The Charm

To keep “4” (that’s what they call him) in my mouth, we have taken extraordinary measures.  He’s had his roots dug out and refilled twice, then he got sliced into from the side.  If I had taken 4 to my vet, he would now be buried in a box in my grandmother’s backyard.

Partly because of the fourth tooth on the left side of my mouth, I’ve had four major dental procedures in the last year.  This has coincided with a year of dating my boyfriend.  Since I have had a hell of a time maintaining a relationship, I am reluctant to break up and pair him with another woman merely to test his tooth-destroying skills.  I am curious, though.

Last fall, I had a wisdom tooth abscess, then in the spring, a tooth on the left side of my face went evil.  The wisdom tooth we pulled.  The other tooth we tried to save.

Before my last procedure, an apioectomy, I got the fancy x-ray, instead of the usual side zapper.  You stand up and hold these handlebars, like you are going to blast aliens in a virtual-reality game, and then bite down on a covered piece of plastic, which mostly takes the fun out of it.

“I suggest you close your eyes,” the hygienist said.  “It’s going to zoom all the way around you, taking pictures.”  Of course, I had to open my eyes after she said that.  I peeked.  I am not blind so far.

The amazing revolving x-ray showed that the infection in my tooth was in a quite inaccessible spot.  Mr. Endodontist rotated 4’s image so we could see all the way around it.  “It looks like that root grew all the way through your jaw bone, so we couldn’t get at it with the other procedures,” he explained.  That was gross, in an intriguing way.

In fact, it was the most interesting thing he had said, except for my favorite quip:  “Are you still speaking to me?”  This is his line when he returns after giving you five shots to numb the hell out of your face.  I wonder if he uses it on his wife.

So the root of this tooth grows through the jawbone, meaning that we could get to it with the procedure I’d been obsessively reading about on the internet at work: the apioectomy.  It sounded actually more horrible than a root canal.

Cut into the gum, drill and slice out the infected tissue and root from the side, and stitch the whole thing back up.  Gum stitches mean a whole new category of swelling and rules about hot foods, which you don’t have with an easy-peasy little root canal.

Of course, I had many questions.  “What happens if we do nothing?”  Well, nothing.  My gum would hurt there forever.  The infection was trapped on its own little island, and wouldn’t go anywhere.  “What are the odds it will work?”  Oh, maybe 3 out of 4.  I don’t do that many of them.

(Yes, just what everyone likes to hear from a medical professional.)

“Well, how much will it cost?”  Oh, I won’t charge you.  I’ll just run it through and see if your insurance pays.  I’m just sorry you’ve had so much trouble with this tooth.  Maybe he also means: I wish I had done that fancy x-ray earlier.

So there I was, sitting in his damn chair again, and I had a perfect out.  He told me it would be fine.  He told me I could skip the novocaine, the drill, the stitches, the oatmeal and applesauce slurping, the special They Might Be Giants playlist, and the tapping of my foot that keeps me focused away from anticipating a potential poke at a sneaky, live nerve.

On the other hand, how often do you get offered free dental surgery?  And was I really planning to wince every time I rubbed makeup over that age spot on my left cheekbone?  Every time I stabbed the tooth brush the wrong way up there?  Every time, forever?

He’s given me a hell of a time.  Still, 4 and I had been together so long.  Was I the sort of person who gives up on a tooth when the going gets tough?

Unfortunately, I was not.

The endodontist could cut me up that afternoon, but first I had an hour to go for a walk around the office park.  It was a gorgeous day.  Lemon lacing on the hostas, bitter red leaves on the baby oaks.  A good breeze.   Occasionally I felt a rush of anxiety and adrenaline, like I had been standing at the top of a waterslide for too long.  I slowly ate a rice krispie treat.  Those would be rough going pretty soon.

I went in, and got shot up.  One of the shots, this time, went into a blood vessel, causing a spasm up by my eye that was more odd than painful.  “Are you still speaking to me?” the guy said, time three.

I started up the “James Ensor” track of my special dental work playlist and the little Irish dance I did with my feet: tap, tap, tap.  “You know what they say,” the hygienist reminded me before the disfigurement began, “the third time’s the charm.”

