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Changing the Script

I couldn’t look in the mirror without constant shame and blame

I’m running for the bus. Faster, faster. The bus is already at the stop. I’m almost there. A few more seconds and the door of the bus will close. If I speed up, I think I can make it. I run faster.

Suddenly, she steps out of the bus stop in front of me. I jerk to the right to avoid her, but she takes a step back and I trip over her foot. Slam! I hear a sickening crack. The taste of blood fills my mouth.

 

You know how some people’s teeth are hardly noticeable, while some people are very toothy? I’m one of those toothy people. When I smile, you see lots of teeth.

“Malka laughs with her whole mouth,” my mother likes to say.

As a kid, I had perfect teeth — white, shiny, straight, gorgeous teeth. Adults, even strangers, used to compliment me on my teeth all the time.

“Did you have braces?” people would occasionally ask me.

“No,” I would answer proudly.

When I began high school, I found myself thrust into a charged social situation. My ninth-grade class was divided into three groups: the snobs, the nerds, and the regular girls. While the snobs numbered less than a third of the class, they were the coolest and most visible element in the class and had a way of making everyone else feel sidelined. For instance, at one point my seat in the classroom was right between two snobs. They would talk to each other directly over my head, as if I didn’t exist.

I was one of the regular girls, and a highly popular one at that. Yet although I had lots of friends — including both regular girls and nerds — I was deeply resentful of the snobby clique. Who did they think they were? Why did they have to be so shallow and self-absorbed? Didn’t they realize there were other people in this world besides them?

Just thinking about the snobs filled me with indignation. And, I hated to admit, part of me secretly envied their coolness: the designer clothing they wore, the flair they wore it with, and the carefree poise with which they carried themselves.

One day, toward the end of ninth grade, I was in a particular hurry to get home from school because my mother had told me that if I came home right away, she’d take me shopping for shoes. Instead of schmoozing with my friends and then ambling out of the school building as I usually did, I bolted out of school the moment the bell rang and headed straight to the bus stop around the corner. As I turned the corner, I noticed that the bus was about to pull into the stop. Normally, I would not have bothered racing to the bus, but that day every minute counted, so I decided to make a dash for it. I barreled down the street toward the bus stop, my schoolbag waving wildly in the air, watching as the bus stopped and opened its doors for people to board.

The last of the passengers stepped on. In seconds, the door of the bus would close. By this time, I was just behind the bus. Knowing I had a good chance of making it, I sprinted even faster.

Suddenly, I spotted her. Her being Gila, one of the chief snobs in the class, who took the same bus home as I did but never deigned to acknowledge my presence. She was standing in the bus stop, engrossed in conversation with another snob friend of hers, Elana.

The next thing I knew, Gila stepped out of the bus stop right in front of me. Not wanting to smash into her, I jerked to the right, but at that very moment she turned around to say something to Elana, causing me to trip over her foot and fall headlong onto the sidewalk. Slam! My mouth hit the curb. I heard a sickening crack, and the taste of blood filled my mouth.

A few girls from my school gathered around me in alarm. Blood was everywhere. The pain was so excruciating, I thought my head would explode.

A classmate of mine, Esther, approached me and helped me to my feet. I stumbled back to the school building, with Esther clutching my arm, and she guided me to the bathroom, where the first thing I did was look in the mirror. The sight that greeted me was gruesome: my face and clothing were covered with blood, and I had an ugly gash on my chin. But all I could focus on was the gap in my mouth.

My tooth. My tooth! WHERE IS MY TOOTH?

“I’ll go find your tooth,” Esther said soothingly. “But first let’s wash your face and go to the office to call your mother.”

After I cleaned most of the blood off my face, Esther accompanied me to the office and told the school secretary, Mrs. Minken, what had happened.

“You stay here,” Esther instructed me. “I’m going to look for your tooth.”

No! I wanted to scream. My tooth is not a souvenir! I don’t want you to find it — I want it in my mouth!

Mrs. Minken gave me some ice to put on my lip, which was bleeding and swollen. Then she called my mother. “Malka fell and broke her tooth,” she said. “Can you come pick her up? You should probably take her straight to the dentist.”

