In the Mouth

by Aaron Calvin

February 15, 2023

I tried to keep my distance from the doorman as he peeled back the glass door, but I came close enough to his body that I couldn’t help but inhale him. Stale cigarettes and strong cologne. I reveled in the sharpness of it, how the smell overtook the clarity of the cold wind in my nostrils, blooming in my lungs. I was wearing a touch of apricot perfume, a gift from someone I once knew. I wondered if the doorman caught a whiff of me in turn, if we had exchanged a soft knowledge with one another, strangers drawn together by the necessity of our paths, though it was far more likely his own sense of smell had been dulled by his smoking or enveloped by his own odor. His cologne was clean and simple and bright, like all older men’s perfume. Perhaps he had lost his sense of smell and did not realize it yet.

Passing through the building’s brownstone exterior into the dental office felt like twisting open a plastic Easter egg to find a straight razor inside. A violent feeling, but a relief as well; the jacket I wore was too light for November. I approached the woman at the desk who sat behind a fiberglass barrier. I gave her my insurance card and filled out the forms. Yes, I had been to therapy for anxiety and occasionally depression; no, I was not allergic to penicillin. I bowed to the infrared thermometer that was shaped like a gun and registered a moderate and acceptable temperature. I took a seat in the waiting area. It was all white and empty. Children’s books and a toy with colored beads set on a maze of colored rods was set tidily in the corner. The television that was hung on the wall was turned off. Late afternoon light fell slanted through picture windows. The sunlight through the window was the color of tarnished gold or a field of wheat viewed from a distance; it was thin and crisp as only the light during fall’s final fade into winter is. I watched the still frame of sunlight that fell across the carpet until my name was called.

A woman in scrubs brought me back into a partitioned cell with a large window that looked out over a courtyard. The cell contained the usual dental setup. The reclining chair with its vinyl upholstery and plastic cover sheath. The rinsing station, the overhead lamp, the side table where the various tools were housed. It was all waiting for me. I removed my jacket and placed it on a chair in the corner. I looked down upon the courtyard with a sense of expectation, but nothing changed about the scene before my gaze was interrupted by a voice behind me.

I’m Ingrid, the voice said. I’ll be your dental hygienist today.

I’m Sarah, I said. I’ll be your patient.

Ingrid didn’t laugh, but I think she may have smiled as I saw the crow’s feet around her eyes tighten slightly. We were essentially anonymous to each other. She wore a blue surgical mask and a face shield. I wore a floral pattern mask that day. Daisies, I think. Not my favorite flower, but it was one of my best fitting masks. I removed it when she asked me to.

Ingrid directed me to take a seat in the chair. She leaned my body back, asked me to open my mouth. The taste of her latex finger was bitter in my mouth. She poked around with the scythe end of her scaler. She made soft, cryptic noises in response to what she saw there. When she had finished, she left the room without saying a word. In my reclined position, I could only see thin branches stretched out across a pale sky in the fast-failing daylight. Ingrid returned and replaced my thin paper bib with a heavy beige bib that covered my entire chest. She needed to take x-rays of my teeth. A piece of plastic forced open my lips and jaw. Ingrid shifted it slightly around my mouth, in search of something specific hidden below the gumline. She left again and returned with a man in a white jacket and a completely shaven head. He introduced himself as Dr. Lowell. He was the dentist. He had come to interpret the ghostly images of my teeth that had now appeared on the screen in the corner of the cell. I looked on solemnly as he pointed to the dark spaces between the rows of teeth shapes, reading them like tea leaves. A year and a half away from the dentist, intermittent flossing, and unrigorous brushing had led to problems that a simple cleaning could not fix. I needed a deeper cleaning, a procedure that would require Ingrid to dig down into the small spaces of my mouth. It had to be done over two separate visits within two weeks of one another. I accepted this sentencing without question. What did I know of the dark spaces in the mouth? What did I know of how the small unseen parts of my body might decay?

The week before Christmas and there was somehow a light for every pocket of darkness. This had the effect of making new, stranger shadows where there had previously been none. The train ride into the city was longer than usual though the train was mostly empty. In the neighborhood where the dentist’s office was, everyone seemed to have phoned it in this year. Strings of lights drooped loosely along wrought iron railing. Each Star of David hung from a second story window was moments away from falling. Same doorman again, same strong cologne. It was late; I was likely the last patient Ingrid would see that day. The sun was already gone or nearly gone, I should say. I stood in the waiting area after bowing once again to the thermometer gun. I watched the last traces of sunset seep out of the sky and the mottled city night become complete. With only the darkness and streetlights through the window now, the overhead fluorescence seemed brighter to me somehow. It covered everything. I deliberately chose an outfit I thought Ingrid would appreciate, something classic—a white blouse, a black pencil skirt, long white socks, black saddle shoes. This time I wore a weather appropriate coat, a puffy jacket the color of an alpine lake. It engulfed me, wholly.

Ingrid commenced with the usual foreplay. She tapped my teeth with her scaler. She picked and scraped. There was no conversation and I was thankful. Some will try to talk to you about the weather with their hand in your mouth. All you can do is gurgle in agreement. But Ingrid had a way of communicating without speaking. I could feel even through the barrier of the surgical gloves her delicate touch. She saw each tooth exactly as it was, an exposed piece of bone connected to a sensitive nerve. Firm and vulnerable, essential and fragile. Today the focus was on the left side of the mouth. I could hear the sound of the scraping inside of my head. She finished the opening stage and then came the Novocain. Three shots, a little gratuitous. The bitter taste of it seeped from the injection sites on my gums and trickled down my throat. Slightly ferric, or maybe like the bark of a tree emulsified. Ingrid stepped away for a moment and it was just me, prostrate under the lamplight.

