As for dentists, I’ve gone back and forth between gay and straight. There isn’t anything intensely personal I need to divulge to a dentist. Lusting over Ryan Reynolds does not cause cavities. I don’t floss as much as I should. That’s as confessional as it gets. But as I’ve moved back to Vancouver, I’m seeing a gay dentist once again, the same one I saw a dozen years ago. I needed a second opinion anyway. For two years, maybe three, I’ve had regular pain on the left side of the mouth. I’d gone a few times to the dentist in the small town closest to where I lived. He obligingly x-rayed and found nothing. “You’re teeth are amazing,” he said repeatedly. “Great hygiene.” Flossing excepted. I always left feeling like I’m an orally fixated hypochondriac.
Ken, my Vancouver dentist spotted the problem as soon as I opened wide. “Oh, my god. It’s badly fractured. When did you last see a dentist?” Five weeks ago. Ken tried to stay professional. “I don’t need an x-ray to see it. It could have been saved, but now it’s too late.”
And so this week I was back in the dental chair for an extraction, with an implant or bridge work to follow. My gay dentist was going to make things right again. My gay dollars were going to the right place (though I hoped my insurance provider’s coffers would feel most of the pain).
Just thinking of any kind of pain is a bad thing when it’s time to settle back in a dentist’s chair. The first freezing wasn’t enough. I needed more. (And, oh, how I hate needles.) Not a great start. But I recovered. “You shouldn’t feel pain,” Ken said. “Just pressure.”
Fine, fine. Do your thing. Yank that stupid tooth out. It would be nice to eat on both sides of my mouth again and a blessing to stop getting dull razor-like cuts on my tongue. There was light—and Limoncello Häagen-Dazs—at the end of the tunnel. Let’s get there!
I’m prone to wincing. And fainting. I don’t discriminate. The tendency applies to All Things Medical. (Yes, even a hearing test.) But I’ve always been relatively calm and cool at the dentist…with the exception of one encounter with a savage hygienist who had a personal vendetta against casual flossers. (It wasn’t my imagination. “Yes, she no longer works here. We had complaints.” Hah! It’s not all hypochondria.)
I closed my eyes so as not to see the medical implements. I didn’t want my unease to distract the dentist from the work at hand. A quick extraction, a few hours of a half-frozen mouth and then ice cream. Question to ponder with eyes closed while tuning out the procedure at hand: How did Häagen-Dazs get its name? Are they people? Have they ever had dinner with Ben and Jerry? Still alive? If not, did too much ice cream play a part in their demise? Potent ponderings, indeed.
But I could not speculate. A certain extraction became the distraction. No pain but, yes, pressure. Lots of pressure. He pulled. And pulled. And pulled. He asked his assistant to bring another implement. And then another. And then another. Keeping my eyes firmly shut, I imagined every device from his cabinets piled up on the side table beside us. One even clanged as it fell to the floor.
Ken approached the tooth from my right, then the left, from above and below. His hand and the Implement of the Minute rested at various sites all over my face as Ken struggled to get the right leverage to yank the pesky tooth out.
“I can’t get it in one go,” he finally said. “I have to cut it in half.”
Let’s just leave it, I thought. There’s nothing wrong with eating on the right side all the time. And I’m sure they’ve made incredible improvements in baby food since I last sampled. Pureed moussaka? I’ve got a soup cookbook I’ve never cracked. Let this be the impetus.
Let’s just forget all about this.
But it’s impossible to make one’s plea with some mouth dam wedged on the right side of the mouth and who knows what medical tool on the left. I imagined him going retro with a handy pair of pliers from Home Depot. Maybe a miniature stick of dynamite.
The drilling began. Nothing like the smell of burning enamel. I felt little bits darting about before the suction hose hauled them off with who knows how many pints of blood.
More yanking. I tried to be cooperative but my head went boing-boing from side to side like it was affixed to some springy coil. I heard cracking sounds. More often, I felt slippage as devices lost their grip on my defiant tooth. “You have long roots,” Ken had said. And that f*#king tooth had every expectation of being a lifer. Hell, no! I will not go!
At this point, the tooth got a name. It had earned it. My gut went with Satan, but I went with Bluto. Best not to tick it off too much. Bluto was agitated enough.
Sadly, Dr. Ken is no Popeye. I’d first met Ken in a gay volleyball league. Ken’s biceps never caught my eye. Maybe a gay dentist on steroids would have been a better choice.
More pulling, more head shifting. My legs flailed about as the procedure became increasingly uncomfortable. And, once again, I doubted the whole gay dollar mentality. A gay dentist…why? What did I really know about Dr. Ken’s skills? He was a decent setter on the volleyball court. He was never blatantly critical of my errant bumps. How does that make him a good dentist?
His office was oh so tasteful. Exposed brick walls, soft lighting, stunning Asian art. Again, are these the qualities of a good dentist? I tried to shun the doubts. I attempted to be one with the Zen music. I willed Bluto to leave. Come on, Bluto. Just go. This is the final yank. Have mercy on me, Bluto. Give the suction hose a rest. I’ve lost enough blood. Please, Bluto. I never liked Popeye. Or spinach. (That last thought was a blatant lie, but Bluto is not the name of a brainiac.)
At last, there came a smooth pull with complete follow-through. “Yes!” Ken said, unable to filter his own relief. I gave him the thumbs up. And then he said, “We’re fifty percent through.” And I fought off the urge to give him the middle finger.
If they ever make another “Exorcism” movie, it should be about a tooth.
Somehow I stayed in that chair. Without restraints. Why am I not crying? I’m so frustrated. I just need this to stop. Who’s going to notice if I’m missing half a tooth? Maybe I can come up with a good pirate story.
It took a full hour of yanking and coaxing for the entire tooth to depart. “Are you in shock?” Dr. Ken asked as he “cleaned up” the area.
“Yes,” I said bluntly. I didn’t feel any need to be polite any longer. He was no longer armed with sharp instruments.
And he was more forthcoming, too. “One of the toughest extractions I’ve ever done.” This to a person in a quasi-state of shock. What he really meant was, “Toughest ever.” I sensed that ten minutes into the hour-long dental tug o’ war challenge. Confirmation again…not a hypochondriac. “My arm is really sore,” he added.
As I waited for the elevator and my escape, any doubts about choosing a gay dentist were cast aside. Relief needs its own moment. Hard choices about dental care could wait. I strolled the seawall, the walking wounded, bidding good riddance to Bluto. I stopped in an overpriced yuppie grocery store and picked up my gelato. Dinner to go. It seemed the best way to console myself in this difficult time of loss.
Trauma in the hands of a gay man. A familiar refrain, just unorthodox in the details.