As I sat there waiting for my mother to arrive, Mrs. Minken kept up a steady stream of chatter. “Don’t worry, kids break teeth all the time, it’s really not a big deal. I remember when my four-year-old son fell and broke his tooth, he had this funny gap in his mouth for a while—”

I don’t care if your son broke his tooth! I felt like shouting. Stop talking about breaking teeth!

Just the words “broke a tooth” made me shudder, sitting there as I was without a front tooth and wishing this was just a bad dream that would be over soon.

In the meantime, Esther returned triumphantly with my tooth, which she had found on the sidewalk.

“If you put it into milk, the dentist might be able to put it back in place,” Mrs. Minken said brightly.

Go away! I silently begged. The more she talked, the more painfully real the loss of my tooth became.

Thankfully, my mother arrived a few minutes later and enveloped me with motherly love and concern. “Oy, Malka!” she murmured, stroking my hair. “Come, let’s go to the dentist.”

I don’t know how she was feeling inside, but she stayed calm and didn’t ask me too many questions. She drove me directly to the dentist, who proclaimed my lost tooth a goner and reconstructed a fake tooth for me.

“Your tooth is as good as new,” he assured me when I left his office. “Oh, and no biting into anything — ever.”

Our next stop was the doctor’s office. “Doesn’t look like anything serious,” Dr. Benson said after placing a butterfly bandage on my cut chin and carefully checking my blown-up face, swollen lip, and scraped hands and knees. “But we’ll give you a tetanus shot, just to be on the safe side, because that cut on your chin looks really dirty.”

You can’t be serious! I thought. After all I’ve been through today, you’re really going to stab me in the arm?

But Dr. Benson was serious, and the next thing I knew, I felt another jolt of pain in my arm, to go along with the pain in my mouth.

The only silver lining that day was that after we left the doctor, my mother drove me to the mall and bought me shoes. So I hadn’t missed my shopping trip, after all. But it was small comfort.

For the next two weeks, my mother bought me milkshakes every day because I couldn’t eat solids. Even after my mouth healed, I couldn’t bite into anything with my new false tooth. From now on, I would have to cut all my food with a fork and knife and bite into it with the side of my mouth; never again would I be able to bite into a chocolate bar, an apple, or a slice of pizza. Even something as ordinary as a tuna bagel — my favorite lunch — had to be pulled apart into small pieces before I could bite into it, which ruined the experience.

Gila never uttered a word to me about what had happened. When I returned to school the day after my fall with a puffy face and a fake tooth, she completely ignored me, as she did every day. From then on, each time I saw her, my stomach tightened, and the vision of her tripping me and then blithely boarding the bus flashed across my mind. In her world, I obviously did not exist. Yet her existence had seriously clouded my world.

Unfortunately, the dentist was wrong: My tooth was hardly as good as new. For one thing, it was not exactly the same shade as my real teeth, and I was sure everyone could tell it was fake. Worse, it was not nearly as strong as a real tooth.

Careful as I was not to bite into anything hard with my fake tooth, I couldn’t be careful enough. On the last night of sleepaway camp that summer, I bit into a piece of toast, and felt my tooth go snap.

Not wanting my friends to see the gap in my mouth, I kept my mouth shut until I went home the next day, not saying a word to anyone until after the dentist fixed my tooth again.

A few years later, when I was in 12th grade and in middle of dance practice for our school production, the girl standing beside me accidentally whacked me with her hand as she spun around, knocking my tooth out a third time.

The fourth time my tooth fell out was when I was in seminary. I absentmindedly bit into cracker, and there went my tooth. After that I became extremely careful not to bite into anything.

It’s been 16 years since I fell and broke my tooth. Although, in the larger scheme of things, losing a tooth is not such a big deal, for me it has been a life-altering experience in many ways.

Instead of people admiring my smile, I have people looking at my tooth strangely and either saying nothing or asking, “Is that a fake tooth?”

To this day, I have a scar on my chin where I hit the sidewalk, and I’m embarrassed to open my mouth fully because of my fake tooth. When I look at my wedding pictures, all I see is a scar, a taut smile, and a funny front tooth, although my husband kindly insists that he doesn’t notice anything unusual.

