“Ask them questions with your hands in their mouth” was all it took. A
joke-suggestion from a colleague.
It took your entire life, so far, to get here. Multiple—no, numerous
all-nighters, where on top of your course load you added MCAT and TDAT
practice exams, extracurricular practice courses, Habitat for Humanity
volunteering, Sunday School teaching, etc. All while maintaining a
pristine driving (and social) record.
Your CV is pristine. You would have been accepted to any competitive
research or medical or nursing related graduate program you deemed
worthy of your application.
Dentistry made sense. You are a musician, after all. Stable, articulate
hands. Hands guided by a stable, articulate man from a stable,
unconditionally loving family embedded in a stable, unconditionally
self-embedded community and church.
Hands that are cool in uncomfortable spaces. Hands that have large
demands placed on them each time you, the one that guides those hands,
picks up a guitar, or mandolin, or ukulele, or any stringed instrument
that has frets. Hands that are tools. Hands that can certainly be relied
upon to accomplish a task as simple as pulling out a tooth or putting a
fake tooth where it’s supposed to go, (again) guided by a mind that is
certainly able to foreground the knowledge of where those hands can and
cannot cut with a scalpel at all times. Hands that people trust to be
inside their mouths when they are fully conscious or under the needle.
Hands that got you through Dental School and then guided you through
your additional Master’s in Periodontology with a dancer’s leading
“Ask them questions when you are checking their gums,” he said. You
were in a study group. You sat with it, unknowingly, for years, when one
day you asked:
“How are the kids?”
“Theha dowhe whel!”
“Please don’t talk, it makes my job harder.”
The lamplight dotted their pupils. Their eyebrows sharpened to a V for a
moment, then inverted, before finally relaxing. A look of anger that
dissolved into helpless confusion, and then defeat, as their face
reflexively congealed around your left index and left thumb, which were
placed in such a manner as to enable full view of their top right canine
and lower right bicuspid. A fit of laughter came over you that could
only be suppressed by letting your face crack behind your mask to a look
of open mouthed, psychotic glee.
You were hiding in your office, laughing almost silently and out of
breath, when your assistant came to inform of a cancellation. Thank god.
You told her you were doing lumbar stretches when she saw you on the
floor, and that you were going to take lunch. The mask cracked right
when the door closed. Your higher motor and emotional functions either
suppressed by, or simply being redirected toward, the experience of this
meta-ironic, gleefully destructive joy. You had barely gotten through
the standard operating procedure, which incidentally, was typed up from
boilerplate by that same assistant for all new hires to read and
The rest of your workday passed without incident. It wasn’t until the
night that the guilt came.
This had been a total abuse of your privilege as a medical professional.
An intentional abuse, evident even to your most naïve moral sense. Until
now, most nights you slept with greed, with thirst, parched and
exhausted from your workday, and unbothered by any minor quips of your
Until now: tonight you dreamt of your place in the universe. Tonight
your consciousness and conscience, your naïve moral sense, held the
reigns, and were going to guide those typically loosely related, easily
forgotten night time images in a way that could only be described as an
You saw the clockwork universe, the inner workings of it built with a
precision that in regards to the sig figs or zeros or decimal places
that were factored into each calculation by whatever deity designed it,
could only be ball-park represented with the amount of decimals
currently found in transcendental numbers. Everything rulebound and
non-contradictory or even non-contrary, a best of all possible realities
up until… You zoomed out from yourself in bed and saw everything. 30
years. 30 rotations on the tiny blue dot around the less tiny yellow dot
around the less tiny hole in space time around the even less tiny hole
in spacetime. The most significant part of which was you, whose
significance was shown to be inverse with your size. You who, free
willed yet informed by your moral intuition, decided to ignore that
information and intentionally knocked all of that ever so slightly off
its axis, entailing consequences more and more dire the more you
projected into the future.
“Should be a good game tonight.”
“Tsk Tsk, this will go faster if you don’t talk!”
Since then, every day, you have done this. You justified it, it was too
late to go back now, after all. At first, it was one a day, then two,
then three, and now it is every single one.
Now, every patient that comes into your office gets asked a small-talk
question with your hands in their mouth. Then, you condescendingly
request that they not speak while you are operating, implying that it is
simple decency and common courtesy by your tone of voice, implying they
are stupid for even reflexively attempting to reply. Then you spend five
to ten minutes in your office laughing silently and hysterically and
filled with a perverse joy you had never felt before in your life.
