How’s your day so far? the dental hygienist asks.
My dress is rumpled and the stained part of the slip is probably showing. My hair is sticking up weird, even though I put in the extra five morning minutes with the blow-dryer. I look terrible and I feel like throwing up.
None of this is her fault. But what does she expect me to say? Does anyone enter a dentist’s office with a cheery demeanor, knowing what’s in store there? It’s never good news to be in a dentist’s office. It’s the ‘we need to talk’ of physical locations. Pain is waiting, just beyond the beaming posters of multicultural people in multicolored crewnecks whose only common attribute is their gleaming white teeth. We’re all in this together, they are saying. Dental work is just part of being human, like headcolds or sunburn or heartbreak. Sorry, but you’re asking for it simply by having a corporeal form. Smile.
Just okay, I say. I am here to get a tooth drilled, after all.
She smiles politely, without showing her teeth, and leads me back to my chair.
Two weeks ago Monday, I was taking pictures, prettied up in special-day finery, head on a shoulder and smiling smiling smiling up at my little phone camera.
Your teeth are kind of brown, he told me. You really should go to the dentist.
I couldn’t see the brown parts, but I was assured they were there. I tried to take an in-mouth picture with the camera phone. I googled “fatal tooth decay” and it was funny. We laughed.
Yes, I said, Fine. I promise you I will go to the dentist. If you think I should, I will.
If I just hadn’t been smiling then. That would’ve made everything easier.
The hygienist bibs me and plops antiseptic rinse into a cup with the push of a button. I am willing every part of me to be calm—four counts breathe in, eight counts breathe out. You can’t break into hysterics in a dentist’s office, not when you’re an adult. You have to know better.
My dentist is young and good-looking. He has a good smile, of course, close-cropped light hair, nice blue eyes. Suddenly I feel worse about my own dumb hair and messy clothes. There’s chapped skin on my nose from too much blowing and crying, a little flaw unnoticeable by anyone not close enough to kiss me. Or drill a hole in my teeth, I guess.
How was your weekend, my handsome dentist asks.
Fine, I lie.
How are you today, he asks.
I’m getting a tooth drilled, I say.
I do. My nose itches.
When he puts the cotton in my mouth, I check his finger for a ring.
Then I gag. This is my life now.
One week ago Monday I was in for my teeth cleaning, like I promised. Scrape scrape metal, click click x-rays, I know the drill. Yes, I know I grind my teeth; yes, I wear the mouthguard at night unless I have company (it’s embarrassing).
When was your last cleaning, asked the hygienist.
I can’t really remember, I told her. It was definitely high school.
High school, she said. So at least—
At least six years, I said. Yes.
The hygienist was not pleased. I know, I wanted to tell her, I know it’s a long time. I know there are supposed to be intermediary checkups. I know only an idiot would go this long. But I’m fine, right? My teeth aren’t falling out, are they? Can’t you just grate off the plaque with the picky silver thing, make me spit blood—it’ll only hurt a little—and let me go with a warning? I bargain with the fervor of a deathbed convert: I can start flossing. Mouthguard every night. Antiseptic rinse, I promise, I promise.
But no. He jabbed me, and it hurt.
A filling has come loose, the dentist told me.
Can’t we just leave it alone? I wanted to ask, but I knew even asking is stupid. Leaving it alone is how you get cavities, not fix them.
You don’t want to let it get worse, he said, good smile hidden behind a paper mask. You don’t want to have to come in for a root canal, right?
I laughed, to the extent that you can laugh with a plastic spit-sucker sputtering under your tongue.
You’re saving yourself a lot of pain, he said.
I made an appointment for the next Monday.
Five chat windows flash up from the bottom of my email tab, all with advice. Grace tells me that the Novocain shot isn’t so bad. It’s a thin one, she types to me, but the needle is the worst part.
