I came to a halt at the red light, opened the car door, and spit a mouthful of warm saltwater onto the nobbly gray asphalt. I closed the door, wrested the mason jar from the cup holder, and took another desperate swig of the viscous, saline swill. Vivian was chatting chipperly in the passenger’s seat, but I was not listening. My life had been distilled to pain and the mason jar and the continuous swish of saltwater between my teeth. There was space for nothing else. The light turned green. I released the clutch and pressed the accelerator. I swished and thought only of when I could stop and spit again.

There are moments when you choose to stop and take stock of your life, and then there are moments when life chooses this for you. When your car and jacket and kitchen sink are crusted with salt and you’ve just taken a gulp of your own saliva, life has left you little room for willful ignorance.

When I wrote my piece “Pulling Teeth” last month, I had no way of knowing that my teeth would demand further attention so soon or that my life would prove to be such a deep well of dental metaphors. Yet, there I was this past Sunday, hunched over a sink in Urgent Care, spitting out saltwater while a kind doctor explained the addictive potential of the meds she was prescribing me. She was assuming I wouldn’t overdose on saltwater first. 


The pain began on Thursday, the day before my friends and I commenced a 200-mile relay from the Canadian border to Whidbey Island. This was inconvenient, even by pain’s standards, and throughout the day, the teeth on the right side of my mouth began to thrum with discomfort as if a monkey was using them as a xylophone. 

Fortunately, a quick Google search for “toothache home remedies” informed me that swishing lukewarm saltwater would soothe my sore molars. So, when I was packing the next morning for my running expedition, I tucked a cooler of water and cylinder of salt into my box of food along with a bag of Ibuprofen. Then, throughout the weekend, whenever my tender teeth seethed with pain, I poured some water in my mouth, sifted a tiny white pyramid of salt into my palm, and tossed it in with the water, savoring the savory relief. 

I felt like I finally understood why Ghandi would march hundreds of miles for salt. I wanted to be a slab of meat before refrigeration was invented so someone would cake me in it. I longed to crawl along behind the Morton salt girl, salt and water raining down upon me. I wanted to do the dead man’s float in the Dead Sea, mouth swung open wide.

After sleeping four shoddy hours and finishing the relay (in under twenty-four hours!), I returned home exhausted, and my condition quickly worsened. After I struggled through a tangle of pad thai with friends, they took me to Rite Aid and helped me find a benzocaine gel to numb my gums. Having already maxed out my daily Ibuprofen allotment, I was told this and an ice pack was my next best course of action.

And yet, that night a handful of Ibuprofen, a Q-tip slathered with benzocaine, and an ice pack (or, in my case, a jar of mashed and frozen banana wrapped in a pillowcase) were no match for the pounding pain in my mouth. By five thirty in the morning, I was mixing a fresh batch of saltwater in a mason jar and carrying it out to my 2001 Honda Civic for a trip to Urgent Care.

I am not a scientist, so I cannot explain why saltwater soothes sore teeth. However, I have learned quite a bit about the practice through the scientific process of trial and error. Here are my findings:

1.  Lukewarm water is ideal for swishing while water that could be considered hot by even the most generous definition will make you pray for Donkey Kong himself to punch every tooth clean out of your shrieking mouth.

2.  Continue to add salt until it can no longer dissolve and a few unraptured white crystals skate around the bottom of the jar. If you don’t feel like you just tilted an almost-empty bag of pretzels into your mouth, you’re not doing it right.

3.  For some reason, saltwater loses its flavor faster than Chiclet gum. Within a minute, I could feel the salt’s magic being trampled by the stampeding pain, and the only solution was a fresh swig. In fact, by late Sunday morning, I was swishing through a mason jar of saltwater in under half an hour!

4.  Do not swallow the saltwater, even if you’re at a brewery with a friend and don’t want to be rude. This will put you at risk for damaging your kidneys and becoming dehydrated. Also, make sure that you have friends that bring you an extra cup and insist that you spit into it while you carry on a conversation with them.

