The recreational vehicles came over the roads and into the desert, raising dust straight down the country as the crow flies—tent campers, travel trailers, toy haulers, fifth wheels, and motor homes. The men and women at the wheels, old-timers in seersucker trousers or khaki shorts, in their mouths dentures, cavities, and rot, and in their toiletry kits a diminishing stash of off-brand meds, orange bottles with white caps issuing a desperate, near-empty rattle. These men and women had come to the border at Yuma, Arizona, to set up summer camp, to cross into Los Algodones, Mexico.
Maybe you’ve never heard of Los Algodones. It’s a small town near Mexicali, roughly 150 miles north of San Felipe and the armpit of the Sea of Cortez, wedged against the California and Arizona borders. If you were to drive from the center of Los Algodones in any of the four cardinal directions, in no time you’d be back in the States. If you have heard of Los Algodones, it’s likely that you’re over the age of sixty-five. It’s a town well known among senior citizens in the States for inexpensive and good-quality dental work. The town is jam-packed with dentists. It’s a veritable dentistry Mecca.
So why was I, a woman approaching her thirtieth birthday, crossing the border into Los Algodones? Several months ago I was attacked by a man at a bus stop in San Francisco, California. His punches, and the way my face struck the concrete, knocked out several of my teeth—on the top of my mouth, the lateral incisor over to my second molar, gone, and on the bottom, the central incisor all the way back. In short, the left side of my mouth had no teeth.
The visit to the emergency room—the stitches closing the lacerations on my gums, the root and nerve therapy, the wiring to reset my jaw—cost around $55,000, money I simply didn’t have. My editor at the magazine sympathized. She was sorry for the lack of health insurance, but I was technically a contract employee, and what, really, could she do?
For weeks I told myself I would carry on as normal. I’d get used to chewing all my food on one side. I’d smile widely regardless of my deformity, wear it as a badge of courage. I’d work hard—beg, steal, or borrow the money to finish the procedure and get some false fronts. But the truth was I could no longer pass a mirror or even a glass storefront without covering my mouth. A glowing smile is a lovely thing. Lovely, that is, when the mouth has teeth inside it. But when a girl is missing half her teeth, it isn’t lovely, not by a long shot. At times, I sat in my little apartment with the lights off, a bowl of soup steaming in the darkness, and imagined my face was whole again. Soon, I began searching for uncertified, inexpensive dentists. That’s when I discovered Los Algodones. I called my editor here at The New Dispatch and asked for an advance. I was going to write a story, I said, and I might even get a full set of teeth in the process.
I wouldn’t be getting the advance.
Ida, said my editor, Phillene, don’t you think you could use a little time off?
No, I told her, I didn’t need time off. I needed teeth. I’d go to Mexico and write the story on spec. I’d make it work. Guarantees be damned.
At Los Algodones, I was the youngest person in line at the border checkpoint by at least two decades. The soldier manning the booth, however, appeared to be about twelve, a smudge of grease down his cheek, and a black assault rifle spanning the length of his body. He stared at me through the window. I didn’t smile, and neither did he. Instead, I averted my eyes. When I looked back, he was still staring.
If you’ve seen one border town along the stretch shared by California or Arizona and Mexico, you’ve pretty much seen them all. Tijuana, Tecate, Mexicali, and Nogales: a haphazard maze of streets lined with Dr. Seussian palms, with fronds that explode from their fat, fuzzy trunks. The streets turn to dirt as they wind into the shanties. There’s exposed concrete and corrugated tin, rebar covered with plastic two-liter soda bottles, buildings painted with brilliant purples or greens and caged in with bars, with words painted on the side to mark the businesses, usually abarrotes, birrieria, helados, or cerveza.
In Los Algodones those words are Pharmacy, Complete Dental Care, or Maxillofacial Surgery. Men in button-ups with oversized ties bark at you from the street corner. Flick-flick, they tap a card and hand it to you. It’s a coupon for a cleaning, for a root canal, for fillings.
“Mira, mira,” the men call. “Very good dentist, here. Very cheap.”