“I was speaking to my hygienist, please don’t talk.”
You have no clue how to explain this to anyone. You can’t reach out to
your wife, your kids, or your colleagues. You ambitiously try
substituting this addiction for one people will understand. One you can
explain, that people would feel sorry for and find tragic instead of
just pathetic. People would find it a total affirmation of an annoying
stereotype that all dental surgeons and hygienists of proper
professional discipline work so hard to eliminate. Professionals that
you’ve betrayed alongside your patients.
The lazy Pharmacy Assistant is easy to pick out, you already knew them.
You spend 3 hours looking at the prescription pad before writing your
signature: prescribing your wife 30mg of oxycontin for tooth ache. A
ridiculous amount, as if you wanted to get caught but you didn’t. One
week later you throw the medication in the trash as all it does is make
you fall into an unrestful sleep, woozy. You don’t even have the
literal stomach or liver or whatever required to get yourself physically
addicted to one of, if not the most, habit forming drugs ever made, a
type of drug that is so appealing and just good feeling and anxiety and
pain reducing that 47,000 people a year in the United States literally
kill themselves using it, it’s so good. You are blessed with a lack of
appetite for painkillers that most addicts would murder for, and this
doesn’t comfort or relieve you at all. It makes your situation seem
even more uniquely yours, you have never felt more alone, and are
immediately back to asking your patients questions with your hands in
their mouths, cataloguing their reactions with photographic detail,
hysterically laughing in your office until the next patient, then doing
it again to the next one and the next.
“Played 18 rounds with your husband on saturday. Beautiful weather!”
“Sorry, Collette, I have to ask that you refrain from talking while
The feeling of guilt doesn’t settle in until around 7 PM each night.
The darkening sky alters your mood or maybe better represents it. Your
heart rate increases as activity winds down, you recall each face in
reverse order, from most recent to the first, and imagine them also
recalling the incident of malpractice now that their day is also winding
down and they have time to mentally file the day’s events. Your
actions, previously suppressed by whatever events of their day took
precedence, now precipitate in their mind, but they maybe haven’t yet
figured out that you do it to all your patients.
You imagine two of your patients in conversation, hiding their
embarrassment from one another at your violation of their trust until
the subject is accidentally broached.
“Looks like it’s gonna be an early fall!”
“The weaves in my yawd ar-“
“Ah, a chatterbox! I’m gonna have to ask that you not try and talk.”
They investigate the rest of your clientele, perhaps through subverting
your firewall and downloading your catalogue of requisitions or maybe
from simple word of mouth, an ad in the paper. Within a week hundreds
have banded together and are either filing a class action lawsuit
against you or have formed a lynch mob and are at your front door. The
respective scenarios end with you losing your practice, divorced, and
homeless, or torn to pieces by your mob-mentality possessed patients. In
both scenarios your name goes down in all textbooks related to
healthcare ethics and is used as an adjective for this type of abuse.
Both scenarios in your mind are totally reasonable and justified. It is
far too late to turn back. There is nothing you can do to appease the
people you’ve done irreparable mental harm to already, a list that is
now in the hundreds. You can only keep going. The situation is binary,
and you’ve permanently sealed off the best of all possible precisely
because that is the world and timeline where you never asked a patient a
question with your hands in their mouth.
“Nice lineup on the pay-per-view this Saturday.”
“Yewah I’m whooting fo-“
“Sir please refrain from talking while I am working.”
Tonight’s nightmare concludes something for you. You are in your
office, strapped to one of the GD-350D Dental Chair Unit with Light &
Monitor, all lights off except for the lamp above your face which has
been modified to reach a luminescence far past what you believe to be
the maximum brightness setting. Your patients slowly file in out of the
vantablack darkness, each with a GD-350D Dental Chair Lamp floating just
above and in front of their heads and somehow alternating between
startlingly clear LED and black light. Hands, gloved in latex, are
hanging from their faces, attached almost spider like and on each side,
and are stretching their mouths to the exact proportion you had
manipulated their faces to when you violated and scarred them and
destroyed any possibility of this world being the best of all possible
worlds. When you asked them—some drool. They are silent, and then form
two lines circling through your office, approaching either side of your
chair. Each sticking their gloved hands in your mouth and manipulating
it in a way where you blubber “I don’t know,” when they cheerfully
ask you the following question for the rest of your nights: What do you
think it is going to be like when you are burning in hell?