“You can rinse now.”
He lost count of how many times he had said this to patients, but no matter the number, he got a vicarious pleasure from the smile of relief on their faces. If only there was such a phrase for his life, if only there was another dentist, perhaps a God, who would say, “You can rinse now.” But there was no one.
To make matters worse, the dentist who had once been sociable and quite chatty with his patients, bottled things up now. He had great difficulty in expressing his inner thoughts. This, he had reasoned to himself, was due to his strict upbringing on the island where his father had been the headmaster. Japanese fathers were traditionally uncommunicative and unresponsive, but his father had carried this principle to an extreme. The house was run like an army camp. Everything had to be done in order. If someone failed to carry out his orders, they got beaten with a bamboo stick. The dentist had been beaten many times, perhaps too many times. He could never forgive his father, even when the man died prematurely.
No, he didn’t love his father. He wasn’t sure whether he loved his mother who had so often colluded, if unwillingly, with his father. No, he felt sorry for her. As for his brothers, they felt like he did, a certain remoteness. His elder brother had gone into teaching, and now ran a school in central Tokyo. He was a success. The younger brother had trained as a lawyer and was a partner in an international firm specializing in intellectual property law. So he was also successful. And one could say to a certain extent that the dentist had had his share of success. The bamboo stick therefore was effective. But in all three sons there was a hollowness, an awful emptiness. They had not had a proper childhood, indeed they had not been allowed to live and play as children. They compensated, even overcompensated by doting on their own children. Spoiling them, especially the boys. Yet they still had serious communication problems. They simply couldn’t open up. Of the three, the dentist was the worst. He was like a clam, the sort found in abundance on the coastline of the island.
The dentist had first come to the snack bar after he had returned to his home island. The dentist was lucky to have gotten across the bay that afternoon. It was the peak of the typhoon season, and the weather was bad. The fisherman, an old school friend, had been very reluctant to go, but the dentist insisted. Desperate men get their way, sometimes. As they crossed the water, their conversation was mostly taken up with local matters, such as the bridge, one that had been started and never completed because of lack of funds. The conversation was limited. Even few jokes were exchanged during the forty minute crossing. If the men had been close friends, they might have broached the topic of the dentist’s marriage, but the only personal thing discussed was the fisherman’s crown. What would the dentist suggest? That was it. A request for professional advice. This deep divide, unlike the expanse of water separating the islands, would never be crossed.
When they arrived at the jetty, the dentist saw some of his late mother’s friends. They had been selling their vegetables to local restaurants but were now taking cover from the storm. The women called him Sensei and held him in great respect, as they did all three brothers, but coupled with this respect was a feeling of sorrow. Like the fisherman, the women knew about the dentist’s marriage, as did most of the Japanese nation from Okinawa to the Northern islands. They would never tell him what they thought, though. They would wait until he was out of earshot and then gossip. It was gossip harder and less refined than Tokyo gossip. Sometimes it was peppered with local proverbs, and most of it was unintelligible to mainlanders.
The dentist ventured into the snack bar with the firm intention of getting drunk. There were no other customers that evening, as the trade depended on tourists and fishermen. Upon meeting, the dentist and bar hostess were quite formal.
“Hello, Sensei.” This was the closest he ever got to “You can rinse now.”
The speaker was a woman, a divorcee in her mid-forties. Originally from Tokyo, she had come to the island with her husband and had established this cafe with their savings. He saw her reflection in a kitsch American mirror, one with James Dean on it. Her hair was tied up at the back and had streaks of henna, then still fashionable. She wore a pinafore with a bowl of fruit and a picture of a koala on it, and she was quite attractive. Her voice was that of a smoker and drinker – that of someone who had lived. She sometimes sang with her customers in the evening, but she wasn’t really a Mamma-san, nor did she see herself as a snack bar hostess.
In the course of the evening, however, something remarkable happened. The dentist cried, and he cried. He was hopelessly drunk and told her the story of his marriage, a story she already knew. The story was only punctuated by his going to the toilet or by the bar hostess asking if he was alright.
