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 test.
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.