The back of my mouth is killing me. Pain shoots through my gums. If I touch my gums, ache ricochets through my mouth. I wake in the middle of the night, wishing my mouth would stop throbbing. One morning, I succumb and go to the Russian dentist.
Snow falls in thick patches onto my furry hat and covers my jacket before I tuck into the metro and change lines while bear-like Russian babushkas swaddled in fur push me toward the door. Spilling into the station, I move with the mass of bodies through the underground tunnels. Finally I emerge near Red Square. I’m running late, so I hurry over the slippery, snow-filled sidewalks, arms spread out perpendicular, hoping not to fall. I duck behind the Duma and a row of blue-light cars with their blackened out windows. Desperately, I search for the address of the dentist. Another block up I see the sign. Up a flight of stairs, I’m buzzed in to the clean, bright office.
Inside, the receptionist speaks English. Phew. While I fill out paperwork and wait my turn, the screaming begins. A ten-year-old girl shrieks in pain or dread. As I’m escorted to the dental chair, a friendly hygienist apologizes for the persistent blood-curdling screams. Is this an omen?
The dentist approaches and, thankfully, she too speaks English. I explain my problem and am ushered to the x-ray.
Me: Should I remove my earrings?
After two x-rays, she assures me it is my wisdom teeth. The top one must be removed and, yes, the surgeon is here. He could take it out right now. He only comes on Thursday. Good thing it is not the bottom tooth, that is much more tricky.
Right now? You want to just pull my wisdom teeth out right now?
Oh, but it is the bottom tooth that hurts me, not the top.
Yes, we need to take this out, but can’t do top tooth now. Too complicated. Touching the nerve, big surgery.
She gives me a prescription to spray on my gums and sends me away.
Back in the dumping snow, I navigate the streets and find a pharmacy. I’m able to say in Russian, “I need this” and point to the prescription. I leave with a bottle of something that contains chlorine. More trudging through snow, underground tunnels, the crowded subway, and I head right to the US embassy medical unit where I see Peter. My friend, my savior, and also the guy who works at the med unit. He recommends not doing the surgery here. I feel total relief.
Later that night I realize how ridiculous this seems: I gave birth in Turkey but I can’t have my teeth out in Moscow? There’s something about different sedation methods here, a complicated surgery, what if things go wrong, and next thing you know, I’ve got a trip to London booked and an appointment with a dental surgeon on Harley Street. The US Embassy London will sponsor me and take care of the details.
A few days later, a bomb explodes in Moscow’s airport killing thirty-five people, steps from where I’m supposed to fly out. My pre-surgery nerves turn to major jitters. Is this an omen? I’m horrified that this bomb has gone off at all, let alone at a place I’ve actually been, and plan to be in a week’s time.
Before I leave, I can’t sleep. I’m thinking of bombs. I’m thinking of dental disasters. Surgery. Childcare for the kids while I’m away. The two different nannies needed to cover each day. Teeth touching the nerve. Being alone for a surgery in London. Thankfully, I’ve found Beyhan, our friend from Turkey, who now lives in London. She can escort me to the surgery (because of the sedation an escort is required). Fortunately, at 3:30 in the morning when the car arrives to take me to the airport, I’m too tired to be nervous. I sleep through the flight.
That is, until the women next to me faints, kicking my awake while she lies on the ground an hour before we are supposed to land. Is this an omen? Luckily she is fine. She explains she has low blood pressure and this happens all the time. I’m not assuaged.
But London calms me. I forgot the little things, like how amazing it is when, without even trying, I understand what everyone around me is saying. A few times, so surprised am I to hear my mother tongue, I turn on my heels to see who is speaking English behind me. Getting from point A to point B is a synch, even in a foreign city, when I can read all the signs and simply ask someone if I’m turned around. Plus, London is lovely.