Before I left San Francisco, I’d made an appointment to speak with Ignacio Monzo at the offices of La Alianza de los Dentistas de Los Algodones (The Los Algodones Dentists’ Alliance), a group of paid officials charged with keeping the town’s good reputation among foreigners who come for treatments. It was Monzo, a PR man for the Alliance, who’d come up with the idea of the Dental Retreat, in which, for a price, you are massaged and mud-bathed, fed culinary delicacies and aged tequilas, all in between that high whine of the root canal drill. When I arrived at the Alliance’s office, a small adobe just over the border, Monzo was there to greet me with a wide smile of brilliant bleached teeth. This first impression, I imagined, was his initial selling point.
“Señorita Swinburne,” he said, ushering me toward a chair opposite his own. “You must call me Nacho,” he said. “It is the nickname of Ignacio.” Nacho was large and fleshy, wore thick-framed glasses and a black mustache streaked white on one corner.
Over the next hour or so Monzo told me about the town, but he seemed most at home talking about the Alliance itself. He explained that like the health system in the States, the Alliance was responsible for creating the “approved marketplace” of dentists and surgeons.
“The process for entry is very complicated,” he said. “With much questioning of the dentist.”
“Isn’t that what school is for?” I asked. “Degrees?”
“What you say is true,” Monzo said. “And this, I think, shows the dentists have learned something. Here in Los Algodones we want our dentists to have something more. They represent us. It is important they are endorsed.”
“What happens,” I asked, “if someone is practicing in town without the blessing of the Alliance?”
Here, Monzo crossed his legs and leaned back. “These exist,” he said, interlocking his fingers. “We must make a safe place for our patients. They must have confidence. They must trust. If a dentist we do not know makes that goal difficult for us, well . . .” He dropped his hands.
“Well?” I said.
“You know what comes after.”
“I’m not sure I do.”
“I think maybe you do.” He wore a cagey, self-satisfied grin, as if this were the cleverest thing he’d said all week.
“You make it difficult for them?” I said.
“These are your words,” he said. “Not ours.”
Monzo gave me a map of the Alliance’s approved practitioners. It was a streamlined tourism operation. Drugs and equipment flowed into the town from manufacturers in Mexico with little overhead, and the dentists and pharmacies were able to pay those low prices forward to their patients. It all cost a fraction of what it would in the United States, and it was just a few hundred yards over the border.
The man who’d attacked me back in San Francisco was named Ronald Munch. At the arraignment he stood stoic. His lawyer, a squat man in an ill-fitting tan suit, entered an insanity plea. Munch stood over six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a thick forehead. According to the lawyer, Munch was a diagnosed schizophrenic who had stopped taking his meds after a series of side effects made him ill. Now he was medicated again, and the lawyer requested that he be remanded to the custody of a Fremont psychiatric hospital near his parents’ home so they could offer him the support he needed.
As the lawyer spoke of the parents, he opened an outstretched arm to a couple sitting behind him, as if revealing the showcase on The Price Is Right. The parents: bespectacled and huddled together. When they weren’t looking across the courtroom at me plaintively, they stared straight ahead. I snatched glances at them, careful not to meet their eyes. I didn’t want their pity, but there was something about them that made me look. The state’s prosecutor had privately advised me to sue this couple in order to pay down my debts to the hospital. But looking at them, the great bags under Mrs. Munch’s eyes hanging to the floor, and Mr. Munch’s head bowing heavily, lacking the most basic vigor to resist gravity, I didn’t see this as a noble option. They were the emotionally beleaguered parents of a son with mental illness. It was clear to me Ronald Munch had filled their lives with enormous sadness. He, however, stood erect with his hands cuffed in front of him, and didn’t look my way at all.
I walked the streets of Los Algodones, searching the map that Monzo had given me. I tried to pick an implant specialist at random, dropping my finger over a name. Each time, however, the name didn’t appeal to me. After several stabs at this, it occurred to me that all the names on the list were those of men. Growing up, my family dentist had been a man—I remember him as affable and charming—and it had never bothered me in the slightest. But at that moment the thought of lying back in a chair with a guy’s hands crammed into my mouth made me feel nauseated and jittery.
