Though they had once eaten lunch and also held hands and she had later allowed him to touch her left breast separated only by brassiere, shirt, blouse, sweater and winter coat, the stratification of fabric almost fully but not quite concealing the warmth of her body against him, though those things were true and surely burning somewhere in her memory as a flickering pilot flame under all of her subsequent romantic endeavors, it seemed that the woman had forgotten the dental hygienist long ago, before any of his training and certification, and long before she would return to him as a patient.
She was gazing up to the fluorescent lights, beside which, years ago, Louise at the front desk had pinned a poster of a kitten pawing at a watermelon. The poster bore the words in bubble letters: When You’re Smiling , despite the fact that cats were incapable of anything resembling a smile and, even if they were, it wouldn’t be because of a sweet fruit that their taste buds were not equipped to experience. She lifted her hand and scratched her cheek gently with a close-trimmed nail, still moving with controlled elegance. It was a lovely, subtle movement. She didn’t recognize him.
Once he had arranged the bib, he said in a whisper that he would perform a quick cleaning before the dentist arrived. He was fearful at first of speaking too loud, as if his voice would trigger her memory. She had made no complaints of pain or bleeding, though according to her chart, her last visit was two years and three months ago. And five days. He was surprised to learn she was allergic to penicillin. He should have mentioned their connection the moment he realized it, of course, but now it was too late. She would be right to be angry at his hesitation, which had come from a place of desire.
A thick slab of calculus was wedged between her third and fourth incisors in a place where the two teeth leaned warily apart. The hygienist worked the scraper at an angle until the buildup separated in a calcified shingle. He imagined her teeth as the broad hull of an ocean liner and he a simple dockworker, a man who would return to his home and prepare his bed and sleep to dream of the sea.
While he worked, he imagined her life, which must have largely taken place in the next town over, given her forwarding address and faxed records. Despite living a lively half day’s walk from its limits, he had never been, but imagined it to include a movie theater, some apartments, and a brazier. Perhaps a library, though he couldn't imagine the research section being any better than the one in their hometown. This place was something they shared, its sidewalks and trees. It was strange to think she might leave and stranger still that she would return. Time, in her absence, had rolled on its course like a stone down a trail accustomed to stones, and now she was reclined with impossible ease in the dentist’s chair. And there he was, perched and trembling, to clip the plastic bib around her neck. Under her right ear he found the same twin moles he had wondered over twenty years ago, the marks faded only slightly with age, as if her features had been drawn onto a balloon that had been steadily inflated and deflated in the interim. He imagined the sad party clown who would perform this action in front of children.
He caressed his picks and scrapers, swapping out the periodontal tool after noticing an imperfection in its grip. If she had been watching, she would have been comforted to see his attention, but her eyes were closed. She crossed her legs at the ankle, her left calf making a sucking noise as it unstuck from the plastic.
“When is the last time you visited the dentist?” he asked, testing her. He couldn’t help himself.
“It’s been a couple months, maybe a year,” she said. “I can't remember, really.” People were so lazy when they lied to members of the dental profession. He wondered if she would present such a story to a police officer. Perhaps she would go to church after this visit and detail this very conversation through the lattice screen of the confession booth. He wanted so dearly to touch her arm, to raise her chair up until she sat like a queen above him and then grovel at her feet, to confess every small error of his life, but he knew that with the faintest errant touch the spell would be broken. She might tell the dentist, who was like a drunk and distant father to the hygienist. At their office Christmas party, the dentist dressed as Santa Claus, took every one of his employees onto his knee, and ordered them to tell him their darkest secret before declaring each of them naughty and turning them loose in the nitrous cabinet.
“How often do you floss?” he asked.
“Twice a day,” she said, wincing.
He remembered that when she said she couldn't see him any longer, she winced in the same way while claiming that her research had begun to take too much of her time. He never saw her at the public library again, or at the library attached to the community college, where he had spent some time sitting by the microfiche, turning over and over in his hands an anthology of cartoons about a charming cartoon cat, enjoying the fact that the book was broader than it was tall, the dimensions of a thin brick which promised only stories about a cat who did not want to work or make friends or even leave the house, no matter what the outside world promised. He sat on a hard plastic bench and read about the cat for one long month, allowing himself two panels an hour, and the cat contracted fleas from a bad dog, and the cat fell asleep in a tray of food, and the cat refused to get a job despite using far more than his share of resources, and through it all she never arrived.
His old flame— girlfriend suggested a little too much consummation and not enough of the burning sensation he felt between his eyes—fingered a slight golden chain around her neck. “I’ll warn you,” she said. “I don’t love dentists.” She was wearing a foundation color a bit yellow on her face, as if it had oxidized in oil, and her slight blemishes were dotted with concealer.
“I am a dental hygienist.”
