The Dentist Chair

There are all kinds of chairs I would not like to find myself occupying: the defendant chair in a trial, a juror chair in someone else’s trial, the chair facing police or governmental interrogators, the doctoral dissertation chair (I’ve already done that once, and although my doctoral defense went well, the anxiety leading up to the day was almost more than I could take), and especially the electric chair, to name a few.

I’m willing to bet that for most people the chair in the dentist office is another chair that sends waves of dread through them. I’ve been lucky enough never to have had a cavity in my nearly 50 years on this planet, but I still become somewhat unnerved when I go to get my teeth cleaned once every six months. My hygienist is always pleasant, but insists on talking to me about the most mundane things in the world. The truth is, with a little less chit-chat I could be in and out of that chair in less than an hour. Yet, I always find myself there for over an hour. Moreover, I always seem to feel nauseated for several hours after visiting the dentist. I do feel like I’m being interrogated about flossing, as if I were a child that needed constant reminding. As the hygienist continues to talk I always find myself receding deeper into my own head.

I wonder how much of our lives are spent staring at the ceiling in a dentist office. If we added up all the hours spent in that chair throughout our lives would it add up to one year, five? How much time do we spend thinking about the possibility of the hygienist accidentally dropping one of those sharp tools down our throats, or slicing our gums open? Must I always be reminded of the Marathon Man every time I enter the office and make my way toward the chair? To be fair, my dentist looks nothing like Laurence Olivier, but still.

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Recently I read The Story of My Teeth by the fabulous Valeria Luiselli (full disclosure: I have something more than an intellectual crush but less than an amorous crush on her), a novel published by Coffee House Press and translated by Christina MacSweeney. The novel is about a down-at-his-heels auctioneer named Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez. Highway comes into possession of the teeth of famous writers, or so he claims, and sells them at auctions. At an auction in Miami Highway successfully bids for the teeth of Marilyn Monroe. Things get stranger from here and at one point Highway goes around wearing Monroe’s teeth in his own mouth. As dreadfully strange as the premise to this story is, it is wonderfully told and reads like a fairytale from the Brothers Grimm.

Of course, there is also Poe’s frightening story “Berenice” (published in 1835) concerning two cousins about to be married. Egaeus, the narrator is a sickly bookish boy and Berenice is his cousin. She too becomes ill and eventually dies, but not before giving Egaeus the fright of his life one night in the library. Egaeus is alone reading when he finds Berenice’s sickly, emaciated form standing before him. She says nothing, but just before she takes her leave she flashes him a smile, revealing the most exquisitely perfect teeth. Egaeus becomes obsessed. The following day Berenice dies and is buried. The story so far reads like a perfectly outlined gothic tale. But Poe being Poe, we know that something sinister is waiting for us. Egaeus blacks out on the night of his cousin’s burial only to be awakened by a servant, who finds his master covered in mud. I’ll let Poe speak for himself:

“He [the servant] pointed to my garments; they were muddy and clotted with gore. I spoke not, and he took me gently by the hand: it was indented with the impress of human nails. He directed my attention to some object against the wall. I looked at it for some minutes: it was a spade. With a shriek I bounded the table, and grasped the box that lay upon it. But I could not force it open; and, in my tremor, it slipped from my hands, and fell heavily, and burst into pieces; and from it, with a rattling sound, there rolled out some instruments of dental surgery, intermingled with thirty-two small, white, and ivory-looking substances that were scattered to and fro about the floor.”

What can be missed by a superficial reading is the brilliance of the above paragraph’s punctuation, which slows the pace down just enough to build the suspense; it’s impossible for us to read this too fast, despite a desire to get to the end, thus the revelation. Poe’s genius lies not in his descriptions, or at least not only, but in his ability to pace a tale.

In the “real” world there is the story of Martin Amis’ teeth, which had Britain preoccupied for much of the mid 1990s. The story goes that Amis’ teeth were in such rough shape that he had to have them all extracted and replaced. He had the implants put in at considerable cost and pain. In fact, the cost was so great that he was forced to leave his longtime agent Pat Kavanagh (wife of his then buddy Julian Barnes) for Andrew Wylie, AKA: The Jackal. Amis received an enormous advance for his 1995 novel The Information and fell out with Barnes. Meanwhile, Britain would not let Amis forget about his teeth, which many thought of as the supreme act of vanity on Amis’ part. Pat Kavanagh died in 2008 from a brain tumor and Amis has since moved to Brooklyn. Amis’ move to the Wylie Agency might not have been just about his teeth, but the advance he received for his first novel with Wylie didn’t hurt his pocket any.

In my mid-thirties, I had a recurring nightmare that my teeth were constantly falling out. They would slide from my gums and accumulate in my mouth, like a handful of Chiclets. Most of the time I began to swallow them or spit them out, only to wake up to realize that my teeth were still firmly ensconced in my mouth. I never bothered to look up the meaning of losing one’s teeth in dreams, mostly because I was frightened of what I might discover. Nevertheless, the nightmare has long since stopped, but I can still recall it with almost superhuman vividness. In fact, there are times that I can still feel them coming loose in my mouth and pooling on my tongue.

At this point the hygienist brings me back to myself and the chair I’m sitting in begins to rise. The ceiling falls away to walls and a smile from the hygienist. I take my new toothbrush, toothpaste, floss and get the hell out of there.

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