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The Waiting Room

by Peter Bebergal

The dental assistant's breast rubbed against my arm as she dropped the lead blanket over my chest. The next thing I know her fingers are jammed into my mouth and I'm looking her straight in the eyes and I can't help but start to wonder what she sounds like when she's making love. She leaves the room and there is this strange buzz, like a warning or a reminder. Suddenly she is back again and moves the arm of the x-ray machine out my line of sight and I see her eyes again, and she's removing the lead blanket like it's my clothing and I start to feel exposed and ask her nervously, is that it? She says, that's it.

They need to pull the tooth, and a week later I'm back in the office. I'm waiting for them to call me in and there is this women sitting next to me. She looks kind of nervous, so I say, boy it doesn't matter how old you are, it still feels like your four whenever you go the dentist. She smirks and then looks back down at her magazine. I start to feel a little edgy myself, but I begin to remember the assistant from last time, and start hoping I'll see her again. Every once in a while the door next to the reception desk opens and a tall black women peaks out. She is really kind of masculine, but has that nurse's femininity about her. A few minutes of this and I grab a magazine myself and start flipping through it but the words are like teeth, just dangling there in a row, decaying in the fluorescent light. The women next to me gets called in and I hear that she has a Russian accent. The nurse is asking if her tooth hurts and she keeps saying, no it is not a hurt but a how do you say it throb, and I think what a strange word, throb, and start to imagine this tooth in her mouth throbbing like a little heart, like a little broken heart. A homesick Russian heart.

Suddenly I hear my name and my belly goes butterfly and as the nurse is taking me down the hall and chatting me up a bit, I realize that it is a man. But a man on his way to being something more, a women in fact, and he is actually in that in between place, pre-op or something, and this is getting too exciting, and I start to flirt, just a bit, and he smiles all brilliant white and shows me to my room and tells me his name is Gregory. Gregory is tall and lean and his fingers are adorned with gold and diamonds, and he wears these baggy pants that sometimes look like a dress from the side, but from the front you can see the crotch that makes them pants. His hair is pulled back in a bun and he flits around like he his having the time of life working in this dentist's office. He says, you can sit or stand but don't touch anything, and he says this with a wink. He gives me a little envelope filled with gauze and a little sheet with instructions that say things like pressure and don't rinse and applesauce and salt water. Just as he turns to leave the dentist walks in and before I can say, oh baby you are divine, the needle is going in my gums.

This only takes a minute and then my gums go numb and the dentist is waiting and I'm waiting and then he says you can rinse now and gives me a cup and I' m spitting bitter-sweet spittle into the little bowl. I kind of start to feel nervous again and I'm talking the way you do to professionals who are in authority and you want to be on their side. So I start asking shop questions so the dentist can show off and then feel confident, but he seems bored. But I keep at him anyway, and say so how come my mouth is not that numb and will it hurt much after and boy what large tools you have there. The next thing I know he has my mouth open pretty wide, wider than I thought I had it in me to go, and he is pushing and pulling and I wonder where Gregory is and suddenly I hear this awful crunch and then pop and then I breathe like it's for the first time. I say is that it? And he says, that's it.

Two days later my tooth begins to hurt like hell. I start to feel the wound from the extraction with my tongue and its like a little vulva hidden there in the deepest part of my mouth. The pain in the tooth next to it is a little vibration, like a tiny hurricane whirling around the nerve. He pulled the wrong one. Of course he did. He was nervous. Gregory was standing in the room at the time, watching, blinking, oohing and ahing under his breath as he watched the dentist and the dentist is getting flustered because Gregory is whispering, do you need some gauze, and the dentist is feeling his testicles tighten. And just as he reaches for the tooth his mind flashes Gregory on his knees, and the dentist is pulling his hair for dramatics and in a instant his clamp is on the wrong tooth. So that's it then. I have to go back and say hey you pulled the wrong one and what happens now and I can' t go through this again. I start to worry about the Russian woman and hope she is able to describe her pain okay or they'd remove all her teeth just to be sure. Here is this Russian lady speaking English and it sounds like she's speaking in tongues, and there is Gregory standing behind the dentist whose hands are inside this woman's mouth, and he's pressing on her gums saying does that hurt, is there pressure there? And the lady is saying, its throbbing, its throbbing. And the dentist says, I know, I know, and she says, no it's my heart, get your hands out of mouth.

That night I have this dream that the Russian woman is in a little red boat and she is surrounded on all sides by dentists. They have little drills and they keep at her, but she moves out of the way and the drills go into the wood of the boat and soon there are hundreds of little holes spouting water. Just as the boat starts to sink I wake up. I start to feel really sad, so sad that my tooth starts to ache and I'm pushing my fingers into my cheek, like trying to rub out a headache. I go to get some aspirin and I stumble in the dark, feeling the quiet around me like gauze, like so many yards of gauze just waiting to soak me up, to dry me out. I suddenly realize that something is decaying inside me. It is more than just an exposed nerve. Its a little bit of dying making itself known in the only way it can. The body is a vessel for sure. Gregory has no cavities. Nothing in him can decay. His heart is in both worlds. How can he hurt anyone knowing the pain of both? One day the gods will ask him, Gregory how was it, which way was the best? and he'll wink and keep his mouth shut, because the secret is in the pores of his body and if they can't see it they have no business asking for favors.

The next day I'm standing at the receptionist's desk and she is fiddling with some folder and I have my hands thrust deep in my pockets as if the truth is somewhere in its most hidden folds and I say, but I think he pulled the wrong tooth, and she is fiddling some more and she says, that's just not possible. I want to jump on the desk and rip open my shirt and say he should have pulled out my heart and I start to feel panicked like the whole thing is just too big, just to big to exist in the single moment of this receptionist' life. I can hear the radio on low from under the desk and its playing some soft rock that makes me understand this woman's whole life. She suddenly stands and puts the folder down on the desk like that will settle the matter and says wait here. About a minute later that stretches all the way down the hall, the dentist is peeking through the little window on the door, and then I see his mouth moving, and she comes back and says take a seat.

