Teeth

Hugh Behm-Steinberg

My shoulder hurt, but not so bad that I thought I needed to cancel my dental appointment. Still, as the hygienist was cleaning my teeth, I kept squirming in the chair.

“Are you okay?” she asked. “Do you need extra numbing gel?”

“It’s my shoulder. I don’t know what went wrong, but it’s been messed up for awhile now.”

“I’ll put that in your chart,” she said.

When Dr. Agarwal came in, she poked around in my mouth, paused, then looked at the hygienist’s notes. 

“It looks like you have some shoulder pain,” she said.

“It’s been terrible. I’ve tried pills, PT, everything. Nothing seems to work.”

“I can treat it,” she said, “if you’d like me to.”

I was a little leery. What did dentistry have to do with shoulders? But I was also desperate.

“Take off your shirt and sit up.”

She touched different parts of my left shoulder until I yelped.

“Right there?” she asked, pressing with her pick into that spot while I gripped the chair as hard as I could. 

“Yes,” I whimpered.

I was thinking maybe I was going to receive some sort of dental acupuncture, or a shot of novocaine. Instead, with one finger Dr. Agarwal touched my right shoulder, to what felt like the exact opposite location of my pain. Then, very quickly and fiercely, she bit me, right on that spot, hard enough to draw blood.

Both of my shoulders were in agony, but then suddenly I felt fine. It was a miracle.

“Dr. Agarwal, I don’t know how I can ever thank you!”

“I’m just glad I was able to help,” she said. The hygienist gave me a baleful stare, but I didn’t mind at all. I put my shirt on, and didn’t think twice about paying the extra thousand dollars at the receptionist’s desk.

For awhile everything was great. You don’t realize how often you use your shoulders until you wreck them. To not be in pain all the time felt like I had been blessed. Out of respect to Dr. Agarwal, I began brushing my teeth three times a day, flossing exactly as I was told how to, with diligence and using a dental rinse afterwards. Whereas before it was hard just using a toothbrush regularly, soon I was looking forward to working on my oral hygiene. 

But after a week I was talking to one of my co-workers and I couldn’t help but notice that his teeth were crooked, his flossing inadequate, and he showed early symptoms of gum disease. I wanted to get in there and help him, at least show him the right way to floss. But everyone knows it’s rude to tell anybody they’re not taking good enough care of their mouths, let alone play dentist with them, so I did my best to ignore these new impulses.

Each day, however, it kept getting worse and worse. Every person at work, or on the bus, all I could notice were the mouths, the horrible filth that obscured, no, impeded, deeper truths. I increasingly felt convinced that if I could truly clean someone’s teeth, not just the obvious stuff but all the calculus below the gumline, then I would discover something hidden, something true, something that extended beyond the individual and reached out into the universal, the cosmic even. And if I could fix it, fill the cavity, perform those acts, that beyond the person I was helping, I was restoring relationships between the unknown and the even more unknown.

When I caught myself lying on one of my dates about flossing being something that I was sexually attracted to, I knew I had a problem. Although it was less than six months, I made another cleaning appointment at Dr. Agarwal’s.

I arrived an hour early. Sitting in the waiting room, I felt calm, relaxed even. I smiled at the people coming out of their cleanings, and when they smiled back at me, I saw glints of perfection, and felt the breath of melancholy for I knew within hours that glint would disappear with the first hard candy they popped in their mouths.

“Your teeth are perfectly clean,” the hygienist said, after poking around a bit. “Have you been using a scaler?”

“Maybe,” I blushed.

“How’s your shoulder?”

“It’s great, never better.”

“And the compulsions?”

The examination light in my face was glaring, but the hygienist looked like someone I could trust with my secrets. 

“Every day, all the time, with everyone I see.”

“Let me show you something.”

The hygienist rolled up the bottom of her scrub shirt, a couple of inches. On her back, on the left side, just below her ribs, was a bite mark, so well formed I could identify which tooth went where.

She pulled her scrubs back down. “I have seen things in peoples’ mouths.” She blinked back tears. “Being a hygienist is only the beginning. I’m getting my DDS at night. Eventually, they tell me, I’ll be able to sire dentists of my own.” 

She opened up the drawer where they keep the toothbrush kits and pamphlets, and she handed me a brochure for dental hygienist school. “Make sure to put down Dr. Agarwal as your reference. She writes amazing letters of recommendation.”

Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s prose can be found in X-Ray, Grimoire, New Flash Fiction Review, Joyland, Jellyfish Review, Atticus Review and Pank. His short story "Taylor Swift" won the 2015 Barthelme Prize from Gulf Coast. A collection of prose poems and microfiction, Animal Children, was published by Nomadic Press in January, 2020. He teaches writing and literature at California College of the Arts