I have two hours before I have to stop eating and drinking. Meandering down Marlybone High Street, I marvel like an alien transplant at the adorable boutiques, gourmet grocery stores, and clean streets. With an hour to spare, I tuck into a charming café and order a full breakfast. As the day wears on, my nerves spike. I keep thinking about how life is so fragile. Those damn bombs. Lives lost in an instant.
At the Embassy in London, the medical unit hosting my dental evacuation asks me to stay an extra day. They want me on the ground for 48 hours following surgery. I can hear Mr. Green telling me not to worry, we’ll figure out the childcare, but the schedule change only increases my stress level. This is a BFD. Did I really fly to another country to have my teeth forcibly removed, hacked out? And here I am alone in this gorgeous city but for an operation.
Luckily, Beyhan arrives early and catching up with her distracts me from all these complicated thoughts. And all too soon we are on Harley Street, looking for the clinic. In the waiting room, a woman emerges, her face swollen like a balloon, her eyes bloodshot. She can barely stand. All I can do is laugh, a high-pitched fearful chuckle.
Dear God. I’m next. Is this a bad omen?
But the dentist and anesthesiologist are calm and polite and professional. The dentist has a kind face. He reports that the patient I’d just seen was so hysterical before she started that they had to give her extra sedation, I won’t look like that when I’m done. I make them promise. Still, I hope they give me plenty to make me calm.
The drugs work. I’m awake for the full hour-long surgery and three teeth are removed. Beyhan holds me upright when we leave, as I clutch the bag full of painkillers and antibiotics. She makes sure I’m tucked into my hotel bed.
In the morning, I’m alone and my mouth hurts like hell. It’s five am in London, but I’m still on Moscow time. Racing for the painkillers I reload and soon slip into the sublime. The next few days I spend hours sliding between coherence and moments reminiscent of a Grateful Dead show. The world moves in a colorful haze around me, then it clears in sharp punctuation. I’m upright and walking to the drugstore for more gauze. I’m sitting in a picturesque gourmet restaurant ordering pea soup, then I’m taking a two-hour, mid-day nap, waking up with drool in a drug-induced haze. I figure I may as well pamper myself since I can’t do much else. I tuck into a high street hair salon for a blow out. I get my nails painted, then I pop more painkillers and put icepacks on my jaw.
And on the third day, I pass through a series of metal detectors and guards with machine guns that encircle the London embassy to visit the medical unit there. They clear me to return home. From fanciful haute couture stores, to excruciating pain, from exploding bombs and the loss of innocent lives to the removal of wisdom teeth. The contrasts and the fears are overwhelming, surreal and ridiculous. But how can I not reflect on how simple and complicated this is, my nomadic, protected, exposed life. And then, in an instant, I’m back.
Moscow seems so normal until I leave. Returning, Moscow feels utterly foreign again. As we descend, I see that snow still covers everything. A white landscape stretches all the way to the horizon, peppered only with occasional rows of black trees. Into this deep wintery world, the airplane takes me toward my strange home.
Having landed in Moscow and cleared customs, I step through the “nothing to declare” line and stand in front of the new plasterboard. It’s 4:30pm, 10 days after the bomb went off. The site of the Domodedevo Airport bomb was right here. A place I’d walked many times before. It exploded inches from where I stand now, the area so close to me and covered up with nothing but some makeshift bright white plasterboard, hastily taped together. Concealing everything behind it, as if nothing had happened. At one end, tucked behind a vendor, a small white box supports dozens of colorful long-stemmed roses. They wilt in the cold. This is the only token of a horrid act, just days ago. My knees feel weak and my eyes begin to water. This is what made me so jittery, so afraid of such a simple procedure. In a flash it can all disappear. Life is that fragile; we are all that vulnerable.
I bow to the roses and stand quietly in front of them. I pause but for a brief moment. Acknowledging what occurred, I too quickly move out of the way and onto the train into Moscow. It is from here that I now write, this rickety old metal car heading clickety-clack toward my family. My jaw aches but I’m in one piece, craving the hugs of my children and another painkiller.