I folded the map under my arm and turned down a gravel alley where low-slung tarps hung over a table piled with paperbacks. Behind the table sat an old man in a cowboy hat. Two men in the back of a pickup parked across the alley hissed at me, sounding like they were failing to whistle through their teeth. I walked quickly past the truck, looking straight ahead, to the books piled atop the table.
“Guera!” one of the men called out from the truck. I knew this word to mean something like blondie. I was not blonde. “Hello, Guera!” he called again. I heard his feet hit the gravel. I made a show of ignoring him, perusing the books on the table. The old man in the cowboy hat smiled at me, and I forced a closed-mouth smile back. “Gringa!” the man behind me said. “Good afternoooooon, Griiinga.” The muscles in my jaw tensed, and I tongued at my naked gums, cursing myself for turning down the alley. It seemed both silly and exactly right to make a run for it.
Just as my pursuer reached the table where I stood, a short woman in a white smock appeared from behind a little Toyota hatchback, in her hands a paper plate of steaming asada with rice and radishes. Her eyes darted, grasping and quick, as she spoke to the man behind me in rapid-fire Spanish. I picked up almost none of what she said, but it was clear that it amounted to a string of abuse aimed at the man. I turned to look at him. His face was round and puffy like a speed-bag. He’d stopped in his tracks, and he began slowly backing up, his hands raised.
“Que bárbaro!” the woman said. “Que vergüenza, cabrón!”
“Perdón, señora,” said the man, still backing away. “Esta bien. Esta bien.”
The woman stood no taller than five feet. She shooed the man with the back of one hand, and soon he was around the corner and gone.
“I’m very sorry for the rudeness,” the woman said to me in English. “Men here in Los Algodones sometimes forget there’s such a thing as shame.”
“Not just here,” I said. She smiled.
“You are a lover of books?” she said, nodding to the table of paperbacks.
I told her yes, I was, that I’d come to Los Algodones to write an article about my experience with the dentists here.
“Una escritora,” she said. “Que bueno. And how is your time so far with our dentistas?”
I admitted my day had been spent wandering, that I hadn’t found anyone who seemed right.
“Ah! But querida,” she said. “Here I am the right one for you.” Holding the plate of steaming meat in one hand, she placed the other over her chest. “Doctora Rocío Solis. I will not be on your paper. I am the specialist.” She stepped out from behind the table, looking up to my mouth. “You need a specialist, yes? This I can see already.” She set her plate down on the books. “May I?” she said. Without waiting for a response, she placed her hands on either side of my jaw.
I opened my mouth, and Dra. Solis assessed the damage. “Si,” she said in a low voice. “Si, si, si.” She dropped her hands. “I will fix you. This beautiful face will be new. You will see, querida.” Her face showed such concern, but she wouldn’t hold my gaze long, instead returning to her food.
“You live here?” I said, meaning the house behind her.
“No. Doña Maribel. My sister, in a way of speaking. She prepares for me a lunch because I am a very busy woman.” With that, plate in hand, she walked down the alley toward the thoroughfare on the other side. “Come now,” she said. “My place is just here.”
Her office was spare and overlooked a traditional, Spanish-style courtyard, lush with banana trees, vanilla orchids, and wisteria. On the walk I’d explained that I needed implants and that I didn’t have a lot of money.
“You have made the right decision,” she said, though I hadn’t exactly made a decision. “For implants we are the best in all America. And Doctora Solis is the best at this procedure. We are lucky you have found me.”
As I looked over the necessary forms, Dra. Solis took a spray bottle to the plants, paying meticulous attention to each leaf. She sat me in the dentist’s chair and took another look at my mouth. The office was cluttered with woven baskets and copper gourds and painted wooden figurines of naked men with jaguar heads. What appeared to be a human skull acted as a paperweight on her little desk in the corner. From a drawer she removed a lead bib and secured it across my chest and shoulders, then wheeled over the x-ray machine and clicked it on.
“We have much good work to do,” she said, examining the results. “You will stay here in my guest room. At the hotels here in Los Algodones, they tell you to pay, pay, pay. They think you are a fool.” She extended her hand and rubbed her thumb over her fingers as she said this. “Here, I know you are not a fool. It is only a small price for the room.”
