Metro Weekly

Will O’Bryan: Tooth in Politics

A root-canal reminder tempers the good news out of Atlanta.

Photo by @colourblindkevin / Unsplash

My tooth hurts. Technically, I suppose the pain is in the gums. It goes back to a 1999 tumble that ended with a root canal. Though, these decades later, I am in pain, so it never really ended with a root canal, did it? My pain is reminding me to not to take much pleasure in the coup cabal’s Fulton Co. mugshots. The arrests are absolutely warranted and overdue. But they’re really just housekeeping, and housekeeping is a job you’ll never finish.

This is the lesson my mouth is teaching me.

At the end of the millennium, I was already experiencing a mental malaise, mourning my sister who had died of melanoma, leaving behind a husband and four kids, aged toddler to tween. Nine years my senior, she had been a sort of surrogate mother.

Meanwhile, my relationship of five years had collapsed. I was facing the midlife drama of my 30th birthday and whatever was to accompany “Y2K.” I dated a new boy, who was stable. I left him for an unstable boy who dumped me.

It was a loaded time. Accordingly, I tended to get a bit loaded myself. I wasn’t a complete mess, notably. I did start seeing an actual therapist, who soothed me. But she couldn’t mend me in the couple days following the unstable boy’s change of heart. Rather, I went out for a night on the town with friends.

By the end of the evening, I had face-planted after tripping on a speed bump, slightly chipping off one front tooth, while entirely shearing off its neighbor right at the gumline. Good thing I was wasted, otherwise I imagine it would’ve hurt like the dickens.

The pain didn’t really set in till the morning after. Still in the evening’s club clothes as I’d not made it home, likely reeking of smoke, I spent the morning in an orthodontist’s chair getting a root canal. God bless the publisher of Portland’s Queer paper of the time, Just Out, my employer, for pulling some Pink Mafia strings and getting me right in.

This was the grand finale of fuck-ups that pushed me to moving back to D.C. All my instincts were yelling at me to shed this skin of my twenties and focus. Say goodbye to the crunchy, granola goodness of the Pacific Northwest and hello to the bureaucratic wonkiness of Washington. So, that is what I did, landing back in D.C. in August of ’99 with a fancy new crown resting atop my severed tooth’s root.

In January 2005, I learned that the root canal had an encore.

Initially, I reckoned I might have a sinus infection that was putting pressure on a nebulous area around my upper lip. The perpetual dull soreness was hardly abated by Tylenol or compresses.

While I am remarkably prompt, I often have shitty timing, as in this unfolding drama. The pain in my face very slowly but steadily intensified. Meanwhile, a snowstorm was heading to the area. And the city was preparing for George W. Bush’s second inauguration. Amid the looming complications, my D.C. dentist graciously made time for me. My mouth, however, was not offering any sign of distress. There was nothing he could do for me. My regular doctor suggested an urgent-care outpost, as the snow and inaugural street closures convinced him to ditch work and hide out at home in Virginia. Maybe more Tylenol?

The next day, Inauguration Day, the man I would eventually marry sent a photo into Metro Weekly advising I would not be coming in. The photo illustrated how overnight one side of my face had ballooned. So much for analgesics. I would need the urgent-care center after all. There, a hypothesis was offered that my root canal might be acting up these years later. Also on offer was an IV of antibiotics that reversed the condition of my ballooning head.

I was under the impression that a root canal was a one-and-done sort of operation. I was wrong. Some days later, in the chair of an oral surgeon, the root in question needed to again be scraped clean from the inside. She offered an explanation along the lines of the initial root canal missing some little bit of pulpy meat, or whatever sits inside the root, due to my especially long roots. (Not that I like to brag….) She was confident in this hypothesis as when she removed the crown she said she got a whiff of rot. Which I truly did not need to know.

Now, a quarter century after my crazy and clumsy self-medicated soiree, my wound tells me once again it is not done with me. The gum is apparently receding somewhat around the artificial tooth. That can allow bacterial infections to — ahem — take root.

It reminds me not to take anything for granted. Trump and all his trolls could end up in jail for the rest of their lives. That would not be a final resolution. His judicial progeny have injected enough legal limbo into precedent that concern for the status of my marriage is warranted, regardless of whoever may be punished for attempting to morph our democracy into some kind of Pooty-esque thugocracy. And for the lot of them arrested in Atlanta, there are plenty more ready to charge toward authoritarianism. Or nationalism — whether Christian, white, or a creepy combination thereof.

Abortion, affirmative action, my marriage, democracy, and my root canal were things I have taken for granted. I’ve recently learned that Americans vote at about the same rate they go to the dentist. That’s about 65 percent both for turnout in the 2020 presidential election and adults who’d been to the dentist annually. At least for elections, that 65 percent better hold, if not improve. We can afford to lose a tooth or two. Our civil liberties, democracy and plain old progress, however, are irreplaceable.

Will O’Bryan is a former Metro Weekly managing editor, living in D.C. with his husband. He is online at

Support Metro Weekly’s Journalism

These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!