My Favorite Dentist
You are my favorite dentist. You don’t look on my chart and ask me how my job is. You never duped me into listing my hobbies, not six months ago, and not six months before that. You never even tried. You say, “Look at this. Anything new?” and hand me a laminated list of diseases, symptoms, and reasons to be hospitalized. I’m reclining in the sprawling chair and you’re on your wheeled stool beside me. We can both see out the window, where you’ve placed a birdhouse. It’s fall. During my spring appointment I could see the birds fluttering around, framed. This year they were bluebirds. You’re such a grown-up, I think. You never lecture about floss. You say, and it’s a fact, “You should floss more.” Well put. We are all adults here, including your assistant, a pudgy, warm-looking woman with a soft voice. You are your own hygienist.
There are no Christian magazines in your waiting room. There are no faux-stencil borders on the wallpaper. Six months, cleaning to cleaning. Keeping tabs on my teeth, great leaps of time between. No small talk. I remove my glasses.
We’re all set up but then your assistant peeks back in and says, “You got a red Toyota? Next door called and you got your lights on.” I slip outside, half blind, in the drizzle, wearing my bib, and switch my lights off. It’s quick. Back in the chair I say, “Thanks. That was so nice of them.” And professional. A little while later in fact someone comes from next door to catch us up on the news. Police are coming closer to nabbing the sniper who’s been terrorizing the suburbs. It’s all so considerate. Even next door they know you listen to the classical station that doesn’t do news.
But except for dumb me and my lights, we get right to it. Your assistant joins us and sits in a chair in the corner, taking notes on a map of my mouth. You’re keeping an eye on a molar. Something else is at a certain number of millimeters. I appreciate your mask, and how even with it, the one time you cough you turn well away. I appreciate all the latex as well as the repeated raising, lowering, and tilting of the chair. How we cooperate with everything. How all I really have to do is spit.
It’s true. It hurts. But I find I can concentrate on the particular kind of pain. I relax into it. It thuds and scrapes. It’s a careful pain. I can feel bits of sand. I can hear a variety of noises. It’s sort of sexy, but like bad sex, the dull kind, which is not a bad thing when it’s not sex. It’s simply polite. After a while, when I spit, my blood is clumpy.
Your assistant comes over when I’m ready to polish. By the end, everyone’s fingers are in my mouth. But everyone acts like everything’s normal, so it is.
I’ve been thinking about forgettable time, like in an airport, or time loading up all the furniture and getting it into some other apartment. It’s intense while it’s happening, but once it’s over I forget it almost altogether. Still, some people, I have to remember, work in airports. I think about prostitutes, something I think about regularly. I’ve generally accepted that except for the aspects that dehumanize people I think I’d like it a lot, participating.
There’s something exquisite about everyone getting along. I think I’d like how people might come together and hold up two ends of an agreement. What a clean way to do something so variously messy. I like to think how if I went to a prostitute she would act like it was normal, and it would be for her. For her it would be forgettable time even though for me it would not. It’s true that I never think of you except when I’m with you, and I never remember my previous dentists except when I’m admiring my current dentist: you. I forget, but then I remember. For you it’s day in, day out. You live in it, with your sweet assistant and the sweet little birds out the window.
“I bet you miss your birds,” I say, after spitting one last time. “Now that it’s fall.” You say nothing, an excellent choice because it preserves the integrity of our distance. Instead, you move your head in a way that lets me know you’ve made a friendly expression under the mask. I love that apparently you’ve forgotten you’re wearing a mask. It makes it easy to imagine how fully human you must be. I wonder if you wonder why I think of the birds, because not only are my glasses off but my eyes are closed, as they have been since you first lowered my chair and turned on your light. Except for the moment I peeked and saw your mask move, I only imagine the window I know is in front of us. My teeth are so slick. My saliva moves easily between them. I can’t help it. I’m admiring the feeling of the inside of my mouth. I remember, back when I used to sleep with them, feeling an admiration for men when nothing went wrong and I was okay. This is what I should have done with the men, I think, is have them clean my teeth. I could have a little laugh and get back to my mouth, but the thought makes me feel an unexpected sense of loss, a thud of sorts, imagining years collapsing on my head. I feel, for a moment, like the princess’s pea under all those mattresses.
“Here’s another toothbrush,” says the assistant, and it arrives in my fist in its cardboard outfit.
“Hey. Floss,” you say, a last remark that feels like a gift: what care, what respect.
My dentist, I think. Fuck it. I like him. I think those exact words, watching your broad white back move down the hall and turn a corner. I hear a door open and shut. I picture you, alone with your desk and whatever you’ve hung on your walls.