I asked how long the procedure would take.
“Tomorrow we will begin,” she explained. The implants would arrive from Mexico City two or three days after she sent out the x-rays. “After this, the work is short.”
That night, Doña Maribel came to the house with Tupperware filled with rice, beans, carnitas, and tortillas. Doña Maribel, like Dra. Solis, was a small woman. A row of gold caps gleamed in her mouth. Her long, black hair was braided in two pleats that rested over the lapels of an old army jacket she wore. She came from the same region in the central highlands as Dra. Solis, and the Doctora explained to me that when they’d met many years ago, they knew right away they should have been sisters.
“I always wanted to have a sister,” I said. “A partner in crime.”
“Doña Maribel is this, yes,” Dra. Solis said. “My true hermana. But it is good she has not my father.” The two women laughed at this.
Dra. Solis told me the story of running away from her father’s home in Uruapan, in the Mexican state of Michoacán, at the age of fourteen.
Her mother died during childbirth. Growing up, Dra. Solis was beaten frequently by her father, an avocado farmer with a small orchard. At night he would turn sullen, and would come to her bed, laying himself beside her in the darkness, pressing his hot tears to her face.
“You are a woman,” Dra. Solis said to me, “so you know how the men are.” She mashed a flat palm against her cheek and laughed. “He comes to me always with apologies. I still feel the old bastard pushing to my face,” she said. “Que bárbaro!”
The morning she left home, the sky was distant and red. She felt grateful, even as a teenager, looking up that last time through the rows of avocado trees and seeing the beauty of her father’s land.
I pictured her as a lonely silhouette against the sunrise, no more than a child, clutching in her little hands a bindle hastily tied off at the corners filled with avocados and sweet bread.
Dra. Solis raised her can of Modelo to mine. “Salúd,” she said. “Que salubridad te recoja, y un burro te coja.” My crude understanding of Spanish usually sufficed in a border town like Los Algodones, but this toast was tough to puzzle out. “May the health services take you,” Dra. Solis translated, “and may you be fucked by a donkey.” She pumped her fist in a lewd uppercut motion as she said this last bit. She laughed wildly, and we drank our beers.
Doña Maribel was making tacos on Dra. Solis’s range.
“I am Mexicana,” Dra. Solis said. “But I don’t learn to cook. Because I have run away from home in my life, I don’t do what other women do.”
I admitted I didn’t cook well either.
“This is modern,” Dra. Solis said. I wondered how much Doña Maribel understood. She took small sips from her Modelo, showing me her gold teeth each time I snuck a glance in her direction. All the while Dra. Solis continued telling me her history.
At the shore of Lake Pátzcuaro, young Solis hitches passage on a fishing boat to Tzintzuntzan, then begs her way onto a lorry bound for the state capital, Morelia. Once in the capital, she learns to be proficient at survival. She twists copper wiring into earrings and sells them across southern Mexico. She lives in the jungles of Chiapas for a time with Subcomandante Marcos’s Zapatistas. In Belize, I see her teaching scuba diving to tourists, and picking up English and French along the way. At a hostel in Bocas del Toro, Panama, she falls in love with a blond boy named Adrian, a Swiss engineering student taking a year off in the Americas. They spend that year traveling through Central America and Mexico, living together in beachside bungalows and small apartments. Except occasionally on the television in Uruapan’s central arcade, she has never seen skin so white as Adrian’s, and she’s excited by the contrast of her brown hands against his pale thighs. Each night the crashing of waves plays background to their lovemaking, and every morning they awake farther north, inching closer to the U.S. border.
The day finally comes when Adrian is to cross into California and fly back to Switzerland to finish his studies. At the U.S.–Mexico line, the two lovers vow to each other they’ll reunite. “We are very tearful,” Dra. Solis told me, running her fingers down her cheeks, her mouth curling down in an exaggerated mock-sob. “We are just children,” she said. “Making the promises of children.” Adrian stepped onto a bus heading up to Los Angeles, and his flight back to Zurich, leaving Solis, then age eighteen, to look on Tijuana, the unpaved roads and the stray dogs with ribcages bulging conspicuously, and consider the life of a poor girl alone without a home.
