“It’s Nate Kohl!” A black-haired boy hopped off a chair in the waiting room and ran towards me. I waved the father to sit back down, showing some teeth with a smile as if to say it’s all good, I got it from here. He gave one back, one just as charming, and I filed away his lack of wedding ring. It was already a great Tuesday -Molly had called me a leech, and now my last appointment before lunch was a little adopted boy from Brazil.
“And how are we doing today, Nate?” I glanced at the clipboard again, recognizing my own handwriting. Maybe I had jotted down the discrepancy. Hm. I led us through the hallway.
“Good. I brushed my teeth already so you don’t have to.” His eyes were wide, absorbing, until they landed on my shirt. We were allowed our own scrubs, and I liked to wear my green top with the little smiling teeth. The idea was absurd and amused me as much as it amused the smaller children. It was always the kids that made my stitching fall, the ones that didn’t force me to catalog every smile or character of my voice. There was something so heartwarmingly genuine about them. And, unlike animals, they weren’t afraid of me.
“Oh, I don’t know about that. We’ll just have to see.”
The boy smiled back.
I had always felt tossed loose, like I was thrown into an ocean with no weight to anchor me. I never knew, never will know what will come next, and so I never want to know the way back to shore, back to all the others. The dark waters are mine. And the children, well, they seem to keep afloat.
We entered into a room with blue walls and the large painting of a beach. Slipping on latex gloves reminded me of the gloves from last night. The liquid had made the rubber so glossy, and I couldn’t resist globing some on a fingertip and wearing it as a lipstick. It didn’t stay on my lips, it actually seeping into the crevices of my teeth as I howled, but I liked that look too.
“Are you in school, Nate?”
He nodded as I clipped the bib on him. “Second grade. We’re learning how to read clocks now.”
My eyebrows climbed, mouth opening with mock impression. I tugged the cart of tools closer to me. “Can you tell me what time it is now?” I gestured to the digital clock above the door’s walkway.
“That tells you the time!” He said ‘time’ as if he was in part of a Gregorian chant. “We’re learning about hands and minutes.”
“I see. That’s pretty interesting.” I snapped the mask over my mouth, hooking the elastic behind each ear and the muscles in my face immediately relaxed. A normal reaction to something, well, happy would be to smile. But I had to learn that growing up. My own instinct with emotion was the instinct to impersonate them. I had mirrors around my house for practice. They kept me on my toes, or as a safety net if I had company and needed to make sure I wasn’t what my dad called “distant” or “inappropriate”. But this job had many perks, the uniform one of them.
I poked around the boy’s mouth, not surprised he hadn’t lied about brushing. All children had a sort of wide-eyed honesty, especially with strangers.
“And what flavor would you like for the paste, Nate?”
I dipped the brush into peppermint instead.
The boy opened his mouth wide when I leaned in. It was a tedious job, and I sometimes let my daydreams take precedence over the mouth I was working inside. I liked to imagine sturdy straps holding the patron down in the chair. I liked to picture them unwilling, to imagine the sound of those belts straining under the pressure of struggling limbs.
It was a quick jab, smooth and sudden like a genuine slip of my hand. The brush knocked against the soft palate near the very back of the little boy’s throat. It immediately evoked a gag reflex and I watched, not so bored anymore, when those wide eyes got wider and he leaned up in the chair to sputter.
“You can rinse now, Nate.”
He coughed for a few more seconds -must be sensitive- and as his eyes began to grow red I wondered if this would be the memory setting off a dentist phobia. When he calmed down enough to gargle and rinse, I realized my mistake in the impulsive act. He never commented on the taste of the paste. But frustration swept across my face as quickly as it came.
“Okay,” I smiled, “now let’s floss.”
He nodded again, abit unsure, but said nothing.
“So, do you like school?” Often, I spoke to patients while inspecting their enamel and gums. I watched the pink muscle writhe like a fish. The boy nodded as best he could.
“Alright, Nate, go ahead and spit. Rinse if you’d like.”
I looked at the clock myself this time, relaxing on the stool. The kid had also flossed, apparently, as evident by the lack of blood beading through the tightly knit teeth. I told myself to hold in the sigh. The lunch hour was right around the corner. I gave the boy the small bag of dental goodies once Dr. Davis gave him a look-over, and sent him on his way. In the waiting room, the father gave me a crooked smile, trying, but failing miserably to be charming.
I entered the back door, walking on floorboards of what used to be a thriving restaurant in the heart of Chicago. The old building was shut down for reasons never explicitly clear, though newspapers from the time suspected a gambling business which involved some prominent politicians. Whatever the reason, the dinning area had been renovated into a waiting room and maze of exam offices. The kitchen became the building’s break room.
“No cancellations yet,” Molly walked toward me, yogurt in hand and small spoon slipping from between her lips. She was smiling, head held high, which confused me because the pen sticking out of her bun made me think she had somehow impaled herself without realizing.