My insurance covers everything but a dollar, which I pay in quarters over a smooth white countertop. Then I drive toward home through the drizzle, feeling my teeth. The sky is an unrumpled gray. Home is not far but it takes a long time with all the lights. Also, because of the sniper, a lot of people are trying to drive with their heads ducked.
In the car, my wipers jerk and bounce across the windshield. My belts make distant anguished cries when I turn. It’s a beautiful feeling, though. The noises my car makes add to the isolation I always feel driving around in traffic. Everyone driving around, obeying, struggling to obey. The weather is helping, too, the sky that could be near or a ways away, the drizzle that’s a mere step wetter than mist, just enough to actually drop. It’s all working together. The signs for the video stores, gas stations, idiotic food joints, all their garish colors and broad shapes, hard as their designers tried, as extremely bright as they wanted the buildings to be no matter what, orange and red roofs, greens that should only exist on wet baby plants—the weather’s muted them, and the whole tone of this day in my life in this world is muting them too. I feel completely alone, but I’m so clean that there’s no way I’d want anything near me. The way I wouldn’t eat a brownie—what an awful thought with a mouth like this—I also wouldn’t want anyone around.
By the time I get home, it’s still deeply gray, but no more actual precipitation. My neighbor Andrea is on her screened-in porch. We live in a neighborhood of ranch houses. Everyone has done something in an effort to get the poor things to bust out of their boxes. Decks, wings, bay windows, dynamic landscaping. The innocent low brick huts are a little overwhelmed by the attention. Inside the screened porch Andrea’s lined up her houseplants on a long fold-out table. She’s wearing a green apron and yellow-flowered gloves, and she’s plucking dead leaves with one hand and holding a pair of red-handled scissors in the other. Her hair is lush and shiny, with blondish highlights. She’s brassy. She’s a good-looking woman by a number of standards, including my own, but she has an obese ex-boyfriend who’s stalking her. I met him a few times, which is how I found out he’s obese, something she’s never seemed to think is important and I like to think is not.
What can I say? He’s not like you. I don’t like to think about him, but I do.
His name is Joey. I laughed when she told me about him, some of the things he said were so pitiful, but then I was around for a couple of incidents and it’s kind of scary, in part because I’m not sure if she really gets how scary the guy is. Like one time he was under her car with a flashlight. He said he was changing her oil the way he’d always done because otherwise her engine was going to freeze up on the road and he didn’t want her death on his hands. After he left, Andrea came running over to my house asking if I knew any mechanics who’d check it out just in case. Or another time I was reading on my porch, which is across the driveway from her porch, where they were having a fight. He called her a dyke and then said, “No offense” to me and I looked up from reading and said, “None taken.” When she came over later, I said, “With a guy like that, you really need to be careful. You need to watch it,” I remember saying. “If you’re scared, Andrea, I mean I’m not going to tell you not to be scared. You should be scared.” I said this frankly, flatly, a matter of fact. She walked around my kitchen with her fist to her forehead clutching a clump of hair. I watched her as if from a distance and I noticed that I wasn’t scared. I tried to figure out if I was scared for her. I thought about him heaving around the porch, thud, thud, thud, shaking his fists in the air, his body moving around his bones, but I wasn’t scared.
Andrea reminds me of certain girls in high school—she has a kind of social confidence I remember some girls having that usually gets beaten out over time, but some of it’s left in her. She’s also obviously bright, and weird. I love that she kept some of the funny wallpaper in her house, and when I’m in her house I tend to run across things that surprise me, given that she’s in sales, that she drives up and down the highway with a truck full of samples, mugs and shirts and a three-ring binder detailing options for logos. I saw in her bookcase, for instance, the new translation of The Odyssey. Is she kidding? It’s next to her Major British Writers textbook from high school, which is next to a stack of home décor magazines, which is next to How to Make Friends and Influence People, which her boss gave her and she took as a compliment. But she also has a collection of one-foot rulers that she keeps in a vase. Rulers, as in with inches up one side and centimeters down the other. She has wooden ones, metal ones, and one that has holograms of dinosaurs on it. She has a red-painted fold-up yardstick with brass hinges. I like the idea of her measuring, and measuring carefully. I picture her stretched out on the floor of her empty house, measuring for incoming furniture. I like to picture her being quiet, easing along the floor, almost still. I like to picture her measured, because so often she is anything but. Still, I love seeing her, busy, busy, across the driveway, through the porch screen, our garages winking at each other from the edges of our yards.
