Olga opens the door that leads to the reception area, careens her neck to scan the empty waiting room and calls my name. I rise to my feet, drop the magazine onto the corner table and follow Olga’s massive frame through the doorway and down the narrow corridor that leads to the open room at the back where the dental chair waits.
She motions for me to sit down and fastens a paper napkin around my neck with a small beaded chain. The metal chain is cold on my neck; instinctively, I reach up and adjust it so it rests on the outside of my shirt collar.
“The doctor will be with you shortly,” Olga says in her heavy Eastern European accent.
Sometimes I find myself involuntarily fantasizing about people. Secretly, I’ve got Olga pegged as an ex-KGB agent.
Soon the dentist appears. His lanky frame strides into the room with a hand extended in greeting. “How are you?” he says. “Here to have that tooth restored today?”
I nod my head. “I think that was the plan.”
“Ah, yes—well, let’s have a look.”
I open my mouth wide to accommodate the instruments that he inserts to pick at my molar.
“Good,” he says, matter-of-factly. “We’ll put a little numbing medicine on your gum before injecting the anesthetic. This new preparation is really neat. It’s manufactured with a vasodilator, so it’s cleared from the area quickly. Instead of walking around with a numb jaw for three hours, the time is cut in half.”
Once again I open my mouth and close my eyes. I feel the needle stick into the back of my mouth. Slowly, the solution is pumped into the tissue. Soon my cheek begins to feel heavy. “Now then, we’ll give that a few minutes to work.”
“I understand you were in research before you went to dental school,” I say, recalling a little known fact that his hygienist divulged to me at my last cleaning.
“That’s right. I worked in steroid hormone research with male hamsters for two years. After that I switched to molecular research. My boss was credited with decoding the genome for retinoblastoma.”
“Well, yes and no. Research is very tedious. The thing I remember most was having to extract the food pellets from the cheek pouches of the male hamsters after anesthetizing them. These pellets were as big as your thumbnail.”
He picks up the drill and slips it into the back of my mouth. “Olga, suction please.” Olga inserts the plastic tube into the back of my throat. The drill whirrs like a tiny jackhammer. I can taste the fragments of newly pulverized tooth enamel on my tongue.
“I couldn’t believe how many pellets some of those males could salt away in their cheeks at one time,” he explains as he works. “I used to have to dig them out with my thumb. Suction, Olga.” Once again the plastic tip darts into my throat.
“Now open wide,” he says. “I’m going to pack the back of your mouth with cotton.” He inserts a pledget under my tongue and tucks another one inside my cheek. “Now we’ll slip this little metal collar around your molar.” He cinches it down tight. “O.K., Olga—mix.”
I hear a small whirring sound behind me, then Olga hands the dentist a miniature version of a caulking gun. Afterwards, he inserts a pen-like instrument with a blue light at the tip. It emits a small beeping sound every few seconds. I half expect my body to be atomized, molecularly transported to another dimension.
“Everything O.K.?” he asked. “How are you feeling?”
I utter the first phrase that pops into my head: “Like a male research hamster,” I say, making an effort to smile; but, like the patient suffering from Bell’s palsy, only one side of my mouth turns up.
I am eternally grateful that he doesn’t use his thumbs to pop the cotton pledgets out of my mouth.