It was easier to concentrate on a book, I realized, with French rather than English swirling around me in the dentist’s crowded waiting room. I could simply choose not to follow the words, and they became sounds, babel. My appointment was late, even though the office had called and asked me to come an hour later than scheduled; the dental surgeon had had a long case that morning and was running behind. I had left the house on foot, taken the bus, then the metro, engrossed in the book I was still intently reading when the assistant called my name and ushered me into the examining room with its particular smell and bright fluorescent light.
As a child, I feared the dentist and sat trembling in the silent waiting room which always smelled of oil of cloves, wintergreen, and antiseptic. My mother sat beside me, unhappy to be putting me through something I hated but impressing her own calmness upon me. She and the dentist were old friends; he had been a few years ahead of her in school and had, I think, tried many times to take her out but my grandfather hadn’t approved of their difference in age. She liked him for his intelligence and sense of humor, and the easy warmth between them put me more at ease. He was the president of the school board in our town, nearly forever, and as I got older he always engaged me in talk about the school, the teachers, the facilities, and opportunities or lack thereof, asking my opinions and taking them seriously. Our conversations mitigated the unpleasantness of what he was doing, and if I didn’t exactly come to enjoy our visits, I didn’t dread them.
There’ve been several less-pleasant dentists in my life, but over the past decade I became good friends with our Vermont dentist who was very involved in a different church in the community and its music program; he too liked to talk and looked forward to our appointments. I realized, somewhere along the line, that it must be quite awful to be feared and dreaded in your profession. Dentists, I learned, have a high suicide rate. But he retired; we moved.
Yesterday, in the waiting room, I had thought once of the line in Buddenbrooks, where the malevolent dentist repeatedly utters the dreaded words, “We will proceed to extraction,” but when I came into the examining room, the dentist smiled and extended his hand. “Madame,” he said, with a small bow of his round head and a large smile that showed his own perfect, brilliantly white teeth. “I apologize for the delay.”
“Don't worry, I said, sitting down. "You’ve had quite a day, I gather.” He sighed, smiled again, and shook his head.
“I made taboulleh last night – chopped all the parsley, put in all the ingredients – I brought it and haven’t had a moment to eat. I made a cup of tea a while ago and haven’t even been able to drink it! What a day. I did manage to pee – once. That’s enough! But I have a yoga class tonight. I am looking forward to that.”
He swabbed two places on my gums with anesthetizing salve. I was lying down on the chair and turned my face to look at him as he peered at the x-rays and notes on my case. “Are you playing any music these days?” I asked. He and his wife had emigrated from Eastern Europe a number of years before. He knew from my husband that he loves to talk about politics, but in a previous visit I’d learned that he was a violinist.
He turned, with an odd little smile, and sat down on the stool. “I can’t,” he said. “I just don’t have the time. But my daughter is practicing an hour and a half every day – she is going to be good. She already is good.”
I told him that I had had no time to play the piano either. “Have you been to hear the symphony since Nagano took over? We haven't, yet, but I want to..."
“Oh! I love him," he stated definitively. "It is incredible what he’s done. He’s rearranged the entire seating – it isn’t the traditional violins-violas-cellos-basses anymore – he has mixed them up – and the sound – the sound! We went to hear Joshua Bell playing the Bruch violin concerto and it was…well…it was a very memorable experience. Now it’s hard to get tickets.”
We continued talking like this for five minutes more. The chair-side assistant waited, behind her mask; I tried to read her eyes. Finally he and I looked at each other, smiled again, and we both said, “All right!” and he took up his syringe of novocaine and I opened my mouth.
He was working on two upper teeth, one on the left and one on the right. I focused my eyes to the left of the adjustable lamp, between his face and that of the assistant, and went off somewhere, playing music in my head. When he had finished the first tooth, he cupped my chin in a warm hand and gently turned my face to the other side. “If you need more anesthetic, tell me right away,” he said, laying the other hand on my shoulder. “Don’t suffer.” He began, and after a few minutes I could feel the probe scraping the side of the root near its tip. For some reason, I decided not to tell him; perhaps I wanted to feel this strange connection between us, perhaps I was interested to see if I could stand the pain. I went into it, and through it, and it wasn’t unbearable. When he stopped I said if he was nearly done it was fine, but if he had a lot more to do, I could begin to feel it. “But I don’t like the novocaine that much either,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“Just a drop,” he said, smiling and lifting the syringe again. “Please.”
When we were finished the assistant rinsed my mouth with antiseptic and unclipped my bib; she left the room. The dentist gave me instructions for the next two days, sighed, and stretched his arms over his head. I got up and thanked him. He rose, asked after my husband, and then reached over, grasped my shoulders in his hands, and kissed both my cheeks, formally and gravely. He nodded, and smiled.
“Have that cup of tea,” I said, as I walked out the door.
“Yes,” he said. “Tea!”