To Betsy, My Once and Future Dental Hygienist, If You’ll Have Me BackBy Luke Kelly-Clyne
May 14, 2011
I’m sorry. She wasn’t as good as you. I’m sorry. I should have remembered. When I called the office, I was busy. At work. Preoccupied. And when the receptionist asked who I’d like to do my cleaning, I didn’t say. Well, I did say. I just didn’t say you. “Whoever.” That’s what I said. But, you’re not whoever, Betsy. You’re Betsy. You’re bright-eyed Betsy whose political views contour to my every whim, my six-day-old New York Times headline references. You’re bright-eyed Betsy who probes the innermost depths of my gaping mouth, while you delicately spelunk into the pixilated mishmosh of warped Senifeldian memories that is my searching soul. When I don’t want the fluoride rinse, you understand. “There’s fluoride in water, anyway!” we both say. And laugh. And you don’t mention the time I got cornrows in the eighth grade. You said they looked “hip”. Then. That’s what you said. Remember, Betsy? But you haven’t mentioned them since. I appreciate it. You should know. We talk about other things instead of the cornrows. Vacation days. Sleep. Your daughter, the physician’s assistant. She’s pretty. When you turn your back to fill the cup of water I use to rinse, I tilt my head toward the framed photo of her. The one you keep next to the Crest and the demo of the electric, Oral-B electric toothbrush I can’t afford. I tilt because she’s beautiful and forbidden, but I also tilt in deference, Betsy. In deference to a wonderful, gentle, thorough mother, daughter, wife, and, most of all, hygienist. You’re Betsy, and I wasn’t in my right mind.
I’m sorry. You saw me walking with her, the other hygienist. I’m sorry. I don’t even know her name. But I know your eyes. I saw them. Betrayed hazel globes. Your bleached blond bob looked gray in that moment, under the torrid halogen lights. Still, your form was flawless. You stood next to a man gagging on an X-ray tray, but it was as if you were all alone, on a cliff on the Isle of Man. Your green scrubs might have been tailored, royal garb, sewn from the finest silk. The waterpik in your hand, an ivory baton of cleanliness—plucked straight from the drawer of Dentis, the Greek god of dental care. But your face couldn’t tell the lies your form could. It was drawn and your lips were dry and cold and your swallow was hard and deep and wallowing. And I saw it all. I didn’t say a thing. I couldn’t. I wanted to, but I was embarrassed and cowardly. I just went on with her. The other hygienist. Her. Her. My rough-flossing, small-talking Siren—WHOEVER. And she didn’t know me. She didn’t know us. How we did things. She’ll never know.
I’m sorry. Oh Betsy, it was horrible. I’m sorry. I tried not to think of you. I lay down and made conversation, but it meant nothing. Not with her. She put her gloves on quickly. Too quickly. Like she didn’t want me to see her hands. It was all so antiseptic. Antiseptic conversations about her San Antonio relatives visiting for the weekend. She had no beautiful, Physician’s assistant daughter. All she had were Texans. Texans who had never seen the East River. Texans who wanted matinee tickets to Spamalot and probably spun around looking up at big buildings. Awed in Times Square. It was all passionless. She chiseled away at my plaque as if she were working her second straight day in a Pennsylvanian coalmine. She was nothing like you. You dust my dental debris away, like a sculptor wiping loose shards from her masterpiece. And it got worse. Much worse—a perverse exercise in maxillofacial mind games, in fact. She asked me questions and left the suction straw in my mouth while I tried to answer. She didn’t take it out, like you. She left the cotton swabs in there too. How insane she was. I wonder if she even wanted to hear what I had to say. Oh, and, Betsy, she remembered the cornrows. She must have seen them years ago. When I was with you. She wanted to use them against me I think, taunting me from behind her paper mask of sinister guile. She knew she’d made me self-conscious, but she kept on. “There was a do-rag, as I remember?” That’s what she said, and the wrinkles under her eyes told everything about the spiteful smile she thought I couldn’t see. So? You knew there was a do-rag too. And we knew. And it was like we’d never known and would never need to know.
I’m sorry, Betsy. When we finished, I walked out into the reception area alone. I’m sorry. She didn’t come with me. Not like you. It was only me. And my gums were sore. And the receptionist wasn’t at her desk. And two copies of the same Architectural Digest sat beside a Sports Illustrated. On the dusty waiting room carpet. Uncreased. Unread. Unmolested by human hands and, at the same time, thoughtlessly ruined by them. Discarded. Ignored. And, in that moment, I ached, and my gums bled a little, and I was scared of losing the memories of you. For a breath, it was like you had never even been there at all. Then, I remembered. Now, I remember. And, Betsy, I’ll never forget again.
It’s the conversation that can’t be replaced. You’re stuck there with your mouth open, and you can’t say anything, and here’s this hygienist who gets a free pass at telling you whatever passes through her transom at any given time. It can be tough.
Betsy sounds like a winner to me. The good news: there’s always another cleaning around the corner.
Thanks for reading, Art, and for the welcome!
When I don’t want the fluoride rinse, you understand.