You Shouldn't Go To My Dentist
It’s a Wednesday and I’m sitting in a dentist’s chair waiting to meet Dr. Mary Michaels DDS.
Dr. Michaels, like all physicians, is running late. And though this type of behavior used to be an issue in 2019, where I had to sit with my own thoughts, times have changed. Now, there’s TikTok.
“I got a second opinion and then a third and then a fourth,” says the man in the TikTok video, “everyone told me that my prostate cancer would kill me within a few years.”
The man sits Indian-style. And there’s an I-did-too-much-acid-in-the-70s tapestry hanging behind him, which makes me think the video is going to be about an alternative medicine cure, maybe sponsored by Big Ayahuasca or something. Turns out, I’m right.
The TikToker talks about how he went to Peru and met a Shaman who taught him to find his inner creator, manifest his cancer away, and now he’s happier than ever. It wasn’t what he thought would happen, but,
“Sometimes, whether or not you realize it,” the TikToker says, “life gives you what you need.”
Sure, whatever, I think to myself, wondering what a Shaman would say about my receding bloody gums.
“You must be Alex,” scratches a woman’s voice from behind me as its owner rounds the corner.
I look up to see an older woman in a lab coat. She looks very different from the 30-something-year-old I had originally booked the appointment with online. Perhaps she is the 30-something-year-old’s great great grandmother. The older woman walks towards me, and as she does, she nicks her arm on the sidewall, but doesn’t notice.
“Dr. Gail?” I ask.
“That’s me, I believe,” she says, telling a joke which falls flat because I, too, am unsure if it is her.
She hobbles the rest of the way and as she sits down on the stool, her body exhales as if it’s excited to rest its achy bones.
Now, I love old people. I really do. I wish I had more of them in my life. All four of my grandparents died when I was nine years old. Their deaths were sudden. So close together that my parents used to joke about a cult suicide to which we had not been invited.
But, as Dr. Michaels stares into the distance at nothing, for maybe a minute, I wonder if my oral health is at stake, and if it’s time for her to retire, sell her practice and move on to something more fitting, like bingo.
I think back to that TikToker and realize that sometimes influencers are wrong, and this is not an example of life giving me what I need.
“Where are you from?” she asks me.
I tell her that I moved to Miami a month ago in search of treatment for an ear disorder I had been dealing with. And then she tells me her story, about how she got to Miami, which I assume is going to be something like, ‘I’ve always been in Miami, I was actually the city’s first resident.’
“I’ve been practicing in this building since it was built in the 70s,” she says, while I do the math. “I’ve seen this city change a whole lot. So many different types of people coming and going.” She smiles at me. “You’re here at a good time.”
A couple of minutes go by. I wonder when we’re going to finish up our chit-chat and move on to the gums at hand. I have places to be.
“So, how long—”, but just as I begin, a spry 50-year-old woman named Paulina rushes into the room. She doesn’t acknowledge me with any type of eye contact, but takes charge anyway, shoving x-ray bite tabs into my mouth, “Open,” “Bite,” “Close,” she says, whipping my head left and right.
All the while, Dr. Michaels rests, perhaps thinking. Perhaps not.
“That ear thing you’re dealing with sounds terrible,” Dr. Michaels says. “I don’t think it has anything to do with your jaw, in case you needed to know that.”
“Okay,” I say back.
Fast-Hands-Paulina grabs the computer screen and twists it so that Dr. Michaels can see the enlarged x-rays. And then Dr. Michael squints so deeply at the x-rays that her eyes almost seem to close, and upon seeing this, I realize that if it’s difficult for Dr. Michaels to see the teeth on the screen, magnified as large as bricks, it will undoubtedly be difficult for her to see the teeth inside my mouth that are only as large as teeth.
“Oh wow. Cavity on number six,” Dr. Michaels says. “We’ve gotta get that one. And number eight.”
Paulina nods and readies the dentist tray.
Dr. Michaels picks up a lidocaine needle.
“How long have you lived in Miami?” she asks me for the second time, only this time she gesticulates holding a needle inches from my eye.
Paulina notices this and keeps her attention fixed on Dr. Michaels’ hand, waiting for a misstep. My chest tightens as Michaels injects my left gums.
“I’ve only lived here for a few weeks,” I say, shifting in my seat, “and I like it here, but I hate how long it takes to get to the freeway.”
“Oh, that’s not a big deal,” Dr. Michaels says — also, Miami is a nice place to be driving around.”
She turns to place the needle on the dentist's tray, but she misses and it falls right to the floor. She doesn’t notice.
But Paulina notices, and she drops to the ground, snatches it up, and places it on the tray, right next to Dr. Michaels’ hand, and Dr. Michaels doesn’t notice either.
I start to sweat, nervous that Michaels will soon be holding a drill, but I decide that this is judgemental of me, ageist perhaps, and that maybe if I can keep the conversation going, I can somehow relax and pull myself out of my own head.
Half of my tongue is numb. “Do you livre clothes by?” I ask.
She picks up the second needle to anesthetize the right side of my mouth, “About an hour or so away,” she say. “But I love driving. The long commute is actually the best part of my day — 1978 BMW. My baby.”
The needle goes in. It hurts. My toes curl.
“Does tha even ha airbags?” I ask, needle still in-mouth.
She laughs, her body gyrating, shaking the needle as I writhe.
“Darlin’, the fact that she even drives is a miracle. But still. I wouldn’t trade her in for anything.” She pulls out the needle and hands it to Paulina, who places it on the tray.
I exhale. “Isn’t that...unsafe?”
“Well, when you get to be my age you learn to enjoy what you’ve got.”