Today, indeed, she looks a little frantic. I pause and lean with my back against my car. I know I’m making a wet patch on my shirt, but I’m trying to decide if I should go right in or if I should wave to her. I lick my teeth. I’m supposed to change clothes and go to work but, truly, can I even tell you how much I don’t want to go? You with your antiseptic office? Do you know that dread? Did you used to have it and then you put up the birdhouse? Got your great new assistant, fired the one with the stinky perm? Did that do the trick? I think you had the birdhouse up from the start. I think you anticipate and believe in cautious preventative measures, in living moderately so that whatever is going to happen will simply happen. Crossing bridges as you come to them. Burning nothing.
Andrea waves. Her hair is bright in the limp light. “Hey, can you come over? Hey, did you hear they want us to walk zigzag? You going in or you coming over? Decide or get down quick while you think, girl. I got my apron on but I don’t need to be cleaning up brains.” I’d almost forgotten the sniper entirely.
“There aren’t any sidewalks,” I say. “What are we supposed to zigzag on?”
“I walked zigzag from the Rite-Aid to my car, in and out. Are you coming? I’m getting a beer. No, wait, I’ll open wine.”
Wine I can imagine in my mouth. “Okay,” I say. “But white, okay?” I think, I’ll have a glass of wine and then I’ll go in to work. For all they know I stopped for lunch. I could very well be afraid of the sniper and not want to leave the house for all they know. In fact, at this point Andrea explains to me that the whole reason she’s home is her boss gave everyone the day off because he and his wife decided to keep their kids out of school and just, you know, “value them,” and he thought everyone should go home and do the same. So Andrea’s home freaking out with her plants, and she wants company. She opens the screen door for me and hugs me with her garden gloves on, still holding the scissors. She hugs me so her wrists are on my back, I guess because there might be potting soil on the gloves. But everything strikes me as clean on her porch, the cement floor, the shelving units. Even the potting soil. It’s the cleanest dirt possible. If you do compost right there’s a step in the process where you spread it on cookie sheets and bake it, to kill any bacteria. And besides, by this time I’m thinking about a sparkly fresh-tasting glass of wine to brighten a drizzly day.
Should I skip to the good part? Are you wondering behind your mask and its intricate filtering fibers? Are you looking at your own gloves, your skin dim under the powdered rubber? I’m wondering which clump of time is skimable, what space is the space between things that count. Andrea says she wants distraction, she wants me to help her kill some time or all she’ll be able to think of is a bullet in her ear. She brings a bottle of wine onto the porch and we sit in wicker chairs facing the folding table, which now holds the line of plants in their terra-cotta pots and a spray-mister, along with her garden gloves, the wine, and our glasses when we set them down. She tells me a story about her father, who is currently sick in the hospital. The story is very funny, and also moving in almost underhanded bursts. I forget it immediately: I’m right there with it, feeling it, charmed by it, seeing and hearing her father through these new aspects of her, precise ways she uses her voice that I haven’t noticed before, little bits of information I plan to sock away—for instance, I think it becomes clear that she keeps peppermints in the glove compartment of her truck—but we move on and in a flutter in my brain a bit later I realize I’ve forgotten almost everything. I’m looking at the items assembled on the folding table. I’m thinking of your tools, the pokey ones and the scrapey ones, how homey they seemed, like silverware, stacked in their shiny compartmentalized tray. I’m listening. Also, I’m comparing her instruments to yours.
My wicker chair rocks, which is nice. Andrea’s resting her feet on an overturned bucket. She’s still wearing her apron. She slipped the wine key in the pocket along with the scissors and the cork. She says she’s going to think of something to do with all those corks. “Besides a cork board. I’ve seen one. They’re stupid.” After a while it starts raining again, this time really hard. “Do you think the sniper would go hunting in this much rain?” she asks. I’m starting to wonder if she’s actually frightened, or if she’s just playing with the idea of fear, the way I think I have been. I’ve had my moments, teasing the fear, but I haven’t believed myself. I remember when your neighbor came in with sniper news, how completely without interest you seemed to be. I was too, I guess. We were busy thinking about my teeth, I guess. I was. I thought you were thinking about my teeth, but suddenly I think your mind could have been anywhere at all. I have pretty good teeth, and I have pretty good hair, too. I regularly get compliments from hairdressers. They confess wanting very much to cut my hair but not wanting me to be without it, either. They say it’s both thick as in many strands per square inch of scalp and thick as in each strand has what you might call a hefty circumference. I realize I assumed you liked my teeth, were impressed with them in some way. But perhaps they simply bored you.
