My first clue that something was wrong was the extreme pain on the right side of my face. Not being one to jump to conclusions, I waited a day while the pain intensified and spread to my right ear and the right side of my neck. Once the pain had gotten worse, I decided that something had to be done. But being a chicken shit, I waited one extra day to see if I could tough it out until the tooth died and the pain subsided on its own.
Since I am in San Diego at the moment, I wondered if I could make it long enough to get back to Seattle and have the work done there. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be in agony for the next several days, plus do a two-day train ride ingesting fist-fulls of anti-inflammatories every four hours. Now that it’s all done, I’m in a better position to see the irony. Before the procedure, your jaw hurts and you can’t chew on one side. Afterwards, your jaw hurts and you still can’t chew on one side. But for a different reason. I think that’s the essence of modern medicine: in exchange for money, you get a nice-sounding reason for your pain.
Of course, there really was no alternative but to see the dentist. I did consider acupuncture, but I don’t like needles, and if I’m going to get stuck with one, it’s going to have drugs in it. When he got me in the chair, I told him about the pain all over the right side of my face. He started poking me with iron spikes. Then he told me to open my mouth. This is not uncommon in people who are meeting me for the first time.
Once he isolated the tooth that was in pain he banged on it with a metal rod. This was to confirm that I was in pain. I was pretty sure about being in pain, and I thought I had conveyed that with sincerity, but I guess we disagreed. Now he was sure, so he left. His assistant pressed an x-ray camera against my cheek, put a playing card in my mouth, and laid a lead apron over my torso. She said it made quite the statement. I thought so too. It said, “I’m in the kitchen, but don’t eat what I’m cooking.”
The dentist came back in shortly thereafter with the results. The x-rays confirmed it. “We’ll need to go into the living tissue and remove the decayed parts. So we’ll need to do root canal treatment.”
I enjoyed that the dentist called it root canal “treatment.” Root canal treatment is like a spa treatment, only with comically-oversized needles and drills instead of hot towels and Swedes.
(Grammar fans: did I mean “hot [towels and Swedes]” or “[hot towels] and Swedes?”)
A root canal, for those who don’t know, is a dental procedure that dentists recommend when tooth decay gets into the roots of the tooth, where nerves and tiny blood vessels are. To save the tooth, the dentist drills away all the rotten stuff and pretty much everything else and opens up enough space to put in some new condominiums.
Once the tooth is completely hollowed out, they fill it in and put a crown on it. It’s called a crown because by the time you have one, your tooth is a shell that’s dead inside, which is a perfect metaphor for most royal families in the West. Thus I have proven that I can make toothless remarks about systems of government whilst writing about my toothless teeth. Somebody get me a Pulitzer.
With the confirmation that a root canal was necessary, I was directed to an endodontist, and was fortunate enough to be seen the very same day, depending upon your definition of the word “fortunate.”
I was quite nervous about this procedure because, when I was younger, people would speak of root canals the same way they would speak of jumping into a vat of cactii or voiding roses out your urethra or dating my first girlfriend. I imagined it to be an ordeal. It was the Biblical plague God would have rained upon the Egyptians had the deaths of every firstborn Egyptian boy not put the exclamation point on the sentence.
Maybe during the Reagan years, it lived up to the hype. Advances in technology have rendered it merely boring. In fact, I think I may have fallen asleep during the procedure. When I woke up there were Risk pieces all over my face and the assistant was struggling mightily to take Russia. So there you have it. Root canal treatment is boring for everyone involved. So boring that it makes Risk seem fun.
I was conscious for the root canal except for the parts when I wasn’t. But I was also numb as shit, a comparison I cannot begin to comprehend but somehow conveys my meaning. I was numb to my right ear and my right eye. I couldn’t blink it but I squinted periodically and out-of-sync with my other eye. In my head I imagined my eye rooming free, unmoored by a liter of novocaine. To someone looking at me I must have looked like that picture of Sarte--the one where his right eye is looking straight at you, but his left one is doing its best but just can’t help looking in a direction absolutely perpendicular to the picture plane. He was French so I bet there was some hot chick over there he wanted to tap but had to take a minute to have his picture snapped before he spit his existentialist game at her. If I could will my eyes to do that I would do it in every picture.
