The dentist hunched over the X-rays of my teeth, which were magnified and back-lit for everyone in the office – but me – to see. He furrowed his brow and methodically stroked his mustache before swiveling his stool in my direction. He looked at me emphatically, and I braced myself for the revelation of something dentally grave.
“You have the same X-rays as the truckers I get in here who are drinking Monster all day long.”
My jaw fell open or at least as open as a jaw can fall when held in traction by flying buttresses of cotton rolls and clamps. I shook my head vehemently, desperately trying to convey non-verbally that I never drink soda nor have I driven an 18-wheeler. He began dismantling the hardware inside my mouth so that I could offer a spoken rebuttal to his cruel assessment of my teeth. My mind roiled with citations of flossing and usage of ADA-approved toothpaste and assertions of sugar-free gum. While I meant to verbalize all these things, when the last clip was lifted from my mouth, something more along the lines of, “How dare you? I’m wearing a cardigan,” escaped my lips.
He waved in reinforcements in the way of hygienists who began silently mixing concoctions and placing shiny metal objects upon the sinister tray hovering above my heart. He pressed my shoulders into the plastic of the reclined chaise and gazed into my eyes with an intensity that made me fear I was seated in the chair of the demon barber of Fleet Street.
“Some people inherit a condition that makes their mouths an overly acidic environment,” he began slowly. “Do you have any questions?”
I thought for a moment.
“So this is my mom’s fault then?”
He snapped his gloves into place and asked his harem of hygienists for the swab. He dredged the shallows of my mouth with a cotton swab before dipping the wet end into a small desktop machine. He clucked his tongue and dropped his head in defeat at the digital readout.
“A good number is anything under 500. Do you know what yours is?”
I’ve never been good with numbers. At a conference, I once guessed a jar held 45 gumballs when the actual total was something like 500.
“Your number is 7,000.”
I winced at the number and the judgment that hung heavy in the air. I shrank into the seat much like the time my college counselor had told me I was lucky I had scored so high in the Reading and Writing sections of the SAT because my Math performance had been downright simian. My dentist nodded solemnly at his staff, a silent cue which sent them scuttling toward cabinets and supply closets. I ran my tongue over my teeth, recoiling at the thought of seven thousand grams or milliliters or knots of crud tumbling off my teeth like a rock dislodging from a scraggy mountain.
They returned holding a tote bag packed to the gills with products. A veritable suitcase of cleaners and rinses that no TSA official would grant passage to. I was discharged minutes later, tote in hand, after paying a sum of money I only hand over for products that counteract aging, not acid development. I lugged my baggage to the door. I turned to the counter around which the entire staff of the dental office seemed to be perched, watching my exit. I dropped the bag to the floor before striding quickly back across the waiting room.
“I just want to understand,” I faltered. “Do I need to use these products forever?”
My eyes darted from face to face of the employees before me, desperately seeking enlightenment and comfort. After an interminable silence, one voice spoke for the rest.
“If you want what’s best for your teeth.”
I lifted my chin and straightened my cardigan as though to remind them one last time that I was a lady regardless of the fact that my mouth was the Wilt Chamberlain of bacteria. I turned away from them and hobbled upon leaden legs toward the door, pausing to collect my bag of products, a maneuver that required the use of leg muscles instead of back ones to lift.
Once home, I opened the bag to inspect the bottles within. There were rinses, spritzes, pastes, and strips. To dig a little deeper revealed measuring cups and mixing sticks. Then I spied the thing that sent me over the edge: Chewing gum.
I had become one of those people with their own special chewing gum. This is a far worse fate than being one of those people who carries their own salad dressing. Because no one ever watches the person who carries their own salad dressing and says, “Oh man, could I have some of that?”
I felt a sob coming on, but I stopped short for fear that the tears made in my body of uneven pH would be like acid rain. I didn’t want to wind up looking like Seal and being the person who can’t share her special gum. After all, it’s going to be tough enough to hold onto my friends once I have to spend my evening hours shocking my mouth like they do the YMCA pool after a toddler craps in it.