When the rain gets going hard enough that it’s blowing through the screens, Andrea and I move inside. We sit on the floral carpet in the living room and lean our backs against her white couch. I cross my ankles. She takes off her apron, folds it, and sets it next to her on the floor. She crosses her ankles, too. We put the bottle of wine between us. Our butts are on the small space of hardwood floor exposed between the carpet and the couch. At some point I take off my glasses, lean over her, and place them on her folded apron. We keep talking for a while and then we start making out, something I haven’t actually pictured happening before but suddenly realize I’ve been very interested in having occur. I think, vaguely, Oh, fuck, not my neighbor, that’ll be all kinds of mess . . . but I think it in a way that makes me feel happy because it comes with an image of the two of us tossing colored scarves from a ferris wheel. I also think, I wonder if she notices my teeth, because I didn’t mention you at all. Then, for quite some time I don’t think anything that I remember.
This is the good part. Making out. I have no idea how long it lasts.
It’s so beautiful. If I try hard to remember, I think it’s like sun coming out over snow, glowing, and stunningly, incongruously warm and clean.
Next, though, I remember the phone ringing and saying, “You want to get that?” and Andrea says, “Not really,” and looks at me—accusing—so I shrug. The machine does its thing, but it’s a hang up. “Joey,” she says, and takes the empty bottle, leaves the room, and every warm clean thing rolls over, revealing a stomach iced with soot, and every ferris wheel screeches to a halt, all scarves collapsing to the faraway ground.
Boy do I feel dumb. This is how dumb I feel: I feel more than dumb because the second Andrea leaves I am stunned by the sterility of the room without her and my ass is cold on the floor, and numb. I’d somehow thought I could separate this afternoon entirely from the rest of her life and mine, too. I imagine Joey in the bushes, peeking with his bulldog face and then, because he’s seen us, I see him drop back across the yard like a football player and I picture a brick coming though the window. Then I revise and picture Joey as the sniper. I might think somewhere in my mind that I’m getting carried away, but it’s so true the way I imagine it, like the sky has peeled back in a rush and revealed what hides behind it: there’s an awful distant sound, like something enormous breaking in one compact instant, and there’s a hole in the window with tiny spidering around it. But the way I imagine it the hole is followed by no more than a plink on the floor and a rolling sound, which I follow with my eyes. It’s as if making the hole through the window deflated the entire energy of the bullet, which it turns out is actually a pea-colored marble that rolls along the molding until it reaches a corner of the room, where it stops without even bouncing once. It makes a tiny thud, like someone shot dead, but far away.
I look around her living room. There are two tin lanterns and throw pillows with a batik print of zebras on them. I know exactly which store she got these from. I think of the whole suburban acreage from here to DC to Richmond and up into Maryland spidering out into who knows how many places. The whole paved-over, guardrail, speed-bump, exit-ramp landscape is shrouded in this in-between time. Why am I not frightened? Why am I thinking about you? Once this sniper is caught or shot, or they are, however many of them, this time will evaporate. It’ll snap back like elastic once the fat man’s belly is gone. It’ll be those weeks before they catch someone, or shoot someone in a wild chase, or whatever will happen happens. Why do I know it’ll end? Why am I so sure it won’t go on and on? What’s under your gloves and what’s under your mask? You’re looking in my mouth under such bright lights. You’re looking into my head but in your mind you’re thinking about your birds. They’re out the window, they’re in their house, they’re zooming through the air faster than anything I know how to imagine, they’re away, they’re hunting, gone for the winter; at least, either way, they’re gone.
Andrea comes back, this time with beer, with a whole six-pack. “What are you doing?” I ask.
She kneels before me on the rug. “Fuck Joey,” she says. She’s unbuttoning her shirt. It suddenly horrifies me that she’s wearing eyeliner.
“What are you trying to do?” I say.
“What do you think?” she says. She squints at me. She’s trying to see where I’m coming from. I think I hear the phone ringing again, but it’s not ringing. I think about how my tongue was recently inside her skull, and this she must see, she must see me thinking this, and she must be witnessing my repulsion, because she lets her hands drop to her sides. She sits back on her heels and lays her hands on her thighs, limp, with the palms up in a way that makes me think of lettuce leaves rocking on a countertop on their backs. Over her shoulder I can see out onto her porch. Even without my glasses her plants look lined up to be shot. When I look back at her face she’s looking down at her hands, watching them shake. “What do you want?” I say. “What do you want me to do?”
