Two things I do know for sure about my first year on this planet. One, I was an aggressive breast feeder. This by my mom’s report. Two, I was an aggressive diaper user, much more so than my sister, apparently. Both my parents have attested to this fact. The Stork Diaper Service apparently did double duty laundering my prodigious output.
Not often, but from time to time over my earlier life, friends would admire my teeth. So many of them growing up had to have braces, and the tortures they described made the whole experience sound like it must be something like one of the circles of hell Dante forgot to write about.
My teeth, it is true, were very straight. This, my mother said, was because I was breast fed, whereas my friends with the crooked teeth in need of orthodontia were not. I never knew if this were actually true. I’ve certainly not wasted any time researching the matter. Hey, if mom says it was so, eh, well, okay, maybe.
Ah, but if only my friends only knew the truth about my teeth. It is a history sometimes mounting to tragic proportions.
The bad memories from my childhood could fill a book – my apologies in advance. One large tome in the bad memory library resulted from dental work. I hated going to the dentist. I don’t know why, but he never used any novocaine. Never did I know that other dentists actually did this until I was quite a bit older. Yeah, no anesthetic of any kind, and he drilled deep. I mean like he was going on a journey to the center of the earth deep. And seemingly traveling there with great pleasure as well.
In the beautiful days of my youth, my mom would spring a trip to the dentist upon me every six months, like clockwork. You’d think when I was old enough, I might know this was coming, but I didn’t for some reason. It was always a bit of a horror story surprise.
I used to brush my teeth twice a day, as recommended. Still, every time I’d sit in that vinyl and plastic wrapped chair staring up into that blinding hot light, so petrified, I worried I might shove the dentist’s hand aside, fly out of the chair and vomit, I would always end up with cavities that need to be filled. Not one cavity, not ever one. Always more.
I never did throw up, by the way, but it was a challenge to keep from doing it, always. The more cavities I had, the longer I would sit, muscles cramped, hand gripping the seat arms, listening to the piercing whine of the drill, smelling the most putrid odor of burning teeth and blood. The pain was incredible. I’d alternately hold my breath so as to smell as little as possible, and then hyperventilate from having held my breath too long, panting as best I could both through the saliva collecting in the bottom of my mouth – he had no assistant to suck that up as he tore into me – and through my chronically stuffed sinuses, thanks to the allergies I inherited from my mom.
Yes, my mom shrewdly never announced these bi-annual visits in advance. For good reason. Once I recognized the route, when I was younger, I would begin to cry, sometimes scream. It was bad. People in cars next to us at stoplights probably thought my mom was beating me.
Once I set an all-time record with 14 cavities. Yeah, I couldn’t believe it either. You’d think I wasn’t brushing at all. I had to go back for multiple drillings over many weeks. Some of those 14 were the deepest cavities I’d ever had. The pain, the smell, and those eyes of his, staring into my mouth through scary magnifying lenses, making him look like some kind of monster, it was all too much for a little kid.
As I grew older, I screamed and cried less. I resembled more a convict walking the last steps toward the gas chamber or electric chair, resigned to his fate having accepted death as a part of life. Strangely, I grew numb to the pain, seemingly of my own volition. By the time I was in high school, I would take the bus to my dentist’s office, get those old cavities, some very deep, drilled and filled, and I mean I was practically oblivious to the whole ordeal. The smell, the sound, none of it affected me much anymore.
This extended into my college days. I did, out of good upbringing and long training, continue actually to put myself through this process. Like as kind of closet masochist. I was even happily scheduling my own appointments, driving myself to The Chair of pain and suffering in my youth.
By the time I hit grad school on the continent in Madison, Wisconsin, I was actually a bit desperate to find a decent dentist to keep my streak of drillings and fillings alive. I asked my friend Mel, and he steered me toward a groovy dude with a flowing beard who would play you the music of your choice while you sat through the whole deal.
“Play whatever you want to hear,” I said to him, more interested in his comfort than mine.
