You work at a dentist’s office in the suburbs, in a town called Flowering Dogwood, which is funny enough. What’s funnier is that the dentist’s office is on a street called Babbling Brook. Now add the fact that you are a man and also a dental hygienist.
Your friends think this is hilarious. They are mostly old fraternity brothers you funneled beer with years before. They ask if you have to wear pink scrubs. No, you tell them, no one in the office wears pink. It looks too much like gums. They ask if people call you Miss. You don’t have a good reply, except something tangential, like the fact that dental hygiene is a solid career path and that it pays pretty well, better than lots of their jobs.
You stare down mouths all day. You get used to the smells. There is a burned one on the tongues of coffee drinkers. You know who smokes, regardless of the box checked on the intake form, and who drinks too much too early. People don’t consider the intimacy of a visit to the dentist. They don’t know that by opening wide they are revealing themselves. You aren’t sure if you like this part of your work. At first you were intrigued by the secrets and the possibility of this knowledge. Now it frightens you. It seems like a large burden to carry through the day.
You eat alone most nights. You make a lot of stir-fry. You have grown quite good at making stir-fry. You put it all in a bowl with rice and sit and eat and read the paper. You are the only person you know who reads the paper at night. It seems backwards, but most of the news can wait a few hours. Who is to say that papers can only be read over coffee?
You have dated some, but now none of your friends will set you up with anyone. Who wants to date a male dental hygienist, they say. They are kidding, sort of, but still don’t set you up. You leave your employment details off of your online dating profile, but then it seems like you are unemployed, which may be worse.
Once your coworker set you up with a friend of hers, another dental hygienist she knew from school. She was nice enough. Laughed at your jokes. She was cute—blond bob and bright blue eyes. Looked straight out of Sweden, and though that isn’t really your type, you recognized that most guys would be into her. You talked about dentistry over dinner. You compared notes on the x-ray machines in your offices and the annoyance of taking molds of people’s teeth and how useless receptionists can be—forgetting calls, overscheduling. At the end, though, you knew she didn’t want to see you again.
That was the last date you went on. You haven’t seen your friends in a while, either. They stopped inviting you out to bars and you stopped calling them. You decide to read a book because you are usually finished with the newspaper so early it’s still bright out. It’s summer. The days are unusually long. You go to the bookstore after work one day. You look for a big book, a serious book. The book spines are so colorful. They are more colorful than mouths, which, you have come to realize, are surprisingly colorful. Teeth vary in shades of white and yellow, brown and black; caps come in colors to match the stains of surrounding molars; gums range from white to red to black; eroding enamel reflects different wavelengths of light.
You think of teeth in history: toothless kings and queens, toothless taxmen on horseback, toothless executioners swinging axes, toothless presidents (toothless George Washington, specifically), toothless sculptors, toothless popes reciting mass, toothless yogis, toothless philosophers. And then: of desperate attempts to attach dentures that refused to stay in place, that fell out in the middle of important speeches or while dancing or eating or helping a child learn to walk. Decay takes many forms.