Mother Courage

Setting: An oral surgeon’s office in the second-wealthiest county in the United States.  On one wall are paintings of pitchers and bottles.  On another, a huge ugly abstract painting with a black frame.  In front of the black-framed picture sits a woman, 32, with blonde hair and dark roots, and dirty black patent-leather shoes.  She leans back, hitting her head on the black frame, then slouches forward.  Every so often, she does this again, as if she has forgotten.   A receptionist sits behind a counter, doing paperwork.  In the corner, an old man wearing a giant birthday cake hat sits grinning.  He is wearing turquoise pants.

Enter: A businessman in a trenchcoat with two teenage daughters.  The daughters wear Catholic-school uniforms.

Businessman: Hi, we’re here from Dr. Hobnob’s office to make an appointment with Dr. Soandso. 

Receptionist: Ah, yes.

The younger of the daughters eyes the woman.  The older of the daughters gives the receptionist an intense stare.  The younger daughter decides the woman has no children, is completely free.

Older daughter: They can put me to sleep, right?

Receptionist: Yes, dear, if that’s what you want.

Businessman: But they don’t, usually, do they? 

Receptionist: They can give her a local, too.  Whichever she prefers.

Businessman: We’d like something in December, if you have it, so she can get her braces on over Christmas break.

The woman smiles knowingly.  She had four teeth pulled before getting braces.  Younger daughter continues to look at the woman wistfully.  Then she notices old man with birthday hat.

Younger daughter: Is it your birthday?

Old man: It is.  I’m ninety-two today.

Businessman: Ninety-two?  Wow.  Good for you!

Old man: I tell you what the trick is.  I’ve been exercising all my life.

The woman smiles again.

Businessman: Is that so?  Wow.  Good for you.

Enter another man, about forty.  He wears blonde shoes, khaki pants.  He goes to the receptionist.

Khaki man: I’m here from Dr. Whoever’s office.  My dad is out in the car waiting for me because my car just broke down, and he’s lending me the money to get this done.  It’s so embarassing.

Receptionist (clearly not interested in his bizzare story): Okay, hon, just fill these out, please.

Khaki man sits down.

Receptionist: The fifteenth?  At two-thirty?

Businessman: That’ll work. 

Younger daughter: That’s my birthday!

Older daughter: Well, what does it matter if it’s your birthday?

Younger daughter shrugs.

Businessman: Thank you very much.  We’ll see you on the fifteenth.

Receptionist: Okay, then.

The old man, woman, and khaki man sit quietly for a moment.  Then the old man catches the woman’s eye.

Old man: You know I have all my own teeth?

Woman (half charmed and half annoyed): Really?

Old man: Yep.  My dentist– he’s gone now– he told me the secret, and I’ve told my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren.  You wanna know?

Woman: Sure.

Old man: You brush your gums.  When you’re done brushing your teeth, you just brush your gums.

Woman (smiling with teeth full of fillings, and an abscess, despite her brushing and flossing and fluoride rinses): I’ll have to remember that.

Enter an older woman, rushing in the door and seeming slightly flustered.  She wears black pants, a sweater, and delicate earrings.

Older woman: Honey, I’m sorry, I didn’t get your first message.

Woman (smiling with secret relief): That’s okay.  I would’ve been fine by myself.  It’s no big deal.  It should be just like when I got my other teeth pulled, you know, it’s a wisdom tooth, but it’s all the way out so they can grab it.  It’s not a surgical thing.

Older woman: That’s good.

Enter a short man, in his sixties, wearing a plaid shirt tucked into his jeans.

Short man (to woman): Well, hello again.

Woman: Hello.  (To older woman) We were both at Dr. Jibberjabber’s office today earlier. 

Short man: Yeah.  I’m his dad.  (He indicates khaki man, who smiles miserably.)  Let me ask you something.  (He sits.)  Do you think people should say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”? 

Woman: Well, if I know someone doesn’t celebrate Christmas, I’ll say, “Happy holidays,” but I also think if I tell them “Merry Christmas” I’m just trying to be nice, so they really shouldn’t be offended.

Short man (to older woman): What do you think?

Older woman: Well, I don’t know.  It’s not a big deal to me.

Short man: I think they should be able to say, “Merry Christmas.”  If they don’t, that’s taking away from our heritage.  I mean, I’m an agnostic, so I don’t care, but… (Snorts to himself)  See, this is what I do all day, go around to dentist’s offices and ask people questions to get their minds off their troubles.

Woman and older woman laugh politely.

Receptionist: Elizabeth?

Woman (stands up): Yes?

Receptionist: It’s time for you to go back.

Older woman takes hand of younger woman, they approach desk to exit scene.

Short man: Good luck!

Woman: Thanks.