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Essay Online

Damages

By Sabrina Orah Mark

  • August 08, 2022
Henry Hargreaves and Amirah Kassem

In October 2021, about sixty days before my house burned down, my husband found a tooth in his donut. I had bought a pumpkin donut for my son Noah and a chocolate donut for my husband at the Dunkin’ Donuts. Only Noah, not his brother Eli for a reason I cannot remember, was home from school that day. The tooth was a molar. “Look at this,” said my husband. The tooth, spotted with chocolate or decay or both, looked like a crown for a tiny dethroned king. “No,” I said. I took a step away. “Please tell me that’s not a tooth.” But it was a tooth. In the early afternoon sunlight Noah, horrified too, quietly dug through his donut looking for a tooth because if there is a tooth in your father’s donut, chances rise (emotionally) that there’s a tooth in yours too. What once was Noah’s treat quickly became a pile of crumbs, a mound of bad rubble. “I’ve lost my appetite,” said Noah. We all have. We have all lost our appetites. Possibly forever.

So what happens next? My husband goes to teach. I am writing down the facts as I remember them, though the crown that isn’t a crown but a tooth has brought with it a tiny dethroned king. He is now here too. There is no way around him. He’s just sitting here waiting for a name. I could ignore him. I could offer him a glass of milk. I could return his crown. I could say he looks nothing like my husband, though they do both have the same large, brown eyes. How does a story get built? If not for the interlopers, the plot would lie flat in a world we know is round. The plot would just be a body waiting to be buried.

The tiny dethroned king is staring at me. He wants a name. I have a weak spot for imaginary, fallen men. See? Now we’re getting somewhere. By spending a little more time with the dethroned king (who is a fiction born out of a simile) I am rummaging through my own complicated truth. “Look at this,” said my husband. He had bitten into a donut and where there should’ve been more donut there was a tooth. Is this a sign of ruin to come? Is this stranger’s tooth the first piece of rubble to clatter out of my house that will soon burn down?  “God, that’s so gross,” one of us said. “It’s the creepiest thing!” Did Noah and I clutch each other and scream? I feel like we probably did. My husband left us to teach his dystopian science fiction course. I think that day they were discussing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which I have never read.

Dear Dunkin,
I purchased two donuts from Dunkin’ Donuts on Wednesday, October 6th for my son and husband. A pumpkin donut, and a chocolate donut. To our horror, when my husband bit into the chocolate donut he discovered there was a TOOTH INSIDE. We are all completely ill from this experience. Needless to day, we hope you will let me know immediately how this traumatizing experience can be remedied. We look forward to your prompt response.
Attached is a photo.

I attach a photo of the tooth on top of the paper Dunkin’ Donuts bag beside the chocolate donut. I don’t realize I wrote “needless to day,” instead of “needless to say” until after I hit send.

I want my traumatized experience to be remedied. I want to be paid for my damages, though the damages are not really these damages. They are old damages. And in only two months they will be future damages. I want to be paid for all my damages, even though the damages in question are not even my damages. They are really my husband’s damages. He was the one with another man’s tooth in his mouth. But also my husband’s damages are far older than these damages. They are greater than one thousand teeth in one thousand donuts. But if Dunkin’ will pay for all our damages, we will gladly take the money. If Dunkin’ will pay for all the times we ever thought we were getting one thing but got another we will, trying not to smile, quickly cash the check. I text my mother about the tooth in the donut. “Lawsuit,” she writes back. We are going to be rich, like the dethroned king once was. We are going to be compensated for our mental anguish.

I text my friend Amy. I text my brothers. I text my father, and my friend Kristen, and my friend Amber, and I text my sister-in-laws. “Oh my god,” everyone says. All my friends and family are in a glorious uproar. “That’s so fucking gross,” we all cheer. Everyone is texting everyone. We are all lit up. It’s a wonderful story. It’s like a party. MY HUSBAND BIT INTO A DONUT AND THERE WAS A TOOTH INSIDE. “No way,” says everybody. “Yes way,” I say. I am the belle of the ball.

I have still told you nothing about my house burning down. That won’t happen for another two months. This is what you might refer to as a hook. In the meantime, I have three possible names for the dethroned king: Phil, Frank, and Claude. I am leaning towards Claude.

“Guess what?” says my husband. He has just returned from teaching a three-hour class. “What?” I ask. “It was my tooth.” “No it wasn’t. Oh god,” I say. He hadn’t realized. It was a molar all the way in the very, very, very back. He didn’t even feel it fall out, but while he was teaching fiction about global nuclear war and endangered animals he felt a hole. “But I texted everyone,” I say, more concerned about the vitality of my story than the hole in my husband’s mouth. “Oh well,” he says. “You need to go to the dentist,” I say.

I text my mother and I text my friend Amy. I text my brothers. I text my father, and my friend Kristen, and my friend Amber, and I text my sister-in-laws. “You are not going to believe this,” I say.

