City & Politics, Essay

The Social Beef: The dental exam

Two weeks ago I completely forgot I had a dentist appointment. 

The dental surgery did everything in their power to make sure I was there: they gave me an  appointment months in advance; I had a card with the time scribbled on the back; they called two days prior; and called again to ask why I was five minutes late. I had no excuses. I even had the time and date written on my office chalkboard. Not sure why I forgot, I just did. It’s one of life’s mysteries that will never be solved.

My appointment was for 3:45 p.m. on a Tuesday, let’s say. The phone rang at 3:50pm and the receptionist asked me if I was still planning on coming. I felt sick in the stomach that I a) was late for an appointment and b) had completely forgotten. In my panic-stricken state I felt obligated to make it up to them. So during the guilt-ridden phone call I decided to say, “I’ll be there in five minutes”, knowing full well it would take longer than five minutes to get there. Even if I ran, it’s eight to 10 minutes from my place to the dental clinic. On top of that, I still needed to freshen up and brush my teeth to hide any teeth flaws that may have been lurking; I was going in for one of those dental exams. 

Phone call ended. The receptionist was expecting me in five minutes. I quickly brushed, threw on some shoes and bolted out the door. I arrived all huffy and puffy (and lathered in a soft sweat) and made eye contact with the receptionist who looked more like a judge leaning over her mantle piece about to hit me with a guilty verdict. She shook her head.

“You’re too late. We can’t do the exam today. Sorry,” she said.

“Ah. What? Ok. I’m so sorry about that,” I said.

Then I saw the dentist lurking in the background, circling around his empty space like a Great White shark. He looked, shall we say, displeased. He approached the bench.

But, let’s back up shall we?

About three weeks prior to this appointment I was on the bus heading home with a bag of groceries. I got on and sat down. As I glanced over to my right, my dentist was sitting there with  a what looked like an 10-year old kid. If I were a betting man, I’d say it was his son, but I’m not and I don’t know if my dentist even has a son. But, for the sake of this story, let’s just say it is his son. Good? Ok.

It was the first public sighting I had of him. He looked, dare I say, normal?  He was wearing a plain black baseball cap, a light-coloured zig-zaggy polo shirt and baige shorts. On one side of his face, just under his sideburn he had a slight shaving nick. The blood had dried and looked more like a tiny crack. He looked like your average guy —  not like a doctor of teeth at all. And not just any set of teeth: my teeth.

I sat there for a few minutes debating: “should I say something? should I say hello?” Well, quite frankly, it’s not as easy as that. It’s a common dilemma we all face when we see someone like a dentist or a doctor away from their kingdom, the place where only they rule supreme, stripped of their gowns and masks and life-saving utensils. But why is it such a crime to say hello? Here’s why: forcing the conversation could have disastrous affects. What If I walked up and politely said something harmless such as, “ Oh, so what do you have planned later on this evening? Dinner with the wife?” What if his wife had passed away? Then perhaps something as innocent as, “Oh, I never knew you had a son?” The son could take offence that he is not known to his father’s patients. You have more to lose than the dentist does. You say the wrong thing, you could end up with a screw driver down your throat during the next check-up.

Three or so minutes went by and my dentist didn’t look over once; he was fixated on a conversation he was having with his son. Fair enough. I looked up a few times, but couldn’t land eye contact. Based on that, I decided to let the man enjoy his father-son time. I mean, really, why bug the man on his day off? If you do decide to muster up the strength to converse in this situation, my advice: keep it short. No dental talk. And make sure there is an end point in sight such as your bus stop. Anything longer than five minutes you are asking for trouble. Why? The roles become crooked. Inside the dental clinic it’s clear: I’m the patient (here is my problem), he is the dentist, (I will fix your problem). But outside of that we both become regular humans and that’s when it gets muddy. It becomes awkward, privacy is a priority (for the dentist) and ready-made seamless conversation is lost. You have to dig for things to talk about and that’s hard work.

Fast forward two weeks and I’m stuck between a flustered receptionist sifting through her black book looking for another time to slot me in for a rescheduled appointment and a dentist ready to pounce on me for missing the appointment.

Breaking the silence was the dentist. He slapped his fist down on the bench. “Bang!”

He casually strolled up and said:

“So, did you get all the groceries you needed?”

Here I thought he was going give me a good old-fashioned lecture (and rightly so) about missing appointments. I was wrong.

“Ah, good? (and then it sunk in). So that was you on the bus that day,” I replied with a nervous-awkward laugh as if I was having one of those outer-body experiences.

Then, like dust, he disappeared off into the background like nightfall back into the world of mouth mirrors, lip props and drills.

The receptionist then piped up.

“Your appointment is for October. Want me to write that down?”

“Ah, yes, please,” I said.

“You’ll remember this time?” she said.

“Yes. Won’t forget.”

___

If you have any questions you’d like us to talk about send your queries to: justinrobertson79@gmail.com

Justin Robertson is a freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter: @justinjourno

Illustration by Sarah Jennings.

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