“Ahmed is very gentle,” the receptionist assures me after I tell her that yes, I probably do suffer from dental anxiety. Though that term is most likely intended to mean something far more severe–like I start rocking back and forth from the trepidation of envisioning the petite pickax scraping away at the enamel on my teeth. But doesn’t it count if that’s what’s happening in my mind as Ahmed approaches me, getting to know me as best as a stranger who’s about to perform an invasive procedure can? He starts by offering me up little tidbits about himself so I’ll feel comfortable, like, “I’m from Dubai. I came to New York because the energy is just so much more intense. I went back home a few months ago and started missing it right away. It’s like I was guilty for being so relaxed. Like I should be working.” In that moment, I feel a bit sorry for him. He had fallen into the con of New York, like so many foreigners do. Thinking it’s the end all, be all because there truly is nowhere else in the world where this kind of freneticism exists. Maybe Hong Kong or Tokyo, but with far less space and enjoyment of the finer luxuries. Like adequate dentistry.
And since Ahmed’s been so sharing with me, I, in turn, am forced to give him some sort of personal crumb. “So why did you come to New York?” he asks me. This specific question always makes me bristle. How is one really supposed to answer that? It’s like asking: “So why were you born?” You don’t fucking know, you just did it because it’s what you do if you want to live a little. Or if your parents are narcissists, which they probably are. In my case, these are both the reasons I came to New York, but I can’t explain it to sweet, straightforward Ahmed that way, so I say, “Oh, I just really enjoy the theater.” The Playbill tote bag I came in with corroborates the story, even though the only reason I have it is because it was ten dollars at the Upper East Side Goodwill. A place I’d much rather be right now than in this dental chair.
Ahmed gathers what amounts to stirrups for my mouth and tells me to hold up the devices while he takes my picture. I feel like I’m spreading my legs, except instead of the potential for orgasm or a horseback ride (interchangeable sometimes), I’m only increasing my chance of getting wrinkles. The up close images of what I call my boca raton are highly unflattering. My makeup looks unblended, my mustache unwaxed and my teeth discolored. Already I can tell this is going to be a harrowing session. But then, after two years spent away from “the chair,” what was I to expect other than anything short of unpleasant?
Satisfied with my motive for moving to New York, Ahmed moves on to more technical questions. “Have you ever had braces?”
“Yes, around when I was ten. And I wear a retainer about once a week. The same one I got when the braces came off.” I lied somewhat. At best, I wear the retainer once every two months when I can manage to remember or briefly get on some sort of self-improvement jag.
I go into more detail by telling him I’ve had my retainer since roughly the age of twelve, when my orthodontist first freed my teeth from the shackles of braces after two years of dental oppression. Kids now really don’t know how easy they have it, how simple and unembarrassing modern braces are. God, I’m really sounding like a grandma now. Then again, apparently I am as the dentist, Dr. Constantine, later informs me about potential options for gum grafting and periodontal surgery.
But before that, Ahmed is the less frightening of the two men, commenting, “Oh? You should bring in the retainer next time you come in. We can take a look at it.”
“Should I replace it?” I demand, suddenly concerned.
“It’s been working for you fine this long, but…nothing lasts forever, you know?”
That statement, so trite and overused–often as it pertains to love–hangs heavy in the air for me. Ahmed, with one utterance, has made me question every relationship and my mortality. I feel hot with the reminder of the ephemerality of time and human connections. What the fuck am I even doing in this dentists’ chair? This doesn’t even matter. My teeth are going to decay and rot out of my mouth no matter what I do. I should just make a beeline for the exit before I have to pony up the three hundred dollars this is going to cost me without insurance. Ahmed, with his vexatiously white smile, still doesn’t even have straight teeth. Even he, in all his dental hygienist wisdom, isn’t going to be able to avoid the degeneration inflicted by the decades. Who the fuck is he to warn me about anything as though he’s somehow getting out of this thing called “nothing lasts forever” alive? In my panic, my mouth has closed again, like a clam refusing to show its pearl. But, oh, I’ve got no pearls in my boca raton–only deteriorating minerals that can, at best, be preserved at $220 “per quadrant” for a deep cleaning or, at worst, allowed to continue on their cracking journey toward falling out from the gum recession.
And when the fuck did “gum recession”–nay, periodontitis–become the thing you were conditioned to fear most at the dentist? In the old days (again, my inner grandma is coming out), it was as simple as worrying about how many cavities you might have and your parents getting mad at you because they had to pay extra for sealants. This conspiracy about making gum disease the new chic aspect to fret over is just plain cruel. At least the tooth decay thing felt more preventable and therefore less scary. Then you have Ahmed telling you what you already know and don’t need reiterated: that the health of your mouth is a window into your health as a whole, and that a lot of it is a genetic hand you can’t get undealt.
Thanks Ahmed. Thanks for emphasizing all the anxieties I work diligently each day to suppress as I continue to age at an alarming rate because nothing lasts forever, least of all the good times and carefreeness of being under twenty-five. I deflect his spiel as it nears the end by inquiring, “Should I, like, not eat for thirty minutes after this?”
Ahmed mocks me, assuring that such an advisement is something dentists only say to kids because they’re the ones who get the fluoride treatment. But I’ve never gotten it out of my head that 1) you can’t eat right after a teeth cleaning and 2) I’m not a kid. I guess nothing lasts forever though, youth–and the pristine mouth that comes with it–even less so than love.