Personal Essays

Like Pulling Teeth

Whether it’s experimental injections, sleep deprivation studies, or freelance writing, sometimes the best way to look after your health is to risk it.

Though I used the surface excuse that I needed to devote more time to my writing, it would not be an exaggeration to say that my departure from my last job was a mental health emergency. The job was supposed to be a temporary thing; it had nothing to do with who I was, but it paid the bills until I could find something else. And then weeks turned into months, months into years, and soon I was celebrating anniversaries. I decided to leave the day I welcomed a new employee “on board.”

At first the decision to leave seemed wise. The thrill of being “not there” eclipsed the stress of finding temporary work. And then a sequence of little ailments appeared: a recurring headache became a series of debilitating migraines; a bad back from years of slumping in front of a computer; a slight pain in an upper tooth.

Still, things were better than when I was at work—until my COBRA ran out.

I mentioned the tooth pain to a friend. By coincidence, she had another friend who was finishing up a dental technician program at U.C.L.A. That friend needed volunteers for her final cleaning exam, which was a month away. She gave me her friend’s phone number and, from the way she described it when I spoke with her, the exam promised to be much like an architect showing the final model of a building to a panel to receive official credentials. Provided the volunteer agreed to a preliminary checkup and had enough plaque to allow the student’s scraping technique to shine, the subject would be rewarded with both a free cleaning and dental exam.

“Sign me up,” I said, and then went to the drugstore to buy more Orajel.

I became more and more apprehensive as the day of the exam approached. More than the general anxiety that comes with any trip to the dentist, this one was something of a life-marker. In a country that doesn’t provide medical care to all, success and health are, by necessity, intertwined. I’ve never strayed from the prescribed dental path of twice-a-year cleanings. As soon as that reminder postcard arrives in the mail, I’m in the chair within the month. So was taking part in a free cleaning—because my tooth hurts—a signal that my life was off-track? I tried to convince myself the pain in my tooth was not as bad as I thought. I scanned employment online, looking for a real job—one with group health, dental, the works. I spent hours at my computer, until my back pain returned—a harsh reminder of endless hours propped in front of spreadsheets at my former job. I wondered if being off-track might actually be the right track after all.


* * *

I had arranged to meet the student and one of her classmates on the U.C.L.A. campus, just outside the dental school building, where I had assumed we would be doing whatever it was we were going to do to see if I met their plaque quotas. By “where I had assumed,” I meant where in the building, but as I drove up I saw two women in front of the building, both wearing doctor’s scrubs and flagging me down. I got the feeling I wasn’t offering myself up, but rather turning myself in.

After some too-brief introductions, they explained that all the exam rooms were currently taken by other practicing potential graduates, and parking at U.C.L.A. being what it is, they decided to come out and stop me before I spent time looking for a space. We agreed to meet a few blocks away, where we both might find parking spots. They hopped down the street to their car, and I drove away.

Not-Mellie instructed her to get in the front seat and me to get in the middle of the back seat. Mellie then laid an arsenal of dental tools across my dashboard I parallel-parked right where we’d agreed to meet, but the students had no such luck, and ended up re-parking and walking across campus to meet up with me. So, where did they want to perform this dental exam? We looked around. No place seemed appropriate. There were dozens of restaurants (unfair to the diners), a nail salon (awkward, but they do have those little sinks), a movie theater (too dark), and a Kinko’s (too bright, if that’s possible). I put an hour’s worth of coins into the meter and we walked around the block twice before we decided to reschedule the exam for a day when the dental rooms would be free. With 20 minutes left on the meter, we arrived back at my car when my acquaintance said, “Why don’t we just do it here?”

Here?” her friend said, trying to both understand and distance herself from the suggestion.

“We have to get this done, Mellie!” she answered under her breath and with the same kind of urgency that one might say, “We must get the brain to the lab!”

Mellie was instantly swayed, and suggested we should get in my car to do it. Feeding the meter with another quarter, Not-Mellie instructed her to get in the front seat and me to get in the middle of the back seat—a directive that I followed before thinking about it. Mellie then laid an arsenal of dental tools across my dashboard.

