They’re called mandibular tori, and yes, since you’re asking, they do hurt, a little, often, not in a take-me-to-the-dentist-immediately way but in an ongoing, low-grade, what-can-you-do-but-learn-to-live-with-it kind of way. They occur in 5-7% of the population, which means I am in the 93-95th percentile, a solid A, which was true of my grades all through school and is some small consolation now.
Tori are generally bilateral, which is to say occurring on both sides of the mouth, which is to say, I am well-balanced in this if not other things. They are more common in males, which I am not, though my son has an extra tooth in his head, first a baby tooth nudged in next to the others, now an adult tooth starting its descent in the same place. For years I’ve been demanding who in our family has a supernumerary tooth, who bequeathed him this genetic oddity? and now I learn I have two bony outgrowths in my own trap. My son’s bonus extrusion came in neatly in line with his two front chompers—a bite pattern that would instantly give him away, were he a biter—but my tori bulge from my gumline like glacial boulders, one jagged as an eyetooth, one a craggy molar, spiked.
I couldn’t tell you when they erupted. I had braces for so many years, then a retainer, I take it as a fact of life that something weird and extra is in my mouth, a dull and ongoing discomfort. Then one day my mom looked closely at me, for some reason now forgotten, and the look on her face as she exclaimed what are those? her own daughter’s mouth presenting something alarming and strange, just like my supernumerary toothed son. I’d noticed them, of course, in the distracted way one observes one’s own body—best not to scrutinize the oddities of this human form, so out of line, always, with conventionally praised notions of beauty. My dental hygienist said breezily not to worry. But I am an A student, I like to know the specifics, like will they become cancerous, eat away my jawbone, kill me silent and slow; I looked them up and the very name delighted me: mandibular tori.
Mandible: the bone of the lower jaw, the bill in birds, or more generally in arthropods the mouth part appendages, chiefly a jawlike biting organ but also used for pecking and sucking species. (Arthropods: an invertebrate of the phylum Arthropoda, which perhaps tells you a great deal, if not me.) Torus: a term used in architecture, geometry, and botany, but in anatomy, more mundanely, a rounded or protuberant part. So, mandibular tori are, quite specifically, rounded things sticking out of your lower jaw. I love words that are so precise. My hygienist was correct that I needn’t worry about them until they grow so huge as to interfere with my speech, prohibit the fitting of dentures, or the pain becomes intolerable, past even my threshold, which I learned from the birth of my son is laudably, praise-worthily, rather astonishingly high.
So I tell you the ache is small and dull, a chafed feeling, raw skin exposed to air. Gums are such sensitive things. Tori may be formed by stress on the jaw, such as habitually clenching one’s teeth. Did you know the mandible is the strongest bone in the face? What stress it must require to grow those bony protrusions, what pressure to grind those glacial rocks to the surface. Bruxism, another word that means as its sounds, bruising, scraping, the howling ache of tectonic plates crowding one another, the quakes and tremors that result. Torus, Taurus, el toro, bull-headedness, taking the bull by the horns: so much fierce, dramatic action in my mouth, crushing, biting, grinding, slow, relentless, unstoppable growth, more than what is expected, more than is required or perhaps safe or right. I, too, have a distinctive bite. What I might crush with my mandibular tori. What my teeth hold in, every night while I’m sleeping, what is pushed underground to rise up from bone, from the dark and hidden reaches within me, breaking skin and breaching the surface, what cannot be held back any longer. What comes to light. What protrudes. What leaves its own mark, a troubling indicator, a rarity, a constant reminder of loss and excess, the head full of more than what’s necessary. The bitter ache in the mouth from life, just life, that cannot be spit out nor washed away.
Misty Urban’s recent nonfiction has appeared in Sad Girls Club, Past Ten, River Teeth, Cleaver Magazine, and My Caesarean (The Experiment, 2019). Her piece “On Reading the Letters of Sylvia Plath Vol. 2” was nominated by 3Elements Review for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net Award. She is the author of two award-winning short story collections and assorted medieval scholarship, blogs about feminist literature at femmeliterate.net, and is a reviews editor for the Historical Novel Society. More at mistyurban.net.
Photograph by Audra Kerr Brown
The NFFR and Misty Urban Interview
Is your MicroLife essay related to anything else you’ve written or are working on? If not, what else can you tell us about your current writing?
I’m currently working on a historical novel, so I like to scribble out the occasional flash fiction or micro-memoir just to feel I’ve finished something. One night after a dentist visit I wondered more about these things that make my mouth hurt, so I started researching “mandibular tori,” and as often happens with research, the metaphors leapt out at me, screaming and fanged. I might do a whole series about the weirder aspects of my body, as there are many.
We’ve been thinking about the elusive definition of Creative Non-Fiction. What’s your working definition of it?
You start with a fact or event and talk about it using the techniques of story: character, setting, language, image, tension, narrative arc. I don’t find it necessary to mess too much with what actually happened; the leaps are in the imaginative connections. I’m drawn by how the genre lets you interrogate memory, experience, relationships, even personality, all of which are stories we tell ourselves. My distinction is fairly crude—did it actually happen or did I make it up?—but that hardly matters because the tools we use to tell the story are the same.
It’s obviously been an insanely rough year. what’s been your favorite artistic escape–either book, music, or tv?
My guilty pleasure is historical romance—and not the clean, sweet historical romances, but the heaving-bosoms, bare-chested alpha-male heroes kind. Evie Dunmore, Vanessa Riley, Minerva Spencer, Kate Bateman, Beverly Jenkins, Alyssa Cole, and Courtney Milan got me through quarantine. I just binged “The White Princess” by Starz, a deliciously soapy adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s novel (I’m writing about it for the Historical Novels Review), and I plan to move on to something equally bosomy and melodramatic. Most of my medieval scholarship is about rule-breaking women and romance, and given that the world is on fire around us, I take great satisfaction in the guaranteed HEA.