“Crooked Teeth” by Dung Kai-cheung

5 December, 2016 0 comment
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Illustration by Priscilla Yu

H met W at a speed dating event. It was the first time he’d tried that sort of thing. In the three years since his divorce, H hadn’t made any friends of the opposite sex. After the normal 9 to 5, he watched sports or went out drinking with old friends. Every other week his ex-wife would let him see their daughter, usually to go out to eat or see a movie. Time passed quickly and everything in his life was as orderly as in his work. H was orthopedic surgeon.

As a dentist, he believed there wasn’t a single thing in the world that couldn’t be filled or set straight again. When his marriage started going sour, he treated the way dentist might treat a cavity. Sometimes it was poor hygiene, and sometimes people were just born that way. Whatever the case, cavities could be filled. In the worst cases, there a root canal could be used, with braces to prevent future problems. If that didn’t do the trick, the whole tooth could be pulled and replaced with an implant. The way technology was going, fake teeth looked just as good (and sometimes better) than real ones. For orthopedic surgeons like H, presentation was everything. It didn’t matter if the teeth were real or not.

H didn’t know why he’d gone to the speed dating event, but it wasn’t too far off to say that he was looking for a set of fake teeth. At his age, given the type of work he did and people he socialized with, it really wasn’t easy to meet that special someone. As a dentist, he wasn’t opposed to the idea of seeking professional help.

He wasn’t about to waste time baking butter cookies at a singles mixer, though, and the thought of going to ‘afternoon tea’ with hundreds of strangers terrified him. So in end he’d settled on a romantic evening for six: three men and three women, they’d said, switching tables every twenty minutes. It was just the level of commitment he was looking for.

H wasn’t in a rush to find someone. He preferred to take things as they came. Arriving at the restaurant, he quickly concluded that going on looks, he didn’t have much of an advantage over the other two men. Even so, he felt confident.

The older two women weren’t any special, but they’d gone to some trouble with their makeup, so you could hardly say they were unattractive, either. In comparison, the younger one was a breath of fresh air. In the first round, H was paired up with one of the middle-aged women, who claimed to be a lawyer. Perhaps in an attempt to subvert stereotypes about lawyers, she did her best to catch his interest. But no matter how he tried, H couldn’t stop his eyes from stealing away to the far end of the restaurant where they inevitably came to rest on the pretty young woman with long, black hair.

When it was finally H’s turn, she introduced herself as W. Framed in her shoulder-length hair, W’s compact face seemed even more delicate than it otherwise might. She was dressed plainly, in a long-sleeved shirt, with only her slender neck and hands exposed. H thought that her pale skin made her look refined and frail, like piece of China. If she had known a thing or two about applying makeup she might have even passed for beautiful. What a waste, H thought.

Worst of all though, even in the dim light of the restaurant, H’s professional experience told him that W had a serious problem with her teeth. It was obvious from the way she avoided moving her lips when she spoke, from the way she covered her mouth when she ate, and from the way she did her best to smile with her mouth clamped shut. For most men, tricks like this would have probably been enough to hide the truth. But for someone who’d seen as many teeth as H, she was like a sinner trying to hide from the all-seeing eye of the Buddha. Even with her mouth shut, H could tell that her teeth were uneven. When a sudden sneeze caught W by surprise, despite her best efforts to turn away while using her napkin for cover, and despite the sneeze being exceptionally dainty and not at all inelegant, in that moment of grace, H’s vision was like an x-ray, capturing a complete and utterly correct snapshot of W’s oral situation. His ardor cooling, H began making motions to leave. The pitiful expression on W’s face only grew more so.

After the speed dating event, H went on a second date with the lawyer. Nothing came of it. It was around this time H remembered poor W. It struck him suddenly that he could offer to help W out by fixing her teeth. Although H wasn’t the sort to go in for charity, his professional training compelled him to see a set of crooked teeth as not only in terms of oral hygiene, but more fundamentally as a moral failure. Ugly teeth weren’t just a private shame that kept a person from holding their head high—they were an offense to others. He’d spent his life crafting one perfect set of teeth after another, with the secret goal of giving every man, woman and child on earth the most perfect, beautiful smile. Not a few celebrities and people of note had been H’s clients. Whenever he saw their faces in the news, he always felt a flush of pride, knowing that he’d made his own small contribution to the world. So when it came to W’s situation it was perhaps not so much accurate to say that he was concerned, as it was to say that felt obliged to provide assistance, or even, to right an injustice.