The story moved me. I thought of Dra. Solis as the most remarkable woman I’d ever met. Those years, she explained, were not easy. “Many times in my life I must fight.” She put up her fists in a boxer’s pose.
When I asked her how she’d come to study dentistry, she pointed to a cigar box on a shelf in the dining room.
“Letters,” she said. “From the boy, Adrian.” They’d written each other for many years. She’d originally enrolled in school in Ensenada to be a dental hygienist, a job lucrative enough to save money for a trip to Zurich. There, she and Adrian would be together as they’d promised each other.
Dra. Solis moved to her office and returned with a framed diploma from La Universidad de las Dentistas de Ensenada. “Many years I work,” she said. “And in those years the letters stop. And so I work more years. It is not something to feel sorry. Here in Mexico we are idealistic about many things. There are other lovers for me.” Doña Maribel was beside her, collecting our dishes. “The love of a boy who has nineteen years is not the same as the love that comes after.”
That night I lay awake in the guest room bed, the blankets kicked to the floor in the heat. Stray dogs yipped and howled somewhere far off. When I heard a roar of truck engines passing through the streets, I rose and went to the window. A caravan of military trucks packed with boys in fatigues rattled down the lane. In the darkness, I felt my way to the dining room. There, I found the cigar box Dra. Solis had pointed to earlier in the night. I can’t explain why, but I was driven by a powerful urge to look inside. Just a quick look, I thought. The story was so romantic, so charming. Just a word or two from this Swiss lover, Adrian, and I’d go to bed. But when I opened the box I found it filled with letters not from any boy named Adrian, but from someone named Miguel Alvarez. The letters were addressed to someone called Alma. The handwriting was poor, and it was nearly impossible to read in the dark, but I could see the letters were signed: Te amo mi querida, Papa. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I felt something stir in the darkness. I placed the box back on the shelf and returned to my room.
Again I lay in the dark, now unsure of all I’d thought true of this woman. Why mention the letters at all if they weren’t from Adrian? Why point to the box?
As sleep overtook me, a vision came into my mind: I was a young girl running through the avocado trees as fast as my feet could carry me. I didn’t know where I was running to, but the feeling that I was finally safe blanketed me, and I drifted to sleep.
I didn’t leave Dra. Solis’s home. I can’t say why, it wouldn’t make any sense, only that I awoke to Dra. Solis’s beautiful singing voice floating through the house. I followed the sound to the doorway of her office, where she sat preparing her instruments for the procedure. When she saw me there, she showed me a smile that brightened her whole face.
“You have slept well, yes?” she said. I nodded.
I won’t give a play-by-play of the surgery. Due to the heavy doses of anesthesia needed to dull the pain that accompanies drilling screws into one’s jaw, my account would be less than precise anyway. Dra. Solis existed at times as the wielder of the torturous instruments that buzzed and screamed and vibrated my skull until my brain itched. Other times she was a floating silhouette singing gorgeous, somber melodies. Streams of blood flowed into the porcelain, and in it I saw a sky distant and red.
I came out of the dream in waves. Each moment that I imagined myself thinking clearly, another veil was lifted, and the room came into sharper focus. Through the window I saw Dra. Solis sitting in the courtyard smoking a cigarette. She looked worn and tranquil, her eyes following the smoke as it passed upward through the afternoon sun angling across the wall. The thought came to me that in just days I would have my mouth back. I would be human again. I pulled the little mirror over and opened my mouth, surprised at how little pain I felt. My breath caught when I saw my reflection. Not only was I missing half my teeth, but now four metal screws jutted from my naked gums. Another veil lifted, and I wondered if thinking myself healed in just a few days was all a delusion.
Nacho Monzo called to say he’d checked around and learned I hadn’t contacted any of the implant specialists on the Alliance’s list. I agreed to meet with him that afternoon at a bar called Los Seguaros on Avenida Independencia.
Los Seguaros was clearly designed for tourists. The pool out back, the cabana-style, wrap-around bar, and the palm palapas resembled a beachside cantina in Acapulco rather than the desert in Baja Norte. I ordered a cheap chardonnay from the bartender, a young man with a kind face.