Over the years, I’ve mentally replayed the experience of falling and losing my tooth countless times, and each time I feel the pain all over again, along with fury toward Gila for causing me to fall and then ignoring me as she boarded the bus.

Around my children, I am constantly on guard, afraid that they’ll bang my mouth and knock my tooth out. When I’m near them, I often keep my hand over my mouth to protect myself, and if they come to close to my face, I tense up.

One day, not long ago, I was sitting outside watching my kids playing, when Menachem, a kid on the block, came out with a jar of bubbles and a really cool wand that blew enormous bubbles. At one point, Menachem blew a giant bubble and all the kids, including my six-year-old son Boruch, chased after the bubble. As they converged on the bubble, Boruch collided into Menachem and flew headlong onto the ground.

My heart pounding, I raced over to Boruch. The first thing I did, as I do any time one of my kids falls, was check his teeth. To my horror, his front tooth was chipped.

No! This can’t be happening! I felt my legs turn to jelly and a wave of anger washing over me.

But who was I angry at? Menachem? He hadn’t done anything wrong; he had been standing and blowing bubbles, and Boruch had run into him. Boruch? He had been running like a normal six-year-old and had accidentally collided with Menachem. Myself? I had been watching him the entire time!

I’m running for the bus. Faster, faster. The bus is already in the stop. I’m almost there. A few more seconds and the door of the bus will close. If I speed up, I think I can make it. I run faster.

Suddenly, she steps out of the bus stop in front of me. I jerk to the right to avoid her, but she takes a step back and I trip over her foot. Slam! I hear a sickening crack. The taste of blood fills my mouth.

Of course it was Gila’s fault that I ran into her — she was so engrossed in her conversation with Elana that she was totally oblivious to her surroundings. Not only did she not notice me trying to catch the bus, she actually turned around to continue her conversation and tripped me.

Or did she?

In the 16 years since the incident, I had never before questioned my assumption that my fall had been Gila’s fault. But watching Boruch run into Menachem had given me a new perspective on my own fall all those years ago.

Maybe Gila hadn’t been responsible for tripping me? Maybe she was just an innocent bystander, like Menachem?

But she wasn’t like Menachem! She was — a snob! She never turned around to see what happened to me! She never apologized for making me lose a tooth! She never even acknowledged that I had gotten hurt!

Maybe she never knew? Maybe she didn’t even notice that I had fallen? Maybe it was my fault for running into her?

At first, this new narrative was difficult for me to absorb. But the more I thought about it, the more I had to admit that it made sense — at least as much sense as my old narrative of how her royal snobbiness had stepped directly into my path, tripped me, and blissfully boarded the bus, ignoring me as I lay sprawled on the ground.

You mean all that fury was for nothing?

To my adult self, the answer to that question was a painfully obvious yes. Gila had not been the aggressor. Like Menachem, she had done nothing wrong, and she probably had no clue that I had been hurt. Chances are, she hadn’t even noticed that I fell!

Along with this disconcerting realization came another startling recollection: Gila’s parents had divorced when we were in eighth grade. Who knows how much pain she had been carrying around while desperately trying to project an air of self-assuredness? That pain had likely affected her in a profound way, as she was still single, at 30.

This torrent of reflections culminated in a disturbing epiphany: All these years, I had harbored a grudge against Gila. Each time the scene of my fall had replayed itself in my head, she had starred as the villain.

Now, the script had changed. I had fallen because I had been careless in running for the bus, and I had broken a tooth because that was the nisayon Hashem wanted me to grapple with. Gila had zero to do with this.

Letting go of this ancient grudge was simultaneously liberating and humbling. Liberating, because I was no longer shackled emotionally by the resentment I bore toward Gila. And humbling, because now that I had challenged this long-held narrative, I began to wonder which other erroneous narratives and mistaken assumptions I was unwittingly carrying around.

This is really the end of the story. But what made me decide to tell this story is what happened a week and a half later.

I honestly don’t know what to make of what happened, so I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions.

A week and a half after I let go of my long-held grudge, Gila got engaged.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 700)

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