The Boy with the Sunken Teeth

Learning that someone only eats one meal a day is not something that makes me cry.  I’m perhaps the most cynical and hard-hearted social sciences/save the world type you’ll ever meet, except for maybe Falconer.

But then I sit and interview a young mom, whose husband is away five or six out of every seven days.  And the kids come to play and ask for my glasses or a picture to be taken.  I always ask them their names and how old they are, and I think I surprise them with formality when I shake their hands hello.  They laugh at me for being 22 with no novio, no esposo, no hijos para mi mismo.  It makes me a little sad to see how skinny and short they are for their ages.  It’s a little sad when for three days in a row, many of them wear the same clothing.  But they laugh and tease me and say cute things, so it’s easy to forget that they’re hungry and their school isn’t very good and they probably will never have a steady job. 

One little boy stands right by my side, leaning all over the arm rest.  He smiles a lot but doesn’t talk often, and patientily listens to me trip through Spanish.  He doesn’t wear pants or a shirt, just a ratty pair of underwear, their color undiscernible.  He laughs at me sometimes when I mess up or I make funny faces at him, and thats when I see the inside of his mouth.  From the front, with a formal, American closed-shut smile, everything looks fine and normal.  It isn’t until he gives a big, young belly laugh that I see the sunken black centers of all of his teeth.  With his eyes closed and his head thrown back, I can see what’s left of each and every tooth.  They are rotting away, from the sugar cane, from no dentist, from no toothbrush.  It makes my own mouth ache and twist to look at those teeth, every one of them pitted from the inside out.  It makes it obvious how a boy like this one grows into the decrepit old man with too few teeth to pronounce his Creole. 

There is a certain poverty that comes from looking like an old man before you’re ten years old, from not being able to eat an apple even if someone gave it to you.  A poverty of constant toothaches, of prevention just slightly out of reach, of losing your own basic faculties.

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