It began with a faint ache. It gradually worsened until it became a shooting pain up the side of my head. Nothing made it go away — not medication, not sleep.
I sat before Dr. Bronson in his Beverly Hills office. He wore the same look my mom wore when she told me that my cat had died. “I’m sorry, but it looks like both teeth need root canals. I can do phase one today,” he said.
“Go ahead,” I said.
While Dr. Bronson injected Novocain liberally into my gums, my eyes welled with tears. I was definitely upset about the thousands of dollars I’d have to spend on the way out. But what saddened me most was losing the life force of two more teeth. Since I’d already had a couple root canals, including one in Italy without anesthesia, I knew exactly what was happening. There was infection festering in the roots. Dr. Bronson would need to remove all of the living tissue — the entire network of nerves and blood supply.
He’d leave behind only the outer structures, fortified with dental filling. My teeth would continue functioning, but would essentially be zombies. This was it. Vital parts of me were going away for good. And all of it was happening on the heels of another major uprooting.
It was only five months ago that I extracted myself from my Philadelphia life to live with Alan, my cinematographer boyfriend, in Los Angeles. We had met on a television show that we worked on together and had fallen in love.
For him, I left behind 33 years of family and friends that are embedded in me as deeply as my teeth. Those roots would never die. But I sometimes wondered if moving away would devitalize them — if my relationships would become shells of what once was, like the empty enamel left in my mouth.
Although Alan wasn’t dealt my bad genetics when it came to teeth, he knew what it meant to be deeply rooted, and in ways I could not yet know.
On one of Alan’s visits to Philadelphia, his phone dinged. It was his ex, and she had sent him photos of their kids. “I was feeling nostalgic,” she wrote. Jealousy surged through me. I struggled to suppress it, knowing it was petty and unproductive. Instead, I focused on who I was seeing.
In one of the photos, Alan’s three kids were in pajamas in front of unopened presents in front of a Christmas tree. They were younger than they are now. The tallest girl had shiny black hair draped over one shoulder. The other wore two curly ponytails. Both girls’ hands rested on a toddler’s shoulders. His giant brown eyes were jubilant. All three smiled with their teeth.
For the first three years of our long-distance relationship, there was us (Alan and me) and them (Alan, his ex, and kids). Even when I first moved to L.A., the rift remained. Alan’s ex had not yet accepted me. As a result, their daughters, 13 and 14 years old, didn’t want to meet me.
Alan continued being a dad in the best ways he knew — coaching his son’s soccer games and driving his kids to and from school. He cooked dinner for them in his ex’s house when she worked late nights. I stayed back, not minding extra time to myself, but also wondering how much longer until I’d become real to them.
A month later, the phone rang. It was Annick, Alan’s oldest daughter. He and I were in the car, on our way home from the Día de los Muertos festival at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
“Dad, can you please come and get me now?” I heard her voice quiver over the phone. She had spent the day at a haunted amusement park, and it had gotten too scary. Since I was already in the car, we had no choice but to head in her direction. I was worried that she wouldn’t get in the car because I was in it. But she did. And she was kind to me.
The next day, when Alan told Annick that he didn’t intend to force our meeting, she said, “It’s okay. It’s hard to continue hating someone who’s so nice.” Soon, all three kids wanted to come over for dinner and stay with us. Our roots were growing, no longer separately, but together.
Who were these three people who were sudden permanent fixtures in my life? What were their idiosyncrasies, their desires, their fears? I would soon find out.
When I learned that their mother took a job out of town for a month and they were going to stay with us, I quickly became anxious. They had never been with us that long. Alan was working long hours on the set of a television show and wouldn’t be home most days until after bedtime. Since I worked from home, I worried I wouldn’t be finished by the time they came home. Would I be able to take proper care of them?
Alan is a naturally gifted cook. I am not. How would I make something that pleased all three kids for that many nights? What if the oldest, who goes to a math and science charter school, needed help with calculus? What if all three needed me at once? What if, after all of that time together, they decided that their initial impressions of me were true?
I was particularly nervous about my recovery from phase two of my root canals. After phase one, even the lightest pressure of putting one foot on the ground sent agonizing pain all through my body. Alan told me repeatedly not to worry. They were self-sufficient when they needed to be. He had raised them as such. But I couldn’t just go home and go to bed. What kind of stepmother-to-be would do such a thing?
When I walked out of my second round of root canals in Beverly Hills, the sun was at its maximum brightness. I strained to read my phone. The entire left side of my face was numb past my temples from the Novocaine. My right eye wouldn’t open and my left eye wouldn’t close. It was 5 p.m., which meant that 3 1/2 hours had passed.
Alan had texted me, “Call me when you’re done to let me know you’re okay. The kids are waiting for you.”
I clicked on his name and called him. He answered right away.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
“Okay. The endodontist said my roots are wickedly curved.”
“I love you and your wickedly curved roots. I’ll be home as soon as I can. Let the kids take care of you.”
When I walked in the door, Alan’s girls, Annick and Malia, couldn’t help but stare at my swollen face. They asked if I was okay. Annick showed me the cheeseburgers she had made using her dad’s recipe. She put one on a plate for me, asking me if I wanted ketchup.
Degefe, Alan’s youngest, gestured for me to lower myself to him so that he could kiss the sore side of my face. All three watched as I smashed the burger into tiny pieces with a fork.
I felt guilty about letting Alan’s 14-year-old make dinner. But I detected pride in her and understood what Alan meant when he said it’s okay to let kids take care of things sometimes.
“Want to watch a movie?” Malia asked.
The three of us settled into the couch. Annick turned on My Neighbor Totoro, an enchanting Japanese animation film where a little girl, Mei, encounters the spirit of the forest by the winding, sturdy roots of ancient trees.
By the time the movie credits were rolling, Degefe was asleep on me, just like Mei peacefully napped on the belly of the towering yet gentle forest creature, Totoro.
“I can put him to bed,” Annick offered.
“I’ve got him. Thank you again for dinner,” I said, struggling to lift a very tall 7-year-old boy.
We went to his bed, and Degefe positioned his head on my chest.
“I love you,” he said softly. He was holding my hand.
“Love you too,” I said, feeling both surprised and elated by his words. I hadn’t said “I love you” to Alan’s kids. I was worried it would be too much for them this soon.
As Degefe’s breathing slowed, I thought about all the ways in which Alan’s kids and I were harvesting new roots. Learning that Malia loves to sing like I do, her sending me YouTube videos of songs to learn on the piano, having mini-concerts in our apartment, Annick asking me to read over her essay for English class, Annick asking for another little sibling, Degefe and I playing Super Mario World on my Super Nintendo from my childhood, his remembering words we’ve read together like “forlorn” and “stubborn,” Alan making chicken pot pie for family dinners, hours of Monopoly, waking early to go to Disneyland, my sister and nephews visiting, riding together in Alan’s van to visit him on set — our family was forming.
There are roots that will never grow back, like those that vitalize our teeth. There are roots that are far-reaching and never stop growing, like those that connect me to my family and friends in Philadelphia. There are new roots that become like old ones — the ones that keep going. They’re too strong to stop.
I heard Alan come home and say something to the girls. All three of them laughed.
When the bedroom door cracked open, Degefe rustled in the dark, tightening his grip on my hand. Alan joined us.
As my love for Alan’s kids grows, I can imagine it’s just a hint of what he and his ex feel for them. The cords of their roots, years strong, must curve deep beneath, forever extending.
Even though my roots are new, they’re true and brave. I see them wrapping themselves in.