In the city of O
by Beth Jellicoe
In the city of O, none of the young men have their own teeth.
Once it was fashionable, now it’s ubiquitous.
It was started by one of the big companies who pioneered self-cleaning metal dentures. It’s only logical. Dental insurance is so expensive: but with your teeth taken out and a metal set put in, you don’t need to go in for any root canals or fillings, and you can eat as much sugary food as you like (although the people who can afford these teeth don’t eat sugary food anyway). And you know some people are born with an overbite, or underbite, or gap teeth, but you can get the new teeth tailored so nobody would ever know about your defect, and it becomes completely unimportant.
This was about five years ago, and since then dental technology has advanced relentlessly. It used to be that they made the teeth look realistic, so when you walked in a room full of smiles you couldn’t tell who had their own teeth and who didn’t. But if you’ve put down thousands for a mouthful of metal, you want to show it off, so for a while young guys all had customised teeth - with sharp incisors, like a tiger’s fangs.
For a while you’d see people walking around with long incisors that came all the way down their chin; you could replace the incisors in your teeth, you could buy new incisors everywhere, whatever size you liked, the large ones being most popular. Yes, it looks frightening if you see a guy walking down the street with great sharp incisors coming down his chin. You wouldn’t challenge him in a bar, or roll up on him when he’s walking from his home office to his smart taxi. That’s the point of the teeth, intimidation.
But this is more a thing for working-class guys, now, the big sharp teeth; because the guys who work for the big firms, their bosses got in on it and very wisely decided to cover the teeth on insurance, on the condition that nobody was allowed to buy big teeth, because that is not the image they want to project. Friendly, warm, reassuring: you don’t get that if you’re shaking hands with someone and looking at a pair of tigerish incisors. Sharp teeth are too animalistic, too feral. So now all the serious guys have short metal teeth, silver, reassuringly robotic.
And some of us professional women have little fangs, like cats.
There are just a handful of us at each meeting, because it is almost all young men who work for the big companies in the city of O. In fairness, it’s not that these companies discriminate - after all, the girls who serve the smoothies at meetings are a diverse group from countries as far apart as Somalia and the Philippines, and the company drivers are all from countries none of the young men can even pronounce the names of. It’s just sheer coincidence that the companies happen to mostly hire young white men. They are friendly young men, in shorts and band tee-shirts or sportswear. They shake your hand and show all their little metal teeth, and their smiles are awkwardly charming.
The young men think a great deal about the future. They hold meetings with Geo-Visualisers, and Dietetic Technicians, and Urban Planning Creative Consultants, and other important thinkers, and they produce thoughts about what will happen in ten years time, and twenty, and thirty. Who are the next leaders? How can they get the next leaders into this room?
They sometimes discuss ideas like the Handiwork initiative, which will transform education so that no child has to go to school, the child can simply educate themselves through an adapted handheld audiovisual device. The young men are deeply in favour of this idea, since some of them were bullied at school, a fact which is visible in their apologetic smiles.
They have distributed some prototypes at almost no cost to the inner-city schools in the city of O, and they are now planning to distribute the Handiwork device in villages in impoverished countries. Some of these villages don’t have access to the internet, meaning that complete functionality may not be achieved, but that is not entirely the young men’s problem. It is still possible to load an education onto the device, and the education can be translated automatically into seventy languages with almost no mistakes.
Recently there has been some disillusionment in the city of O about the future. Dark jokes have been exchanged over the latte machine, and a young man was disciplined for circulating photographs of explosions, and children weeping from a gas attack, which he had captioned with humorous comments.
In the meetings the young men continued to be enthusiastic about garden bridges, smart kitchenware, commercial cloning, and clean dieting. Of course, they make a weekly Monday Promise to upper management that meetings will never descend into toxic negativity.
But it was noticed that the post-meeting talk was becoming awkwardly political, with some talk about the draft, some partisan arguments, some unnecessary rifts between old friends. The content of the young men’s emails raised concern. The threat of international conflict has no real bearing on the city of O, and yet for a handful of young men the current political atmosphere is enough to noticeably reduce productivity through time lost in pointless debate.
The big bosses of the large companies came together and discussed ways to improve morale. They concluded that the future was indeed unpredictable but a positive attitude was vital to maintaining full functionality in not just the body of the young man but the body of the company, and by extension the city, the world. They went round the table and reaffirmed their shared company values of diversity, inclusivity, dignity, tolerance, and positivity. Then they asked their coworker Santorina to get them some more lattes.
They decided to take all the young men out for the night, to a juice bar, to bond and reboot on their goals.
At eight o’clock the next morning, they all sent mass text messages to the young men in their companies, telling them about the ReachIn counselling initiative. Each text was prefaced by the name of the young man it was addressed to, and followed by a really friendly personalised reminder that the young man was a valued member of the company, and this was the time to come together over the young men’s shared passion for the difference they were making in the world, rather than sinking into toxic negativity, and that the boss’s door was always open if anyone wanted a chat about how to balance work with other concerns.
In the meantime ReachIn allows the young men to communicate via text or call with a kind stranger, from a network of do-it-yourself therapists offering helpful advice for free. Strangers helping strangers, that’s how it goes in the city of O.