I want to ask, ‘And what age is that?’, but her hands are already so unsteady, and it’s not worth seeing what’ll happen if, God forbid, I anger this person who, even when calm, seems incapable of keeping me out of her harmful way.
She asks me more about the ear symptoms. I tell her that the main issue is that it makes me dizzy.
“I also get dizzy,” she says. “About once a day. Not sure why, but let me know if you figure yours out. Maybe we have the same thing!” she laughs.
She steps out of the room for a bit. I try to relax.
I focus on my breath because people say that you should.
Then I tap each of my fingers against the arm of the chair, one by one, because people say to do that too.
Michaels hobbles back in, sits down next to me, and looks at the drill.
“Alright, you ready?” she asks.
I am not. Yet I nod.
She turns to reach for the drill and brushes her arm against Paulina’s tool tray and as she turns back to face me, I notice something.
“Your shoulder!” I yell, seeing that the recently lidocained needle is now stuck to her arm.
Paulina jumps in and yanks out the needle.
“Ha!” Michaels says. “That’s the third time today!”
Paulina and I make eye contact, but she pulls from my gaze. Perhaps she’s mad at me for calling this out and making her look slow.
Dr. Michaels turns on the drill and looks inside my mouth, again, squinting with closed eyes. She goes inside and starts working. I can’t feel much, which is good. I think she drills my back molar.
The first five minutes pass, and I assume, that if I still have any teeth left, they are the right ones. But then Michaels starts to fumble. Perhaps she's tired. The drill slips and she unintentionally jumps to another tooth.
“Whoops. Wrong one there,” she says, quietly, to herself.
I feel a tightness start in my stomach and creep to my back.
A minute goes by. The drill slips again, and this time she gets part of my cheek. But I’m numb.
“Ha! Whoa, got ya there!” She chuckles and pulls out the drill to wipe the bit off on my bib.
I imagined the chainsaw massacre inside my mouth. I try tapping my fingers again, not understanding how she hasn’t been sued by someone. Maybe that someone will be me.
And it keeps happening. She’s slipping and the drill is jumping. She’s complaining and then laughing. Over and over again. And finally, the tension in my stomach becomes too much. I want her to stop. And though I don’t say anything, and my face doesn’t change, she somehow knows.
She takes a break. And tries to distract me.
“How long have you been dealing with this ear thing?” she asks.
Paulina vacuums the spit out of my mouth.
I exhale. “Three years now. It’s been terrible.”
“Yeah,” she says, “I can’t even imagine. But it seems like you’re still doing well. I mean, you walked in here and all.”
“Yeah, I mean. I can still walk and drive, not that I like driving, but, I’m still happy about that,” I said. “I just want to get back to how I used to be. Always being dizzy makes me feel like I’m kinda out of it,” I pause. “It sucks.”
I’ve forgotten about my teeth.
Holding the drill in her right hand, she rests it inches from my eye and looks at me.
“Andrew,” she says.
“Alex,” I say back.
“Yes, Alex. When my husband passed away,” she says, “I had to give up this whole idea of who I thought I was. You know, one where I grow old with this man and live well…a life that, to me, was a perfect life.”
Paulina isn’t listening, but instead, stares at the drill which still rests on my shoulder. Something must’ve happened before.
A receptionist walks in. “Dr. Michaels, we’re ready in room five.”
Dr. Michaels lifts up the drill, and turns it back on, but continues speaking.
“You’ve gotta let go of stuff and who you wish you were,” she says, working on the next tooth. “I often try to tell myself that this is how it was supposed to be all along. I was never going to grow old with him and I was always supposed to have a life where he was in it for as long as he was. Try to think about your life like that. You can still have a good one.”
“I know but—” I mutter, trying to argue while she works on my mouth.
“Don’t talk,” she says. “Can’t have your tongue flapping around in here. Too easy to snag, you know?” she laughs.
A minute or so goes by and she turns off the drill.
Paulina grabs it from her, like a private taking a weapon from her captain.
“Alright. We’re done here,” Michaels says. “Paulina, can you get going in room five? I’ll clean him up.”
Dr. Michaels brushes my teeth and I rinse my mouth with a fluid, maybe fluoride.
“You’re gonna be okay kid,” Dr. Michaels says. “Stop concentrating on what you don’t have — be thankful for what you do.”
She puts her hand on my shoulder, squeezes it lovingly. And then gets up and hobbles away, bumping her arm into the sidewall on her way out.
As I stand up to go, I take one final look at the office and I laugh to myself at how terrible of an experience that was. I move my numb tongue around, sliding it along my teeth which, as far as I can tell, are all still here.
I get to my car and, out of curiosity, I pull up Dr. Michaels’ reviews on my phone.
They’re mostly five stars, which doesn’t make sense.
“What a special woman,” or “If an angel became a dentist,” they all seem to say.
Notably, there is nothing about her actual dentistry.
I sort by Lowest.
1-star from Jackie.
“She dropped the drill on my face two different times. The second time I yelled at her and then she ended up cutting part of my tongue and I’m STILL BLEEDING THIS LADY IS TERRIBLE!”
I guess Jackie should’ve let Dr. Michaels do more of the talking.
I taste something metallic. A cut alongside my gums from the drill. I pull down the car mirror to take a look and I gasp to see blood across my cheek and chin, along with a couple of red fingerprints on my shoulder.
I laugh and then pause to do my normal ‘Am I too dizzy to drive’ check? And I realize that I’m not.
And that my teeth are still there.
And that I’m lucky, even if just for this moment, to be able to live in Miami, where I can drive a car with fully working airbags, and watch a TikTok man with acid-esque tapestries make a claim about life giving me what I need and have him turn out to be right.
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