While he prodded and picked at my teeth he said, “Lanning Lee, that’s an interesting name. My very first client when I opened my practice was from Hawai‘i. His last name was Lee too, and he had an equally interesting first name. It was Brackten.”
I was startled. I’d known that my cousin had attended the University of Wisconsin as well, and there could really only be one Brackten. “He’s my cousin,” I said. “My father and his are brothers.”
My dentist marveled over this coincidence as he announced that I did indeed have a cavity, although a shallow one. “No need for any anesthetic,” he said. “This will be a snap.”
And indeed in was easy. Just a few minutes. Piece of cake.
Two years later, I had graduated with my M.A. in English and was working as a record store manager in Madison’s West Towne Mall. The title meant this: Longer hours at twenty-cents an hour above the minimum wage that the other store employees earned.
One of my tasks was to open the store in the morning at 9:30, six days a week, then work by myself for two hours until the others arrived at 11:30, a cost saving move I apparently was paying for.
I had a 7:30 dental appointment before the 9:30 opening. My groovy dentist said, “Lanning, you’ve got two cavities, both deep ones. I’m going to have to give you injections for each of them, both sides”
“How long will I be numb?” I asked.
“A couple of hours.”
“I have to open the store at 9:30,” I said. “I’ll need to be able to talk. Never mind the novocaine. Just fill them without it.”
“Lanning, these are both really deep. It’ll be way too painful.”
“Ah,” I said, waving my hand to underscore how little this meant to me, “Don’t worry. I can handle it.”
He tried to argue me out of this idea. He was unsuccessful. He drilled, as I sat stolidly staring up into his huge eyes, thinking about Doctor T. J. Eckleburg and Gatsby’s receding dreams. If anything were bothering me, it was that I might not make it to the store in time.
When he was done, he shook his head. He looked quite shaken. “I don’t know how you were able to stand that,” he said. “I thought for sure you’d be screaming with pain.”
“Practice,” said I, smiling. “You see how deep some of the other ones are? I never got numbed for any of um.”
He marveled at this, shaking his head as I slapped him on the back before bounding down the stairs and out the door to work.
Upon returning to Hawai‘i, having been away for three-and-a-half years, one of my first priorities was to reestablish contact with my old dentist. Didn’t want to miss out on my six-month checkup.
“He’s dead,” my mom said. “I thought I told you he died last year.”
I asked my mom who she was seeing now. She said it was the man who had taken on all of Dr. Mew’s patients.
“So you were with Doctor Mew,” my new dentist said, staring into my mouth with sporadic clucks of his tongue and small shakes of his head. “You’ve had some pretty extensive work done here. Do you brush your teeth regularly and floss after meals?”
“Why yes I do,” I said. “Religiously, I might add.”
“Hmmm,” Dr. Takenaka muttered, “I think I’m going to have to redo many of these fillings. Structurally, they’re very weak. Some, like this one,” he picked hard at it, breaking off a small piece, are quite brittle. I’ve noticed this with others who were patients of Doctor Mew.”
Wow. Tell it like it is. So this guy was actually going to talk smack about my dear deceased D.D.S. I felt as if I’d buried a friend and this guy had come along to piss on the grave.
Staring up into his bulging eyes as two huge dollar signs.
“So it isn’t safe,” I said.
“What isn’t safe?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
Later my mom asked, “How did you like Dr. Takenaka?”
“Have you seen that movie Marathon Man?”
She had not.
I described the movie to her and talked about Laurence Olivier, by the way her favorite Hamlet and Heathcliff, playing the psychotic Nazi dentist.
My mother laughed, but after my skillful argument for finding someone she and my dad followed me to my new dentist, a wonderful man who retired just recently.
I have more stories about my teeth, some that would shock you, I’m sure. My dental history is wide and deep
So when I think about how people used to tell me they thought I had nice teeth, I think a lot about breasts.
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Aloha #WriterTuesday. Today’s #WritingPrompt is
Use it to inspire a piece of writing, and then post that piece where I can read it. I would love to see what you write : )