several other journals. She is a book and website designer living in Petaluma. She is also a publisher at Wordrunner eChapbooks and co-editor of the Sonoma County Literary Update. Excerpts from her stories were performed in 2014 at the New Short Fiction Series in Hollywood, California. What They Don’t Know is her first fiction collection.