The waiting room is crowded. I take the only empty seat and feel like an intruder. These people understand their pain; it's localized and communal. They are sharing a moment and I just don't belong. Everyone is watching me, waiting to see what magazine I'll choose as if that will explain it all away, tell them who I really am, what I am doing here among the certain decay of their own teeth. I don't take one. I defy them. They say rebel, bad sort, dark cloud, cad and they tie my tooth to a string and the other end to the doorknob and slam and slam and slam. One by one they are called in, and as each one hears his or her name, they abruptly look up from their magazines, pause and then shuffle towards the door. Eventually I am alone. I don't see anyone leave, so either they are all still inside, or there is a secret exit, a special passage only for those with the password. I begin to pace, and the receptionist looks at me without even tilting her head, her eyeballs rolling up, peaking out from her hair.

The dental assistant is asking me all sorts of questions about things as they exist outside the dentist's office. I'm not quite sure what she is getting at, but I play along and smile and she is acting like the thing she is about to do is going to be really painful so she has to keep telling me it won't hurt at all. They need to x-ray my whole mouth, so she is rigging these little cards into a metal retainer, and she is pressing it between my upper and lower teeth and she says bite down so softly that I almost don't hear her, but I instinctively do it and she says that's it, that's perfect. She leaves the room and there is that jarring buzz again. She comes back in and she is so soft, her manner so kind that I wonder why. I begin to feel ashamed, vulnerable, like a broken bird, a broken wing, a broken heart so tender that her voice, like water under water, starts to make me ache so bad that I want to hold her and she is there again, cupping my cheek with her hand, placing the retainer on the other side, and I want so badly to be touched this way always. When I leave the x-ray room I am dizzy and she leads me to a room and as she turns to leave I grab sight of her name tag and I roll her name around my mouth. I am in this little room and I am trying to figure out a way to escape, because when the dentist sees the x-rays he'll finally know and then everyone will know that the cavity is too deep for their instruments. But I get distracted by all the gadgets. I start to take one of the little drills from its bay and I am so tempted to press the button that I feel a little ball of frustration inside me. I want to do, have to almost, go into the holy of holies, the most inner core of the temple. But I know that as soon as I turn it on, a little light will go on somewhere and they will know. The drill is the fetish, the final sacrament that will uncover my sin, that will uncover the depth of my decay, that will finally reveal that the pain in my tooth is a pretext, a deception. The whole of who I am and what I have lost and what I have undone is hidden in the tooth, hidden in its health, in the lack of a superior, localized, cavity. The drill will pick away and find nothing, and then I will be exposed. I start to panic, hurriedly putting things pack in their place, and picking up a pamphlet on happy happy teeth and the gremlin known only as 'gummy'. It's a sickly little child's pamphlet, a myth to distract them, to color everything in primary. Suddenly I am no longer a curious child fiddling with adult's toys.

A shadows crawls across my body a I lay in the chair stunned and I look up to see Gregory standing above me. My eyes lock on his hands, a man's hands. They are strong and full of their own determination to touch and be touched, to hold down and release, to be kissed and slapped away. But the nails are manicured and polished, a deep red that seems to slide and blend into the dark skin of his fingers. He is all smile, but he knows, I know he knows and he says, how are we today? His eyes glitter and I am caught like a fly under a glass. I don't say, Gregory you have got to help me I am very sick and I need you to hold me, but instead, fine, fine and you? He giggles like a child, a small girl playing with her mother's makeup, but this passes and his life and his knowing are etched deep in the lines of his face. He is older than I will ever be. There is something in him that is never fixed, but fluid, always fluid. I begin to sense the sterility of the room, its functional angles and lines, its lack of color and soft edges that manifest, even within the telos towards health, reminders of death, of dying, of decay, rot and regret. Gregory belongs here no more than I do. He is wearing a nurse's smock and on the lapel is a small yellow button that says ? He sits a the small blue swivel chair, and begins to look severely at my folder. He nods to himself, to the invisible truth inside, and says without judgment or sympathy, there isn't anything wrong we can see in your x-rays.

We stare at each other for what seems like the length of an extraction, but I have nothing to say, nothing that will have justified my coming here in the first place. I begin to feel tears forming in the lower part of my brain, gathering their salt from my heart, and starting to push their way through memories of love, like moisture tearing through the milky white of clouds to make rain. Gregory does not stir, but says, so then really I can't help you, you don't need to be here, just remember to floss. I can't move. My legs go numb, and I can already predict the buckle of my knees if I were to try and stand. The pain in my tooth is like pushing pins through ice, and I can't feel anything else. I see the people in the waiting room talking about it, the dentist and the receptionist talking about it, and here is Gregory, and suddenly he puts his hand on my shoulder and the pain dissolves like the end of a song. He parts his teeth slightly, and I can see the tip of his tongue. He stands, his hand still resting on me, and says, I'm sorry, there is nothing more I can do. I pray he does not let go of me, that he is laying hands on me. I am just about to confess to him, to let the sin be saliva in a stainless steel bowl, washed away by the suction of water and air. But he merely moves away from me and, staring at his reflection in a cabinet, says, we'll see you in six months for a cleaning, and I say, that's it? And he says, that's it.

Peter Bebergal lives in Cambridge, MA with his wife Amy. He has recently written for Salon Magazine, The Boston Globe, and the McSweeney's Website.


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The Blue Moon Review/Blue Penny Quarterly, ISSN 1079-042x
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