H set up a date with W at a steakhouse in a fancy hotel, an intentionally awkward choice for W. When she arrived, seemingly innocent of H’s schemes, he took note that she had taken more care with her makeup and clothing than she had at the speed dating event. Evidently she expected something to come of the evening. H brushed his surprise aside, putting it down to his usual attention to detail. Since he was acting out of the goodness of his own heart, he didn’t feel the slightest bit guilty for having led her on. In her skin-tight black dress, W was as stiff and clumsy as a patient who’d just been fitted new set of dentures. She shifted uncomfortably, like a snake trying to shed its skin. Biting into the bloody steak with her crooked teeth, she looked positively miserable, and even in the candlelight he could tell that her face had gone crimson. Catching her at her most defenseless, H launched his attack, saying:

“You know, I’m a dentist.”

Doing her best to chew, W swallowed the wad of meat in her mouth with some difficulty.

“Of course I know. That was one of things they mentioned at the dating service.”

“Ah, but more specifically, I’m an orthodontist,” H said.

W wasn’t an idiot, so from her expression he could tell she understood his meaning immediately. Her eyes fluttered as she tried to hold back the tears now rolling down her face. Before H could comfort her, W said:

“But that’s the whole reason I went to that speed dating event in the first place! Thanks to my teeth, I’ve never been able to keep a boyfriend.”

“Well, why not get them fixed? It’s really not that hard. It certainly isn’t cheap, but not impossibly so. Besides, when you’re talking about something that’s makes such a big difference with dating…”

W shook her head.

“Why? Why would a person not like me just because my teeth aren’t straight? It just doesn’t make sense!”

“You’re not wrong. But think about it this way: shouldn’t you be grateful that they’re looking out for your best interests? If your boyfriend wants you to be more beautiful, and isn’t too much trouble to do, then what’s wrong with that?”

There was a long silence. Even though W wasn’t an idiot, you couldn’t say she had a way with words, either. Getting ready to go in for the kill, H adopted a joking tone, as if teasing a child. Smiling magnanimously, he said:

“W, you’re a very pretty girl. I’m serious! But you’re letting your looks go to waste! Those teeth of yours are ruining everything. It’s sad. If you’re willing to let me help, I could—”

“Actually, you already helped,” W suddenly said, leaning forward, her slender neck like an eel shooting out of its hole to snatch up unsuspecting prey. Now it was H’s turn to be speechless.

“I was a patient at your clinic fifteen years ago.”

It was an unexpected turn of events, as if he’d been punched in the mouth. Flustered, H said:

“Is that so? Why didn’t you say so earli—”

“I was too embarrassed. I recognized you right away. Do you remember me now? I was nine years old, with an under-bite and teeth that went in, like this. So my mom took me to your clinic. You gave me a thick plastic retainer, like those mouth-guards that boxers wear. Then you had me wear headgear that covered my whole face. The top part rested on my forehead, and the bottom cupped around chin, with two little rubber bands that attached to the retainer to pull my teeth forward, bit by bit. I felt like Frankenstein. I had to go around like that for six months until my teeth finally moved enough so that I could chew again like a normal person.

“But there still wasn’t enough space in my upper jaw, and the retained had kept my adult teeth from coming in. Everything was so crowded there wasn’t room for anything else. You told me that once all my teeth were grown in I’d have to get more treatment to straighten them out. Because of how bad it was, you were going to have to pull four teeth, and then give me braces. The whole thing was probably going to take two or three years to finish. You did impressions, and I remember looking at the casts of my teeth pointing this way and that thinking that they looked like buildings after a landslide.

“But when the time came to pull those first four teeth I never showed up. I was so afraid that I spend the whole time crying in my room. Mom thought I just needed a good cry, and so she said we could go later. I never went through with it, though. It got more obvious as time passed, but I was really stubborn, you know? I thought, who says I have to have straight teeth? How come no one is going to like me just because I have crooked teeth? Isn’t there anyone out there who doesn’t care about my teeth? I decided I’d wait for my Mr. Right to show up.”

As she talked, W writhed around in her dress even more than before. H realized that things were more complicated than he’d thought—W had deep rooted hang ups that would take time to resolve. H changed tacks, trying to first gain her trust, instead:

“And what if I said I think I’m that person?”