It will be just a moment, she said. Then we’ll begin.

All right, I said, already slurring slightly.

The courtyard outside was illuminated from below, silhouetting the bare tree branch with an orange underglow.

What do you do? Ingrid asked.

I’m a copywriter, I said, for trade magazines.

So you’re working at home now, she said.

Yes, for now.

Do you miss it?

Miss what?

The office.

Not really, I said.

I found myself a little annoyed at Ingrid. I shouldn’t be having the same kind of conversations with her that I had with every other acquaintance. We shouldn’t be discussing the same inescapable topics that were now forced upon everyone. This thought left my mind as I returned to the chair and Ingrid went to work. I only felt the shadow of a feeling as she moved within me. She dug deep into my gums, working out the plaque that had embedded itself. I closed my eyes; I never keep them open during dental work. I wouldn’t want someone staring at me while I was trying to do my job. With my eyes closed, there was nothing left but the strangeness of the non-feeling. The absence of sensation. Something like relief washed over me. I was surprised to find myself struggling to keep my composure as I lay in the vinyl chair with my arms at my side. Ingrid in my mouth, digging and scraping. A pinch of pain crept through the numb wall and I grimaced slightly. Sorry, Ingrid said. No, I tried to say, though it was just a sound, not a word. It’s all right. Then I was leaning over the rinse station, half spitting half dribbling blood and watching it flow down into the dark drain.

Have a good holiday, Ingrid said. She handed me a plastic bag with a toothbrush, toothpaste, and a prescription mouthwash in it. Having fallen out of time during the procedure, her comment brought me back into the present. I wanted to ask her what she was going to do, if she had plans, but I didn’t. On my way out of the office, I listened to a voicemail from my mother asking if I was sure I didn’t want to come home for Christmas, though I had already told her I didn’t plan on traveling this year. Besides, I already had the memory of each prior Christmas with my mother—from my youngest haze of green red and brightly colored toys to those long years of middle youth when our whole family was still intact to my sporadic returns in adulthood when it had just been her and I, more or less. I kept them all in my mind like rolls of film laid over one another, shadowy and dull.

Exactly two weeks later and everything seemed to have given up. Heading back to the dentist’s office, some of the lights remained but looked thoroughly depleted, like the half-hearted holiday spirit could barely make it through Christmas, let alone New Year’s. This time the appointment was early afternoon. A different doorman was there that day. He maintained his distance and I couldn’t catch the smell of him. I wore a perfume with notes of jasmine and sandalwood I had previously only chosen for special occasions. I greeted the thermometer gun in the usual manner. In the waiting room, the light through the window was different than it had been a month ago, even a week ago. It was bright and gray. Less than. Weak and brittle. Absent minded.

Ingrid too looked on the verge of tears or maybe she had just finished crying before our appointment. Her eyes, usually a slit of cerulean between her surgical mask and cap, were today cracked with veins of red. A certain puffiness was visible in the area around them through her face shield. I considered asking her what was wrong, but I found no place from which that question could begin to be asked, so I said nothing. I silently took my position in the vinyl chair instead, preparing myself like a corpse bracing for an autopsy. Ingrid seemed distracted and fiddled with her tools.

Ready? she asked.

She prepared the right side of my mouth. Three more shots of Novocain. I thought maybe the left side might be jealous, might miss the numbness. There’s nothing better than a numbing agent to remind the body that it is something slightly separate from you, the inextricable vessel inhabited only tenuously. Only one line of communication, the nervous system, which can be so easily severed. As we waited for the Novocain to take effect in silence, I felt a certain fondness for the bare branch I could see once again out the window from the chair. Ingrid began to dig away at my gum line. This time, when I felt a twinge of pain, I rubbed my forefinger against my thumb and closed my eyes a little tighter. I focused on the feeling of Ingrid’s fingers and by extension the way she moved the scaler around my mouth, the dull sensation of the scythe as it burrowed into me, the occasional release of the water pick. I got lost in it, the closeness of it, Ingrid’s touch. When she was finished, she ordered me to close my mouth and I did, but I did so too quickly and found my lips had closed around one latex gloved finger. I opened my eyes to see her stunned. Our eyes met and I was fixed in her blue, the red already faded, and for a long moment she did not look away.

I wiped the numb and drooling left side of my mouth with the cloth bib and gathered my coat. After Ingrid gave me further instructions for the care of my gums, I asked her if she had a nice holiday. She said yes, it was quiet. Immediately I felt embarrassed for putting Ingrid in the same situation she had put me in during my last visit. I wondered if this was the only way it was possible for us to communicate. I scheduled another visit for a few months into the future on my way out, wondering what the world would be like then and if Ingrid would attend to me.

My usual train was undergoing repairs, so I was forced to take a different train home. This train passed over the river instead of under it. As it did, I took in the uneven teeth of the city on either side of the bridge. I thought about how the only time I could ever grasp the scope of the city was when I was briefly outside of it. The sun was setting and it was snowing lightly. A pink purple gauze enveloped the train car and illuminated all of its riders in an unfamiliar light before we slipped behind a pair of warehouses on the far side of the river. When I arrived back at my apartment, it was empty and dark.

About Aaron Calvin

Aaron Calvin is a Midwest-born writer and journalist currently living in New England with his partner, son, and two cats. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Catapult, VICE, and elsewhere.

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