The Dentist

The dentist waits for me with her instruments of torture. I try to look indifferent, glancing at her credentials on the wall. Her assistant ushers me in. I try to understand the mind of someone whose job it is to hurt people. As a child, how wonder if she tore wings off butterflies or legs off a spider. Perhaps her parents detected a streak of sadism in her and directed her into dentistry. I hear the whirring of the instruments and wonder what possessed me to come to this place of hurt.

I remember the first time. The adults conspired to make it a good experience. They had decided that whatever the outcome, no painful work would be done on my teeth. The idea was to familiarize myself with the office and see it as a benign location, or at least neutral. When we arrived, a little boy my age was trembling from fear. He suddenly dissolved into tears, saying between sobs “Don’t make me!” I quickly lost my composure, and started crying, filled with dread. A white coat took the boy away. I heard screaming, a real tantrum as the boy struggled against his tormentors.

I was there with my older brother, a quiet, unassuming boy with a vicious side. I knew I wasn’t getting any sympathy from him. The assistant came “Jacoby?” He looked at me. “There are two of us. This is my sister’s first time.” The assistant smiled, all teeth out. “Who wants to go first?” John nudged me. I looked up in fright at his placid eyes. He took pity on me. “Will you stay here quietly with a book if I go first? I won’t be too long.” I nodded furiously.  He got up as though to grab a cookie from the cookie jar, all smooth and self-assured. Cookies – instant cavities. I could feel my mouth watering. Will the thought of cookies bring on a cavity? I focused instead on proper brushing techniques. I was afraid there would be some kind of pop quizz.

The boy came back out, holding a lollipop. I made eye contact, he stuck out his tongue, eyes still red from the crying, snot on his sleeve. He seemed oddly content. I suppose they gave him electroshocks to erase his memory. I had a fine brain and did not want it ruined. I debated whether I should run away. If I went home, it was only a matter of time before they dragged me back, maybe in a straitjacket so I could not resist. I was swinging my skinny legs, wondering if I should pick up a magazine or something. There were children’s books, but I was no longer a baby.

My brother came out, a hand on his cheek, his eyes unfocused and dull. His bravado had left him. He collapsed on the chair beside me and said nothing. The knot in my stomach was too tight to unravel. Regret flooded me. I should have run while there was still time. The assistant was waiting for me, all fangs out in what passed for a smile. I put myself in God’s hands, and valiantly headed in her direction, ignoring her outstretched hand. I would not befriend the enemy, nor succumb to bribery. I would not crack under torture, nor divulge any names.

The dentist appeared. She was a petite woman with soft brown hair and a mask she had lowered to her throat, no doubt hiding some terrible deformity. The chair was way too big for me, all leather with a swiveling lamp mounted on it. I did not see any restraining belt though I was on the lookout for it. I took in the environment, sterile and threatening. They both wore tight-fitting gloves, the ones that leave no fingerprints. There was a spot of blood on the sink. My eyes could not let go of the blood. I am pretty sure I blanched. The assistant/bodyguard wiped down the sink and made the stain disappear. Leave no trace. I hardened my resolve.

The dentist told me her name was Sandy and asked for mine. I gave her a fake name, followed by fictitious rank and location. She looked at her chart and said, tentatively, “Isobel?” I nodded yes, defeated. Her assistant put something around my neck that held a paper towel under my chin. There were pictures on the wall of ugly mouths and beautiful mouths, diseased gums and healthy gums, the stuff of nightmares. She asked me if I brushed my teeth, clearly a trick question. The bodyguard loomed behind, towering over us both. I refused to answer. The dentist said she wanted to have a look at my teeth. “Open wide,” she said. I didn’t. She opened her mouth wide to show me, like I was some idiot. It was a neat trick. Monkey see, monkey do. Still, I resisted. The assistant opened wide. I was the only one in the room with her mouth closed. They still had their mouths open, gaping holes, moist and smelling of peppermint. I peered inside with interest at those large teeth. Mine were small and inoffensive. I tentatively loosened my jaw and opened my mouth. She showed me a shiny instrument with a mirror at the end and slowly introduced it in my mouth. At some point when I was not paying attention, they had both put their masks back on. The bodyguard had bushy eyebrows, I could pick her out in a lineup, if need be. My heart was beating hard. I started squirming.

