Joyland

The Midwest |

The Hygienist

by Ben Hoffman

edited by Anna Prushinskaya

Editor's Note: This story is part of Joyland's Michigan stories series. Come back throughout April for more Michigan stories.

“Do you grind your teeth,” the Hygienist asked, but Callie didn’t answer because the Hygienist was fiddling in her mouth, and because Callie knew the Hygienist already knew about the teeth grinding. The Hygienist had taken photographs inside Callie’s mouth, and they were now blown up larger than necessary on the screen. The Hygienist had also scanned the questionnaire Callie had filled out in the waiting room. On the form, Callie had admitted to irregular flossing, so the Hygienist knew about this, too. The Hygienist knew everything.

“We can make you a special nightguard,” the Hygienist told Callie. “It’s expensive but it is very worth it.” The Hygienist was from somewhere else, perhaps Romania, and she had long hair that was nearly white. During initial cleaning, Callie felt the Hygienist had withheld the water squirt from her sandy mouth, and now this. The Hygienist removed the tool from Callie’s mouth and pointed to the screen. Callie’s teeth sat like canyon boulders, eroded and yellow. Callie looked away at the mouthwash station, the toothbrushes, but the Hygienist tapped her tool against Callie’s giant teeth until Callie looked at them. “Bad habit, so, we will make a mold of your mouth, we will get you the nightguard, you will wear it in the night, then you will not grind your teeth.”

“It’s because of my boyfriend,” Callie said, “that I grind my teeth.” Callie didn’t know why she’d said this—she did not have a boyfriend—but she didn’t like the Hygienist’s response. The Hygienist just shrugged, as if to say, what do you expect? Coffee will stain your teeth, boys will grind them.

“Should I dump him?” Callie asked. The Hygienist leaned over Callie and returned to work. They asked you questions—Oh, you like that part of town?—while your mouth was full and expected an answer, but here was the Hygienist with nothing in her mouth but perfect, white teeth, and she wouldn’t answer.

Around the tool, Callie said, “I said, do you think I should dump him?”

The Hygienist lifted Callie’s tongue and tugged. “How can I say?” said the Hygienist. “I am not your therapist. Do you love him? I barely know him.”

Callie imagined the Hygienist barely meeting this boyfriend she’d conjured up. It was probably only a mangling of words, owing to the Hygienist being from someplace else.

“I do love him. He’s beautiful. But he makes me grind my teeth.” Callie tried to picture this beautiful boy but all she saw were her exes, each cruel and ugly.

The Hygienist exited Callie’s mouth and looked at her questionnaire. She smiled. “Do you floss regularly?” Before Callie could answer the jabber was back, jabbing at her tender gums. “I see here some plaque build up. You should have taken care of this before. But we will help you. Maybe your boyfriend can remind you to floss, if you don’t dump him.”

“He’s mean to me,” Callie tried to say around the jabbing. “He calls me fat.” The Hygienist stabbed at Callie’s gums. “Am I fat?” Callie squeezed her stomach, trying to make it fat. It wasn’t, not at all, though an ex had said this.

“I am also not your nutritionist,” said the Hygienist.

Callie was determined to end the Hygienist’s indifference, to force her to pick a side, to recommend a break-up. She had plenty of ammo. “He cheats on me,” Callie said. Practically every boy had cheated on her.

The Hygienist scoffed. “Everyone cheats on everyone. You have cheated on your floss.”

“Here’s why I grind my teeth. Sometimes I wake up at night and my boyfriend’s trying to kiss me. But he’s drooling on me, because he’s still asleep.” Callie scrolled through her exes, trying to think whose wet hot breath it had been. She couldn’t remember, which seemed worse than the fact that it had happened. “I can’t wake him up. I think he’s only pretending to be asleep, then later pretending not to remember. Or is this a condition? Did you even go to med school?”

The Hygienist said, “Keep the nightguard in. It will make it difficult for him to kiss you.”

The computer was zoomed in on a single molar, bigger than Callie’s head; it looked like it had been caught in the act of something. Callie shivered; was the Hygienist fiddling with the temperature? She felt like a small child, like the Hygienist was fiddling with time itself.

“Please, what should I do? I need you to help me.” She was desperate to know.

“I have told you, wear the nightguard. It will keep your teeth safe from your boyfriend and from each other.”

“But does he love me?” Callie tried to scream. “Please, that’s all I want to know.”

But the Hygienist was doing something funny in Callie’s mouth. She had several instruments in there. She touched some place in the back, past where she should have been able to reach. It felt like she was boring holes in Callie’s mouth, and Callie understood she would never know if this fake boy loved her, or if any boy had. She’d lost.

The Hygienist said, “I am not your therapist. I am not even your dentist. She will be here soon. Do not ask her because she can’t stay long. She has many patients to take care of.” Callie felt her drool all over her chin. The Hygienist took Callie’s bib and wiped her chin and patted her lips. “Don’t worry, we will take care of you too. I am going to make a mold of your mouth now. Breathe deeply. Later I will get rid of the build up. It will hurt but we will make you feel better. We will get you a nightguard.”

On the edge of her vision Callie saw sparks shooting. She believed the Hygienist was turning her teeth black, but she didn’t want to stop her. That would be alright. She closed her eyes and let the Hygienist do her magic. She waited for the dentist. She remembered the boy who had kissed her in her sleep. He’d been tall and thin, almost skeletal, with nervous eyes, and she wondered who, in his dreams, he’d thought he was kissing, who that girl had been.