The walls of my waiting room are painted a pale, soothing green. I always have some kind of gentle score playing in the background, but not too loud. Other offices have televisions, a distraction, but not me. I know that hearing the drills, the scraping, the foul gargling, rinsing, and spitting build worry, suspense. The time ticks down. Am I next? How badly will this hurt? How long will this last?
You are next, it won’t hurt too badly, and it seems longer if you think about it. The key is to relax. Hence the green, the rising violins, and the reality. I cannot fool you into thinking you are somewhere else. You made the appointment, you walked in the door. We all must embrace where we are, accept how we made our way here.
Even Natalie, my long-time receptionist, dances in between this delicate balance of green calm and grey scratching fear. She smiles at you with perfect, pearly teeth, tells you to have a seat. You smile back, tight lipped and scoff once you’ve turned away because the only reason her teeth could possibly look like that is because I did them for free.
But Natalie with her long brown hair and muted mauve nails clacking away in tandem with the building string soundtrack are like a mother in the kitchen, baking away. Her presence, like the green walls, cause your shoulders to lower ever so slightly. You notice the primitive pencil drawing of a bicuspid framed beside the doorway, a relic from my youth, and you smile. Your back rests against the chair. You’ve succumbed. It won’t be that bad.
I have been doing this a long time, and while I would never dain to call myself a traditionalist, there are elements of my craft that will always work. I’ve mentioned the paint, the music, the lack of televisions, Natalie’s smile, the drawing. The final element is me.
My competitor, four blocks down, relies on gimmicks. Holy Molar, the office is called, complete with a logo of a smiling, happy tooth, a halo glowing above its head. While this may bring some silly initial comfort to idiotic parents of children who scream and throw a fit at the mere sight of a white coat, it will not last. Mr. Holy Molar, like all the other clowns before him, will grow tired of the nagging, uptight moms who don’t floss and think their children are angels. The mothers will see through the facade of a silly personified tooth logo and realize they are being overcharged for kitsch, and that no amount of noise can eliminate the reality of fear. Eventually, because of this, they will threaten to take their business down the street, to me.
They will see my modestly framed tooth diagram and say, see, finally someone who really cares. And I do, I really care.
With a few exceptions, most people don’t like to have their teeth cleaned. They certainly don’t like to have their teeth examined, or repaired, or pulled out. When I was a younger man I cleaned the teeth of dogs. Only very ridiculous, very wealthy people have their dog’s teeth cleaned, because you have to put a dog under to properly clean their teeth. I certainly prefer the effects of anesthesia to laughing gas or nothing at all, but I also prefer human teeth to dogs’. So I try to convince people to go under when I can.
The immobilized, slack-jawed, gummy body of a person who is very much still alive gives me quite a rush. I do love seeing them, slumped and stupid in my chair with their mouth pried open, their blackened fillings calling to me like a siren song. In this place I can work with care, shoving their jellyfish tongue out of my way without having to say relax, relax your tongue, open wider please, a little bit wider, turn your head towards me.
The minutes before a person emerges are like sending your first child off to college. You bask in the space of your home, suddenly larger, more quiet and brighter than ever before. But then the moment passes and you realize your life is still waiting for you. Cars zoom past unaware of the massive shift that has just occurred, and the tax attorney from Cleveland’s eyelids flutter open and you pat him on the shoulder, saying great job, it’s all over, you did wonderful, and gesture for one of the assistants to get him the hell out of your office before he starts drooling and exhibiting human behaviors all over your happy place.
I am in a particularly jovial mood today because I am removing Ms. Dawson’s wisdom teeth, and she is very nervous. I watch her from my spot in the hallway, her fingers tugging at the strap on her purse as if they are beads of a mandala. She crosses and uncrosses her ankles.
“It’ll be over before you know it,” Natalie smiles, a perfect collection of twenty-eight teeth, the four removed wisdom teeth now living in a pink satin box in my bottom right dresser drawer. Ms. Dawson smiles to be polite, but says nothing, does not show her teeth. I can see that she is tracing every ridge and crevice with her tongue, as if counting a group of children after a field trip before shoving them on the bus.
I decided that I would keep Ms. Dawson’s teeth after her exam two weeks prior. Not every removed tooth is meant to be kept. There are the select few that ask to keep them for themselves, to which I lie and say no, that is unfortunately not allowed. The first tooth I saved came from a grad student named Cecilia. She had shoulder-length auburn hair and an overbite. She wore a low cut red dress with white polka dots and shiny, white tennis shoes with mismatched ankle socks that I only detected when I stood directly over her comatose body as I pried out the lower right molar.
A bolt of lightning ignited in my spine as the impacted tooth released itself from Cecilia’s roots and into the bright light of the examination room. I asked my then-partner, Dr. Patel, to please stitch her up, as my bones were still rattling, my entire body electrified and alive. Quivering, I locked myself in the bathroom and placed Cecilia’s bloody tooth in a small ziplock bag. The bag was dropped into my shirt pocket, beside my heart. I felt the tooth and my most precious organ beating together as one, everything in balance.
Cecilia was released out into the world with her heavy head cocked to one side, her jelly limbs still useless and pleasing. I never saw her again, but I frequently dream of her socks and her mouth.
I signal kindly for Ms. Dawson to come back, that it is nice to see her again, and that everything is going to be fine. As the assistants prep her for surgery, I scrub my hands and stare at the velvet box I have prepared for Ms. Dawson’s teeth. Unlike the waiting room, Ms. Dawson’s box is a deep green, a fertile green. I slip the box into my pants pocket and ready my hands for gloves.
I feel that at this point you are wondering if I do other things to the women whose teeth I care for. And I am not going to answer that. Because like the sounds of the drill you are meant to hear from the calm, green waiting room, I want you to know that I know. I know what you’re afraid of.
I know that you think people in my profession kill themselves because we’re lonely, because no one talks to us. I know that you’re not ashamed of your mouth and the last time you flossed, but that you’re ashamed of yourself. Your loveless marriage, your dirty children. You might be afraid of death, maybe, but you’re more afraid of pain. The pain I can cause you. I know that when you’re sitting in that room you think of who you really could have been: someone who sought out adventure, someone who dreamed of driving a convertible with the top down or jumped out of planes or had a one night stand on a sandy beach. And now your life, your meager, small, and pointless life has become one consumed with the cost of dental care and where your moronic children will go to college someday and what kind of flavorless stew you will make for dinner. You try to feel bad for me because I have to clean your mouth and yank out your teeth and criticize the way you care for your gums like I have any stake in the game.
The truth is that while your useless, drugged up body is sprawled out in my chair, you are transported for the briefest of time to this life, this better, bigger, fuller life. The one you will never have. My drugs have spared you from the pain you so feared, and you will walk out of this room cleaner but unchanged.
Only I am different, because I took something from you. I will go and live the life you covet, driving my convertible beside the sea, tasting the salt on my skin and the wind in my hair, all the while smiling, with your tiny teeth in my pocket.