H’s words caught W by surprise. She at stared him, trying to judge his sincerity.

“You should be the last person I would fall for,” she said finally. “But for some reason I can’t stop thinking about you. Maybe because you understand teeth.”

After the meal, H was surprised to find himself in the lobby with W, paying for a room in the hotel.

Arriving in the room, they tore off their clothing and began to explore each other’s bodies like two half-starved beasts. Having finally shed her black snakeskin, W’s soft white body was free to wrap itself around H in a boneless embrace. His perfectly tailored suit pooled like mud on the floor, they fell into it, a struggle between life and death in the primordial jungle.

At first, H self-consciously avoided W’s mouth. After kissing every part of her, only the mouth remained as the last unknown, a black hole. Having once dispassionately disposed of the catastrophe of her teeth, H reflected on how strange it was to find himself now recoiling from them in terror. Only, like a real black hole, the mouth seemed possessed of its own gravity, pulling him inexorably inwards. A necessary sacrifice, he consoled himself. He who’d have the tiger cub, must a tiger club, as they say.

Have braced himself for the final assault, H charged W’s tiger’s den, that yawning maw of teeth. In response, W shrank back from him. But this only provoked his lust further. Sucking violently on her lips, he pushed his tongue deep into her mouth, like a greedy thief shoving his arm into a hidey hole, sweeping across the two rows of crooked teeth like a blind man reading braille, pressing on each and every tooth with the slender tip of his organ. H was shocked to find himself powerless to resist the pull of W’s crooked teeth.

Their mouths fully interlocked, with tongues ensnared and teeth colliding like ping pong balls, he entered her, one organ mirroring another. Just when H thought he couldn’t hold back the tide of pleasure any longer, W reached her own climax. Their mouths flew apart like a gas explosion and W sunk her crooked teeth deep into H’s shoulder, causing him to cry out in pain.

Exhausted, they lay panting on the bed, while H held his left hand over his right shoulder. When he took it away after a long while he saw the palm was stained with blood. Twisting his neck, he tried to get a look at the wound, finally standing and walking over to the mirror. An irregular bite mark flashed on his right shoulder. When he pressed it with his finger the pain caused him to cry out. In the mirror, W’s lounged naked on the bed, wide-eyed and innocent as a timber wolf. She called out to him, apologizing softly. Saying that she didn’t mean it, she bit her lower lip with a protruding canine.  H felt himself suddenly grow hot again, and so he turned and threw himself on her.

From that day on, the hotel became W and H’s regular meeting place. After eating steak, they would go upstairs to fuck. H began demanding that W use her crooked teeth to bite him on different parts of his body. The shoulder, the arm, the chest, his stomach, the back, his ass, his thigh, his calf. His body was soon covered in bite marks. W didn’t seem to mind. For her, it was just another sexual fetish. She only drew the line at touching his genitals with her mouth.

Although H tried to force her, every time she simply closed her mouth, refusing to budge. When H asked why, she said, “I’m afraid I’ll hurt you.” But he wondered maybe if W didn’t trust him. And so it became the only taboo, an unfillable void.

On the days that H couldn’t see W, the bite marks became precious souvenirs, like autographs both proving W’s existence and sustaining his lust. At home, he would strip naked and stand in front of the mirror, appreciating his battle scars, the way some people admire tattoos. H caressed the raised scars on his skin, his fingers like a needle running through the grooves of a record, replaying every moaned curse of their sexual liaisons. He felt like he’d been transformed into a whole new person.

Back at the clinic, however, where everything was as bright and clean as it had always been, H found himself feeling out of place. The once shining devices and gleaming tools now appeared cold and unfeeling. His brain was filled instead with scenes of bloody, animal conquest. Faced with children and teens who came to have their teeth straightened, H found he had lost his former inspiration, dully and mechanically finishing his work, without faith or enthusiasm.

Eventually he found himself developing a revulsion for straight teeth. His pretty little assistant, R, for example—when he’d hired her it was her perfect, pearly white teeth that had caught his attention. But now he felt nothing at all at the sight of her teeth. His rebukes became more pointed than ever before, and unlike in the past, her shining smile afforded her no defense from his barbed criticisms.