When Monzo arrived, I explained to him that I’d chosen a specialist on my own. It occurred to me that I’d said this as if I were defending to an auto mechanic why I’d chosen a particular brand of tires.
He squinted at me incredulously. “And tell me, what is this specialist’s name?” he said.
I told him about Dra. Solis. “She received her degree in Ensenada,” I said. “She really does wonderful work.” I was aware, however, that I had little idea whether this was wonderful work or not. It was, in fact, a macabre sight. Hadn’t Monzo said the Alliance was in Los Algodones to make patients safe? I couldn’t explain why I hadn’t listened to him.
Monzo stroked the white hairs of his mustache. “Where did you say is this woman’s office?” The way Monzo said this woman struck me as some sort of accusation.
“Just tell me,” I said. “Her work is quality, isn’t it?” Reluctantly, I leaned forward and opened my mouth, my jaw aching as I did.
Monzo removed his glasses and wiped them on the hem of his shirt. Replacing them, he too leaned forward. “I wish you followed the advice I gave to you,” he said.
My ears felt hot. I closed my mouth. “Tell me,” I said. “Just tell me. Have I made a mistake?”
“Señorita,” he said. “I am not a dentista. I don’t know this. I know only that this woman is not endorsed. We must have a look at her, yes?”
A large, pink woman wrapped in a towel entered from the patio. She placed a set of dentures on the bar.
“I found these in the pool,” she said loudly, as if the bartender were hard of hearing.
The bartender looked down at the dentures, then up at the woman. “What have you done with the rest of him?” he said. His full mouth of braces caught a bit of afternoon light as he smiled. It was unclear whether the woman was taken aback by the bartender’s English or by his response.
“No. You don’t understand,” she said quickly. “Ain’t no one else out there.” She looked to the patio, as if now a toothless man might materialize in the water and exonerate her. When she left, the bartender smiled at me and shrugged. I shrugged too and excused myself from Monzo.
“Be careful, joven,” he said. “This doctora is not approved.”
“I’ll let you know what I decide,” I told him.
That night at Dra. Solis’s, Doña Maribel set ouyt plates of orange slices powdered with worm salt and chile, and poured mescal into tin cups. Doña Maribel explained in hushed, impeccably enunciated Spanish that mescal was in all cases to be shared with friends, with sal de gusano, and oranges.
“With friends,” Dra. Solis said. “To sit in a home and drink is to share trust.” She took a sip. “Salúd,” she said to me with a tone drowsy, verging on morose. “To your health.”
The chili stung my gums, and the mescal felt worse. I asked Dra. Solis when the set of false teeth might arrive from Mexico City.
“The time is unpredictable,” she said, uninterested.
I asked her what she knew of the Dentists’ Alliance. Her mouth twisted.
“Facistas,” she said. “What care is it of the true person who approves? We—you, Doña Maribel, and I—are people of truth. That man you speak to today, that pinche cabrón Monzo, he cares only for men to approve. He cares only for oligarchy.” She let fly a string of curses in Spanish.
“How did you know?” I asked. I explained to her that I’d spoken with Monzo about my article, that this was before I’d ever come to know her. My voice had become thin, my tone defensive.
“What help can that man give you?” Dra. Solis said. “You write an article about what, about your teeth? Who can read such a thing? You are a woman who loves beauty. Where is the beauty in a story like this?”
“Toma,” Doña Maribel said, raising her glass to me. Drink. “No te precupas.” Don’t worry. “You have the look of worry, but understand nothing. Aqui en Mexico, there are many worries. But here with la doctora. No hay.” There are none.
But how was I to trust Dra. Solis, when one minute she treated me with such genuine warmth and the next as if I were an enemy at her table? That night I snuck once again through the dark house to the dining room, intending to read the letters from the cigar box, to understand something. I felt my way across the shelf, but the box was gone. In its place was the skull from Dra. Solis’s desk.
Federales and U.S. border patrol SUVs swarmed Tecate-Mexicali Highway 2. I was driving the four hours west toward La Universidad de Las Dentistas de Ensenada, Dra. Solis’s alma mater. It was narco country, not the best place for an American to be driving alone. My eyes scanned the rearview mirror. Who could read a story about my teeth, Dra. Solis had asked derisively.
