Flowered Dress, oil on canvas by Carolyn Schlam

I Can’t Close My Mouth

It’s Wednesday afternoon and I just got back from the dentist’s office. Sunlight slashes through the front windows of my tidy living room. I sit in my favorite chair, focusing on the floating motes in a sunbeam, my car keys still in my hand. I’m fragmenting, I feel it again. I will attempt to write out what’s happened, otherwise I will fall asleep. Or worse.

I arrive on time for my two o’clock appointment to replace a temporary crown. I recline in the dental lounger watching a small TV positioned near my feet. It’s on a food channel and I’m not interested, so I switch it to CNN to watch the news while I wait. A reporter summarizes the day’s stock market numbers. A receptionist, the wise-cracking workplace wife, breezes by, “How’s Atomic Adam?”

They love my husband around here. He’s outgoing and fun and remembers their names; I’m quiet and get them all mixed up. There’s the heavy-set blonde, the flirty-sexy one, the insecure Russian—all coming at me grinning and shiny, wanting to enroll me in the cult of the Best Dentist’s Office Ever. I imagine they’ve been brainwashed by the Dentist Himself, a dark-haired man, mediocre in every way except he’s King of the Realm here. Dr. Last Name while everyone else is simply Chippy First Name.

There are no doors in this office; everything is open. Natural light floods three high-end treatment areas decked out with pale wood-grain cabinets, walls of aqua edged in teal, and dark green leather dental chairs angled to tall narrow windows open to blue sky. Half-walls and panels shape the ongoing flow of patients, staff, and conversation rolling on with laughter and little shouts of eavesdroppers joining the ever-moving party.

“He’s good,” I say, knowing she wishes it was him instead of me.

“Tell him I say hi,” she says. “We love Atomic Adam!”

I remember he told me this one’s a single mother with a disabled young child and has a hard time. I try to think of something to say, but she’s breezed on, calling out So-and-So will be with me in a minute. By the time So-and-So comes to attend to me, I can’t remember her name to say a proper hello, but I like her. She’s small and serious about her work. She looks up from reading my chart, smiles and says, “Okay, let’s get that temporary out of there.” She’s probably in her forties, skin the shade of cafe au lait. She speaks with no accent, completely American, but looks like her ancestors might be from the Philippines or Central America. I can’t tell.

She has intelligent eyes, a kind face, and she’s not in a hurry; a woman of dignity in this undignified place. I trust her, relieved to be in her care. I wish I could remember her name.

I’m worried the temporary crown will be hard to remove. A day after the dentist put it in it wobbled when I bit into a sandwich and came off, leaving a hard shard with craggy edges that my tongue couldn’t leave alone. Food got trapped in. On the phone he suggested I try to re-stick the temporary crown with gunk bought from the drugstore, which I did, but it kept coming off. He agreed to re-cement it, and now it’s as firmly attached as a permanent crown. I hope there is some kind of solvent she can use to dissolve the adhesive; but no, she says she has to pry it off using brute force.

She steps on a foot control, reclining my chair until I’m lying flat. She puts something between my teeth to keep my mouth open so she has room to work, and then starts trying to wrench this thing off. It won’t budge. CNN drones on in the background.

She’s got a tiny dental lever, like a screwdriver, which she’s attempting to wedge between tooth and crown, but she can’t get traction. The instrument slips, scraping my tooth and gums, jolting both of us. At first she talks to let me know what’s happening, but soon she goes silent, frustrated and intent on her task. I fear she will crack the real tooth, or tear my gums, or pull out the whole thing from the root. This little woman keeps at it, her eyes never leaving my mouth.

Minutes go by. My mouth hurts, the corners of my lips are splitting. She gets the tiniest hold and throws her weight into it, heaving her full body against my tooth. That’s when I hear the warning from CNN, “The following report is not appropriate for children. If children are watching we advise you take them out of the room.”

They’ve got my attention despite the painful excavation going on in my mouth. I try to see the screen near my feet, but I can’t move my head and my eyes can’t get there. I hear a reporter describe what we’re about to hear: an audio tape of a woman being assaulted with a broomstick handle. She’s in custody in a foreign country, arrested for protesting the treatment of women… I don’t remember what country it was. I don’t remember who made this recording or why, or why it was released publicly, or why CNN thought it was a good idea to air it at 2:15 on a Wednesday afternoon.