After work, he caught sight an enormous ad for the “Queen of Tutoring” cram school on the side of a bus. The teacher was dressed in designer clothes like a celebrity, a wide smile revealing absolutely flawless teeth. Those teeth had always been his pride and joy. When H had first given C braces, she was just a college student, majoring in English. Later, they’d fallen in love and gotten married. C had gotten hired at a famous cram school, and between her looks and her ability to ace exams, she’d found quick success. Later she’d up her own cram school, the one that was in the ad. H had always felt he’d had something to do with his wife’s success. Even the divorce hadn’t changed his conviction. Looking at his ex-wife now, though, lust was the furthest thing from his mind. He couldn’t even appreciate her teeth anymore. If anything, they left him feeling wooden. Instead, all he could think about was W. He counted the days until their next meeting.

Outside of her ferocity in the bedroom, H found W to be extremely mild mannered. Whenever he needed her, she would be there for him, but she never complained if was unable to see her. She said that she had always wanted to be a stewardess, but her teeth had kept her from getting past the application stage. Putting it this way was, of course, somewhat euphemistic, but he could guess what she meant by it. Since then, she’d worked a series of jobs where she didn’t need to interact with customers, eventually taking an administrative position in the municipal government.

Whenever he thought about the ups and downs that W had suffered in life, H was sympathetic and sorrowful. This was true, even knowing that the source of W’s shame was his greatest point of attraction. The idea of making W his wife seemed somehow inappropriate, however. In the end he decided that maybe they just needed more time.

That same morning, H’s ex-wife had brought their daughter to the clinic for braces. C was, if nothing else, pragmatic, and even though they were divorced, they’d stayed on good terms. Since her ex-husband was a famous orthodontist, after all, why not put him in charge of their daughter’s big day? Besides, she’d always blamed H for passing down the genes for crooked teeth. And it was true, when he thought about it — his mother’s teeth had looked like the chess board at mid-game. He hadn’t dealt with his own teeth until he decided to become a dentist. A dentist is the best advertisement for his own work after all.

Actually, his daughter’s teeth weren’t all that bad, but to listen to his wife talk it was like she had a birth defect. Before, H would have probably agreed. As superfluous as it seemed to him now, he did as his wife asked, putting braces on their daughter. Halfway through, H blew up at his assistant again, calling her out over the way she brought him his tools. R ran out of the room sobbing, and another hygienist came in to take her place. His ex-wife, meanwhile, who’d seen the whole thing, said he owed R an apology.

By lunch, H was in a foul mood. He was worried about W. They hadn’t met in days now. She said she was busy, and wouldn’t be able to see him until the weekend. When H rolled up his sleeves in the bathroom he noticed the bite mark from their last meeting was almost healed, leaving only a couple of disparate points. Placing the marks in his own mouth, he compared the shape of his mouth to W’s. Driven to distraction, he called W. She wouldn’t tell him where she was, but he was finally able to get her to agree to come and meet him.

To save time, H arranged to have W meet him in the room. After a half hour, the doorbell rang. H opened the door to a swollen and pale-looking W. Uncaring, H pulled her into the room, pinning her against the wall as he stripped her naked and tried to kiss her mouth. W unexpectedly turned her head away, struggling to hold him back. Lacking the strength to hold out against his attack, she finally went limp. H tasted blood, and thinking that he’d hurt W, paused. That was when he saw the blood on W’s lips, and uneven gums looking like freshly chewed steak. She looked down and covered her mouth.

H said, “What’s wrong? Why are you bleeding?”

“I had four teeth pulled this morning,” W said, mumbling.

H didn’t understand. W looked up at him and tried to smile.

“I decided to get braces.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Are you mad I didn’t ask you to do it?” W’s voice wavered.

“Of course not! That’s not it all!” H said, almost shouting.

“I wanted to surprise you!”

“You call that a surprise?”

“Don’t you think it’s a good thing I want to make my teeth more beautiful for you?”

“But how are you supposed to bite me with teeth like that?”

“I can still bite you with straight teeth! What difference does it make? If you want me to bite you just say so!”

Because of the anesthetic had numbed her lips, W was having trouble speaking clearly. Drool and blood pooling in the corners of her mouth. W either didn’t notice or didn’t care, pressing on like a dying lover in a soap opera offering up her final bite.

Merciless, H pushed W away, pulling his clothes back on as quickly as he could. Still not caring about appearances, W threw herself on H, but shook her off easily, and pulled open the door. Just before it closed, he shouted:

“Backstabber!”