“You’re not staying?” I was halfway to the room, Molly was halfway back to her desk. I made a point to waste my lunch hour with the rest of the staff often enough that my presence wouldn’t stir attention. But I hated it.
“No, sorry. Gotta stay by the phone.”
Molly was the one I liked, her chaotic black curls and cinnamon skin contrasted against me in such a beautiful and jarring way. I liked to give her handshakes every morning, pulling her head from a book, watching those big green eyes look up at me.
I entered the break room peeling off the facial mask. Two, unfortunately, were already present, but Grace I was really never surprised to see. She was everywhere, like a little omnipotent fairy set out to ruin even the best of my days. The perkiest girl in the clinic, and the youngest, Grace was fresh off technical school and eager to constantly make great impressions with coworkers.
Then there was Kim, eating a peach as she rambled about something to the poor southern bell. Friday, she had told me she liked peaches with flesh that removed easily from the pit, unlike the ones I brought in two weeks ago.
“And where were you yesterday?” The old woman craned her neck like a bird in search of food, “I’m beginnin’ to think Hyde isn’t just incidentally your last name, honey.”
Grace gave a sympathetic smile seeing my confusion. “Yesterday, I had the thought that we could all grab lunch together somewhere. None of us could find you.”
I nodded, remembering, but knowing I drove home yesterday to spend time adjusting the cover over my toaster. Anything to avoid talking to them.
“Oh, wow, sorry. I thought I let someone know yesterday. I used my break to head out. I was donating blood.”
“Oh? Really? We didn’t…”
“Yes, in fact, I actually have a very rare blood type.” It was O-positive, the most common. I shrugged. “I try to donate whenever I can.”
Kim’s eyes were so bright they blinded me, and I tried not to outwardly preen from the admiration. “I had no idea a place near here was takin’ donations. Where’d ya go?”
I stepped more into the room, tossing hands into the sink. “Penny lane, Penny road. I think.”
“Well,” Kim bit into the peach, “Let me know when you’re goin’ again. Love to tag along if you don’t mind.”
I promised myself I wouldn’t let a coworker, ever, into my car. No matter how tempting. I nodded absently, trying not to muse over the idea too long. The old hag, ovaries long dried up and having once said “if I had a girl, god bless, she wouldn’t have ever been like Laura”, turned back to Grace.
“Anyway, sometimes I think no one knows how to have a good time anymore. You see these…these young ones with no creativity. Just stayin’ at home an’ playin’ games.”
I sauntered across the room, avoiding eye contact, and picked up my small container of cherries in the refrigerator. I shuffled a few things around, as if searching for something, to linger just a bit longer.
“Dave and I are goin’ to see a show this Saturday,” Kim continued, and I could imagine the trail of peach juice running down her wrinkled chin, “Goin’ to dress ourselves up and have a ball.”
Grace was oddly quiet at the table. Actually quiet all day. I situated myself by the counter, humming, looking like I was lost in my own world as I snapped the stems off ripe cherries.
“Henry and I were supposed to see a movie.”
It came across more as a question than a statement. There was a phone in her hand, she fiddled with it. Grace had a habit of fiddling, especially random golden strands of her hair. I chanced a glance at the pair and felt offended by the existence of Kim’s wrinkles.
“Um…that new spy movie. He likes those.”
Her increasingly shaky tone made me take one more obvious look over my shoulder. Grace normally lived up to her name.
Her face cracked when Kim showed the first sign of concern. I turned around and watched, plucking a cherry from the bin, enraptured with the development. Grace was imploding in on herself, crumbling in her seat. I popped the fruit, stem and all, into my mouth. I crushed it with my teeth, imagining the red juice swishing around, staining my tongue.
A tingle in my spine. There was a possibility that I had something to do with it.
The thought of it made me delirious throughout and after lunch hour. When I cleaned Mr. Brandt’s teeth, I was really extracting Henry’s so police couldn’t use dental records for identification. When I helped Dr. O’Grady with a filling, what I really saw were Henry’s eyes before they closed for the last time. I was giddy behind the mask. Dr. O’Grady told me I was glowing. I deliberated all day on whether or not I should purchase some scuba diving gear after work. The thought of leaving a sea-swollen fleshy pieces like a scavenger hunt peaked as I listened to Grace in the restroom leaving yet another desperate voicemail.
“Grace?” My tone was gentle. The girl’s eyes were downcast as she eased out from the door, uncomfortable with anyone catching her like this. My hand reached out slowly and when she didn’t push away, I gingerly grabbed a shoulder. My thumb traced the bone there. “Grace, if something is going on…”
The hallway was small, personal. I knew I had to get back to the patient in room B, but I never felt so electric before. I was one blink away from kissing her and digging my polished nails into her face.
“I’m sorry,” she scoffed, trying to bring herself back to the ocean’s surface. “I was just trying to get a hold of someone.”
I wanted her to drown. I wouldn’t act as a lighthouse, no matter how hard she tried to be mine. I looked at her more pressingly and whispered, “Have you been crying, Grace?”
A wave crashed down. She was swept back under the ocean.