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Dentist, n.: A prestidigitator who, putting metal in one's mouth, pulls coins out of one's pockets.

-- Ambrose Bierce

I was surrounded by glittering green shamrocks, some made of tinsel, others of poster-board. To my left were tea and cookies. Who would eat a cookie here? A girl's head popped up from behind the counter. "May I help you?" she asked.

"Yeah, I'm a little early for my appointment. Is there any paperwork I need to fill out?"

"No, just have a seat and someone will be right with you."

"It's cool, I'm in no hurry," I said. Not 30 seconds later I heard my name being called -- this time, the voice was coming from the doorway to the right of the counter.

Here we go.

By the time I turned 16, I had misplaced my two front teeth, or parts of them, six times. Along with the trauma of falling on my face so frequently came the miserable mending imposed by the man I now associate with tremendous pain, horror, and disgust -- the dentist. Even though he's made things better, somewhere between fillings and fixings, my anxiety grew. And grew.

I chipped my porcelain incisor well over a decade ago (shortly after it had been implanted when I was 16) but still refuse to have it bonded. Two years ago, headaches drove me to have my wisdom teeth removed. The surgery, or post-surgery, tested my budding relationship with David, as he discovered how I react to pain -- not very gracefully. After surviving the removal of my vestigial molars, I parlayed my newfound courage into making an appointment to have some of my more serious cavities filled -- a procedure that ultimately required two equally nightmarish visits to the office of my longtime dentist, Dr. M.

On neither occasion, however, did I actually see Dr. M., who has become so popular that his office is full of associates. When I arrived for the first appointment, I was fairly relaxed. It was an early appointment, and I hadn't thought to eat anything (miraculously, I avoided the tempting cookies in the lobby).

"I need extra Novocain; I don't want to feel anything. I wish you could just knock me out," I said when the young man in white arrived at my side. He assured me I wouldn't feel anything, to which I said, "Right. Sure. Tell me one I haven't heard." Anesthetizing fluid was injected into my gums and cheek. "I can still feel my cheek!" I announced when I thought he was about to begin. My heart rate leapt.

I bit obsessively at my lip. Can I feel that? How about this? Too late: there he was, in my mouth, grinding my tooth with a tool, vibrating my skull, giving me goose bumps, and then...I couldn't deal. My hands, which had been clutching the arms of the chair, began to shake involuntarily. I tried to escape by pushing my head farther back into vinyl. The drill stopped.

"Are you all right?" The words were drowned out by the sound of my heart beating in my ears. When I opened my mouth to answer, I broke down in a fit of sobs; the man in the white coat and his female assistant shared a look over their mouth-masks before the man said, "We're going to give you a few minutes." Great. Now, on top of completely freaking out, I am utterly humiliated, I thought as I attempted to gather myself.

When I returned a few weeks later for that second filling I was told my anxiety may have been exacerbated by an empty stomach and the type of Novocain used. This time, they said, "We'll try something different." But this time, the anesthetic wore off halfway through the filling process.

"UNGH! AAAAAHGGLLLUUHH!" I screeched through the crap in my mouth. Hands quickly retreated from my mouth.

"What is it?" asked a different young man in white.

"I can FEEL that!" Traumatized by this new possibility of feeling pain in addition to those horrendous vibrations, my eyes again let loose the embarrassing flow. Fuck, not again, I thought, and, shaking like a chihuahua in a snowstorm, I excused myself to the restroom.

Despite my tenacious tooth decay, I refused to return. Then, last week, this jaw thing happened. David said I've been clenching my jaw and gnashing my teeth in my sleep. He suggested that stress could be the cause of my self-inflicted torment. A month's increasing discomfort had climaxed into a crescendo of exquisite pain; last week, it got to the point where I could not open my mouth in the morning without sickening spasms shooting through my head on the left side of my face, where my jaw meets my skull. As though caving in to a torturer's demands, through winces and moans I lifted the receiver and called the madman and his minstrels.

"Remember me?" I said to the voice on the line.

"Of course we do, Barb. You've been coming here since you were ten."

"Remember the last few times I was in?" I asked the voice. "You know how I get," I said, my own voice beginning to shake with the memory of the last two visits.

"Yes," he said, "yes, that's right. You know what? I'm going to call in a prescription for you. Are you allergic to Valium?" I gave him the phone number of the pharmacy down the street, and he advised me to take a pill an hour before my appointment.

I received six pills -- probably a minimum number required for a prescription. As an experiment, I took one the next day. I

didn't physically feel any different, but David said the change in me was awe-inspiring and half-seriously suggested I get a permanent dose of the calming drug. That day, a handful of things occurred that would normally freak me out -- for one, my car wouldn't start, and I had to part with a huge chunk of money to have a mechanic come out and replace the starter on a Saturday. Remarkably, being away from tasks and chores to hang out and watch some guy fix my car for an hour did not bother me. Whereas on any other day, I would have bitten my nails to the nub, clenched my jaw so tight it would have snapped, and walked up and down every line on every sidewalk in the neighborhood in a fit of stress-triggered obsessive compulsion.

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