When the first one falls out, you swallow it on accident. By the time you feel it on the back of your tongue, it’s too late. The little thing is sharp, scratching at your throat all the way down and cutting you all up inside. It’s hard as—and then the guilty thought strikes you¬—diamond. A diamond, you think, and only you would be so lucky to get a diamond in your broccoli cheddar and then go and swallow it. You’re always doing things like this: leaving jobs too soon, losing important documents and lottery tickets, swallowing lucky diamonds without a proper chew. And, of course, you’re thinking all this while you’re choking and making a scene in the middle of the strip-mall Panera.
The face across the little plastic table looks up. His hand mops dressing off his plate with his bread. He asks if you’re okay. Yes, you cough, you’re alright. Wave your hand in that casual way. Play it down. Tell him about the diamond, and he’s sure to figure it all out: the girl is stupid, jinxed, careless with people and valuables. So you lie—does it even count? No. You lie, grab his bread, and take a bite. Then, something familiar. That pain and taste of copper. The second one falls out and lodges itself in the brick of baguette. Another diamond? No. It’s the off-white shrapnel of your canine tooth.
He talks about work and you flick the tooth away before he notices. He talks about a co-worker. Does it matter if her name is Jenna or Jamie? Does it matter if she wears glasses or contacts? Does it matter if she’s good at her job? He talks and talks while you sit there, feeling your way around the inside of your mouth. You search the spaces where the teeth were, tonguing the gaps.
Stay quiet as you can—mouth shut if you have half a brain. If he finds out what’s happening, he’ll ask for a full examination, pry you open, finger every tooth to find where it gives. God help me. God help you. Keep the loose bits to yourself and just nod when appropriate. Push your tongue up against your molars—just testing. The one all the way in the back is so loose that it’s attached by just the thinnest thread of something soft and human that hardly even tastes like you. It hits you that he might not even know the difference. Then again, no. Forget it. This isn’t the time. All your parts feel like falling out.
If the loose tooth in the back breaks away from the gum, you’ll just have to spit it into your hand and wipe the blood on your jeans. It’s not your worst plan. It’s not the worst thing you’ve ever done. If they all fall out, just try your best to swallow them. At least he won’t have to see. If it turns out that all of you is rotting on the inside—already rotten more likely—then make up something hereditary or terminal, an illness to explain away the parts of you that are unhinging all over the nice lunch. Better yet, flee the scene. Find a new mouth. Move on. Start replacing meals with smoothies and tell everyone it’s just a diet.
If he asks a question and looks up, waits for your mouth to open and answer like it should, kiss him with your mouth closed and pray he doesn’t wonder.
Cara Dempsey is an elementary school teacher. You can find some of her other work in Hobart, DOGZPLOT, and Monkeybicycle.