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Who’s Afraid of the Dentist? (A story for Halloween)

27 October 2011

Note: Names and other identifying traits have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty!

Who, exactly, is afraid of the dentist? I never have been. Of course I’ve heard all the horror stories: the Novocaine wearing off in the middle of a root canal, swallowing a tooth that slipped out of the dentist’s pliers, having the wrong tooth removed, having one’s tongue punctured by a dentist’s drill . . . I suppose there are any number of reasons for odontophobia. Still, much like boarding an airplane or sliding into the driver’s seat of my car, I know the risks, but I don’t give them much thought.

I’ve been going to the same sweet, young dentist for six years, and I like her. She doesn’t talk much, which is good. I hate it when dentists start asking questions about where I work, or if I’ve seen this or that TV program while shoving a spit sucker under my tongue or trying to fit their entire hand inside my check. With my dentist I can just close my eyes and take a nap while she gently pokes around. I’ve even said, “No thanks,” to the addition of a drop of lime in my rinsing water, to the earphones with the music of my choice, to all the things meant to ease the fears of the odontophobic. I can relax on my own, thanks.

When I made an appointment recently to have a sensitive tooth checked, I naturally thought nothing of it. It was like booking an appointment for nap time.

“Who is your dentist?” the receptionist asked.

“Helge Vikanger,” I replied with confidence, and wrote 9:20 a.m. on my calendar.

I wonder, in looking back at that clear and cold October morning, at which point I still had the power to turn around on the path that I was so unwittingly placed upon. What clues should have unveiled my approaching fate? Should I have raised an eyebrow when the dentist’s assistant – the short one who usually just nods at me and says “Hei!” because she can’t pronounce my name – was noticeably more talkative? Was she disguising her knowledge of what was to come as she cheerfully said, “No time to read a magazine today! Come on in!” (It was with deep regret that I returned Annie Leibovitz’s photo shoot of a shirtless Johnny Depp to the magazine table.)

She walked me into the room that I know so well: the large, colorful photo of Hong Kong that brightens an otherwise dull and functional atmosphere, the cradling chair that takes the weight off my mind and my ankles as I swoop back into a recline position.

“Nice weather today,” the assistant offered. Was she trying to divert my attention from the older man that had just walked in and stuck out his hand to me?

“Hi! I am Helge Vikanger,” he said, and sat down.

Living in another language, I have become used to understanding only half of the words said to me, but he had uttered only five words, and I was certain I had understood them all. But how could this be? He was certainly not Helge Vikanger. Was he?

If this is Helge, then who was … but I am in the same room I have always been in, the one with a tiny plate on the door that reads, “Helge Vikanger, Tannlege.” And the assistant – she’s the same. I know I heard him say, “Hi! I am Helge Vikanger.” I know it. He couldn’t have said anything else. “Hi! I am not Helge Vikanger” makes no sense.

“Where are you from?” he asked with his nose nearly touching the x-rays of my teeth.

“Indiana,” I said. “Near Chicago.” (I always say “near Chicago”. It’s hard to locate Indiana on a mental map.)

He then fired a series of seemingly random questions at me, questions that I now know where intended to confuse his victim.

“What is the capital of Indiana?” “What is it like in Chicago?” “Do you miss the snow?” “Have you ever had braces?” “Have you been to San Francisco?”

His tactics were working. I couldn’t focus. I began to feel like I’d been on the merry-go-round too long and I couldn’t work out the right question to ask him, some polite substitution for, “Where is MY dentist? The young woman with the long, black hair?”

“Who do you mean?” he’d say.

“Helge!” I’d tell him. “That woman with—”

And with mocking laughter, coming deep from within his belly, he would respond: “Helge is a man’s name in Norway!” (But I didn’t know that then. A Google images search would later make that fact undeniable.)

So, amidst the questions I couldn’t answer and the questions I couldn’t ask, a nagging suspicion was growing in my head that something had happened to the sweet, young woman named Helge.

Did he look at my sensitive tooth? The one I had made this appointment for? I don’t remember. I wouldn’t know. It was impossible to detect the movement of his eyes through the magnifying contraption he was wearing over them, and the blue mask he donned muffled what was beginning to sound a lot like the mumblings of a deranged man. I heard words that led me to believe he was telling me how to floss properly. And then he disappeared for a very long time.

The minutes passed and I tried to relax. Later I would think of the two American hikers held captive in Iran, who, speaking only English, were piteously unable to know what their kidnappers had in mind next. Had Dr. Helge said something that should have prepared me for the three grey vacuum-cleaner-sized tubes the assistant was now carrying in? My stomach muscles weren’t strong enough to help me sit up, and the tray, strategically placed over my neck and chest, prevented me from turning to see what she was doing in the corner of the room.

I had been forced into a reclined, helpless position, bright lights blinded me overhead, the incessant interrogation had disarmed me – you will perhaps recognize these techniques from Donald Rumsfeld’s secret list.

A face masked with silver Devo-looking glasses loomed over me. “You aren’t afraid of coming to the dentist, are you?”

“No,” I replied (stupidly).

Was he smiling beneath that mask?

“It won’t hurt. But it might be a little unpleasant.”

From somewhere between the machines, tubing, and Devo glasses, came the high-pitched, threatening whine of an electrical tool. With my sense of sight incapacitated by the kaleidoscope of bright lights, all of my investigative energies were focused on what was happening inside my mouth. Tiny grains of sand had begun to pelt my gums and my tongue with hurricane force. Tiny grains of sand that had, in fact, been mixed with chopped up bits of herring.

