I’m not a brave person. There’s a reason I carry small, dissolvable tablets of Klonopin around with me in my change purse. I don’t like pain, I hide from danger, and I am not even that crazy about excitement.
“Do you want to get your wisdom teeth out?” a dentist asked me in high school.
“No, thanks!” I said because, A) obviously, and B) I assumed he was asking the question rhetorically, the way my mother asked if I wanted to empty the dishwasher. Instead he said, “Okay!” What kind of idiot, hippie dentist does that? Why not ask a dog if he wants his shots, or that drunk guy you took home if he wants to use a condom?
In that split second, I missed my window to get my wisdom teeth out the way the good lord intended: in a soothing suburban oasis of a dentist’s office, with potted plants and piped-in classical music and a parent waiting for me on the other end of the childhood trauma with ice cream and videos.
At 28, my mouth could avoid its dance with destiny no longer. Dentists were not asking about my wisdom teeth, they were telling, sometimes using vivid illustrations and x-rays for emphasis. I had dental insurance. I had a job where I could take sick days. It was time.
So I did the reasonable, logical thing: I looked for oral surgeons on the Internet who took my insurance, picked one around the corner from my office, and made an appointment.
Eagle-eyed readers will notice that this was my first mistake. I did no routine background-check on the place, no search on Yelp, not even a walk-by to make sure it really existed. I’ve done more reconnaissance on places I was thinking of getting Chinese for lunch. It’s Manhattan! I remember thinking. I’m sure it’s fine.
On the fateful day, I found the office and looked up. A clip-art cartoon tooth beamed down at me from a flag above the doorway of an otherwise unremarkable midtown Manhattan storefront. Faint alarm bells began to sound inside my head. I told my head to stop being such a pussy and opened the door.
A mass of eyes tracked over to me, expressionless, and then away again. I found a plastic seat and tried to fade into it. There was an institutional grimness to the room similar to the atmosphere of an OTB parlor.
The clock on the wall was broken, as was the coffee pot, but my iPhone said 12:20; my appointment was supposed to start ten minutes later. After two hours of waiting, the receptionist told me they were a bit behind schedule, since they only had one oral surgeon doing everything. I got up and went for a walk. Alarm bells kept ringing, louder this time, but I shushed them. This damn thing had to be done and I was going to do it.
Finally, half an hour after I returned, a nurse called my name and took me to a room with two dentist’s chairs. The other was occupied by a 30-year-old guy in an Ed Hardy t-shirt. Call me bourgeois, but I was a little surprised to have company. Sharing a room for a medical treatment is a bit like sharing a single stall toilet. Still, the nurse gestured for me to sit, and I sat, because I am obedient and polite, even when the alarm bells are getting very insistent with their damn clanging.
The guy in the other chair and I waited for another half an hour or so as moans came through the walls from other rooms and hygienists walked in and out changing their gloves. Hip hop blasted from the radio of a Panasonic boom box on the floor, which was vintage circa 1991, so retro that it didn’t even have a CD player.
At some point I started to shake — a normal enough response to perpetual anticipation, especially when you’re waiting to get all four wisdom teeth out to the soothing sounds of Jay-Z. Hygienists shot me amused looks and talked to each other in rapid Spanish. I tried to calm myself down by silently reciting the Kipling poem “If,” which my dad had me memorize ages ago:
If you can keep your head / when all about you are losing theirs / And blaming it on you … / If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you / Yet make allowance for their doubting too / If you can wait and not be tired by waiting –
The surgeon and a fleet of hygienists burst in and attacked my roommate. They wasted no time: within five minutes, he was gasping and twitching; within ten, he had arched his entire back off the table like Cary Elwes in the Princess Bride when his life is being sucked from him by the Machine.
Roommate #1, dazed, was restored to a sitting position, stuffed with cotton until he looked like a gerbil, and released. The hygienists wiped the sweat and droplets of blood off the synthetic leather. Then they ushered in Roommate #2.
If you can dream and not make dreams your master / If you can think and not make thoughts your aim …
You’ve got to be joking, I thought to myself. But the same team went to work, and again I had to watch in horror as they operated. There wasn’t so much as a curtain dividing my side of the room from theirs.
The surgeon approached me and I asked to be knocked out. Retroactively, if possible. Wake me up when it’s over.
“Sorry,” said the surgeon. “We don’t do that here. We don’t have the equipment to monitor if your heart stops.”
“I don’t care if my heart stops,” I said, glancing across the room.
He laughed. I love when doctors find my panic funny.
“So what do you use?” I asked.
“Just regular Novacaine,” he said, and then shot me in the mouth from all angles.
If you can meet with triumph and disaster / and treat those two impostors just the same. …
My mouth grew increasingly numb as they finished with Roommate #2. By the time Roommate #3 had come and gone, I was ready to give up. If this were war, I would have told them anything — name, rank, serial number, state secrets, battle plans, you name it. I didn’t sign up to be a soldier. I work in a non-profit, for God’s sake!
But they didn’t want secrets. They wanted my teeth.
They switched me from my chair — where I’d been sitting, by that point, for an hour and a half, feeling much like I had when a film professor put on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre in class — to the other chair. The one that I had seen wiped down three times already.
New York … trilled the tinny voice from the boom box. These streets will make you feel brand new, these lights will inspire you …
“Ready?” asked the surgeon.
I whimpered, and he went to work.
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew / to serve their turn long after they’re gone / and so hold on til there is nothing in you / except the will that says to them “Hold on.” / If you can fill the unforgiving minute / with 60 seconds worth of distance run …
Compared to the agonies of waiting and watching, the pain of the procedure itself was not too bad. I mean, it wasn’t a hot stone massage — it felt like someone was wrenching my teeth from their sockets, which is more or less what was happening. But the well-practiced surgeon was done in ten minutes. I was stuffed with cotton and returned to a sitting position, given two prescriptions and a pack full of sterile pads, and proclaimed a champ.
Yours is the earth / and everything that’s in it. / And, what is more, you’ll be a man, my son.
In my case, a man who eats lots of applesauce, drools blood, and watches episode after episode of Buffy on Netflix.