It feels like my face is at least thirty three percent bigger than it usually is. The left side of my face is entirely numb. My left nostril was somehow numb too, for a minute, but now it’s mostly just the lower part of my jaw and cheek. My face feels swollen, even though it actually isn’t, because I just went to the dentist.
I got a checkup early last month, but it had been six years between that appointment and the one before. I hadn’t gone because, for most of that time, I didn’t have dental insurance, and dentistry is expensive if you don’t have it. Also, dentistry is a gruesome horror that I hate to experience.
When I was a kid—a small kid, in fact, about eight—I had too many adult teeth. They were bunching together, crowding each other, and generally indicated an adulthood full of jaw-related misery. So, over a series of appointments, my dentist numbed me up and pulled the extras out of my skull, using very polished silver clamps with scissor handles. The blood from the stumps of my tiny teeth was rinsed with a water gun, and then vacuumed out with that suction straw. (The suction straw is pretty cool, tbh.) This is the long way of saying that dentistry is the most medieval part of modern medicine—though I’ve heard leeches are making a comeback. Dentistry is a primitive work of blood and bone, which is why I have my deep fear and loathing of anything to do with it.
The grotesque, medieval aspect of dentistry—bloody, with hooked, curved, polished instruments that Torquemada surely would have admired, if he didn’t invent them himself—makes unanesthetized teeth pulling a popular form of torture, at least according to movies I’ve seen. Mob bosses and fascist lackeys are always pulling out molars with pliers.
Most famously, in “Marathon Man,” an aging Nazi, played by Laurence Olivier, tortures Dustin Hoffman by pulling and mutilating Hoffman’s teeth with drills and other tools. You wouldn’t think of an orthopedist or beautician if Oliver had pulled Hoffman’s toenails, but this subterranean Nazi torture cell somehow brings to mind a pleasantly-lit medical professional’s office with a PA system playing a Muzak version of “The Girl from Ipanema.”
Even the anesthesia needle—which protects you from the worst of this torture-adjacent trade—is terrifying. When you’re laying back in a chair and the needle is about two inches from your eyeballs, it looks sinister, like a device that would come in the early part of a bad slasher movie—before the really big chainsaw and blades and stuff, but just enough to make you shiver with dread. When the needle is pushed into the soft tissue of your mouth, you feel it much more than an injection anywhere else on your body. It stays there for an eternity, a metal rod lodged between your mouth and your skull, and then you feel it get pulled out. It’s bloody when you see it pulled out in the high beam interrogation light looming at the top of your vision—which sure doesn’t help with any of this.
Anyway, I’m about halfway done with my return to the reclining chair. I’m getting two deep cleanings (one each for either side of my mouth) and one filling. I have to get this work done because my oral hygiene has been less than ideal, and I’ve stayed away for so long. Also, I don’t want my teeth to rot.
And that might be the worst part of all of this: the more you stay away, the more poking and scraping and grabbing and pulling they’ll do in the end.