Back at the bus stop in San Francisco, Ronald Munch had grabbed me from behind and spun me, bringing his long, tube-like face so close to mine I saw the spittle in the corners of his mouth.
“It’s inside me!” he yelled. “I work out, but it doesn’t do shit.” I wrenched his fingers from my jacket and turned to run, but his fist connected with my ear and there was a ringing. I sprang from the ground and quickly lost balance, stumbling forward into the gutter. He was on top of me in no time, his eyes a stale-mayonnaise yellow. He shook me and punched me over and over until a man working the counter at a nearby liquor store tore him away. The man was Chinese or Korean maybe, and I remember him sobbing next to me as he waited for the ambulance to arrive, saying, “Help is on the way. Help is on the way.” Had circumstances been slightly different—had that man been in the back of his store loading the beer fridge, for example—Ronald Munch, off his meds and unable to determine what was real, might have beaten me to death.
At Tecate, I cut southwest on Highway 3 and wound my way through the desert to the seaside town of Ensenada. Past a row of motels and a boarded-up lobster shack sat the dentist school, a salt-worn, nondescript building with a stained-glass molar hanging from fishing wire over the door.
I identified myself as a journalist and apologized for my poor Spanish to the young girl at the desk. She tapped her impossibly long, painted fingernails against the counter. I asked her to please check the graduation records of Rocío Flora Solis.
“What do you want with Dra. Solis?” she said sourly.
“Do you know Dra. Solis?” I said.
“Of course. She’s a professor here.”
I stood staring, unsure what came next. “Is she here now?”
She squinted. “What did you say your name was?”
“Ida Swinburne,” I said. “I’m writing a story about Dra. Solis.”
I followed the girl’s directions down the hall. Through the window in the door, I saw a slender woman lecturing to the class. Her face was angular and hard. A man at a desk in the front row had fallen asleep, his thin glasses smashed against his face.
On my way out the girl asked me if I’d found her.
“A mistake,” I said. “Your Solis is not my Solis.”
Just then, an idea occurred to me. I asked her to check the records for Alma Alvarez, the girl to whom all those letters had been addressed.
“I’m not supposed to do that,” she said.
I smiled, placing my hand below the hole in my mouth for emphasis, feeling the in-suck of cool air. “Please,” I said. “I need your help. It’s important that I know.”
She typed, told me no one by that name had graduated from the college. “But,” she said. “A student called Alma Alvarez came here for four years. She left in 2004.”
“Left?” I said. “What do you mean, left? Dropped out?”
“Doesn’t say,” she said. “The records just stop. Like she disappeared. What’s this about?”
“I don’t know,” I told her. “I’m trying to find out.”
I drove north from Ensenada, wending my way up the coast instead of heading immediately inland. I saw myself driving straight through Tijuana, through San Diego, flooring it the five hundred miles to the Bay Area. Once back in San Francisco, I’d open a couple new credit cards, or I’d launch some kind of Internet pity campaign to get myself some new teeth, whatever it would take to avoid veering east toward Los Algodones. And yet, when I thought of Los Algodones, I saw Dra. Solis and Doña Maribel at the table pouring mescal and telling stories of resilience and beauty.
I made it back to the house a bit after nightfall. Doña Maribel was preparing menudo. Traditionally, she said, menudo is breakfast food, but since I would be entering the last phase of surgery tomorrow, we would eat it tonight in celebration.
“Does this mean the teeth arrived?” I asked.
“The doctora says this, yes.”
“Where is the doctora now?”
“She’s not here, in this moment.”
“She’s a good doctor, yes?” I said.
Doña Maribel stopped her preparations and looked at me. “To worry, to worry, to worry,” she said. “You are always to worry.”
For a long while that night Doña Maribel and I ate the menudo more or less in silence. At one point in the middle of the meal Doña Maribel stood at the window and peered out to the street, then sat again.
“How did it happen?” she asked, pointing to her teeth but clearly meaning mine.
