Let’s talk about my cavity: Distal pit 14. I had misheard and thought it was distal pit 30, or dirty 30 as I told myself to remember, but no. I was remembering incorrectly this entire time. Distal refers to the fact that it’s distally located (away from the tooth’s face.) Anyway, I was paying more attention to the word than the number, so typical.
The waiting room is empty and white. I pass the only coffee table in the glistening room, and it has a cup for dirty pens and clean pens. They don’t really mean dirty. I think as I pass the pens and wonder how often we kinda mean what we’re saying, but not totally. I stand awkwardly in front of the sign that reads: Let the receptionist know when you arrive. The receptionist’s head is bent concentrating on a file; it’s not Diana. I scan to see where Diana might be and don’t see her. I immediately start to wonder if after all these years I’ve somehow picked my cavity-filling day on a day that Diana has off. I get sad without knowing the truth yet. Diana and Dr. Mahler are like childhood memorabilia at this point. I’ve been experiencing vulnerability and discomfort with them since my first filling in 1985. Isn’t that a trip. No wonder she brings me all the feels just by existing, showing up to work.
As soon as the receptionist looks up, I smile. Maybe she’ll comment on how clean my teeth look. I spent ten minutes in the bathroom before leaving the house, flossing, brushing with a brand-new brush, and rinsing with extra powerful mouthwash. “Sorry to keep you waiting.” She says, no mention of my glistening incisors. She grabs her covid checklist and thermometer and meets me in front. I know my temperature is perfect and my symptoms are nil, so I dive into my question.
“Is Diana working today?”
“Oh, yes, she’s in the back.”
“Great, she’s my reward system. I come to the dentist and as my reward, I get to see Diana.”
This is when I pause and feel awkward for sharing everything that’s on my mind. “Dr. Mahler’s ready for you.” Perfect. I shouldn’t see Diana until after my cavity is filled.
“I want you to be as comfortable as possible.” Dr. Mahler Jr. tells me as he adjusts my pillow while I make a dramatic display of being uncomfortable. My self-talk goes something like this: You are too old to act like this is a big deal. Age out! C’mon, Moss! You can do it. Just nod.” But I don’t, I say: “Well, we both want the same thing, Doctor.” At this point, it dawns on me that he is Dr. Andrew Mahler and I start to wonder if he goes by Andy, like our orange cat, Andy. Dr. Mahler is a ginger, but other than the name and coloring, they don’t appear to have anything else in common. He’s telling me about the local numbing agent. I’m trying to gauge how much pain I’m in before I realize that he’s only put the cotton in my mouth.
“You shouldn’t feel any pain. Are you okay?” I give him a thumbs up. “Okay, it’s just that you’re wincing a bit.”
“Anticipating what’s to come,” I say.
“Well, you shouldn’t feel pain at any time, so let me know if you do. Raise your left hand.” I think for a moment about why he’s saying left and decide that my right hand could bump his drilling hand which could slice my nose off. Left hand, definitely gotta be my left hand. I make a mental note and then fold my hands nicely over my tummy. I’m showing him how opposite of raising my hand I can be. Also, I don’t want to accidentally lift a finger and have his peripheral think I’m raising my hand. It’s important to me that I do everything right. This is when a former colleague pops into my head. It happens at some point during every visit to the dentist. I see her face and replay the conversation we had that day in early August 2011.
Me: I’m dreading my dentist appointment.
Her: Why? I love the dentist.
Me: You’re the first person I’ve met to say that. I should ask you why?
Her: I get to lay down, take a break, and be told I’m doing everything right.
She has a point, but still. The drill’s been going at it long enough to smell like Fourth of July sparklers. I close my eyes and that makes everything worse. My imagination has me wincing and twitching like he’s torturing me when in fact I’m thinking about how calm his voice is as he details everything he’s doing. He asks again if I’m okay. “Yep, totally numb.” I say trying to smile.
“You’ll feel pressure, but not pain.”
“Yep, don’t mind my face. It’s not reflecting the reality of the situation.”
He laughs like I’m making a joke.
Dr. Mahler Jr. takes the cotton out of my mouth and I know I’m nearing the end. He asks if my bite feels okay. I can’t tell because of the numbing agent. He gives me something to grind on and discovers the filling raised my tooth a bit. He shaves it down. He asks me again how my bite feels and this time I see what he means, but actually consider telling him “Fine” so I can get out of the chair and go see Diana. I’m debating what to say and he gives me the paper to bite on again. “Still slightly off. I’ll fix that right up so you’re all smooth like when you walked in.” He’s so nice that I’m glad I’m not lying to get out of the chair. Especially after the final shave down and I realize what a difference it makes even numb. “Thank you,” I say and I mean it.
As he raises the chair and gives me my little blue cup with the water and my cone cup with the suction at the bottom, I glance over at his two boys, plastered all over the wall like wallpaper. Only one of the boys has teeth. I wonder what it’s like being raised by a dentist. I imagine the best year is that first one you don’t remember, but who knows. His boys are adorable, and I suddenly see him as something so much bigger than my dentist. I see his dad through him too; Dr. Mahler the OG becomes so much more to me than Dr. Mahler the OG. He’s a granddaddy, smiling at Dodger stadium with two littles, the toothless one looks just like him. I smile at this truth and its irony. What a neat little circle to step into and outside of myself to witness. I thought my reward was going to be seeing Diana, reminiscing about something from the past, but it turns out to be absorbing the present. Absorbing two little boys smiling that I will most likely never meet but be happy they exist nonetheless.
“Diana! I’m so glad you’re here!” I say coming out of my doorless room, with my half numb face.
“Kari! You are too funny. Hey, do you know who’s playing?”
“Who this is?” She asks now pointing to the ceiling and I realize she’s talking about the music.
“I know, I should know this… give me a second.” I say, knowing I have absolutely no idea, but that I should know because I recognize it as one of those super popular eighties songs.
“Tears for Fears, no, no…” I say, knowing I’m just guessing the first 80s band that comes to mind, but I’m off, so I throw no out like I know I’m off…
“Well, it rhymes. Two words. That should help a lot.”
I’m a little perturbed with my reward system at this point because I’m not going to guess correctly and this is not our typical walk down memory lane where she asks if I want to see the old picture of me, or the one she still has of my mom when she was my exact age. Mom told me years ago, the first time I went to the dentist, I didn’t have any teeth! She brought me with her, carried me in a bassinet while she had her teeth cleaned! So cute. I’m lost in this thought, forgetting the 80s music quiz entirely when…
“Dead Man’s Party!”
“Ha! So good!”
I leave to the sound of “Don’t run away! It’s only me. Don’t be afraid of what you can’t see.” It occurs to me that I’ve never actually witnessed the work being done inside my mouth. I’ve always only imagined the whole thing based on sound and smell. Wait! That’s not true! There was one time, I got to see it all without any teeth of my own, in a front-row bassinet before there was a wall of baby pictures, before there was a Dr. Mahler Jr. to have the babies that the pictures show. This is time and how it works is quite phenomenal.
See you in six months, Diana and Dr. Mahlers! Thanks for showing up and taking me down a new path in memory lane. It was time to step outside my own view anyway. I’m sure those boys have been on that wall for years.