I arrive at the dental clinic at 7:30 a.m. and start filling out paperwork. I’ve chosen the early appointment time so that, in the event of needles or drilling, I’ll be as tired and confused as possible. I’m the only one present, apart from two receptionists perched behind computers at a console in the front of the room. This is my first time at this clinic, so I need to provide my personal information. When I come to the line for “Occupation” I pause, think for a second, and then write down “Chippendale dancer.”
I finish the form and hand it to the receptionist. Waiting while my information is reviewed, it occurs to me that dentists must tire of people who view their visit as just another task to grind through. You know they’re well aware that no one wakes up, looks at their daily planner, and says, “Cool! I’ve got a dental appointment today!” So it’s up to me to change this, to make it fun for everyone. You can show up late and overshoot the spitting basin before leaving, but you don’t want to be the client the dentist dreads.
A hygienist enters the room and calls out my name. I stand up, follow her into a sterile white room, and drop into a chair. Moments later the dentist arrives. She stands next to my chair clutching a clipboard.
“Hello, Thomas,” she mumbles, sounding tired.
“Morning!” I respond cheerily.
The dentist looks at her notes.
“So, let’s see, you’re a…dancer.”
A very diplomatic move on her part.
“Just kidding,” I say. “Actually, I’m a professional floss tester.”
The dentist grabs a metal tool and enters my mouth. My arms tighten and my hands become fists, my usual involuntary response in the chair. She slowly probes the back of my mouth, the region of maximum neglect. I jump slightly when she hits a tooth on the left side.
“Sensitive?” she asks.
I nod dejectedly, certain that a root canal is in my future.
She removes her hands and reports the damage. Something needs to be done about the deteriorating tooth. That damn thing is like a pothole, getting refilled every couple of years. The dentist reels off a small list of upgrades to my mouth. I’ll need a crown, a substantial cleaning, and a mouth guard to prevent more grinding.
When the dentist leaves, the hygienist takes over. She mixes up a bunch of pink goo in a metal bowl and spreads it thick on a metal mouth guard. Standing behind my chair, she reaches around my head and slides the device into my mouth, pulling my lips down over the edges. After adjusting her position for balance, she yanks upward forcefully, using both fists. Straining my head downward against her hands, I feel like a championship wrestler who is losing badly.
I finish up a half hour later and head to the front to schedule my next visit. As I wait for the receptionist I ponder ways of getting out of the crown. Maybe I could show up next time with a Burger King hat and tell them that I’ve already got my crown. But it’s been a good visit, all told. Any time you walk out of a dentist office without hearing the words “root canal” you’ve won.
* * * *
A few weeks later I’m sitting in the dentist’s chair again. The hygienist informs me that I’ll be getting a deep cleaning today. She glances down at her clipboard and then mentions that she’ll be numbing my mouth with a shot before starting. Damn. You know there’s a lot of hidden crap that needs to be mined from your mouth if you’re getting needled for a cleaning.
The hygienist sits on a stool next to me and begins to move tools around on her tray. As she pulls on a green latex glove I think back to Dr. Luby, our first family dentist. This was way before gloves were standard equipment, and Dr. Luby was a smoker. He’d stub out his cigarette and scrub his hands vigorously in a sink before starting on you. But the washing never fully worked, and you’d smell a nasty, stale odor as he slid his fingers under your nose and into your mouth.
The hygienist grabs a needle and enters my mouth. Skillfully, with very little pain on my part, she administers the shot. After removing the needle she turns back to her desk, doing paperwork and waiting for the drug to kick in. The right half of my face is completely numb when she swivels back to me.
“How’re you doing, Thomas?” she asks.
I turn my head and look up at her.
“Well,” I reply, with only the left half of my mouth moving, “I think I’ve had a stroke.”
The hygienist scours my teeth for the next half-hour, using a metal tool with a sharp, pointed hook. She’s assertive in her grinding, but also very careful. She digs in hard on the back teeth, the ones I never get to, and the noise coming from my mouth sounds like someone scraping paint off a house. She finishes and hands me a paper cup with water, instructing me to rinse. I swirl the water around in my mouth and spit it out while she grabs a thin suction hose.
“You had quite a bit of stuff in there,” she says as she puts the hose in my mouth.
I take a gurgling suck and remove the hose.
“I know,” I say. “I should’ve weighed myself before coming in.”
The hygienist laughs and tells me we’re done.