Daisy Friedman’s “Dentist Poem” appeared in our Winter 1997–98 issue. She is a writer and teacher in New York.
I love candy, anything really chewy and so full of sugar it stings like a Sugar Daddy. No matter how much I twist and pull, the long caramel tongue lasts me the full Sunday matinee at Radio City Music Hall, but just in case, I’ve also stored in my pea coat pocket a quarter pound of Swedish Fish. When the magician is pulling a rabbit out of his hat, I bite the head off one of my yellow fish. Tomorrow I have an appointment with Dr. Shapiro, my dentist. When I get home tonight, I will find my dental floss, which is stored somewhere under the bathroom sink. I’ll pull the white waxed cord all up and down and in between my teeth. I will brush before and after dinner. Dr. Shapiro knows I like candy and if my checkup isn’t good, even if I have cavities, he will still give me a lollipop. The only time Dr. Shapiro didn’t give me a lollipop was the time I bit him. He hurt me so I bit his finger. That was many appointments ago. I hope he’s forgiven me.
This year it lands on Friday. I take the subway to my semiannual dental appointment and treat people as if I were wearing an expensive black lace bra or like I’m carrying a baby and no one can see it. Before my twenty-fourth birthday dinner, my teeth will be polished. I will smile bigger, brighter, better. Dr. Grossman scrapes, but one tooth makes no sound. That’s a sign of decay, he informs me. How unfortunate! Novocain follows. Next thing I know, that tooth’s a stump. It’s not what I want, but what I’m told I need: please, this year, give me a root canal.
Dr. Grossman enjoys his work, pulling teeth, drilling away rot and decay, filling cavities, and what he likes best of all is sticking his hands in my mouth, stretching my cheeks wide, wider as if pulling a calf, and all the time talking or singing along to Lite FM. Dr. Grossman and his wife take vacations to tropical locations with multiple syllables. His wife has lupus and swimming helps her. I have helped her too, by paying for their indoor pool, which they keep at eighty-five degrees somewhere in Connecticut. They have no children, but Mrs. Grossman wears braces. She is hoping to correct her overbite. Dr. Grossman has gaps between his big white teeth. He always smiles when he tells his dental assistant Tracy what to do and he grins as he orders me to Open. At home Dr. Grossman does exactly what Mrs. Grossman tells him: Grill the meat. Yes, dear. Today will be my last appointment until they notify me by mail that it’s time for a cleaning. I just might let that go a month or two, until Dr. Grossman starts to wonder where his favorite patient is and instructs his receptionist to call me. I don’t know her name because they change so often. For right now, Dr. Grossman adjusts my chair, he gently taps his foot on the lever and jiggle by jiggle up in the air I rise. For the next half hour I am all his.
I inherited Dr. Grossman—the son of Mom and Dad’s periodontist. I was with him before Kathy the dental hygienist met her husband, way before she struggled to pull the pink rubber glove over her diamond ring. I was his patient thousands and thousands of dollars ago, before AIDS and precautions like rubber gloves and face masks when I could still smell lunch on his breath, before my divorce and my move, before the bills came addressed to me. I always hated Dr. Grossman even when he told me I had beautiful teeth. I felt guilty dumping him. But when I received a coupon for a half-price dental cleaning at The Family Dental Center right in my new neighborhood, I took advantage. After the cleaning, Dr. Silverman told me I needed a crown. The tooth had never troubled me. While taking an impression, he actually said, “I want to make a good impression.” The next visit I requested gas. On gas, I was certain there was nothing wrong with my tooth. I told myself I’d be done with him after the crown. I’d give him money and never see him again. For right then, floating, snorkeling, my life felt fine. I was promising myself wonderful things: new shoes and sex. Out of curiosity I asked Dr. Silverman if he was married. “I was when I left the house this morning,” he said, clearly flattered. It was only a question. He started telling me how great gas is “with a loved one.” I burst out laughing. I was embarrassed for him, the white gloves flattering the hair on his fat pale hands, his repulsive little erection. I wanted to tell him: Shut up! You’re ruining my high. People fall in love every single day.