It occurred to me that she was the first person to ask me this since I’d arrived in Los Algodones.
“A real son of a bitch,” I said. She tapped her spoon on the table and nodded as if she understood entirely.
“You are like me and la doctora,” she said, clearing the dishes. “To survive.”
“What is la doctora’s name?” I said. “Her real name.”
“I call her la doctora. This is her name.”
Dra. Solis didn’t arrive at the house until very late. I awoke to a crash of some sort in the kitchen. I heard ice land in a glass. She whispered and shushed, but there was no other voice. I rose and dressed in the dark, and went out through the side door to the patio. Through the window I saw Dra. Solis sitting at the table with the bottle of mescal in front of her, a glass in her hand.
She sipped at the glass, and her head swayed. She let her eyes drift closed. I entered through the kitchen door.
“Doctora?” I said.
Her eyes opened only slightly. “Querida,” she said. “My darling one. We must not tell Doña Maribel that I am drinking mescal alone. It is only to drink with friends.”
I retrieved a glass from the kitchen and poured the mescal. “Que salubridad te recoja,” I said.
“Have the teeth come?” I asked.
“Don’t now think only of yourself, querida.”
I sipped my mescal.
“Si,” she said after a moment. “I will fix you. Just as I say. I am the best in this procedure.”
She stood, her fingertips set on the table to hold her from swaying. She left the kitchen through the patio, saying, Espera, espera. Wait. I watched her through the window as she entered her office on the other side and rummaged through some things at her desk. When she returned through the patio, again she said, Espera, espera. She’d retrieved a box, which she placed between us on the table. She gulped her mescal and topped off her glass before sitting, sliding the box toward me. I drank, trying not to appear too eager.
Again Dra. Solis smiled.
I opened the box and removed its contents, an object about the size of a fist wrapped tightly in plastic. I tore away the plastic to reveal the other half of my mouth, a set of acrylic false fronts. Air rushed over my gums as I smiled.
“Oh, doctora,” I said. “They’re beautiful!”
Across the table I saw my own reflection in the darkened, nighttime window. I held the teeth next to my face. It was difficult to picture these teeth inside my mouth, but I was so overwhelmed with relief that I pushed thoughts of whether they were exactly right out of my mind. If the teeth were here, the teeth must fit.
Please let the teeth fit.
“It is just as I say,” Dra. Solis told me. Her head slumped forward, her eyes drooping again. Retrieving the teeth was the last burst of energy she was capable of for the night, and after a moment sitting quietly at the table, I would have thought her asleep except for her soft humming of a tune I didn’t recognize.
“It’s not just a story about my teeth,” I told her.
“Si,” she said. “I know, querida.” She smiled wearily.
I told her about the attack, and she shook her head softly. I told her about lying in the gutter, seeing my teeth in a pool of blood that seemed entirely too dark and too profuse. I remembered thinking they were survivors of a shipwreck, out there in the cold waiting for someone to come for them. Slowly and with much effort, I’d dragged my hand across the concrete, and, closing one eye, collected the teeth into my palm.
She was silent.
“Alma?” I said softly.
She kept her eyes closed as if she didn’t hear me, but I could tell that she had by the way she raised one hand, letting it float through the air as if some music were guiding its pattern.
In the morning, I awoke to a feeling of anxiety and a dull pain in my neck and head from clenching my jaw while asleep. This was something I did after too much booze. I stood, shaky on my feet, and walked to the patio. The sunlight poured down, oppressive and full. Through the window was Dra. Solis, or whatever her name was, preparing her instruments in a slow manner, whether with care or lethargy I couldn’t be sure.
When she looked up and saw me in the patio, she smiled—a soft smile full of fondness. I entered the office and stood above the chair. Dra. Solis washed her hands, snapped on her gloves, and tightened the elastic strap on her paper mask. I wandered around the room for a moment, to the desk with the figurines, to the shelf with the old skull. In the full light of day, I could see it was a plaster mold, not a real skull at all. I sat.
“Ready, querida?” she asked. “Let’s begin. We have much work to do, yes?”
I angled the chair back, closing my eyes against the overhead light, and, feeling the doctora close to me, opened my mouth.