As my tooth broke minutes before my son’s debut on stage, I froze in anticipation of the pain which I expected to come shooting through my jaw. Only no ache evolved because of my good fortune that the dental deities were on my side and the piece I chipped off turned out to be a cusp of my top wisdom tooth. My step-mom, who has worked in a dental office for a decade, has assured me it could be weeks before the pain sets in so I have set out to do the absolute opposite of what a dentist would recommend: I will delay making a dentist appointment.
The first reason is: I currently don’t have a regular dentist. Reason two: dentistry. Their profession has not progressed much beyond the barbarism I’ve written about in the past.
I remember my first dentist proudly; I called him by his first name, Ira.
I loved him so much, I brought him into my elementary school in second grade for show and tell. I introduced him to my school and he held an assembly lecturing on the importance of dental hygiene to a bunch of 7 and 8-year-old immigrant kids. He ended the program by giving everyone a toothbrush, a sample sized toothpaste, and a floss inside a plastic goody bag with a graphic of a tooth on it. Of course, his business card was inside the bag indicating his convenient location, across the street from the school. It was brilliant patient recruitment and I was the genius behind the idea. My dentist and I were so tight I provided marketing consulting for free.
Going to the dentist was fun; he spoke to me like the grown up I thought I was and I felt special like he was my real friend. I scheduled appointments diligently, on the six-month mark. I filled out those reminder postcards excitedly and eagerly selected a reward sticker from their plastic white tray; somehow all I remember is either Garfield or Snoopy with a toothbrush or else cartoon teeth.
He also pulled a bunch of my teeth, including one molar extraction I keenly remember thinking I could have used a bit more novocaine. At 12 I was too polite to say anything so I just sat there as the tears slowly leaked out of the corners of my eyes. The dentist seemed to be using pliers, visibly struggling to yank this molar which wouldn’t budge. When he finally got the sucker out, he kept repeating “such deep roots you have,” and I smiled through the bloody gauze shoved in my cheeks, somehow proud of my strong Russian roots. The good thing about this dentist, though, was all procedures came with the obligatory laughing gas, which he called the “Snoopy nose.”
In the teenage years, with tools deep in my mouth, Ira would initiate conversation, inquiring about my romantic status; how many boyfriends did I have? I’d laugh ironically knowing I was an unpopular chubby girl with no boyfriends and say, “three.” Ira never doubted it.
The last time I went to see him was in 2001. He was still in the office across the street from my elementary school in Queens and I had long moved away to live in Boston, Manhattan, Connecticut, and back to Manhattan. I made my dental appointments coincide with visits home so I would never stray from my dentist. But eventually Ira moved to Yonkers and someone recommended a fancy Manhattan dentist, with an office on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, two blocks from where I worked. I was able to conveniently go during lunch and he accepted my corporate dental insurance. I would visit his office, stare out at the windows nestled in the brick buildings adjacent to me in the sky. The view revealed workers of one kind or another typing at computers, having conference calls around a table, and enjoying water cooler gossip as I had my teeth drilled.
I’d sit with my mouth stretched open, always feeling like the corners of my mouth would rip open – like a dental episiotomy (pardon the graphic example) and think of Ira, longing for my Snoopy nose. At one point the fancy dentist told me I had eight “flossing cavities.” He said it wasn’t urgent to fill them, but encouraged me to do it at $500 a pop. A decade later, I’ve filled one.
Now that I moved to New Jersey, the last few years we’ve gone to a low-end, local dentist for obligatory cleanings and a few emergency fillings. The visits have been uneventful but not horrendous. Ira will forever hold the image of my dental default and I’ll forever measure every future dentist up to him.
Meanwhile, on the other side of my mouth, I have this other tooth which is starting to hurt…