Richard Koslowski, a 32-year-old computer systems supervisor and musician, breaks a tooth when he bites an olive pit. Although the remnant of the damaged tooth is removed during his initial visit to the dentist, Koslowski embarks on a peculiar quest. He longs to find a perfect-fitting dental bridge, to eliminate a mysterious oral pain, and to measure up to the suffering his parents have endured as survivors of concentration camps.

He eventually elicits opinions or treatment from ten different dentists and specialists. Koslowski realizes that he has sustained more than just a cracked tooth. His entire life is now fractured. Koslowski becomes obsessed with his teeth. His girlfriend, Lisa, is a law student who is passionate about women's rights. She travels to Bosnia to interview and assist rape victims. When Lisa returns, she breaks up with Koslowski. His suffering seems so small and his life so insignificant that she can no longer tolerate him.

Koslowski's father is dying of a brain tumor but remains stoic until the end. Koslowski, on the other hand, has a poor pain tolerance. After undergoing multiple dental procedures--tooth extraction, root canals, a series of gum cleanings every week, and finally dental implants--Koslowski ultimately resigns himself to living with the discomfort in his mouth. His "reward" is marriage to a disabled woman, three children, and an ordinary life filled with minor ailments and nuisances.


Expect some discomfort, the endodontist warns Koslowski. How do we measure pain? How can we truly comprehend misery when it befalls someone else? Koslowski spends most of this story questioning his suffering: Is it genuine? Do I deserve it? Should I be ashamed of it? Readers may wonder if Koslowski is a masochist or whether he becomes addicted to pain. Koslowski has a desire to be a hero but unfortunately does not have the stamina for suffering.

He is continuously exposed to other people's misery and accounts of torture. His girlfriend works with rape victims in Bosnia. Dr. Blebanoff, the family dentist, displays a number branded on his forearm. Both parents recount atrocities that occurred during the war. His father is missing a finger and in the process of dying. Yet Koslowski is new to the world of pain: "He was lost in an alien land; he didn't know the language or the customs."

The referred pain that Koslowski experiences obviously originates from somewhere outside his mouth. Maybe the source is guilt. Perhaps the trouble stems from the past. Pain is depicted in many ways--powerful, humbling, illuminating, and unavoidable. Three lessons may be gleaned from this story: Random events shape our lives. Physical pain is often (even inevitably) accompanied by psychological pain. Never underestimate the worth of a good set of teeth!

Primary Source

Referred Pain and Other Stories



Place Published

New York



Page Count