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November 16, 2023 Nonfiction

Getting Oral

Emma Burger

Getting Oral photo

I stand just a couple inches from the mirror in my grandma’s guest bathroom at her house in New Mexico, my breath fogging up the glass. As I brush my teeth, I give myself the once over and tug at the front of my red fleece hoodie so it lies flat against my stomach and doesn’t poof out, accentuating what I already understand to be a belly in need of hiding. I’d begged for that hoodie for my seventh birthday. Dragged my dad into Old Navy by the hand. He thought the block letter branding across the front was gauche. “You look like a walking billboard. They should be paying you to walk around in this.” That’s the entire point though. Advertising. I’m only in first grade, but already, I have something to prove.

We live in a PBS-watching, L.L. Bean-wearing household. The kind of place where Cheerios are considered junk food. A wholesome ass household, where the only top 40 we listen to are from the 70s. I want to be able to sing along to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera when they come on the radio, not Crosby, Stills & Nash. I want to walk through the cafeteria toting a yellow Lunchables box like it’s an elementary school Birkin bag. Sure, the adults in my life want me to be healthy and well educated and protected from the ills of modern soceity, but doesn’t anyone care if I’m actually cool? If I’m literate in Disney Channel and Nick at Nite? If I understand what the big kids mean when they graffiti “suck my dick” on the playground? And, by the way, who do I need to make a friendship bracelet for to get a goddamn Capri Sun in this place?

What do I do then, to combat the complete indignity and impotence of first grade? I do what any good spelling bee champion desperate to fit in would do. I march right up to the school library and do my own research. That place is a wealth of street knowledge, if only you know to walk past the books about ponies and trains and important figures in history to the middle grades section. There, a whole universe of ideas opens up. Finally, I can learn about real life. None of this Harold and the Purple Crayon shit. Give me cutting, suicide. Binging, purging. Drinking and sex. Child soldiers in Darfur. Badass teens smuggling heroin in their bike tires across state lines. The unerasable image of a hospital bracelet hanging loose off a starving girl’s brittle wrist after a years-long battle with anorexia, all abject and hopeless. I swear, these librarians know our parents won’t tell a bunch of white kids about the world as it really is, so they have to let us know.

I devour these books. All of them, really, but the eating disorder ones in particular. Girls who refuse to eat, or who throw up what little they do until their guts shine pink. Anorexics. Bulimics. I wonder how I fit in with these girls. The way I obsess in front of the mirror for hours. My body, my hair, my skin. I fixate on all of them, picking myself apart. My teeth. My teeth! The central object of my compulsion. It must confuse the adults in my life, the way I stay in the bathroom, quiet for ten, twenty minutes at a time. Time collapses when I lock into my private ritual, seconds turning into hours without my noticing.

Do I have dental anorexia? The same way the girls I read about whittle themselves down in pursuit of perfection, or smallness, or nothingness at all, I brush away my teeth. There aren’t any library books about compulsive brushers. Maybe I invented the disorder. I’ll brush and brush, never satsified until there’s nothing left at all. Through enamel and dentin and the inner core of nervous pulp until I meet fresh gum. Only then will I stop to run my tongue along throbbing flesh and enjoy the void of my mouth. Taste the tang of iron where my gums bleed. 

Mine are still baby teeth, and will be gone soon anyway. I can’t wait to start fresh with a new set of grownup teeth, but still need what I have in the meantime to be perfect gleaming smooth. After fifteen quiet minutes in the bathroom, someone comes knocking, needing to go. I hurry to spit the froth of toothpaste down the drain, running the tap. “One minute!” I call, embarrassed by how long I’d taken. Somehow, I convince myself I could brush the milk teeth completely away and speed along the process of getting older. One day I’ll have my own bathroom with a marble sink and a clawfoot bath and no one to come knocking. One day I’ll have control over more than just the domain of my mouth. My body.


