Monday, May 20, 2024 May 20, 2024
90° F Dallas, TX

The $32,000 Smile

How much would you pay for my veneers?
Photography by Billy Surface

I stopped brushing my teeth and looked in the mirror. Couldn’t be. I rinsed and leaned in for a better look. Unbelievable. In the middle of the night, someone had switched out my teeth with my dad’s. (My dad is in his 90s.) The four front teeth on the bottom were worn flat, a thin line of brown scoring the tops where the roots were starting to show. A starburst of hairline cracks spread over the yellowed surface of the two top front teeth, like faded scrimshaw on antique ivory. I was dressed in a suit and tie, but it was like my teeth were wearing the clothes I use to clean the garage.

Obviously, something had to be done. I couldn’t continue to present myself to the world like this. But I was too young for dentures, and the ads I’d seen for dental implants on billboards along the highway looked painful—titanium bolts in your jaw.

That left veneers. Except the problem with veneers is, they don’t look anything like teeth. Think Cheryl Hines on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Lovely lady, but her “teeth”—those big, square, and blindingly bright things—look like Chiclets that were pressed onto her real teeth in the makeup chair. She can barely close her mouth over them. I just couldn’t see myself sporting veneers, unless I planned to dust off my Ed Hardy shirts and hit the Dallas nightclub circuit again (and I shuddered, thinking of all the pushups that would require).

My line of work involves solving complex problems, generally after extensive and painstaking technical research. Some serious research was definitely in order here. I consulted my dentist friend over cocktails.

“So, veneers?”

“They’re awesome,” he said. “Look.” He opened his mouth wide.

“Dude!” I said, snapping my head back. (I’m not keen on looking into another man’s mouth.)

“Seriously,” he said, jutting his bottom jaw forward and curling his lips back. “These are veneers.”

I took a closer look, my mouth involuntarily opening and mimicking his. Anyone looking over at us in that instant would see two middle-aged men, seemingly squaring off in a silent teeth-baring growl. Bar fight!

“They look like real teeth,” I said.

“Well, duh. That’s the point.”

“But what about the giant white Chiclets?”

“Old school. These days, we try to make them look like actual teeth, but the teeth of a 20-year-old.”

“Say no more.”

Research done, problem solved, I made an appointment to go to his office and get the ball rolling. I even bought the next round.

The first visit involved making a plaster cast of my teeth—and a whole lot of talking on my dentist friend’s part, explaining the procedure and reciting the usual disclaimer crap. I suspect he mentioned price at some point, but I wasn’t paying attention. I was consumed with the color choice. The level of anxiety the decision engendered was surprising. These would be the teeth I would be walking around with, so it wasn’t like choosing the paint color for the front entryway, where you could call the painter back and have him redo it.

We looked at a lot of pictures. I understood the urge to go unnaturally white, seeing the brilliant smiles of the models laughing on the beach or talking into phones. My friend skillfully steered me away from Swan Wing White. We settled on Nantucket Cottage. He held up a tooth sample against my mouth.

“What do you think?” he said, turning my chair to face the mirror. It gave me a jolt. I felt the same queasy thrill as looking at an autopsy photo—revolting and fascinating at the same time. The sparkling white tooth was like a baby’s smooth bottom compared to the sagging, old crone’s version of the wine- and nicotine-stained chompers I’d been using to saw through porterhouses these past decades.
“Round up its brothers and sisters and put them in now!”

“Not quite that easy. We have to prepare your teeth to accept the veneers.”

Preparing my teeth, I learned, meant grinding them down to little nubs. The veneers themselves had to be sent away to be made at a lab based on the plaster cast of my teeth, but subtly shaped in a more pleasing form—twisted teeth turned straight, fangs brought low, worn-down teeth restored to their youthful height. I made another appointment.

If you’re at a point in your life where age, professional responsibilities, and kids have rendered recreational drug use impractical, then there’s something to be said for an afternoon spent in the dentist’s chair under light sedation: lying stretched out in an ergonomic chair, a fluffy pillow under your head, a blanket to keep you warm, and classic rock playing in your earphones. My friend’s habit of asking me questions while I had a block of rubber wedged between my back teeth didn’t annoy me in the least. (“How are the kids?” “Rare rine.” “Got vacation plans?” “Han-ha Harhera.”) The twilight bliss of the anesthesia kicked in, and the “Ah-ah-ahhh-aih! Ah-ah-ahhh-aih!” of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” made a nice contrapuntal with the whine of the high-speed drill bearing down on my teeth.

I awoke to talking and activity. The dental assistant was mopping up around my mouth. They had me up in a sitting position, and wanted me to rinse and spit. I went to run my tongue over my teeth, and it recoiled like a slug that had been salted. What was left were short, pencil-like pikes. I looked in the mirror and shuddered. Nosferatu grinned back at me. No changing my mind now.

They fitted me with temporary crowns, which actually looked pretty good, and I had to make yet another appointment to get the permanent veneers after they came back from the lab.

Veneer technology has progressed in the past two decades by about the same degree as the iPhone 5 outdoes the first PalmPilot. They’ve come up with a “feldspathic” process by which multiple layers of slightly different shades of porcelain are stacked and bonded to give the veneer a polychromatic character. The veneers are even slightly translucent near the edge of the tooth—like a real one.

I almost cried when I held up the mirror and saw my teeth for the first time. They were beautiful. My dentist friend had done a spectacular job, dental artistry at its highest level. I smiled at everyone I passed walking back to my car.

So, price. I ended up having 16 teeth done, including crowns on my molars to fix the unsightly 1960s-era mercury fillings. The bill shocked me. Thirty-two-odd thousand, or about two grand per tooth. I’m glad I wasn’t listening too closely when my dentist friend had floated that number, because I probably would have declined.

But I love my new teeth. It’s enormously liberating to not be self-conscious about them, to be able to smile or laugh when something’s funny and not immediately have to put your hand up to cover your mouth. Yes, it’s vanity, but we’re all vain creatures to some degree.

Not my dad, though. He lived through the Great Depression, the real one. If he knew what I spent replacing “perfectly good teeth,” he would punch them all out—even in his 90s.