The teeth, to come back to the teeth. The companies are very smart about the teeth. When an employee joins one of the big companies, he has his teeth taken out and replaced with an up-to-date set of smart teeth, complete with geo-tracking, recording technology, and a new chip that tracks which foods are being eaten, since almost all the young men refrain from drinking alcohol and are on strict vegetarian diets. The diet tracker sets an alarm off when the owner of the teeth drinks wine, for example, or consumes too many calories, it is customisable depending on the company’s diet philosophy. When the wrong food is consumed, the tooth that contains the chip vibrates, stimulating several oral nerves, and makes a high-pitched sound which reverberates loudly in the young man’s ears and nose, which is enough to make him think twice about that cheesecake.
There was some concern from outsiders about this development of placing tracking technology in the teeth. Some talk of violations. But none of the young men were concerned, because some of them had developed this technology themselves, and some others had a stake in the technology, and the rest all understand that tracking technology is the future. The future of the city of O is in placing increasingly smaller chips in even smaller objects, so as to make tracking smarter, easier and friendlier. And it’s not as if anything ever happens to the young men, as a result of them being tracked through their teeth. In fact they feel more secure because of it. If there was a fire in one of the buildings, for example, although there has never been a fire in the city of O, in fact nobody here has ever even seen a fire - but if there was a fire, or a terrorist attack, then the central computer would be able to immediately track the location of all the young men in the building, by dental records. This is important for safety.
Several of the companies have also tried placing a chip in their employees’ ears, which can be controlled from their phone; the chip turns the volume of the room up or down, records and plays back sounds, (useful for meetings) and can also play music.
The young men like music with screaming and banging in the background and heavy distortion. It releases something in them.
But it turned out that having such music pumped straight into their ears caused inconvenient hearing issues, so the music function has been discontinued for now, except for some soft computer-generated violin melodies, variations on Mozart and Haydn, which are good for inducing sleep in insomniacs or people who are experiencing issues with toxic negativity.
Some of the medical professionals in the city of O also recommend kissing and sex as a short-term cure for toxic negativity, since they release feel-good endorphins and relieve stress.
Somehow, this idea has never been brought up at the big companies’ morale meetings or included in the regularly circulated emails about group activities to reduce stress. Of course, dating coworkers is always discouraged by management. And honestly, most of the young men simply don’t have time to meet people outside of work.
But at least kissing and sex are activities that can be done quickly and easily, outside of the office, in a very short space of time, with no complications, so long as the other party is willing.
That’s where Almeida comes in.
Almeida is famous among all the young men in the city of O.
Almeida works in the juice bar, where the young men all went that night to improve morale.
The young men like Almeida. She has told us that they often take photos of her while her back is half-turned, or she is at the counter, to look at in private. They are always shyly asking for her phone number, but she said she knows it’s not so they can take her out to restaurants (where she can’t afford to share the bill) or shows (which she can’t attend unless they pay). Instead they want to shut themselves in a dark upstairs room with her for an hour or so, depending on their schedule, and talk haltingly, and then ask if she can help them release some endorphins. Why? Because she is big, and beautiful, and has all her own teeth.
With her cheap clothes and loud voice, she is not the kind of small, well-dressed, cat-toothed lady they can wear on their arms to conferences and parties, that is, not at all like us. But she’s the kind of girl who they think will give them what they want. She has been on the receiving end of this before. So she always smiles politely and gives them a fake number. Next week they come back and pretend nothing happened, and do the same thing again.
One day Almeida grew tired of it, and she said to one of the young men, Come with me, I want to show you something. This was just before she was due to go on the fifteen minutes permitted for her break, but the automated system that tracks the breaktimes had malfunctioned, her boss was in the back taking a conference call, and Almeida was feeling reckless. She hung up her apron, and took the young man out of the juice bar, and into the little alley by the side of it. He was keen, he had been sipping the orange juice and looking at her in a way that made her feel like a cat wanting to wet its claws.
She’d seen him before trying to take a photo of her from across the bar, sitting on his wooden chair. She pressed him up against the brick wall, noticing that his lips were very thin, very pale, and his eyes smoky grey. He opened his mouth slightly, and his silver teeth caught the late afternoon light.
He said, What did you want to show me?
Almeida kissed him. Slowly at first, feeling that she was wrapping her lips around his, trying to get a hold on the thinness of them. She tasted orange juice, and opened her mouth as if to swallow a tangerine whole; she tasted metal, then, and it was like scenting blood. Pushing him back into the brick wall, she threw one arm around his shoulders, hooked her fingers over his shoulder-blade, put her head back and took a breath. Then she kissed him again, like the whale swallowing Jonah.
He kissed her and she felt he was like a ship sinking gently into the sea.
They kissed like it was the end of the film and there was nothing left but rolling text and then darkness and silence, after everybody had gone.
The wind blew, and her shoulders prickled, and she leaned into the warmth of him and felt briefly that the kiss was the realest thing in the street and district and the entire city of O. That everything else was smoke and shadows, sophistry and illusion, as if this world was a formation of clouds about to be blown away.
Her arm dislodged a little dust from the brickwork, scraped it. Now he wrapped his own arm around her, digging his fingers into her back, she threw her free hand up into his curly hair. She kept thinking with delight about how the device in his teeth was recording everything about this kiss, and nobody would do a single thing about it.
His tongue slipped into her mouth and she bit it, firmly, hard, and tasted blood for real.
They broke apart, and he clutched his mouth and stared at her with big wide eyes as if to say - what did you do that for?
In answer, Almeida simply opened her mouth, and pointed into it, to show that she had all her own teeth.