You May Feel a Sting

Art: © Mimi Watercolor Prints.

All the hygienists are in love with my dentist, and I don’t blame them. I’m a little in love with him myself.

“All right, buddy?” he said the last time I went in for a filling, and I cringed. Being called buddy makes me feel like I’m thirteen and the waiter is looking to see if I’ll be ordering from the grownup menu. He might as well have called me champ.

My hygienist, whose name was Summer—I remember this because she had on eyeliner the color of a sunset—gave me some sunglasses. Then she pushed a button and I whirred backwards so that I was facing the sky like an astronaut. Hoses and wires raided my mouth and two faces peered down at me. They wore goggles and headlamps. I looked past them at the TV on the ceiling: a peroxided lady who looked like one those telegenic right-wingers who’ve taken to yelling profanities at the president was talking to a mismatched couple—she pressed and polished, he with a bad case of rosacea—in an ill-lit living room. They were pointing at things and shaking their heads. “This is pretty dated,” the closed captioning under the peroxided lady said. “But don’t worry. I can make it new.”

My dentist scraped and sanded and drilled. My hygienist splashed and sucked and cured. They started chatting about office things, and I don’t know how this came up but at one point she asked him what his middle name was. I know what it means when girls ask you what your middle name is: it means they’re flirting.

“What does the F stand for?” she said.

“Franklin.” You could tell he hated it.


“But to be honest with you?” He scraped at something. “I’m this close to changing it to Fucking.”

She laughed, displacing the little vacuum she was holding so that it began pulling at my cheek.

“Been thinking about it for years,” he said. “Benjamin Fucking Gable. There are very few areas of life where you have complete autonomy, and choosing your own name is one of them. Your name and your kids’ names.”

She said something that I couldn’t hear because of the suction.

“Really,” he said. “I’ve given it a lot of thought. I think it’ll scare away the dilettantes. The window shoppers. People who just want white teeth so they’ll look good on their Insta. It’ll winnow our clientele down to only those with a sense of humor. The elect.”

“I swear I need a thesaurus around you,” she said. “I mean, I know what you’re saying, but… Were you always funny?”

“I used to be funny,” he said. “But dentistry’s nearly killed it. You ever go to a dentists’ convention? Worse than a funeral.”

She laughed again. He asked for some sort of wedge and shoved it into my mouth. “For the grandparent types I’ll say it’s pronounced Foo-keen, like it’s French.”

On the screen, a crew of hunky contractors was smashing up the mismatched couple’s house, crashing through kitchen cabinets, pulling a bathtub out of its socket like a dead tooth. I pictured the trucks they’d arrived in: huge white pickups, dirt-spattered, ladders and chains everywhere, Punisher decals.

There was music playing in the room. It was a ’90s alt-rock playlist: Smashing Pumpkins, Goo Goo Dolls, Radiohead. The first chords of an REM song came on, and my dentist said, “Turn this one up.”

I knew this song. It was a minor hit, not one of their big ones. My dentist began humming along with the bassline, and I tried to hum along, too. To show him I was cool, that I also liked this REM song whose name I didn’t quite know, that in another world he and I could be friends. But I could only make a sort of groaning sound. He probably thought I was in pain. I became conscious of my nose hairs: under the headlamps, they probably looked like seaweed lit by a submarine.

“You have the brain of a bass player,” Summer said. “Did you ever play bass?”

“Used to,” he said. “Don’t have time anymore.”

“I feel like girls really go for bass players.”

“Nah,” he said. “Bass players never get any of that sweet girly action. It’s always the lead singer, the guitarist, maybe the drummer. They’re the ones who get all the sweet girly action.”

“No way,” she said, laughing. “A guy tells me he’s a lead singer in a band, that’s a red flag for sure.” We lived in a music town: there were lots of people in bands. “I feel like bass players are more reliable,” Summer said, and she squirted some water at my teeth.

I was trying, and failing, not to swallow. I was getting anxious. Breathing from my chest instead of my belly like my therapist had taught me. When I get anxious, I get this terrible fear that I’m going to piss myself. It happens when I’m getting a haircut and sometimes on the subway. I’ve never actually done it, but I can’t help picturing what would happen if it did. I’d become a story they’d tell around the office. The guy who pissed himself in the dentists’ chair.

My dentist was talking about Pelotons. “They’re everywhere,” he said. “Even the place we’re staying in St. Barts next week.”

“What’s a Peloton?” Summer asked, but I’m pretty sure she knew.

“Stationary bike. With music. They’re for people who’re really into music.”

I’m really into music, I wanted to say. Cool music, even cooler than REM. At this time I was piloting a new a podcast about forgotten albums of the 1970s. I had the Gmail address of one of Bowie’s producers in my inbox. I was wearing a Throbbing Gristle t-shirt, for Christ’s sake.

I crossed and recrossed my legs. There was a warm feeling on the skin near my knee, but the way I was positioned it couldn’t be piss because it would have to flow uphill to get there. I had lost track of what was happening on the TV, and when I refocused I couldn’t make any sense of it. There were some older people milling around a bright yellow room, pointing at things and smiling. The buyers? Someone’s parents? Or was this a different show? I closed my eyes and tried to breathe through my stomach.

“Okay,” my dentist said. “Cure.” There was a heat in my mouth and I opened my eyes. A blue light was reflecting from the TV screen. It was coming from my mouth, that light, generating heat. I wondered if it was possible for gums to sweat.

Then I was whirring upright and my dentist was sitting on a stool beside me. He had taken his mask and dark glasses off, and his blue eyes shone on me like that blue light. He was probably around my age, this dentist, but he was aging better. Neat salt-and-pepper hair, bagless eyes, slender from all that Pelotoning. Summer was leaning against the sink, watching me.

“All right, buddy,” he said. “We’re done. You doing okay?”

“Yeah.” I brushed my crotch with the back of my hand. My forehead was sweating.

“You did great. The numbness will wear off in an hour or so. Take it easy tonight. Eat soft foods.”

“Uh-huh.” I didn’t move.

“Everything okay?”

“Listen, I—” I tried to swallow, but somehow the muscles went wrong and I started coughing. Summer handed me some water in a paper cup, but I just stared at her.

My dentist stood up. “Summer will check you out. There might be some pain for a few days. Maybe longer.”

Summer gave me a bright, professional smile, and it made me feel like a million bucks.

Mark Doyle is a professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University. He is the author or editor of four books on British and Irish history, most recently The Kinks: Songs of the Semi-Detached (Reaktion 2020). He has published fiction in Maudlin House and Pangyrus, and his story “Good New Teeth” won second place in Salamander’s 2022 short story contest. He is currently working on a book about John Cale’s album Paris 1919 for Bloomsbury’s music book series, 33 1/3.

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