“The whole thing, I mean. It feels like they’re scraping off my armor.” His mother once sold makeup door to door and he spent his young adult years serving as her dutiful and curious model. Recently he had gotten in trouble for suggesting a facial primer to a younger woman, an error of judgment made significantly worse when Louise at the front desk found out what he had done and teased him mercilessly for months.
He remembered the morning he asked her to lunch, his hands trembling more than usual. She had just finished dressing down a bored librarian for the inadequacy of her reference section. He steadied his hands on a series of VHS tapes and dropped one on sexual congress in the Victorian era at her feet, and despite the embarrassment of that she had agreed to lunch, where she ordered a smoked salmon plate and he found her choice the most delicate and appropriate one for a light lunch on an afternoon date. She spread cream cheese on her toast points and spoke mostly about the quality of the reference library, where she had been trying to research ocean liners from the early twentieth century. People often traveled across the ocean for business and pleasure, she said; the wealthy might take an entire season to source different types of fabric. It was a strange and wonderful time, she said. Later they kissed a little and that was it.
His pick gouged her gum and the knob of blood warbled the rim of her upper right cuspid. She had flinched at the pick’s minor attack but didn’t seem to notice the pain until the blood touched her tongue, and though he regretted the error he marveled at the retch and flail of her body’s natural response. The whole sensitive system was one of his favorite things about toothwork. She gagged against his attempts to position the fluid evacuator at the welling spot. The tube flashed red with salivac blood.
“You live in Ferndale,” he said.
She was gasping for air, having closed her lips around the evacuator to finish clearing the blood.
“Could I have some water?” she asked.
He pointed to the paper cup at her shoulder, humiliated, but she absolved him, lifting her finger to hold their place in the conversation while she swished and spat.
“I just moved,” she said, refilling the cup from the fountain built into the chair. “I have to update it with the woman at the front desk.”
“It’s a nice place,” he said. “I get up there on weekends.”
“What do you do in Ferndale?” she asked, laughing. “On a weekend?”
He laughed as well. Clearly, he had misjudged Ferndale. He had always imagined it as a place of relative luxury, but he realized he didn’t know, precisely, what it offered. There were a great many things he didn’t know about Ferndale. This was a moment when he could pursue the joke, but he knew that adding to it might further expose his ignorance. At least he realized when to quit digging himself deeper, even though, unlike her, he was a very good liar. They laughed together and he felt her relax again against his gloved hand.
“Laughter,” he said. Her eyes darted up to meet his and he looked away.
The dentist arrived at that moment, and the air was thick with tension that he would say the hygienist's name and everything would be ruined; there were so many little tentpoles that propped up a secret. But the dentist did not make any kind of greeting, and instead slid the X-ray film into the lightbox and switched it on, giving it a solid smack on the side panel to stop the buzz.
“This damn thing,” he said. “Madam, you’ll see your teeth are filled to the brim with rot.”
This was something he did as a joke, mostly with the more attractive men and women who visited them. The idea was that no layman knew how to read the images displayed, the bluish marks on toothlike shapes as if the mouth was blooming with bruises. You could tell them anything; it was all the same to them. The dentist remarked daily at the waste of time and money on the lightboxes installed in every examination room. It was like when you got your oil changed, he insisted, and some flunky came in with the air filter to try and sell you something that would at the very least seem cleaner. Highway theft, he would say.
She leaned in to look. “But I haven’t had any pain,” she said.
“Do you see there?” he asked, pointing.
“It looks very normal,” she said.
He laughed, incredulous. “Your standard of normal requires some calibration,” he said.
This was when he would typically clap her on the back and give up the joke, award her with a toothbrush with his name embossed in the handle. But this time, he only cocked his head at the X-ray. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said, pointing at healthy teeth. “See there? You’re two months away from a root canal. And there, incredible. You might need to lose the whole row. Your nerves may have simply been destroyed by infection. I’m surprised you aren’t septic.”
She listened, dry-eyed, as he described how infection could enter her bloodstream with only a slight cut in the mouth, destroying her immune system and landing her in the ICU. She glanced at the paper cup, which held just a wisp of blood from earlier. When he was done, she looked at her watch. “The woman at the front desk has my insurance information,” she said. “Can you fit me in today?”
“Of course,” the dentist said. “If we rush, we can finish within the hour.” He excused himself to scrub up.
The hygienist followed him into the hall. “What are you doing?” he asked the dentist, who was washing his hands in the bathroom sink.
“I’m maintaining a clean surgical environment, which I would suggest you do as well, every day and in every way.”
“There wasn’t a single cavity in that woman's mouth.”
“Wouldn't you feel better with everything scraped and filled?” the dentist asked, cleaning under each fingernail with a toothbrush they kept for the purpose by the sink. “Think of our polymers, our casts, our resins. They’re so advanced, they do the work of cleanliness for themselves. They cannot be corrupted. They will outlive us.” He tapped his hip, which had been affixed years ago with a metal cage. “We’re giving her the gift of peace of mind, fixing something she has suspected for years had already failed her in some invisible way.”
