The year was 2005.
Johnny Carson and Pope John Paul died that year, as did 1,392 people along the Mississippi Gulf coast due to Hurricane Katrina. Microsoft released the XBox360. Prince Charles finally married Camilla Parker-Bowles. The words “glamping” and “sexting” entered the common lexicon. And I went to the dentist.
I was recently divorced and living hand to mouth. I was living in a tiny attic apartment I was renting from a friend of a friend, and I owned a small bookstore I was trying to make work while also delivering pizza at night. Most days, I would stagger in late at night, eat some leftover pizza I had gotten at work, and then crash into bed. It was not the high point of my life.
But on this particular night, I had a rare night off, and a book had come in at the store I had wanted to read. I came home, opened a bottle of red wine, made popcorn, and curled up on the couch with my book.
That was when I heard the tooth crunch. I had bit down on an unpopped kernel and an old crown the Marines had paid for 13 years before finally decided it was time to go, taking part of my tooth with it. I felt parts of my brain, it hurt so bad.
I did not sleep that night.
The next day, I was telling a woman who worked at my store about it and how I didn’t know what to do because I was so broke. She told me I should go to her dentist.
“He always lets me make payments. He’s great. I’ll call him and make an appointment for you.”
On the day I showed up at the dentist, the staff was delightful and welcoming. I signed in, and nobody mentioned money. I went back and sat in the dentist’s chair, and the hygienist looked at my teeth – nobody mentioned money. The dentist came in and looked at my teeth – and nobody mentioned money.
I stopped him. I said that my friend had said he was her dentist, and that he always allowed her to make payments, and that money was tight for me, so I needed to know how much this was going to cost and that I would be allowed to make payments on it before he did any actual work. He waved it off.
“We’ll work it out,” he said. Reassured, I laid back down, and he went to work on my mouth.
I no longer remember exactly what he did, but I do recall that when I went to the counter to check out, they told me I owed more than $600. I almost fainted.
I explained that I understood I was going to make payments. They called in the office manager, who in a loud voice informed me they never took payments and that all money owed was due at the time of the service. To emphasize her point, she dramatically pointed at a front desk sign announcing this policy.
All of this happened in full view of everyone in the waiting room, who were now staring at me.
I absolutely hate feeling poor or stupid, and I now felt both of those things. Standing in that waiting room, belittled by the office manager, with a mouth packed full of gauze and a numb lower lip, and drool seeping from the corner of my mouth, I felt humiliated. People who did not know me were judging me, and while I had (barely) enough money in my account to pay the bill, it meant my rent would be late that month.
I paid the bill. I lived on ramen for a week, and the following week, I moved up to generic mac and cheese, subbing water for milk and butter. It didn’t taste better than the ramen, but it was bulkier. My rent was late, which started a riff with the landlord, leading to my eventually moving to even shittier accommodations.
And the dentist had told me at the time that whatever he did to my mouth was temporary, and on this, he told the gospel truth – within a year, parts of that tooth were crumbling when I ate tortilla chips. Luckily, this time, it did not hurt. I did not return to the dentist when this occurred.
In fact, despite the cracking and breaking of three more teeth, it would be 18 years before I would go back to the dentist. I hate everything about it. Although easily 90% of what a dentist does is confined to less than 15 standard procedures, there is no price list posted anywhere, and you have no idea how much it will cost before you show up. Will it be $65 or $6,000? Who knows? Not me, that’s who.
And whenever I would think about going back to the dentist, I felt stupid and poor all over again. I flashed back to standing at that counter, being humiliated by an office manager with a power complex. I remembered being stared at by the people in the waiting room and the hush that fell over the room as she berated me. I imagined the scene replaying, magnified by my even poorer teeth and inflation.
So, I didn’t go back for 18 years.
But these days, I’m trying to take better care of myself. It doesn’t hurt that I’m earning a living wage and have health insurance. So, a few weeks ago, I searched until I found a dentist in my town with a published price list.
This is why I finally had two rotten, broken teeth removed last Thursday, 18 years after my last visit to the dentist.
It only cost me $240. And 18 years.
One thought on “2005”
Glad you’re going to the dentist! And as always, I enjoyed reading your blog.