It hurts. In the break in time when we’re one-upping each other, hurt for hurt, I picture the prostitute like this: I picture her in a small room with a low mattress. She’s rigged a set of sheets like curtains around the bed and she’s lying on her side, half under the cheap covers. She’s looking at me and her face is maskless. I think I like her face. I lie near her on the bed. I can feel bits of sand. Then she puts her gloves on. She snaps them on her wrists, and I expect to see a puff of powder, poof, like magic, but there’s just the sound. She winks, which terrifies me, which she sees because she’s a professional. Like magic she has a scarf and she ties it behind her head so all I can see are her eyes. I know I should think harem, but I don’t; I think bandit, which is fine because it calms me. I am so relieved. She puts her fingers in my mouth. I concentrate. The glove is instantly slick, and I’m astounded that such a transformation can take place. I relax. I can hear a variety of noises. I begin to participate.
It could end here, with Andrea caught in the moment before china crumbles, covered in hairline cracks. She isn’t moving, but she’s collapsing, soundless. It could end here. We could both throw up our hands: I surrender, we say. You could throw up your hands, too, in the light, your face cupped in cotton, your hands encased in heat-conducting super-easy-to-feel-through rubber, wielding your shiny pointed scraping tool. You are my favorite dentist because you’re satisfied with my teeth. You are what I think I want to be. I could go home, my head bent low as I cross the driveway and duck into my house. Andrea and I could make up for making out. Cooperatively, we could shake on it and swap chrysanthemums.
Instead, I leave the room. I leave her on the floral carpet, go into her bathroom with its enormous orange butterflies, stand in front of her pedestal sink, and look in her mirror. I bare my teeth at myself for a second and then I open the medicine-cabinet door, as if I’m looking for something. A plastic container of allergy pills bounces into the sink. Inside the cabinet is an eight-pack of toothbrushes, seven heads visible through a cellophane window in the box. I close the cabinet door. There’s my head, in the mirror. Butterflies are spilling out of the frame all over the place. I go back to baring my teeth. Am I frightened? I almost growl. Why am I not frightened?
I’m thinking of you. I’m baring my skull. I’m trying to look inside. Way far up there is my brain.
You say, “Look at this. Anything new?”
I’m noticing all the chrome in the room. Her soap dish and her lotion dispenser are silver. The towel racks, the paper holder, the faucets in the sink and bathtub, too. I’m seeing your scrapers, your pokers, and your wheeled stool. I’m enumerating reasons to be hospitalized. I’m surrounding myself with orange butterflies, feeling wings surrounding my eyes and my ears. A shining bullet is easing through the air with speed, and clearly it’s moving from cleaning to cleaning. My teeth are so much yellower than they felt like they were, all day. They are so much more irregular, these misshapen nubs. My tongue is soft, and like my brain it wants to believe what it wants to believe. In dreams of death teeth crumble, or fall like soldiers, or they tumble into my mouth and down my tongue backward like a herd of miniature animals off a cliff. I can smell myself, and there’s an ancient tribal stink to my smell.
I picture the prostitute again. Her scarf hangs around her neck. I’m nowhere around. Who knows, maybe I went into her bathroom. I’ll tell you this, though: I can see her face, and the look on it makes me think of the glossy magazine that comes with my retirement plan. The magazine is calledParticipant. There’s always a glossy face on it. Every time it arrives in my mailbox I throw it into the garbage with a fury that astounds me. The fury comes, I realize—looking at this prostitute surrounded by curtains, looking at her face, which is far, far from glossy—from feeling dehumanized. This woman’s face is exhausted, fully human, and full of fear.
There is always terror. I know there is terror every day, and I know because sometimes I can actually feel it. In the small moments when I am actually able to look, I can see it in any face, a low rumble under every voice and any skin. In my office at work I sometimes feel so afraid that I spend hours cruising online. I look at people’s high school photos and I can see it. I look at mug shots of people and see it. Their faces, their heads. I can see it when I take the long walk to the water fountain and pass all these people at their desks. They’re generic, they’re encased, but I can see fear glowing through like a bulb from behind a wide white plate. I imagine I forget these times, that they contain themselves within the building where I work, within the hours I spend there, that they wad themselves into a pellet I could pocket, but it’s not true. Sometimes they reopen, they unfold, they bloom, and fill any space I’m in. Andrea is kneeling in the living room, and so far inside my mouth she’s in my mind. It’s where she’s moved since I left her in our standoff. Her face trembles. The distance between one moment and the next is shaking. I am forgetting nothing. You are my favorite dentist because I want to feel shiny and automatic. I’m not moving. I’m not moving. It won’t end.