“Herring?” you ask. Yes. I would know that taste anywhere. And they had added a drop of lime for the odontophobic crowd.

Salty fish and sand. Dr. Helge was wrong. It did hurt and it was as unpleasant as hell. My tongue ran this way and that, trying to hide in a corner of my cheek, and then slid in desperation towards my throat. But what on earth could he be doing?

In a flash I found my answer: he was removing my taste buds! He was sanding off my taste buds! But why? WHY?!

I tried to squirm. I tried to cry out. The assistant pushed me down.

Fish and salt and sand. Fish and salt and sand. I needed to transcend to a lime-tasting, music-playing otherworld, but my thoughts were stuck in a repeat cycle of disbelief. Fish and salt and sand? WHY?!

“Just another minute,” Dr. Helge instructed. And then took two.

I felt the chair rising to an upright position. Raising me from the almost dead.

I sat up and watched a bright splat of blood drip from my lips and land on the thigh of my jeans. The blood was filling my mouth faster than the water was filling the little plastic cup in the rinsing basin. I grabbed a paper towel. It too filled with blood.

I spit and rinsed and rinsed and spit, cleansing myself of every last grain of salt and sand and fish. Eventually, the drops of blood began fading to pink against the white porcelain of the sink.

Dr. Hell-ge, it seemed, had one last trick up his sleeves. He told to me to make an appointment to see him in two weeks to repair a tiny cavity in one of my teeth.

“It’s small,” he said, reassuringly patting my shoulder. “No need to use an anaesthetic.”

“Ok, but—”

I really did try to protest through the paper towel I had stuffed into my mouth, but Dr. Hell had already turned to go. His assistant waited to lead me to the receptionist’s desk. I followed.

“In two weeks?” the receptionist asked. “And with Dr. Helge again.”

It wasn’t a question. She had said it as she typed. Should I have asked to see another dentist? But which one? Which one?

I stood like a deer in headlights – a deer that had been shot in the mouth in headlights – and I found myself doing what I always do in this confusing other-culture world. I nodded, smiled, and silently assured myself I would find a way to sort it out later.

On my way out I stopped in the waiting room bathroom for a paper towel exchange and bravely faced the mirror above the sink. What exactly had he done?

I made a tiger’s grin and there, glimmering through the bright red blood pooling around my gum line were the whitest teeth I’d ever seen. Sparkling in fact. Just like they do in the dentists’ ads. “Call today for a brighter, whiter smile!”

Once home I leapt down the stairs to my computer and quickly typed the name of the dentist’s office into my browser. Five photos appeared on the website, but not hers. Where was my silent, dark-haired dentist who, for six years, had taken such good care of me? She had vanished.

. . . Had she ever existed at all?

Happy Halloween! (But beware: Too much candy may lead you to the dentist’s lair … I mean CHAIR!)

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. 27 October 2011 15:48

    I have the same history of dental care as you. No big deal. However, the herring flavored sandblasting treatment might unnerve me somewhat. That is the scariest Halloween story I have read since The Legend of Sleepy Hollow! AaaaOooooooooo!
    P.S. I started my own blog. Now that’s REALLY scary!

    • 31 October 2011 09:16

      Good for you on starting your own blog! … and remember to brush and floss! 😉

  2. Tore permalink
    28 October 2011 07:20

    I was under the impression it was lemon-flavored grains of bicarbonate of soda, but, not being a herring person, I can neither confirm nor deny your suspicions. 😉 But that dentist from the twilight zone? Weirdness…

    • 31 October 2011 09:17

      Weirdness was my overall impression as well. Would bicarbonate of soda be that grainy? Like little pellets? (And have you actually had this procedure?! I was under the impression that he had pulled out some machinery from the dark ages.)

      • Tore permalink
        31 October 2011 10:41

        If it is the same thing I’ve had done, it’s called (trademarked, I guess) Air-Flow. Not sure how much air is really involved.

        As for bicarbonate of soda – I think they actually use it instead of sandblasting in some cases, for instance paint stripping from car parts etc. It’s gentler to the surface and more environmentally friendly – I think. I doubt there’s lemon in it when they strip paint, though. Or fish.

  3. Goodness and Grit permalink
    31 October 2011 11:11

    Fabulous!!! But do keep us posted, as I desperately want to know the rest of the story!!!

    I love my dentist in Lillehammer. He looks as though he should have retired ten years ago and is deaf. He talks non stop and I am crazy enough to try to respond. He has a hearing implant thingie, but I don´t think it works because he doesn´t seem to hear a word I say. Perhaps he has it switched off (on purpose). I guess I am trying to say my Norwegian dental experiences are also straight out of the Twilight Zone, but I AM a happy patient!!!

    Kimberly

  4. Tom Allen permalink
    1 November 2011 03:41

    Hi Jena! Susan and I were thinking of you lately as we remembered the Halloween party at your house last year. I hope you had a fun Halloween this year, despite the dentist. Henry and Dexter were glad to be back to trick-or-treating. Henry was Darth Vader and Dexter was a skeleton.

    We miss Norway! That was such a fun time.

  5. Katie permalink
    4 November 2011 13:27

    I will fall off the wagon for years at a time with the dentist, although I am currently on the straight and narrow thanks to my kids. But my dentist is 14 and looks like Duff from Charm City Cakes (which you probably haven’t seen in Norway, but trust me, it’s unsettling).

  6. 18 June 2012 21:17

    I go to see daily a few blogs and blogs to read content, but
    this weblog provides feature based posts.

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