Two hands clasped my shoulders. The bodyguard had moved behind the chair. The dentist was making reassuring noises while the oversized monster was holding me down. She had the strength of four gorillas and smelled the same. The dentist had taken out her instrument and my mouth closed on itself again. My teeth were safe. We were in this together. The dentist had a tray with a bunch of shiny instruments. She picked up a hook. “I will poke at your teeth to see if they are sound. I will just click them and see if they are solid. Now, open wide.” I nodded my understanding, but my jaw wouldn’t loosened. She tugged on her mask and opened her mouth. I complied.

It didn’t hurt. She gently tapped my pearly teeth, complimenting me on my great hygiene. The gorilla’s grip had loosened, and she now moved about the room, preparing other instruments, her back to me. The dentist said, “We’re almost done. Corine will brush your teeth with a rotary toothbrush. Which flavour do you want, lemon, strawberry or mint?” “Strawberry please,” I whispered. The ordeal was almost over. I had started relaxing when the whirring sound started. “Corine” was approaching with a crazed glint in her eyes. A muffled voice came from under the mask, “Open up!” I knew an order when I got one. I opened my mouth and the whirring toothbrush tickled my teeth. She went up and down and around. Saliva burst forth to taste the strawberry paste. She handed me a paper cup filled with cool water. “Rinse and spit.” I did but missed the mark. The chair was too wide, and some of the spit dribbled down the side, in a reddish liquid stain.

The gorilla took off my paper towel. It was peppered with pink toothpaste splatter. Underneath, my t-shirt was pristine. My tongue kept going over my teeth. They were smooth and polished, pleasant to the touch. Corine had me choose a toothbrush (green) and brought me back to the waiting area where John waited. He was reading a magazine distractedly. He paid and took my hand. When we were out, he asked, “How did it go?” “I bit her.” He looked at me with admiration. “Did you draw blood?” “Yep,” I said in no uncertain terms. His face was still swollen on one side, the result of a beating by the dentist no doubt. He put his hand in his pocket, looked at the coins. “Let’s go for ice cream.” We ate the cool sweetness in the silence of those who have been through hell and survived.

Paper

The ceremony was held without her body, to put her soul to rest. By the time he’d heard the news, she’d been dead and buried overseas. He had dreamt of her, pale and evanescent, which told him her ghost was unmoored. He wanted to set things right. He didn’t like the feel of paper on his lips. Having written the name of his late mother on a piece of paper, he wasn’t ready yet to see it go up in smoke. He let his lips linger longer than appropriate, a long exhale, like her last breath. He stifled sobs but the tears were streaming freely down his face, a flood of conflicting emotions. Her death had been sudden, unexpected. He had trouble accepting the reality of it. He lay the piece of paper in a gold bowl which the monk lit up amidst chants.

It was hot, where he was. Everybody moved slowly under the white sun, sleeping, no, collapsing, when it was at its apex. Even the bugs were drowsy, looking for shade. He thought the sand would turn to glass, a brittle layer burning the soles of his feet. He felt feverish, as though he had absorbed the heat and it was scorching his insides. He wondered if he was suffering a bout of malaria or grief. He could not tell.  Neither would go away. After the ceremony, he had another dream, of his mother still, this time floating on a boat down a river. He had the feeling of an underground river, in darkness and damp. She was unmoving, lying still on her back, the barge loaded with gifts. He woke up to see a servant with a concerned look on her face. She had put a wet, cool washcloth on his brow. When he opened crazed eyes, she held a cup of weak tea to his lips. He drank greedily and went back to his dream.

