I went to the dentist the other day. Not because my teeth hurt or anything, but because he said I had cavities. Invisible, painless cavities that urgently needed attention RIGHT NOW. Probably because the dentist’s child is headed off to college in a few weeks and needs the money…
Anyway, so I go. “Hi Chris, come on back,” said the assistant lady as I walked in the door, “you’re right on time.” I followed her through to the torture room in the back and sat on the uncomfortable Chair of Much Pain. The dentist was there, rubbing his hands in glee. “So, are you having any problems with your teeth?” he asked.
“No, I answered, leaning back in the Chair of Much Pain, “but you must have problems with ’em — you’re the one that told me to be here.”
“Yeah,” he said, sharpening his meat hook, “when you had your teeth cleaned last month we noticed a few cavities. You really should quit eating and devote all your time to brushing. But we’ll get them fixed right up for you. Now lean back…” I lay back and stared at the ceiling. Eggshell, with no texture. “Open wider, please.” The dentist stuck a wad of cotton or something in the side of my mouth, and jammed a giant Q-Tip in there somewhere. The assistant lady stuck the sucker hose in the back of my mouth, “Sccchllllluupppph.”
“Okay, you’re going to feel a small pinch,” said the dentist, waving a syringe the size of a football in my face. “Gnuggga wom na,” I said. The syringe went into my mouth. “A small pinch,” I thought to myself. “Just a small pinch. No problem.” That’s when the fire shot down my neck. “WAAAArraaaaHHHAAAA” I yodeled through my nose. I could feel the needle probing around. Near as I could tell, the dentist was trying to numb my jaw by inserting the anesthetic directly to my brain — he had that needle jammed about sixteen inches into my face…
But a mere six hours later (in “patient years”*) the dentist pulled the needle out. “Thank God we’re done,” I thought to myself. “Okay, we’re ready to start,” he said. “Gnufff” I answered.
I stared at the ceiling. Eggshell, with no texture. The dentist started doing things. Whiny things, with a drill. “Wheeeeennngggg wheeeeeee weeeeeennnnnnggg.” The anesthetic worked, though, and I really didn’t feel anything, though I marveled at the cloud of tooth dust floating out of my mouth. Could have been smoke, I guess. Hard to tell. The dentist and the assistant fell into a routine, alternating with the drill and the sucky thing. “Wheeennggg wheeeeeen wheee… Sccchllllluupppph. Wheeeereeen whee wee weeeeeee…. Sccchllllluupppph.”
Every few minutes I would consciously force myself to relax. My hands were clenched together on my belly tighter than a three-year-old’s grip on a piece of candy. My stomach muscles ached. Several times I thought I could pick the chair up with my butt cheeks, they were clenched together so tight. I’d lay there on the Chair of Much Pain, forcing myself to relax, knowing that in three minutes (patient time) I’d be all clenched up again, even though the anesthetic was working fine.
“Think of something else,” I told myself. “Relax.” So I thought of other things…
I thought of my childhood dentist, a gentle man who never caused me any pain at all, and somehow never had to use anesthetic. He retired early and moved to Chicago to play piano in a jazz quartet.
I thought of the time in the mid 1990s when I told my boss at the print shop that I had a dentist appointment at 8 a.m. the next week. “Okay,” he said. “But Mr. X (our biggest customer) is coming in at 9 that morning to talk to you about a brochure. I need you to be here. And don’t be all goofy on painkillers or anything either.” So I went to the dentist — a guy I’ve never been to before — and told him to do what he had to do without giving me anesthetic. “I have a business meeting in an hour. My boss told me I have to be coherent and able to talk.” So the dentist did his drilling and filling and whatnot without giving me a shot or anything. Talk about pain! I was covered in sweat by the time he was done, but I endured it. I ran straight to work, making it to the office right at nine, my mouth throbbing, the memory of the recent pain VERY fresh in my mind. “I’m here,” I said. “Where’s Mr. X?” My face felt bruised. “I’m ready for the meeting.” My boss looked at me. “Oh. I forgot to tell you. He cancelled the meeting last week.”
I came back to reality. Eggshell. “Wheeeeenggg whe whee wheeeeeennn…” What else can I think of to distract myself?
I thought of the time I went to yet another new dentist in my hometown in the late 90s. I was laying back, listening to the sound of the drill, enjoying the root canal best I could. “Wheeeee wheeeeennggg wheeeUUNK.” I looked at the dentist. His eyes were real big. I looked at the dental hygienist lady. Her eyes were real big. “Uh oh,” said the dentist. He rummaged around a bit, picked up some other instrument of torture and went back to working on my teeth. I forgot about the “uh oh” as he kept working. When he was done I decided to stop at the store for a few things before I went to work. As I walked about the supermarket I noticed that everyone kept their distance from me. No one would make eye contact. People in the store were very definitely nervous for some reason… I made my way through the checkout counter, where the clerk stuttered and stammered to me, ringing my items up as quickly as he could. When I got back to my car I happened to look down. The right side of my shirt was covered in blood. I looked in the rear-view mirror — the right side of my face and neck were covered in blood. I drove home and checked things out… It was obvious the “uh oh” was the dentist dropping the drill in my mouth. I had a nice gash on the inside of my mouth, and a very thin cut from the corner of my lip down my cheek, bleeding like a stuck pig. Oddly enough I went back to that dentist two or three more times — he was the only dentist in the area that would take payments.
I checked back in to reality. Eggshell. Relax. “We’re just about done,” the dentist told me. “Gnurf,” I answered. He motioned to the assistant lady. She set the sucky thing down and handed the dentist something. “Okay,” he said, “this is just sandpaper. It’ll just take a minute.”
“Sandpaper?” I thought. “In my mouth? What the…” I could feel the dentist shoving something (sandpaper, I assume) between two of my teeth. He started yanking it back and forth. “Kzzzt, kzzzt, kzzzt, kzz-POP.”
“Uh oh,” said the dentist. “Um, hand me the orthorefractohoojometer please.” The assistant lady handed him a pair of pliers. He reached into my mouth and started yanking on something. “This will only take a… well son of a…” yank yank yank. My noggin whipped around like a bobblehead doll on Steve McQueen’s dashboard. “Can you give me the dentoforcepectomentordealy,” he said to the assistant lady, who handed him a pair of vice-grips.
By this time I’ve got both hands in a death grip on the Chair of Much Pain. My butt cheeks are holding onto the cushion for dear life. My eyes are crossed. The doctor grabs onto something in my mouth with the vice-grips and starts yanking. “Whang! Whang! Whang!” goes my head against the back of the chair. Finally, “Kzzzzt…” “Got it!” said the dentist. “Sorry ’bout that. The sandpaper got stuck between your teeth. Happens sometimes.”
Within minutes he was done and I was making my wobbly, numb way to the door. “We’ll need to see you in a few weeks to get the rest of the work done,” said the dentist. “See you then!” I shot him a dirty look and slinked out to my car.
This was all well and good, and to be honest I’d kinda forgotten about all of it (it’s good to blank some things out you know) until this morning. I was flossing. “Zip zip zip… Zip zip zip… Zip zi.” Stuck. Damn.
*One patient year is roughly equivalent to forty-two “real” years. Therefore one hour in the Chair of Much Pain is equivalent to 42 hours in the real world.