Her reply came faintly through the door:

“I did it for you! Everything was for you!”

Furious, H called the clinic to tell R to cancel all of his appointments for the afternoon. He followed his first impulse, walking in a nearby convenience store and buying several cans of beer. Drinking as he walked, he set off in a random direction. Row after row of perfect teeth greeted him: healthy, straight, spotless, unblemished teeth, set in wide smiles, illuminated in blinding contrast in the window of every shop and every light box of every bus stop along the street. To see so many perfect teeth made him nauseous. Looking up at the sky, the buildings around him appeared crooked, and he felt dizzy, like he was going to pass out.

Falling to the ground, his mouth struck something hard, a tooth falling out with the vomit.

It was late by the time H returned to the clinic but R still hadn’t left. When R saw that he was drunk and bleeding from the mouth, she quickly got over her shock and fell into the nurturing role of her profession. Bringing H to one of the chairs, she gently cleaned his gums and the cut on his lip. For R, it was a dream come true, but H was oblivious. Grabbing her suddenly, he ignored the piercing pain in his mouth, kissing R on the mouth.

After a moment’s struggle, R gave in, the two of them embracing awkwardly under the fluorescent lights of the operating room. After a moment of fondling, their clothes only half removed, H frantically tried to enter her. But when he saw R’s perfectly white teeth in her open mouth, arranged like two rows of soldiers in a ceremonial parade, H felt himself go flaccid. Disappointed, R pretended like nothing was the matter, tidying up her uniform. It was clear that his sudden disinterest hurt even worse than being yelled at.

H soon found himself alone in the clinic. His phone rang, and he hurried to see who it was. It turned out to be a text message from W:

“I only did it for you, but then I found out that you’re not the one I’d been waiting for. You don’t love me after all. We’re done.”

Full of remorse, H felt an aching pain deep in his chest. When he tried to reply, he found he had nothing to say.

He set the phone down and placed a finger in his mouth, feeling for the gap where his tooth had been. The painful, empty feeling reminded him of something. He walked over to the storage room, and unlocked the door.

Going through the cabinets one by one, he finally found what he was looking for an out of the way corner of the room. Usually he would give away the plaster impressions as a gift to celebrate a patient’s last appointment, or throw them away if the patient didn’t want theirs.

Since W had never come back, he had kept her impressions. Most amazing of all, was the fact that the unclaimed mold had survived a move to a new clinic several years back.

But there was W’s name, clearly written on the tag. Taking the mouth with him back to the operating room, he tore open the plastic bag and carefully placed the contents on the table.

The two halves of W’s jaw lay on the table like two seeds scattered at random. The crooked teeth were as familiar as a dead loved one. Rubbing them with one finger, he felt a shiver of electricity run down his spine. It was as if the false teeth had become real teeth.

He took off his shirt and picked up the upper jaw mold, pressing it as hard as he could into his left bicep, leaving a semi-circle of crooked teeth imprinted in his flesh. He repeated the process, biting his own shoulder, his own chest, his own stomach. Finally, he put the impressions back on the table and pulled down his pants, unable to restrain himself any longer.

H cried out in pain.

Amid the jagged forest of snow-white teeth, moist beads of spring dew flowed, the translucent fluid threaded with the merciless, red blood of a bird devoured.

Translated by Nick Stember


Dung Kai-cheung is a Chinese fiction writer born in Hong Kong.  As an author, journalist, playwright and essayist, Dung is a part-time lecturer at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and mainly teaches Chinese writing. His most important novels include “Atlas” and “Histories of Time.” Different from other local Chinese writers, Dung translates his own work into English versions. Dung is devoted to the education of youth writers. He writes preface and prologue for Hong Kong youth writers, some of whom are his students in the Chinese department of Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Nick Stember is a Vancouver, BC transplant originally from Portland, Oregon and is an expert on Chinese comics (manhua) and translator of Chinese texts.  In addition to building the world’s first English language encyclopedia of Chinese comics and animation, the Encyclopædia Manhuannica 漫畫百科, Nick is a consultant for a variety of ventures, including Storycom and Clarkesworld Magazine’s Chinese Science Fiction Translation Project and the Grayhawk Agency and the Ministry of Culture (ROC)’s Books from Taiwan Vol. III: Comics.

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