He was in a barge himself, alongside hers now. They had picked up speed, the current was trying to tear them apart. He had tied both barges together, but the knots kept coming undone and he was desperately trying to stay with his mother. He grabbed on to her barge and tried to climb into it, but fear overtook him. The river was boiling now, bubbling and stinky. The barge was hot to the touch. He let go and his mother’s barge sped ahead caught in a whirlwind that sucked her down and away from his sight. He woke up, heart pounding, sure that she was dead now, with a deep hollow in the pit of his stomach.

The worst of the heat had abated. He was drenched in sweat, perhaps feverish. He walked to the terrace and heard the muezzin’s call to prayer. So many ways to appease the gods. He poured himself a whisky. The drone of the prayer settled his nerves.

Like a Prayer Flag

There was good money to be made in the coal mine. It was a means to an end as he had never intended to spend his life underground. His passion and his dream were to climb mountains. The dream of whiteness sustained him in the dark and the filth. Every time his pickaxe hit the wall, he saw ice and practiced putting his weight on it. The cold was good practice, the headlamp was good practice. Any unforeseen event made him sharpen his reflexes and think back on mistakes he could have avoided.

The day that part of the mine collapsed, he was trapped with his co-workers. As the others were panicking and getting desperate, he found ways to calm them. What would you do in an avalanche? Signal your presence. He got the slimmest of them to bring a red kerchief wrapped around a message to the farthest reaches of the fault. It was to be their message in a bottle, containing their names and the location where they had been working. The slim man was brave – he wedged himself amongst the unstable rocks, extending his arm as far as he could, all the while fearing it would get crushed. Two men were holding his legs, ready to pull him out quickly if he said so. They did not have to. A lamp threw enough light to show the bit of red that held their hope, like a beating heart in the rubble.

He advised them to catch some sleep and they got organized. They set up rotations of two men who kept watch. The men were exhausted despite their dire circumstances. They slept soundly. Two men stayed awake in the dark. They were tough men used to tough lives. He had advised them to take their minds off the slide and pay attention to minute sounds. He took the second watch with Colin, a man who was not well liked. They did not need to chat – indeed it was better if they refrained to conserve oxygen.

Part of his mind was straining to hear sounds of a rescue team, but the best part of him was busy planning his climbing expedition. He imagined his dream team, based on the best qualities his fellow miners exhibited. He found it exhilarating to have the chance to sample flaws in character in a matter of life and death. He felt fortunate at having gotten trapped to have material to work with. He was too young not to be optimistic. He fully believed the cavalry was coming.

Thus he slept soundly after his turn was up. He slept so soundly that even the yells of the others calling out to the rescue team did not wake him. The rescuers were progressing slowly. They had spotted the red flag, retrieved it, told the anxious people on top the names of the survivors in that cell. They managed to pump fresh oxygen, water and hope. The men still used their lamps sparingly.

However, the men were not ones to rejoice before they had been pulled back up and were safely into a beloved’s arms. Yet hope filled their hearts, and their cramped quarters now felt cozy. He had at last woken up and was observing everything closely. He was interested in people’s reactions. Had he read them properly? Were the chosen ones made of the right cloth?

At last, they were brought up. He put himself last in line. He wanted to experience it all. He saw the accident in slow motion – the frayed rope giving way, the cabin falling. Of course, he was daydreaming this. They were all safe and sound, heroes every one of them. He noticed after the ordeal that Colin was now accepted and integrated. He had proven his worth. They had lived through fear and bonded.

To him, the event marked a turning point. Shortly after, he settled his accounts and headed for the mountains. He wanted to feel the sun on his skin, the cold in his bones, the camaraderie of the rope.

