Dentists have always terrified me. It began in high school, when, once a year, my mother would drag my sister and me to the dentist’s office.
My mother called our dentist Dr. Dull. He sounded like he had a constant cold and breathed heavily through his hygienic mask, like Darth Vader’s long-lost twin brother.
Dr. Dull spent most of my visits complaining about his wife as he coated my teeth with a thick pink paste that made me gag.
At 17, I drove to his office alone. As he was about to take an X-Ray of my teeth, Dr. Dull asked if I was pregnant. “Because,” he said, “I can lower down the chair if you want to be.”
For the next 30 minutes, I stared numbly at the TV until he finished my cleaning. After the appointment, I quietly told a friend over coffee what he said.
“Oh no,” she said. “Don’t ever go back to him.”
And I listened: I found a sweet lady dentist in my area who ended every appointment with a firm reminder to “floss more.” I thought my days of creepy dentists were far from over. I was wrong.
I entered the Peace Corps at 24, with wild hopes of changing the world. I got assigned to live in a small town in southern Ecuador, surrounded by beautiful sloping green mountains, plants with leaves bigger than my body, and passionfruit trees in my backyard. I was in love with the sheer beauty of it all.
As the only young American woman in a town of 12,000, I was Big News. Older women, dismayed by my advanced age of 24, offered to fix me up with their sons. People I had never seen before shouted my name and smiled at me in the streets. Teachers often bought me coffee and empanadas and invited me over to their homes.
And everyone, from my 4-year-old neighbor to the gold miners, seemed to have the same request: Could I teach them English?
Two months into my service, I complained to my co-workers that my back molar throbbed. I would have to book an appointment with the official Peace Corps dentist in Quito, I told them, and take a few days off of school.
The official school dentist (hired by the school to safeguard the dental safety of all of the students) offered to take a look at my cavity in exchange for -- surprise! -- an English lesson. He told me he needed to improve his speaking, so that he could chat up foreign women at the beach.
That’s creepy, said a little voice deep within my mind. Then I remembered the 14-hour windy bus to Quito that had me praying I wouldn’t projectile vomit on the other bus passengers. I brushed the inner voice aside.
We walked to his office after school. The first thing that greeted my eyes when he opened the door was a baby stroller, followed by a pretty young woman holding a baby.
“My wife,” he said to me, smiling.
I immediately began to feel confused. Hadn’t he just told me that he wanted to learn English to meet international women? Maybe I had misunderstood his thick coastal accent.
She invited me to sit down. I realized that I was in the dentist’s house. His office was a room in his house, yet another detail he had neglected to mention. He showed me a wall of his paintings. He pointed to his favorite: an impressionist piece that looked like a swirling tornado.
“These dark colors here symbolize night,” he said, “and the sexual adventurousness that comes out in the dark.”
My internal alarm bells began to ring. Where was I: an art museum or a dentist’s office? Why was he telling me about the sexual implications of his art? Why was his wife sitting there, not saying anything?
My mind assured me that this was just a cultural difference. Maybe in this culture, dentists talked about their art before filling in cavities. It’s OK, I told myself. The wife is right next door. Everything is OK.
The beginning of the consultation started normally. He began to examine my mouth when I heard his wife in the next room shout, “I’m going to get groceries. Be back in an hour.” The door slammed and we were alone. My heart began to race.
As he applied a paste for my cavity, he began to tell me about how much he hated his wife. “She doesn’t let me dance with other women at parties,” he said, “and all she does is take care of the baby.”
He continued to tell me about women he slept with. He paused to tell me, “I always wear a condom. I’m not sure about you Americans, but I always wear one. I don’t want to get diseases.”
He rubbed my shoulders with his hands. My mind was in full freak-out mode, but I couldn’t say anything. He instructed me to keep my mouth open while he put in my filling. He told me that he couldn’t help but to notice the beauty in other women.
Scooting closer to me, he said, “Like your eyes. They are mesmerizing. I could kiss you right now.”
Every part of my body froze in that instant. I didn’t want this to happen. I didn’t want any of it. What is he going to do to me? I thought. He was over six feet. He was holding sharp dental tools. No one was home: no one would hear me scream if he attacked me.
I cursed myself silently for ignoring all of the warning signs: the little voice inside of me that told me his English request was odd, the same voice that whispered “This isn’t normal,” as he talked about his painting.
I felt ashamed: How could I assume that men just fix cavities without expecting something from the naïve, young, American girl? Why hadn’t I listened to the little voice? Now, it was too late.
I mustered up all of the strength and stared at him with my mouth half-open. “I haaaaah a boiiii-fraaaaaaaan,” in choppy Spanish. I waited for his response. Would he care? Would he attack me?
He stared back for what felt like eternity and nodded. “I guess our cultures are different,” he said, and finished working on my tooth. He told me I was free to go.
“I’m sweating because of what we talked about,” he said. “It turned me on.”
I didn’t respond. I flew down the stairs and into the crowded street. I wanted to cry at the site of the man selling hot dogs and the kids going to basketball practice. I was free. I was safe. It was OK.
The next few weeks, work continued as usual. I avoided the teacher’s lounge like the plague, and took solace in the silence of the library. I threw myself into my work and walked away from the dentist whenever I saw him. But one day I ran into him at the end of seventh period.
“Hola, Andrea,” he said with a slight smirk. “Nice to see you again.”
I felt queasy. I wanted to scream. I told the teachers I was sick and spent the rest of the day in bed. I wondered: How was I going to survive the next two years?
The memory of the dentist continued to gnaw at me. At the urging of a fellow volunteer, I broke down and told the head of security what he had done. She acted fast. She called him personally and threatened to expose him to the school if he ever bothered me again.
She called my home, and my host father, a calm man who barely ever raised his voice, marched over to his house and yelled at him to stay away from me. For the first time, I felt relieved. He wouldn’t bother me anymore.
The last time I saw the dentist was a month before I left Ecuador. He was talking to the pretty 15-year-old sister of one of my students. I watched her arch her head back as she laughed at something he said as he touched her arm.
I felt sick to my stomach as I realized he was still preying on women and girls. My Peace Corps intervention hadn’t done anything. He continues to be a menace to my entire town.
I will never forget the wave of fear that overwhelmed me as I stared at his face, mere feet away from my face. I will never forget the loss of control that I felt as I knew that my safety was no longer in my own hands.
Two years back in the States, my hips feel like metal when I try to dance salsa and my Spanish is filled with long pauses as I struggle to remember words that I used to say every day. But I can never forget the feeling of paralysis in that came over me that day in the dentist’s chair.