All day long, I stare into their mouths. The trick is that I’ve trained myself not to think of them as mouths. It’s like when you stare at someone’s face long enough, it turns into something else. Something quite alien. It’s just work that I have to do and the more I think of it that way, the better I am at my job.
I don’t say much. Don’t need to. Some of the dental hygienists, they’ll get this patter going, and some patients don’t mind because they’re nervous and it helps them to relax if they can talk a little. But then of course it’s difficult when you’ve got things in your mouth and I’m nattering away at you. So I don’t do that.
I probably see 10 mouths a day. The normal adult has 32 teeth, though a lot of folks have had their wisdom teeth out, or they haven’t come in—say 30 on average, that makes about 300 teeth per day. That I look at with the mirror and then scrape with the scaler and then polish with the polisher, the buzzing thing with the paste on the end that tickles along the gum line.
What do you want me to say? Nothing grosses me out. Of course I’ve seen bad teeth. Mouths where I know that within six months or a year, the patient will be back—here, somewhere else—having these teeth pulled, doing a root canal, undergoing some very painful procedures. It’s not my place to lecture them about what they’re doing or not doing. The last thing I do is get down in there with the floss and yank it in and out between their teeth. There’s something satisfying about seeing a clean little space between teeth, where before there had been plaque.
Most people zone out. It’s a trick of light. You get the big light set up so it angles down into their mouths, sure, but you’re also angling it a little towards their eyes, so that they stare into it and, as I say, zone out. The pupils shrink to pinpoints and I know they’re sort of hypnotized and I can work. I like to think I work fast, efficient, but I’m also careful enough that I don’t stab or jab patients in places where they might be sensitive. So after I zap them with the light and bend down to poke and scrape, I like to think it goes by relatively quickly, in a blur.
But this one time I’m thinking about, I had a patient who wouldn’t stop looking at me. It was weird. I mean our faces are right there, inches away, but usually you don’t think about that because I’m focused on the mouth and they’re focused on the light, a few feet over my head. However, at some point, this patient—is it strange I can’t remember if it was a man or a woman? All I know is it wasn’t a child—started staring at me, staring up into my eyes. He or she had this helpless look, beseeching, probing. And what was I supposed to do?
I couldn’t say, stop looking at me. I wanted to say it, believe me. I wanted to click the light on “high” and aim it straight into his or her eyes, till the pupils disappeared and this person couldn’t see anything anymore. Then I started to think, oddly, about this boy I’d dated many years ago. It was awkward because I’d just turned 21, and he was a few years younger, just out of high school. He wanted to be a poet; he wrote me a poem, I remember that.
We’d go on these dates to places like Bennigan’s, or TGI Fridays, where I could order a daiquiri and he’d get a coke. Somehow we kept ending up at motel parties. It seems remarkable now, but back then it felt normal to be in a motel room with about 25 people crammed on the bed and more hanging out on the balcony and the tub full of ice and beer. Lots of hormones and teenagers and twenty-somethings with too much time on their hands and nowhere to let loose, I guess.
One night we were making out on the motel bed, while another couple, friends of ours, made out on the other bed. At some point it became clear they were doing more than making out. There were groans, bodies shifting around, and then the bed making that rhythmic noise and the two of them grunting. It was awkward.
Naturally, he wanted to do it, too, and his hands pushed under my shirt and groped for my bra while he kissed me more and more desperately. I wanted to, too—or I wanted to want to. But somehow I didn’t. Maybe it was the desperation. Maybe it was his teeth. I always brush and floss after every meal, and I used to watch him eat and then know that the food was just sitting there, stuck in his mouth. So at some point I got him to stop, and we lied there, awkwardly, listening to them fuck until they came and then fell to sleep, laughing.
And so that’s what this person sitting there staring into my eyes reminded me of, while I poked and scraped and cleaned his or her teeth.
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