Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Creatures of habit

I've been going to the same dentist for twelve years now. Even throughout years of college and travels I was always home summers and Christmases--long enough to remember how much I enjoy a pantry full of food I didn't pay for, to find new inspiration for education in mind-numbing minimum wage jobs and to squeeze in twice-a-year teeth cleanings. As far as dentists go, I like mine. I don't feel like someone who opts to stare in people's mouths for a living is ever going to be real stimulating, but he's good at what he does. His office is based out of his house, so you drive into a neighborhood to get there. Aside from the inescapable smell of gloves, toothpaste and talcum, there's not a real clinical feel to the place. He has a daughter a little younger than me, and a son too, I think, although it's always the daughter he talks about. Ten years ago, when we drove up we'd park in front of a lawn littered with PlaySkool toys in primary colors. Ten years ago he made his first impression on me as a thin, boring but cheerful Chinese-American man, his cute but business-like wife manning the receptionist desk as he stepped briskly back and forth between the x-ray room and the chair. Today, the lawn was well-manicured but void of toys. Even the sports car that had long since replaced the Tonka trucks was away on a college campus somewhere, where his daughter studies economics and Chinese--a language infinitely more practical than mine, as he often reminds me. The same wife met me at the desk, strands of grey streaking her black hair. The dentist himself was as cheerful as ever, if a little less thin and energetic--he seems to have gone a little soft around the middle as he approaches middle-aged, and his smile is a little slacker on the old man jowls that are starting to pull at his rounded cheeks.

Twice a year is enough that the details of them become familiar, mundane, but not quite often enough that it goes both ways. Going today was like reading through a script that I've memorized with but that no one else seems to recognize. Walk in, about two minutes late. Spend five minutes admiring the freshwater tropical fish, and in particular the Pleco (plecostomus) who seems impossibly big for the algae supply in this tank. Wonder, as I always do, if it's the same Pleco from 12 years ago. Decide that this is entirely possible. Get fitted with a rubber bib and called to the chair by the hypochondriac dental hygienist, who's been at this practice at least as long as I have. She's chatty; she forces me to make small talk around the scraping tools that she wields with a little too much force. I comply, pretending I don't notice the rusty color of the spit that she keeps pausing to suck away.

"Are you currently on medications?" (Yes. The same ones.)
"Oh, asthma? How's that medication working out for you?" (Well. Same as last year. You were on Advair, then, but considering changing.)
"I'm on Advair. I don't like the side effects, though. I'm thinking of switching." (You won't.)
"Did you hurt your lip." (No. It's a genetic thing) "You've got a little blister here. Looks like you bumped it." (Don't worry about it. It's genetic. It's been there for a while.) "Oh, no, you know what it is? It's a little cold sore forming." (I don't get cold sores. It's genetic. I've had two cut off and biopsied already). "If it's a cold sore you ought to put some SPF lip balm on." (Lip balm won't do anything. It's genetic.) "I know it's genetic, but you should put SPF lip balm on it anyway. I bet it would help. That's what I use for cold sores. Works like a charm." (*sigh* Okay. ) "If it's been there for a while, you should get it check out. They might want to biopsy something like that."

After she's done, the dentist comes in to look things over. Things being my teeth.

"Aren't you about done?" (I thought you needed to look at my mouth?) "No, with school. Aren't you about done?" (Ah. Yes. Graduated. Getting my Master's in Paris now.)
"Paris? A Master's in what, exactly?" (French literature. I know you think that's an impractical academic pursuit with no concrete future. You tell me twice a year.)
"French literature, huh? Hmmm. That's...different." (Hasn't changed over the last four years.)
"And what exactly are you planning to do with that?" (Get a job.)
"Hmm. Well...good luck." He swivels around to look at the x-rays. "Hmmm. Hold-up, I might need to look again." (Yes, I had a cavity in 19, but you filled it already. It's a clear filling; it doesn't show up on the x-rays)
"Ah. Let me see...yes. Good memory!" We go back out to the reception so he can copy my Insurance card. "So. What kind of job do you think you can get?" (A professor.) "Ah. Yes, I guess that's about all you can do with that. French literature." He chuckles. (Well, you know part of that is that I can speak French, you know. And a little bit of Spanish. And a very little bit of Arabic. I'll be okay.) "Arabic! You could get a government job!" (I could. If I had to.) "Well anyway, it's at least different. From, you know, all the accountants, med students..." (Yeah, I get it). "Anyway. You seem like a smart girl. See you next time."

Yup, summer. See you then.

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