Short Story: “Cheek Biter”

An offhand remark from his dentist makes Mark question his entire identity.

Who am I when I’m sitting in a dentist’s chair? © Maria Sbytova /

September 24, 2023 04:48 EDT

Something to consider when reading/listening: Is our identity only ever what other people perceive us to be? Who are we when no one is looking? 

I’m a cheek biter. Mmm. That’s what she says to her assistant every time I come in. In the middle of a session or whatever you call it. She’ll count the teeth. “1, 2, 3, 4, he’s a cheek biter, 5,6, keep an eye on 6, 7, 8.” It surprises me every time.

I’ve never asked her about it. But it always catches me out. Transports me right back to the last time she said it. 

A few hours later, I forget this element of my personality altogether. I don’t notice I’m doing it. I certainly don’t do It consciously. But for a few hours every six months, I become, to my complete astonishment, a cheek biter. 

Maybe I’m just forgetful. “You’d forget your own name if it weren’t sewn into your clothes,” that’s what my mother used to say. “You’d forget your head, too, if it weren’t screwed on.” But I do. Even though my head is screwed on. Even though my name is sewn, if not into my clothes, then into my skin, I do forget both of these items on a regular basis. 

When I’m at the dentist, I have neither head nor name. I’m aware of my teeth and my cheeks for the first time in months, and a person can only be aware of a very small number of things at any one time. She calls me a cheek biter, and in that moment I have neither name nor head. I have no memories, no family, no future. All my attention goes to one point. I am a cheek biter and nothing else.

A father and a husband, that’s how other people might think of me. That’s what they’d put on my tombstone presumably, or my memorial bench. But you can’t be two things, not at the same time. 

How much of my life do I spend being either father or husband? 

The girls don’t live at home, so I’m a father — what? — for the hour or so I must spend thinking about them each day, or the couple of afternoons I spend with them each month? 

But when I’m thinking of them, I’m not thinking of myself. And when I’m with them, I’m listening to them, I’m appreciating them as human beings, I’m not claiming them, I’m not labeling them. So can we really count this as being a father? 

The other day, I showed my father a picture. It was from the late sixties. He’s standing next to his footballing hero, they’re both young men about the same age. He said, “Which one am I?” I pointed at Geoff Hurst. I said, “You’re the one who scored the hat trick in the World Cup final.” His face lit up. He didn’t stop smiling for hours.

The next day, I showed him the photo again and he’d forgotten all about it. He asked me the same question. I said I don’t know. 

What about husband? Am I a husband every time I speak to my wife, or am I simply just someone to speak to? If the postman can speak to her without becoming her husband, why can’t I? 

When we were first married, and someone said “your wife,” something pinged in my brain. A big, blazing reminder: “You, sir, are a husband.” This stopped happening quite some time ago. The same with being a father. When I held the girls for the first time, when the nurses called me dad, there was no question. But now we’re just human beings having a chat.

Perhaps you only get to be something when it’s something new. On his first day, the postman was a postman with every fiber of his being but now he’s just a man who, every half hour or so, remembers he’s delivering post. 

It’s why it’s so exciting to hear her say it.

“Cheek biter.”

Something new, at my age. So late in the game, I get to be something I’ve never been before.

The moment she says it, I am solely, and entirely, a cheek biter. 

In fact, I think there’s a good argument to be made that, at this point in my life, I’m much more a cheek biter than a father or a husband, and maybe it should take precedence on my tombstone or memorial bench. “Beloved Biter of Cheeks (His Own).”

Why bother with my name? My head will be eaten by maggots, why not let my name go with it? Why not let me be solely, and entirely, a cheek biter for time immemorial? 

I’m not attached to my dentist like some people. I’ve seen her for what, five years now. But I wouldn’t have cared if today she’d been someone else. My doctor’s always changing, it doesn’t bother me at all. Some people really don’t like that. 

They think they’re seeing a person, they think they’re building a relationship, but they’re not. A doctor or a dentist, they’re just patterns of behavior. And you, as a patient, you’re a pattern too I’m afraid. You’ve seen the same doctor for twenty years well so what? For most of his existence, he’s not even a doctor, let alone your doctor.

He knows the notes an earlier version of himself left behind. He knows the eyes and ears that haven’t existed since the last time he saw them. And what do you know of him? A pair of specs and furrowed eyebrows that haunt your dreams? It’s patterns, not people. Doctors, dentists, patients, fathers, husbands, all just patterns.

“See you in six months,” she says once I’ve spat out the colored water and stood up from the chair. You see what I mean? 

To the dentist, I’m a cheek biter. To the various doctors, I’m stage four but fighting hard. To the engravers of my tombstone, frankly, I couldn’t care less.

Do these pieces of information tell you who I am? Well, no. No more than my name, my head, or anything else I’ve forgotten.

[Doe Wilmann first released this piece on his short story podcast, Meaningless Problems.]

The views expressed in this article/podcast are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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