 I’m 27 now and considering I may be arrested in the oral phase of development. I still brush my teeth three or four times a day, double what my dentist recommends. I swish mouthwash compulsively. Chew gum like a pack-a-day smoker who’s in withdrawal chomps Nicorette. Freud says that eventually, our babies move on from the oral to the anal stage. In some respects, I’ve moved on too. It’s not that the fixation has totally transferred over. It’s just that I’ve found even more ways to obsess over the cleanliness of bodily orafices.

Questions arise as I indulge this obsession. Questions like, “If you’re into butt stuff, and you’re always DTF, what do you do? Are you just permanently ready? Waxed and hungry and pristine like the perfect vessel?” I asked my sister this as we lay in side-by-side twin beds, back at my grandma’s house, this time with all my permanent teeth in place. I’m half kidding, but half really wanting to know. “If you’re always DTF, I think you just live your life like you’re about to,” she said.

Imagine that. Every day the eve of a colonoscopy. Sipping laxatives and electrolytes like water until there’s nothing left in you but you. Intestinal ridges pulsing like a heartbeat, nothing to move along but air. Lying on your side as a camera threads up your asshole, through the tunnel of your body. Blushing luster of colon like the inside of a conch shell. The video feed hardly picks it up, but if you listen close, you can hear the ocean.

The thing about my own weird obsessions is that they’re easy to spot in others. Take my online pilates teacher, for instance. Tall and sinewy former bottle service girl turned wellness guru. Long cascade of blown out brunette hair. Brooke Shields, if she’d tried to get work as a fitness model before looking to nightclubs instead. We’ve never met in real life, my pilates teacher and I, but it feels like we have. I watch her from behind a screen. Every mundane detail of her life posted on Instagram stories. Each cold pressed celery juice and ice bath. Infrared sauna sessions and sober nights out in the Hamptons on loop across my feed.

I’m worried she’s addicted to colonics. That floating feeling of being completely empty. It feels like I’ve seen all of her already, inside and out. Like one day she might even post her endoscopy online. Her esophagus, her stomach, her small intestine. Finally clear. The color of rosewater. Glistening viscera. I’d watch to the end and tap the heart in the corner to tell her that I liked it. That I liked how far she was willing to go in pursuit of the void.

My online pilates teacher likes lymphatic drainage too. The girl she goes to kneads sparse, unyielding flesh until her body is drained completely. My teacher lies on the massage table, limp and defenseless. It must feel good to submit. To learn helplessness. Not a single drop of intestinal fluid (chyle, they call it – a beautiful name for a baby boy) left inside to dirty her purified vessel. She pans her iPhone camera down her slick abdomen, deflated after the fact. Heart emojis float to the ceiling. I could get all uppity about how I would never waste my money on that snake oil, but it’s not true. If I thought it really did something, I would try it in a heartbeat. Maybe I still will. I could see it. Paying good money to feel as relaxed as she looks, lying there on the massage table, a wet rang rung dry.

Give me a body, and I’ll obsess over it. Not just my teeth. Not just my digestive tract. My hair. My cuticles. My skin. My skin! I pick at my skin like I brush my teeth. Endless. Addicted. I can sit on the sink counter for hours, staring in the magnifying mirror just like I did twenty years ago in my grandmother’s house. Only now it’s not just my teeth that fascinate me. That I’m desperate to keep clean. It’s every pore. Every hair follicle. They have me under their spell on a cellular level. I feel like Elizabeth Wurtzel during her Ritalin addiction, who once famously plucked at her legs until open sores formed so ugly and raw she was forced to go to the ER for examination and treatment. I’m not that bad, yet. But with a stimulant or two in my system, I could get there, I’m sure of it. In a speedy trance, I could easily lose track of what I was even doing. Keep going until tweezer meets subcutaneous fat.

None of these habits feel as soothing as my beloved Sonicare does though. The pulse of whirring bristles dull the noise in my head from the inside out. Nothing feels as bad, either, as not feeling wholly cleansed. Immediately after every meal, I pop the Orbit Sweet Mint gum I always keep on my person. It’s instinct. I don’t even think about it anymore. It’s a fixation, for sure. But it’s more than that. It’s a requirement that I don’t taste anything. Nothing should linger. Most of all, the taste of myself.