Every climb taught him something. He was a methodical student and progressed quickly. He felt little fear, which made him a liability in his companions’ eyes. Yet he was cautious and neither caused nor suffered any serious accident. Slowly, he was accepted and invited to join more experienced climbers. He was as strong as an ox and unbeatable with a pickaxe. He noticed everything and took detailed notes which he read and reread. A few years after the mine incident, he heard of an explosion there. At the time of the explosion, he had been climbing a very tricky wall with two other mountaineers. He swore after that he had felt the blast in his body, bursts of wind pushing him against the mountain wall. He was breathing hard, feeling the clean air in his lungs, thinking of his old life and its dangers. It felt like light-years away. His spikes gripped the slippery wall as he serenely continued pegging his way, a song in his heart, his dream team clipped to the rope, like those prayer flags in the Himalayas.

To Your Health

I never did belong. When I awoke to the world I realised I was not of it.

Not for me the parties, the crowds, the shared secrets. It’s not that I wasn’t liked; people were just indifferent to me. For the longest time, I actually thought I was invisible to people outside my family. I even played at walking funny or making sudden noises to get a reaction out of people. It only gave me the reputation of being weird and unpredictable. I could find no redemption after that.

One day, I read about the health benefits of having friends and set about doing so. A bookmobile serviced our little town and the surrounding ones. If I had a friend, it was the bookmobile lady who accompanied me in my reading and nudged me along. I confided in her my latest research project and returned home with Dale Carnegie’s aptly named “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. I hid it away like a dirty little secret, not wanting to give my peers a reason to mock me.

There were tips and tricks! “Compliment people you meet by noticing small things about them.” That was harder than you would think. It highlighted several things. I don’t interact much with people and when I do I hardly talk; I don’t pay attention to them. This would explain why they did not notice me. I was doing the same. I became consumed by my new game. I hung out with another loner. We stuck together because there is safety in numbers. We didn’t talk much but it gave us a veneer of normalcy. I started talking to her as practice. One morning, I said “I love that you always match your shoes to your outfit.” She blushed and looked up to see if I was teasing her. The truth is I had noticed she varied her shoes quite a bit. I alternated between two pairs of shoes so I took note. She saw my eager face and sincere smile and mumbled something. I pressed. What was that? It was so out of character that she looked up again. We were going to have a conversation?

She explained that her mom worked in a shoe store and that she got them at a discount. I asked if they were comfortable, what kind of discount, if I could get a pair. We talked all the way to school and it was quite agreeable. I could see the benefit already. On the way home, she asked me about a hair clip I wore. It was a cheap clip, four pink plastic cats, but I was quite fond of it and told her all about my different hair clips in detail. The next day, she proudly showed me a different pair of shoes she wore and confirmed her mom could get me a pair. We agreed to go together after school so I could choose and report back to my mom. My world was turning upside down. I was wearing a golden hair clip with a dark band in the middle, more serious because we were expecting to get our class and individual pictures taken. We all dressed up a bit for the occasion.

We were side-by-side in the class picture and we were both radiant. My parents bought the picture and marvelled at us both. By then, we were officially best friends and I had a new pair of shiny black shoes with a buckle. They were an extravagant choice, but my mom agreed because of the discount and the health benefits of having friends. Our good mood was infectious and other kids gravitated towards us. The invisibility that was ours slowly lifted. It felt like all this time we were little suns surrounded by clouds of our own making. The clouds had dispersed and the scenery was lovely. The book had not explained about the health benefits and to tell the truth I did not read it all. I returned it, having learnt the first trick. I practiced it nonstop ever since. I credit my longevity with it.

The interview was over. “Dale Carnegie, uh?” I was tired by then. This was a long story. The reporter thanked me and prepared to leave. He added, pensively, “You complimented me on my fancy tape recorder when I came in.” “I did, and we established a rapport. You perked up because you felt it was not going to be a run-of-the-mill ‘old broad turns 100 but doesn’t remember how to tie her shoes.” To his credit, he blushed. “I was honoured to have met you. I hope you enjoy my article on you.”

He came back to see me and show me the article. It talked about the beautiful diamond hair clip I was wearing and how I came about it through my smart financial dealings. I had shares in my friend’s family shoe store, which turned into a chain that did quite well for itself. We went our separate ways. I married and moved out of town where I became a librarian. I always kept a copy of Dale Carnegie in stock.