Right now I have that wonderful feeling of having just come from the dentist; my teeth feel clean, freshly scraped. I have minty freshness from the fluoride, that little place where my lower front teeth meet is smooth and clean against the tip of my tongue. And have a new friend in Dr. Brooks, my new dentist, and in Amanda, my new hygienist.
They made many x-rays. They took about twenty color digital photos of every angle of my mouth. They made a 3D rendering of my teeth and gums, a rotating computer image showing the state of my fillings, the tiny fissures and grinding spots, my increasingly crooked lower front teeth, my receding gums. I will probably need gum surgery soon.
But as I lay there in the chair, I noticed something I haven’t thought about before: there is no other occasion in life where I am in as sustained, face-to-face closeness to a non-family member as when I am getting my teeth cleaned.
Amanda wore a facemask the entire time, so I never actually saw her face. But as she is scraping and picking and flossing, she hovers so close that our cheeks almost touch. Closer than I remember past hygienists. Maybe she’s nearsighted.
This close to her, I notice her slightly raised hairline, envy her perfect skin, smell her breath and makeup. Her voice is directly in my ear. “Open,” she says. She’s close enough that I feel the heat from the little incandescent flashlight fixed to her glasses.
Think about the weirdness, the sudden intimacy of fingers of someone I just met 5 minutes ago, and their many instruments, in my mouth for well over a half an hour. She wipes my chin like a toddler, sucks bits of tartar off my tonsils with her little vacuum. She monitors my accumulating saliva and lovingly prompts me to spit into the vacuum hose.
I feel a strange friendship budding; we’ll do this dance every six months, studying each other.
It’s not weird for her. She does this all day, every day, cheek-to-cheek like a ballroom dance partner. Men, women, and children. She collects and disposes of saliva by the measuring cup full. It’s her job. What’s my problem?
I’ve maintained for years, at least as far back as my vasectomy (I should tell you about that sometime): “I’m just a piece of meat to medical people.” They’re not looking at me. They’re not embarrassed or squeamish. Close, intimate manipulation of strangers’ bodies is part of the whole doctor gig.
But to me it’s still a little…something. Here I am, I’m helpless, facing the ceiling on my back, and here is a lovely young lady hovering inches above my face with both of her hands in my mouth, managing my saliva.
It’s awkward. Best not to overthink it.