I must have been 9 years old.
In our household, we didn’t have health insurance or dental insurance. My father, a doctor, ran a business and as such, didn’t want to pay for these kinds of benefits. Instead, my father was a believer in the barter system. He had many friends who were doctors or dentists and in exchange for services rendered by him, they would service the family. Not a bad racket if you can get it. (I actually support this kind of economy, but really, insurance is quite nice.)
So we used to go see a friend of the family, Dr. Daniel, for dental care. Dr. Daniel was a nice enough man, I suppose. Very much a dentist and more than a little condescending, but not actively malicious, I believed. Not particularly genuine, my 9 year old self had decided. Was there something bubbling beneath the surface? Again, I suppose, but he seemed genial enough. Until the day I came to see him for my first cavity.
I know most people are afraid of the dentist. When you consider that I went about once every two years or so, the unknown quality made it even more intimidating. And what the hell, I was 9. I was still scared of the fucking thing that lived in my closet; I was not the hardest person to intimidate. (Nowadays, I just leave food for the fucking thing and then leave it to its own devices. I don’t bother it, it don’t bother me.)
So I go see Dr. Daniel because my mouth was offering a pain I’ve never even conceived existed. I had no idea that humanity and life itself had this much agony as part of it’s paradigm. I mean, really? Pain this bad exists? (In my aged wisdom now, I just blame Original Sin and then dismiss it entirely.)
He opens my mouth, shines the light and gives a pensive stare into the maw. After some consternation, he offers, with the gravity that an oncologist might have perfected, that I have, in fact, my first cavity. (Fun with commas. Join me!) He was clearly very disappointed in me. After all, how could I let it come to this? Was my Winnie the Pooh toothbrush (shut up) not an essential part of my daily routine anymore? He reiterates that dental hygiene is my responsibility. And I have been lax.
There was really only one thing to do about this. We needed to get a filling for this tooth decay. Well, sure, whatever, I thought. You make the pain go away and you can fill any hole you find. Do your thing, doc. Now, if you’re a veteran of this sort of thing, you know the procedure. You know the method used to fill a cavity. I…didn’t. So when he takes out the tools of the trade, and produces a hypodermic with a 5’7” needle, I knew that I had made some very dramatic mistakes in my life. Something went very wrong somewhere and now I must pay for it by allowing this exaggerated bayonet to enter my mouth. Terror is not accurate enough to describe my state. I would have gladly went 12 rounds with the fucking thing in the closet before being subjected to this. I was certain that the Geneva Convention had rules against this sort of treatment plan.
And he approaches me.
And lays the seat down.
“Dan, you’re just going to feel a little prick…”
What do you do in this situation? I know you’ve been there, what do you do? Some lay back and allow the professional to do what he’s paid to. I, on the other hand, was a fighter. I lay back for no one, professional or amateur. I decided I was going to take charge of this predicament and executed the only option available to me.
What do you do?
Me? My little 9 year old foot found a home in Dr. Daniel’s jimmy, traveling at about 20 mph.
This was not in his gameplan. In fact, I’d wager that before that day, he never even suspected that could have been an option. “Honey, I’m off to work. Hope I don’t get hit in the nuts today.” Probably not a conversation he ever had. Before.
As a digression, I believe every child should see a grown man get hit in the balls. In that moment, the playing field is entirely leveled and you see the omnipotent and omniscient adult balled up like a newborn and about as vulnerable as you had ever believed a person could be. Few people are as manic and desperate as a man clutching at his genitals contemplating if he will ever have a family of his own. The nausea. The gasping of air. The unbelievable pain in the kidneys. When you’re hit in the sack, you really forget all about any maturity or age roles you might have embraced. And children need to see this. If you’re a child, and you’re reading this, I wholehearted advise you seek out this experience.
Back to the dear Dr. Daniel, huddled on the floor, incredulous that he let this miniature beast into his safe work environment. Long story short, I did not get a cavity filled that day.
Life went on. We had seen each other many times since then and oh! The laughter we shared at that moment. Again, you’d sense something was bubbling under the surface, but Dr. Daniel was a class act through and through and never betrayed any resentment or even abject hatred he might have felt.
Until I was 22.
When I was 22, my oral medical habits didn’t change much (still no insurance) and the only care my teeth received was from my faithful Winnie the Pooh toothbrush. (Shut up.) So it should have come to no surprise that the pain returned to my mouth. And this time, it brought a friend – and they were both very pissed off.
Cavities were the diagnosis, a pair of them. Root canal was the therapy. I’d heard horror stories about this root canal procedure but I wasn’t 9 anymore and I could handle it. Even the ever growing 6’2” needle.
First root canal went off without a hitch. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience, but it wasn’t particularly painful. And Dr. Daniel wasn’t getting pounded in the groin so it was win-win, it seemed. First root canal down, we make a mold of the crown and move on to cavity #2. (I saw “we” made the mold, but let’s be honest – my role in this was much more passive.)
And then, then I see it bubble. What had merely shown hints at its existence in the past was now ready to join us in the real world. It was no longer under the surface, it was time for this demon to come out.
Dr. Daniel explains to me – with a Kool Aid grin that haunts me till this day, when I wake at night in cold shakes – that since he numbed up the right side of my mouth, it would be pretty dangerous to numb up the other side. I could chew through my cheek, for fuck’s sake. And since I was only in town for a couple of days, we didn’t really have time to reschedule to do the other one. Dr. Daniel explained, with glee, that the only real way to do this procedure was without Novocain.
This is a risky proposition for just about anyone. I, personally, was not sold. But, the pain in my tooth was persistent. And it wasn’t even the tooth! The agony had spread; it was in my gums, in my jaw…fuck it, my whole fucking head felt as if there were a sharp, shocking pain, emanating in a pulse from my tooth. And here was this madman who offered respite from that pain. All I had to do was tough it out for an hour and a half. Yeah. I can do that.
You might have seen my dental surgery, when the film version hit theaters. It was called Saw.
It was just about as you’d imagine .
The initial drilling brought a piercing torment that reminded me that the pulse in my tooth is really just a paper cut in the larger scheme of things. Just the appetizer. Then came the deep drilling. And the scraping of the root. I’m sitting in this sadist’s chair and I’m wishing that he would just punch me in the dick like a normal human being to pay me back for my childhood indiscretion. Tears are streaming down my face. I’m not actually crying, as there was no sobbing going on – but the guttural pleading made up for that, I believe. All the while, this Russian degenerate is calmly telling me to take it like a man. “Man up, Dan, man up. It’s not that bad, and it’ll be over soon. Man up!” “This is how we did it in Russia for a century!” Yeah, well, in that century you had a revolution, a svengali, the Nazis and you lost the Cold War. You are not filling me with confidence. His receptionist – who was also his younger daughter – was Jennifer Connolley gorgeous. He is telling me, while he rips my will to live straight out of my mouth, “There’s a beautiful girl sitting there…don’t embarrass yourself in front of her.”
Dr. Daniel took two hours and fifteen minutes to give me a root canal. If I had paid attention, I likely would have seen a bulge in his pants. Consider this: just how sweet is revenge? Now, how sweet is it when you’ve waited 13 years to exact it?
The fitting of the crowns wasn’t much better. It involved no cement, as Dr. Daniel decided that he was going to go with the more practical solution of jamming the crown into my gumline so that it will affix it permanently. This meant that Dr. Daniel had me in a full headlock, pushing my bottom jaw into the top, as the crown carved a new home for itself in my gums.
I might have been 9. But Dr. Daniel never forgot. And one fine May day, he finally got his giggles.
These days? Fuck it, I’ll literally sleep through a root canal.