When they turned toward me, wielding their delicate instruments—and I’m guessing for the first time on an actual person—the sharp ends began to all but puncture my cheeks. We considered scrapping the plan when Not-Mellie’s elbow slipped off the stick shift and almost pierced my nose. There was brief talk of me sitting cross-legged in the trunk, but the car parked behind us didn’t leave enough room for the students to stand. Desperate not to lose her exam subject, Not-Mellie suggested it might be easier if I laid down in the back seat while she perform the exam from the open back door. Given her recent near-miss, I refused—but Not-Mellie wasn’t having it, and before I knew it she was out of the car and opening the back door. “Sit facing me,” she said as though she and I had made a mutual decision that this was how we were doing it. I slid over to the curb side of the car and stuck my feet out the door. The sidewalk was so steep that when I put my feet up on it, my knees were almost higher than my waist, and it put me so much lower than the students that I almost had to look straight up to show them my mouth.

Not-Mellie hovered over me with her poker. From my perspective it looked as though she was trying to crochet something in my mouth. Is this what it’s all come to? I thought, looking up at the jet-black cilia in her nose, which swayed subtly with her every breath. Is this really where life has taken me? Did I ever think that things could go so wrong that the only way I could get a dental checkup would be to hang out the side of my own car? What’s next, a chest x-ray on the 405 off-ramp?

This is not who I was raised to be! My pediatrician was in New York magazine! I had to leave that job! They made me go to meetings! This situation is only temporary! As she prodded, Mellie stood by the front passenger door and documented Not-Mellie’s assessment of my teeth. She called out the location of the tooth she was currently examining, fumbling slightly over some of the names. “Right max, no wait, yeah, max quadrant molar, right mandible cuspid. Yeah.”

Like she was keeping track of bingo numbers, Mellie frantically crossed off each tooth on her chart. And then everybody in Los Angeles suddenly converged upon that very street.

“What are they doing over there? A dental exam?”

“No, can’t be. You can’t perform a dental exam in the middle of the street!”

“Well, what are they doing then?”

I felt not only confused, but judged. If I were hanging out the back door of the car crying or cutting off my own hair, people might have been concerned, but not resentful. “Look!” I wanted to say, “This is not who I am! Or if it is, it’s only who I am now! This is not who I was raised to be! My pediatrician was in New York magazine! I had to leave that job! They made me go to meetings! This situation is only temporary! Things will get back on track! I will have a real dentist! But for now, STEP AWAY FROM THE CAR!”

The sun had moved enough that from my perspective, Not-Mellie became just a silhouette, a blank face—I hadn’t thought it would be possible to feel more vulnerable, but that did it. Her lack of experience was evident from the way she tugged at my mouth. It felt like she was extracting each tooth before examining it. With every tooth, she grew more and more frustrated and by the time she announced the condition of my incisors to Mellie, she was wearing an expression that suggested I was in real trouble. Up to then, I’d had only minimal dental work in my life and her expression prompted me to begin mentally running through a list of procedures I thought she might tell me I needed. She lowered her exhausted arms and stepped back from the car. She signaled Mellie to stop recording the status of my teeth and the two exchanged the same glances actresses playing emergency room nurses give each other when the doctor has called a patient’s time of death.

“Do I have cavities?” I asked.

“No, you don’t have cavities.” Not-Mellie said, imitating me, child-like. “And you don’t have plaque either!” she said accusingly, as though I had portrayed myself over the phone as someone with a lot of it.

“No plaque?” I said, feeling little droplets of blood forming around my mouth.

“Well, not no plaque, but not enough plaque,” she answered.

Totally disgusted, Not-Mellie swept up the rest of her tools from the front seat and informed me that I had not made the finals in a way that suggested I had only myself to blame. Not-Mellie then slammed the door shut, realized she’d forgotten a scraping tool, opened the door again, grabbed the instrument (after sticking herself with it), and slammed the door again. Then they began their hike back toward campus.

I climbed into the front seat. My humiliation and fear subsided, I sat for a moment and dabbed at the small wounds in my mouth. As much as I had fought it—at least for the moment—this was who I was. Yes, the passing mob may have been card holders all, but chances were that every Sunday at about 10 o’clock at night, a lot of them started wondering where it had all gone wrong—and that was a club to which I thankfully no longer belonged. Proudly guilty, feeling like I’d interviewed for a job and was turned down for being overqualified, I started my car (which by law was insured), took one last look at the thinning crowd, and drove away.

Native New Yorker Courtney Lichterman lives in Los Angeles, although this is a decision she reconsiders every time another friend starts hanging pictures six inches from the ground in an effort to comply with the directive of a $200-an-hour Feng Shui expert. You can email her here.More by Courtney Lichterman