This is part 3 of a series.
As I walked, panic-stricken, out of the dentist’s Park Slope office that cold, grey Wednesday, the temporary filling in fractured molar # 14 drilled out and packed with cotton, I thought: This goddamn dentist doesn’t know what she’s doing. She’s a quack. After all, she hadn’t told me in the first place how much Ibuprofen I could take. And why hadn’t she written me a ‘script for antibiotics and Percoset and started the procedure that Friday? I believed that this woman — this young, serious Russian woman — whom I’d been seeing for almost five years, was a quack, good with the fillings and cleanings but sub-par on the more complex issues. But that all-too-familiar cold, growing fear rose up again, and my thoughts started spiraling: my health was in terrible danger, and that by instructing me to keep my drilled-out infected tooth packed with cotton she was leaving me vulnerable to a worse infection. I imagined that when I’d have my mouth open to change the cotton some rogue germ or virus floating around my not-so-immaculate bathroom would somehow alight in the tooth pulp and flutter its way into my system, eventually causing all sorts of dreaded symptoms. Yes, she’d given me stronger, more broad-spectrum antibiotics, but they would no doubt disastrously compromise my immune system, compounding side effects upon symptoms. And what toxic ingredients (tested on animals, no doubt) were in the mouthwash she’d also prescribed, and how would they further tax my body? I had absolutely no doubt that I’d be sitting for hours in some crowded, gun-shot-wound emergency room, the harried, uncaring nurses ignoring me as infection spread and I finally had a heart attack. Or, if not that scenario, then having to run from doctor to doctor for weeks and weeks as one after another tried to “cure” me of the side effects of all the medications I’d tried and then jettisoned. I’d be so emotionally screwed-up I’d never write again. Forget writing — I’d never be able to live again. I’d end up like my clinically depressed brother-in-law, so crippled by anxiety I’d never be able to leave the house. And then, eventually, I’d be homeless, like my sister.
Overwhelmed by worry, doubts and that cold, pure fear I rushed into another dentist’s office on the way home to get a second opinion. He seemed non-plussed, like what she’d said was absolutely correct. Walking out, I wasn’t reassured. I scanned all possibilities: What if I hadn’t described the problem correctly? What if I’d been too nonchalant, and in trying to cover my panic glossed over some important detail? I kept scanning, trying to reconstruct the scene in my mind as I walked toward my apartment, but my thoughts were spiraling too fast.
For the rest of the day and into the evening I paced back and forth through the apartment, alternately crying then trying to meditate and talk myself down. I obsessively checked my face and the root canal site every couple of minutes in different mirrors, in different lights and from different angles, for signs of worsening infection, for any changes to the swelling, for even miniscule anomalies. At one point I thought the infection had spread to the other side of my face, and so I called the dentist in a panic just as she was leaving for the day.
“Sharon, please go to the emergency room,” was her response. “Or take some Benadryl. It might just be an allergic reaction to the antibiotic.”
I was absolutely certain then that she’d put me in danger. I was so immobilized by fear that I just sat down in the rocking chair and rocked back and forth, shaking and crying. When David came home from work I was pacing the apartment, crying, hyperventilating, and calling every friend who’d ever had a dental procedure. I even called my childhood best friend Georgie Kowalski, a registered nurse, to ask her if the information I’d gotten from my insurance’s 24-hour helpline (which I’d called twice, to compare the advice) made sense to her. She couldn’t fathom why I was so upset, and at one point she even laughed at me when I told her the pain I’d felt over the weekend made me feel like I was experiencing the suffering of all beings. She thought I was being funny. When David saw me examining my face in different mirrors for the millionth time he decided to call in sick the next day because he didn’t want me to be home by myself. And when it was time to change the cotton before bed and rinse with the mouthwash I felt it imperative to disinfect every bathroom surface that my hands, the mouthwash bottle, and the plastic bag I kept the cotton in would touch; it took about an hour. Before I went near my teeth I washed my hands, wrists, and arms thoroughly with very hot water, as if I were scrubbing up for surgery. Even after all that I set a paper towel down under the bag, and made sure the hand with which I opened the bag was not the hand with which I touched the cotton, in case any germ that had managed to escape the disinfecting surface spray might’ve attached itself to the bag. It took four tries to get the tiny piece of cotton inside the tooth because my hand was shaking so much, and after every failure I had to scrub up again. I went to bed exhausted, and fell asleep right, but then woke up from a vivid nightmare a few hours later: I was about to travel back in time, to the past, to heal my tooth. But I wouldn’t be able to come back to my present life, and the decision couldn’t be reversed. I shot up so violently in bed that I woke David up.
“What? What’s going on?” he asked.
“I don’t want to have to travel back to the past to heal my tooth!” I screamed.
“You’re just having a bad dream,” he said, reaching out to hold me.
