Cavity of the Soul

“You have very nice teeth.”

Wayne’s eyes darted open. The forgotten pain from looking into the bright light above him for too long allowed him to focus on the dark shadow looming above him, the one with the dentist’s facemask, the one holding what could be incisors in his patient’s mouth, dry as sandpaper.

“I’m sorry, I seem to have taken you by surprise. I said you have very nice teeth,” Dr. Hakoum Gibran said, tapping slowly on one of Wayne’s bottom teeth. “Has anyone ever told you that?”

Wayne let out a noise etched from the depth of his throat, the most complicated sound he could muster with the man’s finger in addition to a pointed metal object in his mouth.

“I have very nice teeth, too,” said Hakoum. The doctor took his finger out of Wayne’s mouth but kept the metallic thing in there, resting. He used his now free hand to pry his own mask away from his face.

His mouth now shown, Hakoum flashed a smile. His mouth stretched out as a rubber band would with fingers pulling it apart to meet the ends of his face, revealing perfect white teeth in aligned harmony within the unreal oval.

Wayne nodded his head as much as he could. Rather, he tilted his head an inch up and, through sheer discomfort, immediately back down onto his head’s initial resting place.

Hakoum covered his face back up and took the utensil out of Wayne’s mouth. The disheveled patient quickly used this opportunity to close his mouth for a short second of respite, trying his best not to swallow in his parched state.

“Hey man, just clean my teeth,” Wayne said.

“When was the first time I cleaned your teeth?” Hakoum asked, spinning the utensil in his hands.

“This is the first time. My regular dentist retired,” Wayne blurted out. “Sorry. I haven’t had my coffee yet.”

Wayne pretended to yawn but his hand was covered by a bib, making it difficult to cover his own mouth. As a result, his mouth hung limp for a few seconds before closing back up.

Hakoum adjusted the light to flash more brightly in Wayne’s eyes. He could only squint now. His mouth curved into a disgruntled frown.

“That’s funny,” Hakoum said, puzzled. “I recognize you when you squint and shudder with your eyes. It’s probably nothing. Open wide.”

Wayne opened quickly. Time is molasses in the dentist’s chair.

“It’s a problem I have,” Hakoum spoke as he tapped at Wayne’s teeth. “I’m always remembering patients I’ve never had.”

“Ouuaghh ahh,” Wayne blurted out, best he could with his mouth being worked on.

“Who was your previous dentist, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Wayne was done answering questions with his powerless mouth.

Hakoum one-handedly tapped on different teeth like an incompetent man playing a xylophone.

After a sufficient number of clinks, Hakoum took the tool out of his patient’s mouth.

“You can answer now,” the doctor said.

Wayne closed his eyes to relax himself, to stop himself from kicking Hakoum in the teeth. “Ken Burns.”

A few seconds passed before Wayne opened his eyes. What he saw was Hakoum doubled over on a chair, head down, sweat gathering in beads on his neck.

Hakoum ripped off the mask covering his mouth.

“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” Hakoum chanted.

Wayne lifted his head up to try and get a better grasp on what exactly was happening in this little nook. “What’s wrong?”

Hakoum’s face was a fiery red when he looked up. “Dr. Burns passed away after retirement. I’m so sorry.”

Wayne sat up fully now.

“Dang,” Wayne said, his fingers adjusting his brown, plastic-framed glasses. “That is depressing. Wow.”

“I’m so, so, so, sorry,” Hakoum descended upon his patient, giving him a tight squeeze.

“It’s okay. Really,” Wayne blurted out, startled. He did not encourage the hug. He didn’t wrap his arms around his dentist. He let the hug be. “We really weren’t that close. He was just my dentist. I didn’t know him.”

Hakoum ended the hug, leaving the room unexpectedly.

Wayne thought about following the doctor, but thought it best to wait it out.

He looked around the room. Ads for teeth whitening. Ads for root canals. Ads for everything tooth-related. Do you or someone you know suffer from a bad smile?

Walls adorned with children’s pictures. Crayon-colored people stepping into a yellow tooth-shaped house, nearby other tooth-shaped houses, sitting atop pink, gum-like grass.  A humanoid, plaque-free molar with teeth for eyes and a similarly plaque-free smile. A dentist drilling into the mouth of a patient, red blood spurting everywhere. “Anything for my teeth.” -Brandon, Age 9.

Wayne was in a daze, staring at these images, his mouth numb, each of his teeth aching to the core, feeling the emptiness in the spaces between his teeth…

 ***

Hakoum came back into the room, wiggling a small white bag labeled Colgate. The bag’s dance brought Wayne again to the land of the living.

“So, I have a goodie bag for you. Floss, toothpaste, and a toothbrush. Excited?” Hakoum continued shaking the bag as if he now had a wild case of Parkinson’s.

“Oh,” Wayne snapped out of his daze. “Yeah. Of course.”

“One condition,” Hakoum continued.

Wayne nodded for him to proceed.

“Your teeth, while incredibly glamorous on the outside, are very, very ill.”

“What does that mean?!” The aches in Wayne’s teeth began to throb.

“There’s a small hole in your teeth that we need to take care of. Probably as soon as possible.”

“You mean a cavity?” Wayne rubbed his right cheek.

“Yes,” the doctor answered. “Can you come back tomorrow morning?”

“Is it that much of a concern? It’s just one cavity, in one tooth, right? I work tomorrow.”

Hakoum sat down. He no longer shook the bag, but now he shook his head slowly, depressedly, and said, “A cavity today, gingivitis tomorrow.”

“Well, that seems a bit of an extreme to me, doc.”

Hakoum shrugged. “Maybe it is. You’re right. Right now the hole is tiny, but tomorrow it will be a little bigger. Every day, the plaque eats away just a little bit more of your teeth. The hole gets bigger, little by little. You don’t even realize you’re losing anything. Everything’s fine. But then one day you wake up and all your teeth are black. You’re errantly submerging your mouth in Listerine, trying to reverse the effects of negligence but still your teeth fall out of your mouth, to become food for worms, if you’re lucky enough not to choke on a tooth that dislodges from your gum and slips into your throat while you sleep. Suddenly, the empty space occupying the cavity is bigger than itself. No longer self-contained. And there you sit helplessly on a park bench in a big, lousy city, regretting your life, regretting that you didn’t do what was healthy — what was right — though mildly inconvenient, your mouth dry as puck despite your excessive salivation, waiting for the next charitable person to walk by and save you with porridge or baby formula or some other crap food that you’re able to swallow. That is dentistry.”

The aches in Wayne’s mouth pulsated, panning from one side to the other.

Hakoum slowly moved his hand with the goodie bag close to his patient. The bag dangled close to Wayne’s face. “So, Wayne, will you be in tomorrow?”

The dentist’s previously perfect white teeth looked yellow and crooked in dimmer light.

Wayne quaked. He could hardly stand to sit in the dentist chair anymore. He took the goodie bag into his hand.