It's cold and windy in San Antonio, which is strange and depressing. I'm cycling to meet a dental appointment which has been brought forward an hour from four to three for some reason. Additionally annoying is that the Texas hill country seems to begin right at the end of my road, meaning my thirty minute ride comprises a sequence of exhausting humpbacks; and yet somehow I make it, bang on three o'clock. The waiting room contains many more elderly people than I am accustomed to seeing here. Usually I'm the only person waiting, but then usually I see the hygienist at four.
Prior to my moving to Texas, I was on the verge of losing most of my teeth. I had pockets extending down into my violently receding gums of over a centimetre's depth, which most dentists will tell you means you're screwed. My gum disease was raging out of control and most of my teeth were loose as the bone support crumbled. Happily, I was treated by one Dr. Stalker soon after I got here, a miracle worker so far as I'm concerned. He operated on my gob, removed those teeth which were beyond hope - mostly from the back - and performed some kind of dental magic by which the bone support was restored to those remaining. I am left with sufficient quota of newly stabilised choppers to be able to eat and to chew. The gum disease I've had most of my life is entirely gone, and those pockets have all closed up - which another dentist once told me would never happen once they were beyond seven or eight millimeters depth. Now all I have to do is to keep them in shape, to brush and floss, and to come back for a proper clean every couple of months, just to be on the safe side and to keep on top of things.
I sit in the waiting room for fifteen minutes. One of the staff emerges from my usual treatment room, presumably a hygienist. I don't recognise her, which is odd. She escorts an octogenarian patient as the woman's husband rises from the chair next to mine. They talk about Christmas, the usual stuff. It emerges that the couple have been married for sixty years.
'So what's the secret of a successful marriage?' the hygienist coos. The old guy mutters some reply and they all laugh.
'This is very nice,' observes the old woman, touching a branch of the miniature Christmas tree on the reception desk. 'Who did this?'
'Some of the staff, I think,' says the hygienist.
The old couple leave and she turns to me. 'Mr. Burton?'
I follow her to the treatment room as she tells me how she just loves old people, then explains that Rebecca - the woman I usually see - left a couple of months ago. She introduces herself as Sabrina. This troubles me because I liked Rebecca. I felt we understood each other, and she seemed like a genuinely interesting person. One wall of her office was hung with one of those digital picture frames which displays a cyclical sequence of snaps. Rebecca's photographs were of herself and her husband on holiday in Arizona, France, Spain, England, Mexico, and other places. The slide show provided a pleasant distraction from the metal spike she would work around my gums, chipping out the tartar which my brushing hadn't been able to reach. The digital picture frame is gone, and Sabrina seems significantly younger. She talks like Regina George from Mean Girls. Her voice is such that I expect to hear her say oh my god I mean I was all like seriously? and she was all like whatever, but instead she asks, 'Where are you from?'
I take to the chair and Sabrina gets to work.
'How are you with the sonic?' She means the device with which she intends to remove my tartar build up.
'I'm okay, I guess. I prefer the manual thing, you know?'
'Raise your left hand if I cause any discomfort.'
'Okay,' and we're off.
She hits a sensitive spot every few minutes. Each time I jump so much as to make the raised left hand a redundant statement of the obvious. Sabrina talks as she works. She has a face mask and I can't understand a fucking word. It sounds as though she just said something about a skeleton cap, whatever that is, and I think it was a question. There's an irrigation pipe hooked into my mouth drawing out the liquid, but right now she's holding it in one hand.
'I can't understand what you're saying.'
She pulls the mask down. 'You need to suck on it like a straw.' She sticks the pipe between my teeth. 'Now close your mouth.'
I do so and the vacuum is such that it sucks my cheeks in as it removes all the blood, saliva, and whatever else. The sensation is fairly unpleasant.
She pulls out the tube and I sit up, looking for the glass by which I would ordinarily rinse out my mouth. It's not there. It hasn't even been replaced by anything. The space it would customarily occupy is empty. 'What happened to the,' - I wave a hand because I'm not sure what it's called.
'Those are gone now. They were unhygienic.'
I think about this, a future with no more rinsing out my mouth in the usual way, just Regina George stood over me with her tube. Still, I suppose that's progress, and it makes sense. I always wondered about those people from the local leper colony forever wandering in and having a cheeky swig from my glass.
Sabrina tells me she has a friend from Mexico who went to a job interview, and somehow one of the questions was whether the woman had ever put her foot in her mouth. Sabrina's friend was apparently at least as bewildered as I am right now, because she hadn't interviewed for the position of contortionist. Sabrina is telling me this in relation to my having failed to understand what she was saying when she seemed to be telling me about a skeleton cap. The story illustrates how there can still be misunderstandings between people speaking the same language, particularly if they are from different countries. Sabrina apparently believes herself to be the first person I've met since I moved to America six years ago, so I gather that must be why she's explaining all of this. She doesn't seem to have realised that I can't understand her because she has the shrill voice of a hysterical contestant on Family Feud, all cobra head and oh no you din't, girlfren' and Steve, I'mma have to say at the dollar store…
Dr. Stalker stops by as is his habit. I find him a reassuring presence. He knows what he's talking about and isn't prone to hyperbole. He looks in my mouth.
'Great stuff there, Lawrence. You're keeping it clean, and that's what we like.'
Sometimes he tells me he can scarcely believe the transformation, how well my mouth has recovered from the state it was in when I first showed up at his door. He says he wishes he had taken pictures for use on the lecture circuit, before and after.
'Keep doing what you're doing and we'll see you again.'
He leaves and Sabrina gets back to work. She chatters as she grinds the pick around below my gum line. The words I understand are mostly to do with how much calcified tartar I have down there.
Eventually she finishes, and as she fixes up the next appointment, she asks about my brushing regime. Then she tells me I need to start using an electric toothbrush.
'I don't like them,' I say, although it's only later that I recall this is because I find the sensation of something vibrating against my gums really unpleasant.
'Well you need to start using one,' and she says it with a smile like that should be enough to win me over. She begins to talk about what we need to do to get my teeth into shape. I'm confused, partially because it's been years since I heard this speech, and partially because I distrust suggestions of what we need to do when there is no we that I'm aware of. I listen to her telling me about why we brush our teeth.
'I don't wish to take a negative tone,' I say, 'but I've been through all this. You didn't see my teeth before Dr. Stalker operated on them. He's the reason I have teeth, and he seems to think I'm doing fine. They used to look like a row of tombstones so,' - I open my mouth to grin in illustration - 'this is as good as it gets, which suits me fine. I don't really care about having the teeth of an Osmond brother.'
She delivers some shrill response, something which scans like a motivational poster, something along the lines of how we don't settle for second place; then she adds, 'I'm going to be a cheerleader for your teeth,' and she says it with a big smile.
'We don't have cheerleaders in England, so that doesn't really work for me.'
'What do you have instead of cheerleaders?'
'We just get on with it.'
Later I realise I should have pointed out that all previous appointments have been distinguished by both Rebecca and Dr. Stalker commenting on how well I've been doing, and how with each visit my teeth seem to require less and less attention on their part; and suddenly I'm back to being the naughty boy who doesn't brush right, and who could do better, and it's not enough to just want the bastards cleaned, you have to aspire to be fucking president too.
It has been a shitty day.