I shook him off. “No! I have to leave in four hours! What time is it? How can I get out of this? I won’t be able to come back!”
“You’re having a nightmare!” he repeated, and I realized he was right. I got up and took a Xanax, fell back asleep and had another nightmare: I was back in my old neighborhood, visiting the house of my former bully Lori Kruliszewski. It was after midnight, and I had to walk back home along Racine Avenue, now a dark river of tall, thick prairie grass under a brilliant Big Dipper. I turned around to go back to the house I’d just left, but a pair of hands grabbed me from behind, under my arms, and lifted me off the ground. I knew the person who’d grabbed me was Pluto himself, abductor of Persephone, and I was going to end up in the Underworld. I bolted upright in bed again, and this time stayed awake, pacing and checking my face, until the scalding morning light came blazing through the kitchen window. I couldn’t bear the light, and so locked myself in the bathroom and sat on the floor. Next to the toilet was a book I’d been reading (years ago, it seemed) called Pluto: the Evolutionary Journey of the Soul. Just then I remembered something: my astrologer friend Brant had told me I was going to have something called a “Pluto transit.” What was that? I tried to remember, but couldn’t quite recall its meaning. And he’d said something about a Jupiter-trine-something-or-other on March 23. What was all that? I knew I’d researched it when he told me, but it was just a foggy memory that I couldn’t wrap my mind around.
By the following week the infection had cleared up (along with my tongue, which had turned black from the mouthwash — an additional source of panic and constant checking, and occasion for more calls to my insurance’s helpline), and the root canal proceeded normally, twice a week for a month. But the anxiety continued, and worsened, until I could only leave the house for the dental appointments. Walking to the dentist along Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, I was wishing that our landlord would decide to sell the building — an idea that had been floating around since he’d given up his private accounting business the previous winter. The look of Fifth Avenue between Degraw Street and 9th Street, where the dentist’s office was, kept reminding me of my whirling-mind trek between those two points on March 23. Plus, I could no longer function normally in the apartment: instead of waking up in the morning as I normally did — slowly, reluctantly, begrudgingly — a rush of adrenaline would pop me up like a puppet. The sight of approaching daylight through the kitchen window heightened that feeling of cold dread, whereas it had once brought ideas for poems and stories: mornings had always been my writing time. If I didn’t want to be reminded of March 23, I really didn’t want to be reminded that I’d lived a “normal” life (as normal as life can be for a poet) before that. I had loved the look of the afternoon light through the bay windows in the living room, through the sheer green curtains, but now I kept the dark blue shades pulled down, and avoided as much as I could the bright kitchen. I had loved that kitchen window so much, with its view of unobstructed sky, low Brooklyn rooftops and the Williamsburgh Bank clock tower, referenced by Patti Smith in her song “Gloria” — I always got a kick out of living so close to “the big tower clock.” Now, though, I couldn’t even bring that song to mind. I couldn’t bear music, and I couldn’t even look at a newspaper or magazine. And forget books. It hurt just to have them in the same room. I remained curled up in bed, ate packaged soups and slices of bread, watched old TV shows on a rerun channel all day long and kept the magnifying mirror close by, to check for unexpected changes to the root canal site: if the swelling had returned, if my skin was turning yellow (I’d read on the patient insert that jaundice was one of the side effects of the stronger antibiotic); if the blackness on my tongue had come back. I called Georgie almost every day and ran “what if” scenarios past her as they occurred. I called my friend with the psycho-pharmacologist + therapist + internist for advice (which made the panic worse; I soon stopped doing that). I began picturing myself watching Lawrence Welk reruns with my brother- and mother-in-law. My mother-in-law asked nothing of Tom, never even suggested he make an attempt to get out of his own head, and in my fantasy she also asked nothing of me, and I’d spend the rest of my days in a void of comforting changelessness, my limited travels conveniently, comfortingly demarcated by goat paths. Nothing unexpected or threatening could possibly happen, ever again.
Sharon Mesmer’s most recent poetry collections are The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose 2008) and Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books 2008). Fiction collections are In Ordinary Time and The Empty Quarter (Hanging Loose 2005 and 2000) and Ma Vie à Yonago (Hachette, in French translation 2005). Other poetry collections include Vertigo Seeks Affinities (Belladonna 2006), Half Angel, Half Lunch (Hard Press 1998) and Crossing Second Avenue (ABJ Press, Tokyo 1997). Four poems appear in the newly released Postmodern American Poetry—A Norton Anthology (second edition) Her work has also appeared in Poetry, The Wall Street Journal, New American Writing, The Brooklyn Rail, Women’s Studies Quarterly, West Wind Review, Abraham Lincoln, esque, Poets for Living Waters, and The Scream. An excerpt of her story, “Revenge,” appears in I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women (Les Figues). She teaches at NYU, the New School, and online for the Chicago School of Poetics.