Hello Sabrina,
Thank you for contacting us about your experience at the Dunkin’ restaurant in Athens, GA.
We take matters like this seriously and will alert the independent franchise owner and our field operations team to let them know what happened. We have requested that the franchisee follow up with you directly to learn more about your experience and to try to address the situation. Please allow two business days for the franchisee or store representative to reach out. If you do not receive a follow-up after two business days, please reply to this email to let us know.
We have very high standards for guest satisfaction, and we are sorry that the restaurant let you down. We hope you’ll give Dunkin’ another chance and come back again soon!
Thanks again for taking time out of your day to let us know.
Seamus
Support Center Coordinator

The story was spreading, smoldering. And here is where it catches. Here is where it begins to spread, I’m sorry, like a house on fire.

Let me stop for one moment to explain two problems that arise when your house burns down:

1. Even after your house burns down, your house never really ever stops burning down.

2. In the earliest hours of a December morning, you will stand outside in your stupid see-through Walmart nightgown and watch your house burn down. You will hold your sons. Your one-hundred-year-old big blue house will burn and burn while something inside you made of paper disappears. Something fragile with a message. Something about what it feels like to lose what once kept you safe and sound. Something about the suddenness of having nowhere to go. Your husband will still have a hole in his mouth, and you will want to crawl inside this hole with your sons, where it’s warm, but you won’t be able to.

Hello, Sabrina.
Jacob here from Dunkin’ Donuts in Athens GA.
I am reaching out to you about your recent visit to our location regarding the donuts.
Please give me a ring when time permits to address it appropriately for you.
I look forward to hearing from you.
thx
Jacob

What a beautiful sentence: Please give me a ring when time permits to address it appropriately for you. My whole life I’ve been waiting for this sentence. The first half is practically iambic: please give me a ring / when time permits. But do I tell Jacob? Should I ask him if he has the same large brown eyes as my husband and Claude? You see what’s happening? One story is becoming another story. I am thick with shame. “Why are you ashamed?” asks my husband. “It was my tooth.”

Hello Jacob,
I have identified the owner of the tooth we discovered in your donut and taken appropriate action. No further action on your part is required.
Be well,
SOM

Jacob writes back.

Hi, Sabrina.
WHo does it belong to?

Jacob capitalized the w and the h of “who,” which gave the WHo the slightest trace of a proper noun. As if Jacob already knows exactly who this “WHo” is. A man with large brown eyes who began as a reality, but ended as a fiction. Maybe like all of us? Don’t we all begin as real, but end up as a story? Or maybe Jacob thinks this “WHo” is me, or you, or the dead man who built our house one hundred years ago, or maybe just for a second Jacob feels around his own mouth, or maybe WHo is short for WHole, or a misspelled hole? The tooth belongs to the hole and the hole belongs to us. Here we come, Jacob. Not only did we find the owner of the tooth, we found the owner of all the holes. It’s all of us. We’ll be there soon.

Do I write back to Jacob? I do not. I am hiding under the bed. Jacob wants to know WHo the tooth belongs to.

Except I do write back, not in real life, but here:

Listen, Jacob, life is complicated. Sometimes recognizing the teeth far back in our mouths feels impossible. What belongs to us feels like an interloper. What we believe is a stranger’s sometimes has existed inside us all along.

Jacob has my full name and I have Jacob’s. He could easily come and knock on my door. I am listed. WHo does it belong to? At first he’d be friendly, but then when I refused to say WHo the tooth belongs to he might get a little red. He might, as they say, get a little hot under the collar. “Is this some sort of practical joke, ma’am. Because I am not interested in practical jokes.” It is even possible Claude has come with him, though I expect Claude is waiting in the car. I would wave at Claude, like I would at an old friend. Hi Claude. Beautiful, brown-eyed Claude. “Jacob,” he might call. “Sweetheart.” “Come back here. You’re upsetting that old lady.” In this story I am very old. In this story I am one hundred years old, as old as my burned-down house.

Listen, Jacob, We just wanted something sweet. And we thought the sweetness you sold us was tainted with another man’s pain. But it was our pain, Jacob. It was ours.

There are these stories way back in our mouths we didn’t even know belonged to us. Sixty days before my house burned down, my husband found a tooth in his donut. I even had notes toward this tooth-in-the-donut story that were all turned into ash on my desk. But if you rearrange all the ash – like I am doing here – the ash spells out pieces of this story instead. My house burning down is a tooth in my whole family’s mouth we never thought would belong to us. But there it is. The first crack. The first tiny crackle. Something catches. Something falls out of us. Who do you belong to, we ask the tooth? And the tooth says, I belong to you. I have been here for the whole entire time. You just didn’t know it. But now you know. And now everything has changed.

 

Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of two book-length poetry collections The Babies and Tsim Tsum, as well as a collection of stories, Wild Milk. Her poetry and stories most recently appear in American Short Fiction, The Bennington Review,  and Tin House. Happily, her collection of essays on fairytales and motherhood, which began as a monthly column in The Paris Review, is forthcoming from Random House.