My mouth is a silver mine, once you get past the front teeth. Still, years have passed, decades even, since a dentist has uttered the words, “You need a filling.”
My new dentist happens to be the choice of a local woman I know, and not the one preferred by most of the expat community here in Puriscal, Costa Rica. He’s not quite fluent in English, but he makes up for that by being astoundingly solicitous.
When he located more than one cavity lurking under existing fillings, I was shocked. I’ve evolved from a dental delinquent to a vigilante over the years, brushing and flossing faithfully.
In his mid thirties, square-faced and sincere, he smiles eagerly, displaying a Lauren Huttonesque gap between his top front teeth. Other than that, I’m happy to notice, his teeth are perfect. “I’m glad to meet you again,” he says, all but bobbing in enthusiasm.
Since He’s asked me to correct his English, I reply, “Nice to see you, we only meet once.”
Once he’s sprayed me with a topical anesthetic, and plopped the noisy liquid-sucker into my mouth, he asks, “Are you okay?” It’s my turn to bob my head, and I do, though my assertion is belied by my surfboard body.
“I like to use anesthetics,” he says.
“So do I, the more the better!” I mumble, but I squeeze my eyes shut so I won’t see the needle. My mother once chose a dentist who put Steve Martin’s dentist in “Little Shop of Horrors” to shame. The man used to practically dance around me, his victim, waving his big needle maniacally before plunging it into my quivering gums.
My new dentist begins the process of excavating. “Are you okay?” he asks, “I see that your eyelids are moving,” he continues. “I think that might mean that you’re in pain.”
“Um.” I reply. I’m thinking, I’m not loving the eternity it’s taking you to inject the damn pain-killer. My TMJ is kicking in, my jaw is starting to complain, and we’re just beginning.
He turns on the drill, and the sounds and smells throw me back to a tiny office in the dental clinic in Manayunk. I’m maybe in first grade, and I’m sitting in the waiting room with my cousin Betty Ann, listening to the unrelenting screams of the child in the dentist’s chair.
“Are you okay?” he asks, bringing me back to the present.
I nod affirmation, but I’m not okay. I hate the dentist. Who could love a torture chamber in one’s mouth?
He’s finally finished drilling, and now he’s plunging silver into the hollow tooth, dropping bits of it in my gullet. Every nerve in my body cringes. It’s as though my tooth is a blackboard, and he’s scraping his nails against it.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
I’m thinking how important it is to like your dentist. Is there a doctor-patient relationship more intimate? After all, the guy has his hands in your mouth. I’m back in my thirties, and my dentist is a handsome, sensitive guy with eyes you could swim in. He pats me a lot, and I’m in love with him.
“I’m going to fill two teeth today,” says the new dentist. Again I bob, but I’m crying inside.
He sets to digging again, and I think about my last dentist, a sweet, funny Italian immigrant with an office on Broad Street, in the heart of South Philly. I loved him, too. He used to distract me by telling dirty jokes and arguing politics– once a mouth-full of implements guaranteed my silence. He gave me a bottle of homemade red wine once, to gargle with, when I’d lost my voice. Why didn’t he find the damn cavities, I think.
“Are you okay?” asks the dentist.