I would also spit existentialist game at every opportunity. I would tell the ladies, “It’s quantity, not quality.” I haven’t crunched the numbers, but when calculated as a function of quality, you’d have to fuck me an awful lot of times to make it worthwhile. I’m sure there’s a theoretical point at which the time investment renders the whole endeavor unethical from a Camusian perspective. Thankfully my girlfriend hasn’t read The Myth of Sisyphus. Apparently many other women before her did—I’m looking at you, Eva Mendes. Perpendicularly. But I digress.
So, before injecting the contents of Noriega’s evidence locker into my face, the doctor had to confirm the dentist’s diagnosis. This involved a series of ludicrous tests designed to amuse his friends at the New Year’s party.
He wanted to test the other teeth in the area to make sure they were okay, which required a chew test. I thought perhaps I would get to chew something tasty but it turned out to be cotton-flavored cotton. This was to confirm that I would be in horrible pain if I bit down hard on something with my bad tooth.
Then he said, now we’re going to try some cold air. I had to laugh, which is all you can do when kicked in the face by the absurd. What’s next, I wondered--ice?
At which point he did, in fact, find some ice--to test, he said, my cold sensitivity. This is when I formed the opinion that Gary Larson was right and the doctor was just putting things in my mouth because he could. And that I would probably believe even the most absurd justifications when they came out of a mouth affixed to a face sitting on a neck emerging from a smock.
The ice he used, I was told, was tetrafluoroethylene, a refrigerant also used to make teflon. I advised his assistant that I didn’t know about the tetra but I could taste the fluoro. And I could. It tasted like toothpaste. I asked the doctor why he couldn’t have given me some ice cream instead of giving me the stuff we use to keep it frozen. He did not respond in any way that a human responds to another human. I got the impression he was not interested in my suggestions and in general did not think I was terribly funny. This could be because I was still white-knuckle-clenching the armrests from when he stabbed my jaw with a needle once used by NASA to land men on the moon. I think it offended him.
The rest of it was no big deal. I’ve had cavities filled and I’m used to the drill, though I didn’t know that drills came in a variety of sizes and textures. They make a drill that hums. They make one that grinds. Another one buzzes. I can imagine dentists staying up very late at night drooling over the next drill bit they want to add to their collection. “This one drills wide, shallow holes. And this one smells like Hawaiian Punch when you use it!”
After a while I got bored by all the drilling and asked for some headphones, which they graciously supply to their patients. That was nice because I could hear the drilling from the inside instead of through the outside of my head, which was okay because my ear was so numb I’m not sure it was working properly anyway. Is it possible to hear perpendicularly?
And they put a giant piece of rubber around my tooth. The doctor called it a dental dam. He actually called it that. A dental dam. I foresaw a future in which prostitution and health care are both entitlements provided by the federal government. A technician sterilizes everything and everyone by coating them with prophylactics to prevent either an outbreak or a lawsuit or an orgasm. The rubber sheet was intended to isolate the tooth and keep it sterile. It’s a green sheet stretched over a yellow plastic rectangle, and it turns the area into a verdant patch that sprouts rotten teeth, like a garden in Hell.
The doc also stuck a bunch of metal rods into the tooth, which I think was to improve radio reception on my headphones and may have had some other purposes too. Maybe it delivered DirecTV to the condos in my mouth. On an x-ray snapped during the procedure my molar looked like a Transformer from that godawful Michael Bay flick--you know, all angles bent on no purpose.
Anyway, as I said, the rest of the procedure is very dull. After it was over I genuinely thanked the doctor and his assistant for putting up with me. Then I paid them. That’s usually how I get people to put up with me. It’s never on a volunteer basis.
It won’t surprise you to know that I am now at home. As of this writing, it’s been ninety minutes since I got out of the chair. The novocaine was injected four hours ago. I also had four injections of lidocaine during the procedure. When I touch my face, it feels like the marshmallow coating on the outside of a Hostess snowball. I haven’t looked in a mirror yet, so perhaps part of the treatment involved affixing shelf-stable pastry to my face as a punishment for that ice cream remark. I can only imagine what it would feel like if I’d seen a proctologist. In my mind I imagine Twinkie wrappers everywhere. I’m sure he would give me an acceptable-sounding reason for doing it, too. “That keeps the patient in a festive mood once the novocaine wears off and it starts to ache” or something like that. And I’m sure I would believe it.