牙齿* | Naomi Ling

*Chinese, meaning teeth

Photo by Enis Yavuz on Unsplash

My mother wants to whiten her teeth. She announces this over a Monday pot roast, the kind where bone marrow lodges in your gums until you pick it out with your thumb and forefingers: gnawgnawgnaw.


She says it so casually it’s almost like a Sunday brunch. But it’s Monday night, and she refuses to look at us, only her half-gnawed plate littered with meat carcasses. My teeth are turning my face yellow, she explains.

I don’t tell her that our skin is just as yellow—a bruised tint of diaspora. Her teeth are half-crescents, once coveted by schoolboys back in Guangzhou. Instead, I go gnawgnawgnaw.


Yellow is beautiful, Lanlan, like the full moon, my father says. He coughs up phlegm, wipes his mouth on the corner of a Chipotle napkin. The stench of a week-old burrito bowl staggers from the dead.


Did the marriage counselor tell you to say that? My mother snorts. She snorts more than any of us—snorts in the kitchen, in the bathroom, in her sleep. My po po says she snorts because she still has a habit of expelling dirty Guangzhou air. Her lungs are still adjusting, she whispered to me over tea. A secret almost as dirty as the pollution. My father departs before the sun does. The dishes go in the sink, I almost say. He wouldn’t know. A slice of night cuts through the swinging door, then disappears just as soon. The lightbulb above us trembles, steadies itself. My mother remains stagnant, a bird on a powerline, and then excuses herself to the lull of her room. It’s the cold, she says. Not good for my bones.

*

They say the immigrant’s eye is the most conscious of itself. Back in Guangzhou, my mother tells me, everyone had yellowing, straggle-tooth grins. Nobody went to the dentist unless they were dying. Why give precious yuan to a person who will just screw with your God-given teeth? She spent the summers with her girlfriends, their open mouths and brazen laughs hanging over the pier until dusk.


When she moved to the land of free soil, she closed her mouth for good. Here, she laments, everyone’s teeth were perfect. And if they weren’t, they had a mouthful of metal to fix them! She became conscious of her yellow crescents, scrubbing at them for hours when her white roommates weren’t in the dorm. She closed her mouth in other ways, too. Lanlan, her classmates cajoled, foreign syllables warping shape on their pink tongues, why don’t you talk? My mother tells me that people with the most to say usually don’t have anything to say at all.

*

My mother tries teeth whitening strips, the bulk kind from Costco that could supply an army. She unwraps them one by one with her hair curlers still in—a middle-aged Chinese Medusa. To her, the strips are like an infant, all pink and raw and crinkly. Gentle, gentle, she says, cradling them in her arms. She thrusts one at me. Here, girl, you comfort it. I decline. She frowns and keeps unwrapping.


She leaves them on her teeth for the rest of the day and into the night, flashes of white in her mouth like a prayer. I hear her humming in the kitchen as she fixes pot roast again. In the early morning, I awaken to a grating animal’s screech and balance myself in the pitch black.


My eyes adjust to nothing. Suspended in the trees, the moon looms like an arc of rubble. From his new apartment in Chicago with a trophy wife, my father’s voice insists that it really is a beautiful yellow.


The animal’s wail takes a knife to my ears. I find my mother in the bathroom, howling and tearing the strips off the yellow. Her hair is still gripped by the teeth of curlers, now loose and springing at the ends. I stand in the doorway, feeling a bit like the suspended moon.


It feels like years before she notices me. Her eyes are a pair of glassy orbs, blinking once, twice. The animal retreats. Her shoulders deflate, a balloon that was pinched one too many times. She says my name accusingly: Why are you awake. You have school tomorrow. Go to bed. She starts fussing with the fallen strips, shoving them into drawers and clearing the counter. A woman whose hands have too little to do. Go to bed, go to bed. You have a test tomorrow, girl. I don’t have the heart in me to tell her it’s Saturday.
Outside, the moon crashes like pillows on soft earth. No animals are here but us.

*

My mother mixes vinegar with charcoal. It is Lunar New Year, a time of purging and deep-cleaning the house. She takes this paste and spreads it vigorously on her teeth, and then uses the rest on the furniture. Here, wipe it on the table, girl, she says. Instead, I scrape it into the trash and belatedly realize she is standing in the doorway. She says nothing, but I know she saw me.


It takes a moment to register the vinegar’s stench, but once it is there, it is unavoidable. We inhale it through every opening in our bodies, expel it desperately through our nostrils. It permeates and claims every corner of the house for its own: mine mine mine. Takes and takes and takes. It tangoes with acid in my stomach, roiling to a tune I heard long ago. My clammy hands meet the toilet seat over and over, a barnacle hanging onto a rock in high-tide.