I wish she were here. Of course I do—I always wish everyone I loved didn’t have to be so far away. I wish I weren’t—now, suddenly, unfairly—alone. But Eli is in New York, and Alex is in Pittsburgh, and Naseem is in Chicago, and Grace is in Tampa until her flight tomorrow, and then she’ll be even further. This is young adulthood, I think, everyone being everywhere else, the people I love reduced to pinging text on a screen. And sometimes that’s not even enough. But today they all rally. They’ve all had teeth drilled before. They’re pulling for me. Especially Shannon, my roommate, my best friend, who is gone for the week in Montreal and whom I miss most acutely of almost anyone in the world right now.
Two months ago she said Blair, you really have to go to the dentist.
I’m fine, I told her.
If I had just listened.
Shannon has left a survival kit in my bedroom: a card with a dog on it, some tissue packets, nice Burt’s Bees face wipes for my red flaking nose, a bunch of pens for no reason except that we never have any pens; the best our neighborhood 24-hour CVS has to offer. The liquor store was closed, she writes, otherwise there’d be burbon. I laugh. She’s never been great at spelling. That hasn’t changed. She has been there since before the beginning and now she’s here after the end. I start to cry.
The dentist cracks my jaw another half-inch open.
Open for me? he says, like it’s a personal favor.
I do. He peels back my lips and stabs me.
Try not to see the needle going in, Grace had said. But that’s impossible. Your mouth is in your face, after all, right under your eyes. But I will not struggle. Not me. I have to get through this. I’m brave now. I brace my arms against the plastic chair, pinning myself in place, bright light in my eyes and drool on my chin, and I know it’s coming and I close one eye and still see the thin silver still hurts still sharp into tenderness still hurts still hurts.
Then he pulls back.
Good Job. You did it.
He says, it’ll take a while for the numbness to set in.
So then I’m alone.
I’m getting a tooth drilled. Of course it hurts.
But the needle is the worst part. The drill is less pain and more an expected discomfort. I can’t feel anything, after all. It’s just a dull buzz against my bones, vibrations back up into my skull as I choke on silver-flavored spritzes from a metal wand. I talk to myself the whole time. I am brave, doing great, a good sport. I keep my mouth open wide, muscles tensed, jaw clicking, gulping backwash—over soon, over soon, it’ll all be over soon—
One week ago Monday, the hygienist was swabbing on a final film of fluoride.
You have to be gentle with yourself, she said.
Have you ever met me, I thought.
Don’t brush so hard, she went on. Soft bristles. Or use a kid’s toothbrush.
I have been, though. For six years. I’ve been using a children’s toothbrush since I had to borrow one at the farmhouse after I spent the night sharing a bed and we both woke up giggling and came downstairs and our hostess stopped making blueberry waffles and smiled and cracked a new toothbrush out of a plastic case, shaped like a Crayola marker, just for me. And everything was okay.
We both brushed our teeth before we kissed for the first time. I don’t even remember why.
My insurance won’t pay for the white veneer filling and I say I don’t care, whatever’s cheaper, and so I have to sign a waiver about heavy metals before they let me leave. Because most people don’t want something lodged in them that will leach poison and hurt them slowly over time; that would be very bad.
Facebook survey says: Advil, ice, Orajel. Bourbon, spelled correctly here. Ice cream—what a cliché! Numb, numb, numb. Yes, please.
But I am cheerful. I get out to the payment desk without crying. I tell the receptionist see you in six months, because I will definitely still be here, no doubt about it, I care about my dental health now, yessir. I am going to start flossing. I will not brush so hard. The copay’s only eight dollars—look at that. Wasn’t so bad after all.
We all have teeth, the smiling poster-people remind me on my way out. Look. Look. We all have teeth. We all lose them and chip them and let them rot away. We invent nice little ceremonies—a quarter under the pillow, a sticker on a child’s jacket, a toothbrush like a Crayola marker—to ease the reality of ragged gums and red blood welling in pink sockets and shooting, electric, whole-body pain at the lightest touch. Smile. Smile. We are making this fundamentally ugly part of living in a human body seem okay.
Are you okay, someone asks at work.
I’m fine, I say. Just a little numb.
I touch my cheek, because it’s just a tooth, and then I smile.
The hole in me is now bigger. It has been fixed: numbed, drilled, filled in with something shiny and stronger and more precious than what was there before. I have had these teeth my whole life and this is going to keep them biting. Spit, rinse, smile.