“It’s illegal,” the hygienist said.
Louise at the front desk started to stand, but the dentist waved her back to her notebook.
“You’ll upset everyone with that kind of talk,” the dentist said. The hygienist had peeked at the notebook once, when Louise was in the bathroom, and found it was an exhaustive list of foods that might cause tooth decay, listed in order of potential harm. Flipping to the front page he saw the caramels and other sticky sweets, then chocolates, nut butters and so forth. “Listen. Every tooth grown on the planet has an expiration date. We are merely forestalling the inevitable. Also,” he leaned in close enough that they stood cheek to cheek, “the rent is past due and we won’t have another patient until Monday.”
The hygienist pictured the inside of the town’s unemployment office, where his father had worked as a claims processor. When he tried to picture what would happen when he lost his job, he saw himself sitting under his big particleboard desk, weeping on the old man’s leather loafers and begging to go home.
“Simply look into her eyes when she thanks us later,” the dentist said. “You’ll see she is grateful.”
The two men returned to the examination room, where the woman was reading a lifestyle magazine about makeup and yoga. She looked up, a thoughtful expression on her face. “I was always afraid this would happen,” she said, “but now that it has, I feel quite prepared.”
“My assistant will affix the nitrous,” the dentist said. “You’ll feel a little dizzy, and then you’ll feel like a kitten again.”
The curl of her hair felt like spun silk under the hygienist’s fingers as he fit the mask on her nose.
“You should feel nothing at all uncomfortable,” the hygienist said.
“That’s precisely the thing,” she said, trying to keep a straight face. Her left eye wandered a bit, as if it had suddenly realized its own independence.
“Describe everything to me,” the dentist said, taking her hand.
She seemed to be trying to focus on an object that kept looping around the exam light. “First comes love,” she said. “Then comes marriage, and at last comes dentistry.”
“Dentistry always comes too late,” the dentist said, working the drill deep in her mouth. They were both giggling by then. The hygienist held a water pick in one hand and the sucking evacuator in the other, keeping the area clear. The woman was trying to sing something, and then she moaned a little and sighed, burbling. The tools churned among her teeth and did their work.
By the time they finally finished and the hygienist relieved her of the nitrous gas, every tooth had been gouged and filled. One of her perfect molars rested in a tray by her head. The dentist snapped off his gloves and bowed to them both, taking his leave as she shook her head as if to physically clear its fog.
“That was something,” she said, holding her mouth. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
The hygienist lifted the wastepaper bin to her mouth and stepped from the room, allowing her privacy.
The dentist was slumped against the appointment desk. “It always takes something out of you,” he was saying. Louise was rubbing his back. He shook the hygienist’s hand. “Well done,” he said. “You should take the rest of the day off. Take the week. She was our last patient.”
“Until Monday,” Louise said, working out at knot in the dentist’s lower lumbar. He groaned and dropped his head into his hands.
“I need to make sure she’s all right,” the hygienist said.
“Of course you do,” he said. “Get back in there.”
The woman was up and putting on her sweater. She turned to him, wiping her mouth. “Sorry about that,” she said. Her face was swollen, which smoothed her out, erasing the years. She looked as young and fresh as the day they met. In turn, she saw him with her old eyes; the young man fumbling to ask her out, and later the toast points, which had been stale. She saw the whole of her dental chart and understood it for a fleeting moment before the words went technical before her eyes, and the truth of them vanished.
“I was wondering if you might like to get a cup of tea with me sometime,” he said. “Coffee can be so staining.”
She considered it, running her tongue over her throbbing gumline.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m really not interested.”
“It’s all right,” he said, as if he asked women out every day, as if he had fun meeting new people and getting to know them. “I’m just glad to know you’re in the world.”
“Goodbye then,” the woman said, and if she knew their shared history, she didn’t mention it.
Louise at the front desk gave her a reminder card and then looked at the hygienist, who stood holding the wastepaper bin. She had definitely heard everything, from the moment he greeted the woman through the moment of rejection. She had heard his conversation with the dentist, though she would deny it. He imagined her picking up the phone and calling the authorities at the unemployment office, who would only spend a few hours searching before they found him laying a wreath in front of the site of the old library.
“All right,” he said, accepting all of this.
But Louise didn’t say anything to the other woman, who walked out into the afternoon heat. Louise closed the record book and didn’t say anything at all. The hygienist stood there, watching her.
Louise smiled at him, a full mouth of gleaming teeth. He realized he had never seen her smile, not when she teased him, not when she greeted him in the morning, not when she caught his eye during the dentist’s lectures. But Louise was smiling now, a kind of broad and willing smile that he had never known. It gave him a warm feeling, like pressing his face against the X-ray machine, a feeling that could power his dreams for years to come. When she smiled, she kept on smiling, and the whole world smiled with her.