“You can completely say no,” he started. “But one of your cavities is perfect for my regional board exams coming up. I mean, if you gave me the opportunity to fill this tooth, this would be at no charge.”
I liked this. When it came to buying drinks for friends and splurging on weekend getaways, I was Bill Gates. But my budget for cosmetic changes or clothes for myself was the equivalent of Paris Hilton’s budget for camping gear. And again, there were no major organs involved.
“Alright, I’ll do it.” I adjusted my sticky back and sat up in the dentist chair as if I was on an interview. “What are the details?”
“Board exam is here next Tuesday at 7:30am.” I felt like Jack Bauer assigned the location of the enemy. He continued explaining the mission. “Just need to be here at 7am and report to the front desk.” Easy enough. I shook hands with my commander and promised to be on time.
The clinic was a madhouse at 7:15 that Tuesday morning. Students were running around with all sorts of torture devices as professors swiftly checked chair stations for approval. Matt saw me and gave me a panicked smile, as he brought me to our station. I looked down at the other “volunteer patients” and again, wasn’t sure if 90% of them had all of their teeth.
7:30am – exam starts. Matt hovered over my mouth and breathed heavily. He hooked up devices and got the Novocain ready. He tried to stay calm in front of me, but having picked up on his anxiety, I gripped the side of the chair in fear. What the hell did I get myself into?
“So I hope you don’t mind helping me out by holding the suction stick,” he pleaded. Looks like I just got promoted to oral hygienist. Did he need me to drill when he got tired, too? Not a solid start.
He was about to stick me with the Novocain shot and I let out a yelp. I couldn’t help it. Just a big old “Ahh!” He jumped back. My hands were gripping the seat so hard that my knuckles were now white.
“It’s going to be fine,” he assured me. “I know no one likes the dentist.” That would have been funny – if he was a certified dentist. I relaxed my grip and let him take over – time was running out on his exam. I closed my eyes and felt the sting of the Novocain needle. Dental horror stories flashed through my mind – probably apocryphal stories of people having their face paralyzed after a bad Novocain incident. The needle hitting some important nerve that never again allowed that person to smile. I continuously pinched my cheek for the next two minutes. Matt looked down at me, confused, and I forced a smile – both cheeks lifted. Bucktooth Betty had averted paralysis.
“Alright, let’s do this.” He seemed frazzled. When he grabbed the drill, it was it shaking in his hand. When he turned it on, the high-pitched buzzing started. My eyes were hurting from straining to witness this hand shaking in my right corner. It got closer to my face, still shaking.
All of a sudden, the worst:
Just missed my right cheek and fell to the ground, still buzzing. I immediately sat up. Game over, Brownies. No drink specials tonight, I’m out. I pictured him dropping a plate of lasagna on our friend’s kid after too many scotches at our first housewarming party. Or dropping our first newborn! I tried to maneuver my tongue around the rubber dam and spat out some angry jargon:
“Mahh, I cahhn – do – iss.” I was trying my hardest to articulate with my swollen cheek and numb lips. I honestly think dentists take a course in “Novocain talk” because among the cotton balls and fat lips, they always seem to understand.
“Heidi, stay with me.” That was an order. Matt was in military mode and no self respecting patient was slowing him down. Suddenly, the commander was back. I listened and sat back immediately, listening to further instructions. Drilling started. I closed my eyes and, like an ostrich, pretended I was not there. I couldn’t see him, so he couldn’t… damage my tooth?
Half hour went by and the drilling seemed to be going normally. He was switching between the mega loud drill and the tiny zipper drill, all the while I was suctioning up saliva, water and other debris. My recently bad feelings for him suddenly took a 180, and I began to feel this dental bond with Matt – we were a team and we were in this test together: rain or shine, pass or fail, cavity or root canal.
Bell rings: test over. Matt wrinkled his nose in frustration and took a deep breath in. Something vital was missing.
The judge approached our chair. Gave Matt a nod for completion and began to inspect the treatment. I watched his eyes as he assessed the damage.
“Well Matt. You filled the cavity alright, but you didn’t exactly close the gap between the two teeth.” He made two fists and pushed them together to mimic teeth touching. Then he separated the fists so they were about two inches apart. I guess that symbolized the space between my teeth.
“This space can cause infection if it’s not closed properly.” And with that, he made his way to the next chair.
Problem. This was apparently why Matt wrinkled his nose before. I moved my tongue over the scene of the crime and could feel the space between the two teeth. Call me a bad teammate, but I snapped back to reality and realized that I had a large gap in my tooth that I did not cause. There is no “i” in “team”. But there is a large bill in an eventual root canal.
“Um, Matt,” I began. He wasn’t looking at me. Started tidying up the drills and appliances and let out a big sigh.
“Well. I don’t know if I passed.” He continued to tidy. My mouth dropped. He was too wrapped up in his grade right now for empathy with me. But it was my tooth. He wouldn’t even look at me.
“So I know you’re late for work now,” he finally turned and acknowledged his victim. “Why don’t you come back in on Friday – yeah – Friday should be good for me. Come back in Friday around lunch and I’ll fill in that space the professor was talking about.”
That space. He made it out like it was some extraneous appetizer dish at a cocktail party no one touched. A plate of broccoli at a BBQ. Or a light-colored chin hair that needed plucking. I flipped.
“Matt!” The Novocain was wearing off and I was heated. “I don’t care that I’m late for work! I’ve been – I’ve been more than patient with you during this whole thing! And… and…” I was hearing this side of me that only comes out after more than twenty minutes on the phone with any customer service rep. I started up again fresh, lowering my voice.
“I just can’t leave here until you fix my tooth.”
He looked at me like we were breaking up.
“I know you’re upset,” he started. “I – uh – I just have to see if they have rooms available upstairs for me to fix it, since they’re bringing another group in.” And with that, he was off to the reception desk.
Not even 20 seconds later, Matt was back with a look of relief.
“Room 7S is free upstairs,” he panted. “Follow me, I’ll make that tooth perfect.”
Well, who knows if it actually came out perfect, but I did walk out of the student dental zoo that day with a filled cavity and a closed gap. And Matt even gave me his number to keep in touch. Among the snapping bands and dropped instruments, two of Brownies’ best happy hour customers got through it together.
I often wondered what happened to Matt after that day. Although I didn’t foresee him holding a place in my dental or dating future, we still had a significant history. I hoped that I wasn’t a bad memory, and hadn’t kept him from graduating. It wasn’t until months later when I got a notice in the mail for a regular cleaning from my dentist that I decided to shoot Matt a text to check in. I kept it light; mentioned something about rubber dams and maybe one day he would be my dentist for real. His response, two minutes later, made me smile ear-to-ear:
“Heidi! Great to hear from you! I’m finishing up my final year and getting ready for graduation, things have been crazy. Hope you’re doing well, we should catch up sometime!”
Key word: graduation. All of the stress that morning – the trembling hands, the stubborn rubber dam, the demanding tooth judges – became just a stored memory for Matt on his journey toward dentisthood. A minor speed bump on his cavity-filling highway. I learned from the adventure, too: in the great pursuit of love, sometimes you’re just lucky enough to escape with all of your teeth intact.
It was a memory that we could smile about now.
A complete, “closed gap” smile.