"Sorry, Hun," she said, when she accidentally pulled on the suction tube and yanked my head like I was a fish on a hook. Generally I was pleased with her work. She didn't believe in a patient feeling any pain.
"You feel anything you let me know," OK?
This line made me nervous; it opened the possibility of feeling pain, even if only for a second. She said every few minutes, "You are being so good. Really you are." I didn't think I needed that kind of validation anymore, at my age, but it made me feel good. I guess I still like to earn lollipops.
As she worked she talked. About everything. Her thirty seven years in dentistry, a career choice she'd made around the time I was born. Her trailer home and love of NASCAR. Her husband. How much more she made when she was working with patients than when she was doing admin work. Her husband's disability status and how she feared it made him depressed.
There was a picture on the counter behind her on which I fixated while she drilled: a beautiful woman smiling at the camera while her patient looked askance. Her middle part and fluffy hair made me think it was an older photo, circa 1981. She noticed me looking.
"There we are," she said."Me and him."
There was a moment when I jerked reflexively from a hit nerve; not anything tear-inducing. She stopped to give me another shot. During the first shot of novocaine that she had administered about an hour before I had tensed up, even though I didn't feel any pain. I could still feel the needle going in, and just the thought of it made me nervous.
I never used to get nervous when I went to the dentist as a kid. Despite the cavities, the braces, the pulled teeth. There was an implicit trust of professionals. They couldn't hurt me. I went through procedures a little bored. But too much has happened since then. Root canals, filling replacements, more extractions, a bridge. I now know what's going on--even if I can't feel it. I expect pain, if not now then later.
She had asked me early on, "You nervous?"
"Yeah, I can tell from your saliva. It's ropy."
"Wiwee?" I filed this fact under random thing to share with my husband, as we liked to wow each other with this kind of trivia: ropy saliva = nervousness.
"Yeah. But you've got nothing to be nervous about. I've been doing this longer than these other guys have been alive." These other guys were the dentists that hired her.
I realized that my entire body was tense. I tried to release it in parts, thinking if I let my whole body relax at once while she was lasering my gums I might throw her off and she'd cut my lip or lacerate my face.
She talked as she cauterized the intentional wounds she'd created. I was amazed at how comfortable she was having relatively intense conversations with people who couldn't provide any verbal cues of concern or interest. I learned more about her husband; he did things for her, like heated the car every morning before she left for work and made her lunch. He wasn't working any more, but even when he did he was doing stuff like that.
A thought came to my mind while she spoke of her husband, whom she clearly still adored after 30 years of marriage: I consider myself a good wife, but was I someone that could commit to these sorts of gestures? I've committed myself to many things: email, my morning Starbucks, paying bills. But I haven't committed to much outside my own benefit. What would it be like to wake up and have your first task of the day be for someone else?
"You feeling that?"
"Mmmmmm ... naw wiwee."
This was enough to stop her immediately. She continued to chat me up while I wondered, has she stuck the needle in yet? I realized she had by the taste of bitter Novocaine that trickled toward the back of my tongue, bitter I couldn't feel. I looked at the table to her right and saw empty single-use vials of Novocaine, at least five. She'd been administering it before I needed it. Now I understood--I was bored and amused by design. By the time she had made it through NASCAR I was relaxed--and numb. The part of her conversation that captured me, about her husband, distracted me during the most surgical part--the part I had dreaded most.
Another strange thought came to my mind, as this woman worked with such precision on my teeth and my mind, for which she was paid $20 an hour more than when she handled the front desk: how oddly we compensate people. I did the math and wondered if it was enough.