…we must always interpret what are called „˜dreams of dental stimulus“™ as relating to masturbation and the dreaded punishment of it.
— Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Lecture IX
The dental assistant, a pretty Hispanic girl, pointed at my lower left jaw, „Which is it? Number 19?“
„No, up top: Number 14.“
She smiled, „You sure know your teeth.“
I shrugged, „I know my numbers.“
It“™s my job, remembering numbers. Case numbers, release numbers, timeline numbers, process numbers, client numbers, IP numbers. I“™m a human number retrieval system. I suck them up and spit them back with complete precision. I“™m praised for my recall, but it“™s just my nature. I“™m praised for my judgment; it“™s by the numbers. My dentist entered, case folder in hand.
„So Mr. Hudsonblick, how are we today?“
„Not counting the dead tooth, just great, thanks.“
„That root canal went well?“
He had that wisecracking Long Island accent. Tall and gregarious, skillful and frank. He held up a slide-sized x-ray to remind himself what he was doing.
„So. We“™re going to set you up for a crown today,“ (which meant he was going to raze the gutted remains of my tooth), „and make an appointment for you to come in for the crown lengthening procedure,“ (carve a notch in my jawbone for a new, artificial tooth).
„Does he need a shot?“ his assistant interjected. The dentist shook his head and half-whispered to her,
„He just had a root canal.“ No nerve left to deaden.
With my best babe-in-the-woods face I made my request, „Do you have nitrous oxide?“ Since he’d already dismissed the regular anesthetic, this might have been confusing. If it was, he figured it out.
„Oh, sure. You“™re not operating heavy machinery today are you? No? Then you can hit it really good. Let me get the tank. Small charge by the way, it“™ll be on your bill.“
He took his time setting up the equipment, stopping to deliver a short lecture on the
pharmacology of non-antagonistic gasses and optimal oxygen mixtures for dentistry. I waited attentively. Eventually he strapped a rubber bombardier mask over my nose, turned a couple of valves, and then, as promised, I got to hit it really good. Somehow inhaling that stuff in a dentist“™s chair always hits you harder than huffing it in a grocery store aisle.
The chair was dropped to 15 degrees below horizontal so he could get a nice angle on my upper jaw. As the blood ran to my head and the drill began to whine and a flood of hazy, sweet transcendence recalibrated my senses I had to ask myself, „Is this really the right time to be on drugs?“ Well, in this straight life you get it when you can. The assistant squeezed over to the other side of the chair where she pressed a suction tube into my mouth and a breast against my shoulder. As I floated into a tingly, super-real zone the dentist began drilling off chunks of Number 14.
„He“™s having a good time about now, believe me. Takes a druggie to know, right? I don’t tap the stuff myself, I“™d never stop.“
„I think I got a good whiff of it myself, I“™m a little woozy!“ the assistant said, rolling her brown eyes in mock swoon. „So what did you do this weekend?“
„Oh god, yesterday I went to this MS charity brunch, I“™m still hungover.“
„Did you try drinking water?“
„A whole bottle before we started here. Open bar, huge buffet… The buffet was nuts, I had two six pound lobsters!“
She giggled; he drilled.
I wanted to join the conversation, trade drug and booze stories, but I was just an inanimate object, inarticulate and indisposed. I imagined telling them they could have skipped the nitrous tutorial, that I used to do the stuff all the time. I imagined the three of us having a good laugh about that, confessing all of our minor vices. Funny, that urge to confess. It must have been the gas. In addition to being an idiot savant with ID numbers, work has also made me a careful liar.
„Then I had to go meet my wife.“
„You had to drive back home after the open bar?“
„No, she met me in the city, ready to go out.“
„That makes sense. I always carry a little black dress hidden in my glove box. Just folded up in there so I“™m always ready, you know?“
I think it started when I began to look for another job. My first lie was pretending that everything was OK in my current position. No point in being a rabble-rouser if you’re just leaving anyway. So I“™ve been playing happy at work for a while. Interviews and phone screenings meant that I had to disappear now and then, blaming it on traffic, errands. I told them that the haircut was just to beat the heat.
Then there were the sick days that I spent boozing around Hell’s Kitchen. And the whiskey bottle stashed in my desk drawer. I took up smoking again, too, which no one at work could care less about, but it was something I had to hide from my wife. When I started meeting up with old girlfriends, it necessitated a parallel universe of fictional social engagements.
It“™s all very new for me. I“™ve always had a habit of honesty, but I think it was really just laziness. Lies used to seem like a hassle: inventing them, staying faithful to them, keeping them safe from accidental discovery. And it’s true, they are awkward. But practical.
„Can you go get that temporary, Lana? We“™re about done here.
Mr. Hudsonblick? Hello-wo-wo-wo-wo? Heh, sorry, just kidding. I“™m going to give you a little blast of pure oxygen to clear your head, then you can take as long as you want to come back to us.“
He fit the temporary crown over the nub of Number 14 and pressed my jaw shut.
„Does that fit OK?“ I nodded, teeth clenched. „Great, great. Just hold it like that until the cement dries.“ He removed the gas mask contraption and flicked on the television for me. Cartoons. „You just take your time and come up to the counter when you“™re ready. Happy trails!“
Once you’re used to it, keeping track of the lies and explaining around them isn’t so bad. Hell, my job has made me a tracking, explaining machine. It“™s just another thread in the product cycle: interface design, quality assurance, interview with headhunter, tryst with ex. Each task disassociated from the others, relying on my stewardship.
I sat alone, looking out the wall-sized window at the pissing rain in the parking lot, enduring the disappointment of the post-nitrous comedown. The dentist was right: you always want more. My curious tongue played idly over the ersatz tooth, hardened acrylic newly glued into my mouth. It had a rough edge that dug into my gumline. It felt a little wobbly. The new Number 14. Awkward, but practical.