He said he had had his own dental surgery practice in Tokyo and had been doing quite well, despite the fact he was young, only thirty or so. He was still full of ambitions and was very conscientious. He had many patients and worked day and night to provide good service. But he was still young, and, although trained to be strong by his father, he was weak inside. He said, “I mean I wasn’t immune to the attractions of pretty patients.” Since he had sworn by the Hippocratic Oath, he was expected to keep his private and professional relations separate. He managed to keep things separate, though there were moments of difficulty, until she came along. He was checking the burs when his assistant gave him the next patient’s records. He said, “The name didn’t mean anything to me, why should it, because it wasn’t her stage name, but something in the way the assistant handed it to me, gave me a hint that someone special was coming.” Then Satoko made her entrance. She looked immaculate, everything about her. She wore a classy French perfume, one that overwhelmed and seduced him. He knew her as a famous actress. “I remembered my friends saying how much they wanted, you know what I mean, to make love to her.” He momentarily forgot he was a dentist and just stood there toying with his mouth mirror while his assistant told Satoko to sit down and make herself comfortable. Then he became professional, asking only technical questions. Off to work he went on a loose filling. Yet he felt obliged to stop at intervals. “Satoko gave this agonizing look, one that I found irresistible.”
He asked if she was okay, and Satoko motioned to go on. After a while she stroked his arm to tell him to stop. The dentist told the bar hostess, “I should have stopped her. But it was too late. I had fallen in love with her. She visited the clinic for a check-up two months later. During that period I had dreamt of her, made love to her in my dreams. Her image had destabilized me. I should have pulled myself together, but something prevented me. It was destroying me.” When Satoko came for her check-up, the dentist visibly shook. His heart beat was incredible. She only had to touch him – not even touch him but walk close to him so the breath of her skirt passed over him. The dentist said to the bar hostess, “Mamma-san, I was drunk. Yes, drunk. Satoko realized this, as I found out later, much later. When she invited me to her house, I could have died from happiness. By the second date, yes, only the second, we were making love to each other.”
Everything went so quickly. He had been in control of his life until then. Now Satoko did everything. But she was not alone. She orchestrated the media, and he was followed. They started to publish stories about the dentist, many of them untrue, but he couldn’t challenge them. He was told by her not to worry, it happened all the time. People he didn’t know, complete strangers, talked about him as he walked by. He couldn’t go into a bar without someone saying something, and once or twice he got into fights.
“I should have declined her invitations,” said the dentist. But one night, he quite literally discovered he was married to Satoko. She had arranged a conference for the press, the dentist wasn’t invited but was instead ordered to go to the tailors and then on to the hotel. “The light I had known before then was the one used in my surgery, now I felt the white heat of publicity. My eyes had lights dancing in front of them, even when I slept. Still, I was in love with her. For the first time in my life I loved someone. I had felt honored she had chosen me, her dentist. Why did she choose me? Why did she choose me?” At this point the dentist started to cry. The Mamma-san comforted him. He started to leave, but she held onto his arm. She pleaded for him to stay, to tell the story. She said he would feel better if he finished it, and besides he couldn’t go out in the weather. He sat down on the stool and picked up a few cuttlefish strips.
“You know why she chose me. The whole world knew before I did. She wanted to get her own back at her ex-lover. It was her strategy, but it didn’t work. Her ex didn’t want anything to do with her. However, it did help her career,” the dentist said in a deeply cynical tone. At Satoko’s home he was press ganged into answering calls from all and sundry. He spent so much time dealing with agents and producers that his own work suffered. They spent weeks in Los Angeles and other places. He wasted time at parties, escorting her to premieres. After a while she realized that his usefulness as an escort was over. His wife then told him to return to Japan and look after their daughter. “Did I tell you that I had a daughter? No? Well, I had one. She is no longer mine. She is in France or somewhere with her mother. I lost her during the divorce. I lost everything. The surgery went. My dignity. My self-esteem. My only love. All because of perfume,” he said.
That evening the dentist and the Mamma-san stayed up through the night. Eventually, he fell into a drunken stupor. He mumbled something about wanting to see her again. Something about how nice she had been to him. She placed a sleeping bag over the dentist and went to her own bed.
Soon afterwards his mother died, and he moved into his parents’ old house. He grew some vegetables, many of which were stolen either by the wild boars or by the domestic goats on the island. His fridge had little food in it, as well. He lived mainly on a diet of pot noodles and fast food. His room had rows and rows of periodicals concerned with dentistry and oral hygiene, but they lay unread. He slept more than he did in Tokyo. He woke late in the afternoons to walk down the beach and did nothing really constructive. He was in many respects lost from his former self.
For months he did not leave the island, even to attend the snack bar. Recently, however, he renewed his pilgrimages across the water. He wanted to hear the Mamma-san call him “Sensei” again.