The pain on the right side of my mouth began, with a dull ache, on the ride from Door County back to my mother’s house in Central Wisconsin. By the time I left her house for home 36 hours later, I was dosing myself with ibuprofen and acetaminophen in two hour rotations. The pain peaked while I was hauling ass down highway 29, heading towards St Paul with the kids in the backseat. I’ll spare you the gory details except to say that I passed through what I believe to be a Gate of Hell, screaming and clutching my cheek on the side of the road while my kids stared in silent disbelief through the back windows. Ivan was a ten pound baby I delivered without drugs; this was worse. After I may or may not have ripped the root out my tooth, the pain decreased to a manageable throb. We drove on.
It’s not that I don’t want to go to the dentist, it’s just that I am afraid to go. Not so much because of the pain, but because I fear the truth. I can’t handle the truth about my mouth. Or the resulting invoice. I considered many extreme and insane options involving the procurement of street drugs and power tools before I called the dentist. But finally I did.
I told the nurse my story – I did not spare her the details. “I think you should come in right away.” she said, “Today.”
“Yeah, thing is, I can’t really pay for any major work today, I need to wait to get paid next week.”
“Oh, yeah, you would need to pay for it. Let’s get you in soon then.” So we schedule an appointment and I take up a variety of home remedies and hippie medicine. I take garlic and astragalus pills for immunity, and swish with water and peroxide or tea tree oil to fight infection. I take a lot of Aleve. In my spare time, I read horror stories about tooth decay on the internet and drink Jameson for the pain. Everyone I tell about my ordeal has a story to share; exploding abscesses, broken teeth at sea, emergency extractions paid for with cash after hours. It crosses cultural and socioeconomic bounds, and seems to depend on one thing: the person’s ability to withstand pain while remaining in complete denial. Here I excel.
Tuesday morning I get a high-tech x-ray in a room that looks like a Stanley Kubrik set. “This will give us a good picture of your whole jaw, so we can see if you will die of cancer in three months,” the dental tech said – more or less. After I spent two intense minutes accepting my imminent, tragic demise, the dentist assured me I had “many sound teeth”, which came as a total shock since I was mentally prepared for a full set of dentures.
OK, so it isn’t so bad. I need two root canals. It shows how warped my sense of “not so bad” is that I feel this. I call a friend and tell him the ‘good news’, and he says “Whatever you do, don’t listen to Rush. I listened to Hemispheres when I had mine done in the eighties and it was absolute hell.” Duly noted. It reminded me of my first psychedelic experience.
I was nine and needed several cavities filled. It was a new novelty to offer a cassette Walkman to listen to while you had work done. The Hygienist flipped through some cassettes mumbling “Not much here for kids…” and held up Urban Chipmunk. “How about this?” I had Chipmunk Punk at home, so I figured “Why not?”. Then they put on the Green Nose with it’s cool, nitrous hiss. So, you know, I’m high on nitrous, listening to The Devil Went Down To Georgia as sung by Alvin and the Chipmunks. I was only nine but I knew that shit was fucked UP.
Tuesday evening, I settle into the chair for my Pulpectomy – I swear they call it that – armed with headphones. By the time they have six instruments crammed into my mouth, I’m listening to Cat Stevens’, “On the Road to Find Out” and I feel like I am in a Wes Anderson movie.
The scene opens on an empty instrument tray shown from above. A blue gloved hand slowly loads up the tray with instruments one-by-one while Cat is picking the through the intro. The next shot is close up of my face from above, mouth pried open wide and eyes darting in terror while my Dentist (played by Bill Murray) and the Dental Tech (played by anyone but Gwyneth Paltrow) jam instruments into my mouth. The subplot is that the Bill Murray character is my real father, only I don’t know it… yet. The dental scene alternates scenes of my lover (Owen Wilson, duh) pawning his priceless collection of antique thimbles to pay for my root canals. That is how strong our love is. Feel it.
Next comes “Love in Vain” by the Rolling Stones, which is a lovely enough song to enjoy anytime, even while a woman who is not Gwenyth Paltrow wrenches a metal band around your tooth. After that comes “End of The Line” by Roxy Music, with it’s crooning Bryan Ferry and swelling guitars. A bit much, but not worth hitting skip. “Sheena is A Punk Rocker”? Not in the dentist’s chair she’s not. Then “Rory Rides Me Raw” by the Vaselines comes on, and I feel sexually uncomfortable listening to it while two other people are leaning over me. Vampire Weekend? That’s like Rush circa 20o8: no. Finally, just as “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” (HA!) begins, they start removing the hardware from my cheeks. I tongue my fat Novacaine lips and head to reception.
I stop to schedule the first of the two root canals on my way out. “How long does the procedure take?” I ask. “About eighty minutes.” Duly noted. My appointment is two weeks away, but I have already composed my playlist. I can’t take any chances.