By midday on Sunday, if I was not swishing saltwater, I was in profound pain. I had an emergency dental appointment scheduled for 8:30 a.m. on Monday and was simply trying to figure out how to last until then as the pain surged up into my temple and down into my jaw. I determined that I could not sit still and insisted on going about my day, taking two mason jars with me everywhere: one filled to the brim with warm saltwater and the other quickly filling with slightly less salty saliva. I felt like a marine animal and wondered when I might grow gills so that I could just plunge my head into a bucket of seawater. I could not even stop swishing long enough to hold a conversation.

Finally, blessedly, around noon, the drugs took hold and did not let go. That night, I slid into a seamless, narcotic sleep.

The next morning, it took my dentist one x-ray and one glance to tell me I needed a root canal. My tooth had died. Its roots had become a buffet for bacteria. I had ignored the signs. 

He wrote me a referral, and at two thirty that afternoon I was in a sleek new office reclined beneath the most astonishingly gorgeous dentist I have ever seen. I began mentally penning the script for a show called Grey’s A-Cavity simply so that I could cast him as McDreamy, DDS. 

McDreamy, DDS tapped and zapped my teeth until he could officially declare tooth number three dead. It felt like a little gravestone in my mouth. I had ignored the signs. Bacteria were feeding on the roots.

Then, McDreamy, DDS explained the root canal procedure. I shamelessly lost myself in his luxurious curls and got caught in his dimples. Then he pulled out a syringe and made the first of two injections on the outside of my gums. I thought of how he’d drag out the putrified pulp and seal the tooth off like a tomb. I would carry this dead tooth for the rest of my life.

McDreamy DDS plunged his second syringe into the roof of my mouth, and every nerve in my head collectively roared with pain. I sank into the chair and felt my spinal fluid churn. The membranes stretched over my eyes bristled and my veins gasped hollowly. 

“Can you recline the seat? I think I’m going to pass out.”

The assistant obliged, and McDreamy, DDS asked how I was doing.


My consciousness stretched and folded in on itself. I felt the chemicals in my brain shaken up like a cocktail. Reality dimmed and warbled like the sun from under a thick slab of salted ocean. I begged the dead tooth to take me with it. I envisioned the pulp being dragged from my body. I wanted so desperately for everything to go black.

It’s incredible how quickly life can pivot from divine comedy to Nihilistic terror.

But within a minute, I resurfaced into the room, sutured back into place. A small plastic cup of sugar water perched on the tray to greet me, brought by the cooing dental assistant. It, too, was magical.

McDreamy DDS explained that the infection was too strong and that they would just clean out the tooth today. The root canal would wait until next week. 

I listened placidly to him work—grinding through enamel and picking out pulp and murmuring “Can you suction right over the orifice for me?” to his assistant. When he sat me up and bid me farewell, I felt once again ready for the world outside.


I run my tongue along the roof of my mouth now and feel the swell of infection still huddled against my tooth. The tooth has died. I ignored the signs. Perhaps it is a burial mound.

But on Thursday, I will return for the root canal. McDreamy, DDS will pump the tooth with rubbery gutta-percha and seal it off for good. I will carry the dead tooth with me. I will wash the salt stains from my car. I will take stock of my life and tend to my teeth, both living and dead. I will refuse to ignore the signs.

In a world of salt water and sugar water, I will try my best just to drink from the tap.

1 Comment

  1. Avatar

    Wow Gabe …so dad to hear of all this pain ……dental metaphors – I wonder how you are seeing this one as a metaphor in your life …maybe next post? Your writing is truly a gift that you have – you took me right there with you on every step of your journey of anguish. Best of luck on Thursday – at least you have McDreamy to look forward to ….maybe this time you’ll feel so nervous that he’ll have to take your hand in his to comfort you ….. ahhh….. oh, and a big congratulations on RAGNAR! You all rocked on that one! Cheers, Linda


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