I have a little gap between my two front teeth.
It isn’t really noticeable, except when I get something caught in it, but it is big enough that I can run an unbent paperclip through it. Which I do. A lot. More than I should.
It’s a bad habit I’ve picked up at work, while I stare at the computer screen and try to divine which groups I should put my newest e-mail contacts into. I bend out the end of the paper clip, stick it between my teeth, and run it in and out, sometimes looping it around the curved end so the paperclip is stuck there like an earring. I rarely realize I’m doing it, until I hear footsteps coming down the hallway and it hits me that I’d rather my coworkers don’t see that I’ve got an unsanitary chunk of office metal in my mouth.
Sometimes I don’t notice those footsteps until it is too late.
Late last week I stared at the computer screen, analyzing an entry in a real estate database for errors, while I looped the paperclip through my teeth as per the usual. In. Out. In. Out. In. Around. Around. Out. In. Somebody had spelled ‘garage’ without the requisite ‘e’. Garag. Sounds like a Star Wars monster. Garaaaaag. In. Out. In. Also, this house has five bedrooms, not four. Or am I wrong? I should check the listing. Out. In.
“Jessica, hey, how are you doing? Staying healthy?”
And that’s when I swallowed my tongue and died.
Having gotten so engrossed in my work, I had failed to notice the sweetly pretty Escrow officer who sometimes passes through our office. When I first started working here and began e-mailing her for paperwork, I noticed a kindred soul in that she loved to add an extra smiley face or touch of cheerfulness and individuality to her letters. I was always tickled to see her, and my mouth began to grin almost before an alarm went off in my brain.
“PAPERCLIP IN YOUR TEETH THERE IS A PAPERCLIP STUCK IN YOUR TEETH.”
Well. That could be embarrassing.
Quickly, I slid my right hand over my mouth and clenched my lips shut. I could feel the paperclip against my tongue. It was cold, and shameful.
“Heey, Lifa,” I gurgled, my fingers pressed over my face. “Whaff up?”
She gave me a long look.
“I heard you had the big flu going around your office,” she said congenially. “I was hoping you hadn’t caught it!”
“Nofe, nau yeb. I’b luggy.” I began working the paperclip with my tongue. If I could unwedge it then I could hide it in my cheek and have a moderately normal conversation. “I’b, uh…I hearg you gog id, dough!”
“I did, yeah. It was terrible! I can usually kick a flu in about a day, but this hung around a bit longer. I just loaded up on Echinacea, garlic, vitamin C…all the good stuff. It helped a lot!”
“Haha, yeahhhhh.” I almost had it. Lisa seemed to be waiting for me to say something else, but I didn’t feel comfortable saying anything else with the precarious clip woggling around in my mouth. Maybe she could see my jaw pulsating. We didn’t talk too frequently in person. We would probably talk less frequently after this.
Suddenly, the paperclip came loose! Victory! I lowered my hand to the desk and began pushing the paperclip into my cheek with my tongue. Lisa started talking about the best herbs for the flu. Okay. Keep nodding.
In agonizing slow-motion, the paperclip went renegade. It popped out of my mouth and plinked wetly onto my desk.
Lisa looked at me.
I looked at Lisa.
“Oh…my God,” she said slowly. “I do that…ALL THE TIME.”
I looked up at her, with a glimmer of hope and camaraderie in my heart. I bet this is what getting asked to dance feels like.
“Seriously,” she said. “The worst is when it gets stuck, like, between your teeth? I was talking to – ”
An agent from across the hall hailed her and she turned, giving me a final eager wave as she scurried out to chat. I gaped after her.
I apparently have my own personal Patron Saint of Awkward Situations, who takes pity on me.
Turning back to my work, I picked up the paper clip and began running it through my teeth again. In. Out. In. Out.