I want to ask the dental assistant to turn it off or change the channel, but I can’t speak with a mouthful of instruments and fingers. I grunt and catch her eyes then look toward the television set. Meanwhile, the audio recording has begun. We hear a woman breathing heavily, groaning in pain.

The dental assistant looks at the television set, understands what’s happening but won’t stop what she’s doing. She finally has leverage and is not going to let go. She doesn’t say anything, but when she looks at me, apologetic, then flicks her eyes back to her work, I know it’s hopeless.

The woman on the audiotape is talking now. Trying to reason with her attacker. “That’s all I can take.”

Her voice is soft, feminine, pleading but oddly not panicked. She knows panic won’t help her. This is her survival instinct speaking. She is using the only thing she has left to fight the animal tearing her apart, intimacy.

I can’t close my mouth. I want more than anything in the world, to close my mouth and it’s not possible.

I can’t remember if the words on the tape were translated or in English; somehow I heard it in English, though it doesn’t make sense to me now. Was he also speaking in English? He was telling her—in an ordinary voice—she could take more as he forced the broomstick deeper into her body. She said, “No, no, no, please, that’s as much as I can handle.”

She has accepted what is happening and is trying to mitigate the damage, trying to keep her body from being punctured beyond repair, trying to keep some part of herself alive.

I fall into my own open mouth down the dark-throated street of a foggy night in San Francisco, whispering in the ear of another attacker. Behind an abandoned church overgrown with weeds I lay naked on a cold concrete slab, held for three hours by two Latino teenagers. The fat one can’t get an erection and threatens my life if I don’t make him come. He laughs at me, makes fun of my breasts, slaps my mouth and rams things into it. He looks to be high on something and capable of anything.

When the skinny one gets on top of me I whisper, “I won’t tell, you don’t need to kill me.” I whisper to him the whole time he’s on me, like a lover, no panic, intimate.

The woman on the tape begins to cry. He is not stopping. The tape ends abruptly.

The dental assistant jams her instrument far enough between my tooth and the temporary crown to pop it off. As soon as she swivels away to get a wad of cotton to stuff into my broken tooth, I find the remote and silence the TV. My eyes are wet. For the woman, for me, for us all.

As the dentist chats and fits the new crown, his thick fingers wiggle in my mouth, feel around my gums, press hard on my tooth to be sure the thing is set. Permanent.

Sitting at home now, in my darkening room, I don’t know how much time has gone by. I look at what I’ve written and delete it. I think about turning on lights, starting dinner, but I don’t move. I breathe into the whirlwind.

Author's Comment

This essay is part of a larger work in progress,  Proud Flesh, a Memoir of Lifelong Recovery from Sexual Assault.

The Zen of Art
by Carolyn Schlam
  Carolyn Schlam invites artists and non-artists alike to engage their imaginations and explore a pathway to affirmative living and joyously creative art making. This is a book that can be read and reread and would make a wonderful gift for a contemplative person or for anyone who enjoys making or appreciating art. Carolyn is the author of THE CREATIVE PATH: A VIEW FROM THE STUDIO, ON THE MAKING OF ART and THE JOY OF ART: HOW TO LOOK AT, APPRECIATE, AND TALK ABOUT ART, and the forthcoming sequel MORE JOY OF ART. She is a working painter and sculptor. Learn more about her at
A captivating exploration of the intersection between creativity and self-discovery. Each chapter delves into different facets of life and art, offering profound insights into acceptance, non-attachment, imperfection, and gratitude . . . Whether you’re an artist or someone seeking inspiration and wisdom, The Zen of Art is a treasure trove that resonates with the soul, fostering a newfound appreciation for the art of living. — Mark Reid, host of the podcast Zen Sammich
Available from, Amazon,, and other major booksellers.


Julie Hébert is an award-winning writer/director of theater, film, and television. Her short story, “Naked in the River,” was published by Narrative Magazine. Her play Entangled will be read at the Magic Theater later this summer.
Carolyn Schlam is an award winning artist and published author of five books. Her book The Joy of Art: How to Look At, Appreciate, and Talk About Art is a best selling art book and has been translated into several languages. It will be followed in January with the publication of its sequel called simply More Joy of Art. Carolyn resides in the Hudson Valley of New York.

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