When night falls at our feet, my mother burns incense at a makeshift shrine and forgets to open the windows. We stand there coughing in the living room, racking our lungs for a mouthful of air, one hand on each other and the other on our stomachs, emptying our bowels of dust, until our neighbors finally see us through the windows and ask what’s going on. Nothing, my mother says through blackened teeth. She tries to wipe off the paste with her shirt. Our neighbors retreat from the animal’s den, their faces unable to conceal a cynical mask of disgust. I want to call after them: wear it proudly. But I do not.

*

Years slip through our greedy fingers like sand. Soon I traded the comfort of sleeping by my mother for a high-rise with a real skyline, and a moon that does not fall so fast at our feet. A boy to call my own. My mother gives us her blessings like a mooncake: plump and sweet, an aftertaste of remorse when you’re finished with it. Bitterness. She languishes now in an empty nest, beset with decades’ full of memory.


She stays there long after my father and I are gone, fixing three dishes of pot roast that aren’t quite untouched, but not devoured either. I bet she misses the gnawgnawgnaw. She never did that as much as we did. Too unladylike, she says, a bit wistfully. Watching us pick at our teeth without a care in the world. Now that I am a woman, I do not gnawgnawgnaw anymore. Instead, the bone marrow, lodged in my mouth, ferments until it folds into itself—a coming of age passage.


My mother calls me sometimes, although she never seemed to grasp the concept of speaker phone. Talk louder, louder, girl, she urges me frantically. I can’t hear you. I am getting no younger, lah. Talk to your mother.


Something she won’t admit: my mother is afraid of silence, of a dead line at the other end. Her husband left her for a bottle-blonde; she has only me. I dream of her sometimes: her small form, hunched at the three-seat table with a rotting box of dumplings, her Nokia flush against her ear, her lips copying every tinny word I say. Sometimes I have to scream into the phone for her to hear me, and then she cries. An
apology in and of itself. Don’t worry, girl, don’t worry. You not hurting your mama.

*

On the rare occasions she does hear me over the phone, we talk about my father. Her ex-husband.


(What, really, is an “ex”? To take a knife to the name of your lover, a crossed-out throat. My mother, for all her years of wisdom, doesn’t know either.)


“Why did he leave us, Ma?” I’m walking to class in the world’s largest campus, New York City. The iPhone I bought with waitressing savings cradles my ear.

She snorts. Gnawgnawgnaw. She’s eating pot roast again, slurping the marrow off her fingers. “Can you believe it, girl? He left because of teeth whitening. Think about that. What a crazy man.”

A beat. She continues, “We call them 笨蛋。The town’s fool.”


We laugh and laugh and laugh until my cheeks burn and I hear her fall asleep, her hair curlers splayed out as they jangle on the table.

*

I take the A-train after classes one day instead of walking home. Sometimes subways are the most interesting places: an underground predator, catching all walks of life in its teeth, if only briefly. Only when the doors slide out — [WATCH YOUR STEP] — does it release its prey.


I see a whitening strip commercial overhead, a smiling woman with blisteringly blinding teeth holding a cookie-cutter package.

Cutting-edge technology, she declares to the tune of a Christmas jingle. She winks and hands me the package through the screen, practically saying, give this to your mother. She wants it, right? Doesn’t she? I nod, say 谢谢, [thank you]. A model daughter.


I call my mother right there, swaying in the middle of a jostling A-train car. She picks up on the first ring. I say, Mama, a woman offered me a whitening strip product today. I thought of you. Do you want it, Mama? My voice strangles itself. I heard it works wonders now. Cutting-edge technology. She says, what does that mean? Speak louder, girl. I scream this time. Mama, do you want this product? Don’t you want to whiten your teeth? Don’t you? You’ve tried everything, remember? She isn’t listening. I want to shake her through the phone. A man sitting down rattles his tip jar in my face. Think about your teeth. Mama? Are you there? You’ve tried a fucking vinegar paste, charcoal, everything. I know you want to be young again. That’s all you ever wanted. My mouth feels gummy in all the wrong places. Static chokes the other end.


The A-train is suddenly suffocating. Yellow blooms in my chest. In these moments I allow myself to believe she isn’t already gone, and then I see her lifeless body on the kitchen floor, choked with incense. I see it all: paramedics coming in the same doorway that my father left, their questions barreling at me like the throat of a gun. What was your mother’s name? Age and occupation? Inside my throbbing temples I hear her complain: “Ai ya, the least they could’ve done was whiten my teeth for the burial.” And I do not let myself cry.

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