Two dentists. The first we all saw when I was growing up. He loved my parents. His sons were musicians. He had a strange sense of humor. In the front seat of the minivan as a teenager, my face and tongue half-numb, a stream of drool escaping from one corner of my mouth, I’d look at my mom who was driving and archly slur: “Don’t dentists have the highest suicide rate?” This is what passed for sophisticated humor when I was 15.
The dentist rode a motorcycle. I spent a lot of time in his office. Shania Twain twanged: Nothing impressed her much. I stared at ceiling tiles that looked like Stilton cheese and chomped my teeth up and down while I waited to say ‘ah.’ The dentist would kindly offer my mom rides on his motorcycle and she’d just smile. “How’s your folks?” He’d ask when I sat down. “Good,” I’d answer before the taste of rubber gloves hit my tongue, acrid and specific, cloaking the fleshy strength of fingers.
I’d try and zone out after the sour sharp needle bit into my gums. I’d focus on Shania, but her dulcet warbling couldn’t block out the sound of the drill as it dug into the decay, a muffled shattering of bone in my mouth. Sometimes I’d look up at his glasses and picture the dentist and my mom on his hog, laughing uproariously as they blasted up 95. They are wearing his and hers leather jackets. Sweet tooth, it says, embossed on the back of hers.
The metal burr hits the foul pocket of decay. I smell a gust of something familiar and toxic: My insides. The hygienists are the ones who yell at me for my piss-poor brushing, seemingly complete floss-ignorance, and passionate love of candy. They are perfectly manicured as they jam fluoride trays into my mouth and I try not to gag. They are wearing masks but I see the scowl as they replace one scaler with another better equipped to de-grime my teeth. My mouth floods with blood. My lips are dry and peeling, I’m overweight and zitty, my arms and legs are patched with scabs and bruises.
I don’t know how to take care of myself. It doesn’t occur to me to try. I go to sleep with wet hair in February. I never get warm. Late at night when the house is asleep I creep downstairs and I pry the white sugar cubes free from the glue of the castle diorama I have made. I let them melt in my mouth until only hunks of Elmer’s remain. Sweet industry: The melted sugar paste, the chew of the dried glue.
The dentist is always the good cop. He playfully squirts air in my face when I look serious or concerned in the chair, which is most of the time. He deadpans, and I laugh. The drill brushes something that hurts and it shocks me out of my seat like electricity. “If you feel it that way, you gotta say something, Rebecca.” I nod and he gives me more novocaine. The needle is long and seeping. He grabs my cheek with two fingers and shakes it as he pumps the drug in. When he drills again, I don’t feel it. I stare at his polo shirt while he chats with the assistant. I am totally wired and shaky. The epinephrine makes me feel this way.
The second dentist. Years later. During the halcyon days when I had dental insurance. I was in my twenties, I’d lived in New York for a handful of years. I’d gotten shy about my smile. My pumpkin face spread wide and flat when I grinned, displaying a quirked tooth. He looked like a European DJ and we talked about extraterrestrials and 9/11. Then he looked inside my mouth. It’s a stabbing pain and not the shyness that brought me in. I’ve got a cavity that’s gone too far. I dream of a gentle stream of wet air on my face and the sounds of lite rock. The whole tooth, the hip dentist says, has to go. He draws a picture to explain the procedure. Root canal, core, and post, done over two visits. I nod and blush thinking of my dad’s partial denture plate, of the plaster model my mom brought home from her visit, her mouth in need of repairs displayed in three dimensions.
My body has started falling to bits. I can’t be blamed I’m genetically predisposed towards disaster. We aren’t the sort of people who take care of ourselves well.
The root canal involves fire which I’m not prepared for. It also involves a lot of pain which I am expecting because it is a root canal and I exist in the world. I don’t want to be a bother. I lay rigid for lifetimes until I can’t anymore and then I scream. After time, awkwardness, and more drugs, I’m staring at my own root - my nerve, the little rooty tree branch. “I’ve never seen a nerve this large,” he says with reverence, wrapping it in foil for me to take home.
There were three days that passed before I went back for the second appointment. I am allergic to the pain pills and I get an infection. I am hallucinating that there are bags of trash following me on the subway. I do not call the dentist. I do not want to be a bother. I fall asleep in a McDonald’s in Manhattan where I’ve parked myself between work and a theatre rehearsal. I wake up and I catch my own reflection and see myself for how I really am: Haggard and warped.
That’s how I look today. That’s how I look right now. That’s how I feel. Like I am hallucinating. Like I am in a place I wouldn’t usually be. Like there is something missing and wrong. Like I am in a sort of pain that wipes out everything else.
It’s still amazing to me that one little part of yourself can rebel to such a degree. This time it’s not me turning on myself, this time it’s an external force. But it feels the same, the same, the same. I’ve got big nerves. I’ve got proof that I feel too much and it’s in my wallet wrapped in foil. It’s why I protect them so fiercely. They riot around in stupid agony if I don’t, while everyone else talks about the weather, or sneakers.
I am trying to believe that growing up means protecting my nerves from undue harm but he melts in my mouth like old gluey sugar cubes. The same taste, youthful weirdness co-mingled with something I want so much to be. I think of how I told him to leave me alone forever as I think about the pull of his lower lip between my teeth and it’s five years ago and my body aches, infected, impacted by the loss of something fundamental, of something necessary and I try to think of a day when it won’t and I can’t quite manage it.
All art by Miranda Stokes.