My dentist has mysteriously disappeared.
The women in the office say that even they don’t know what happened and that the family is telling them nothing. They know nothing but that he went to California to visit his dad and for some reason has not returned.
They refer to the situation as a “family emergency.”
Before I found out, I’d been in Greece for a couple of weeks with a tooth problem, the whole time imagining that Dr. B— would fix me up when I got back. He’d been my dentist for over 30 years, since I first came to New Mexico. A man I went to bed with recommended him while we were lying naked together; I was married at the time, to someone else, and I’m not sure why I was concerned with my teeth.
I’d been through a lot with this dentist: several fillings, two crowns and a cleaning every six months – I have a problem with plaque. Of course Dr. B—– didn’t do the cleanings himself. He’d saunter in afterward, wry grin, and I’d make some joke, and he’d make some joke. He’d look into my mouth, that little metal mirror clacking on my teeth, and say, “Looks good!” and pat me on the shoulder.
He reminded me of a tall, better looking Gene Hackman.
There was a reassuring calmness about him, as though he was so good at what he did that it bored him.
We’d sometimes talk about where we’d traveled, both having a particular fondness for Ireland where he’d go for a week to play golf with his dad. Always only a week. He never took off of work for more than a week. And apparently he called his office at least once while he was away.
The worst thing that happened to me in Dr. B——-‘s office besides a mishap with a Novocain shot – a lot of blood — was that I came to find out he was a Republican. And this bit of information took decades to be disclosed. I just didn’t think anyone I liked, anyone witty, was a Republican, and I really liked Dr. B——-.
Here’s how the Republican thing was disclosed: I made some joke about George Bush being a complete dufus, and it did not go down well at all.
“Don’t tell me you voted for him?” I said, though the Vietnamese dental hygienist was shaking her head frantically from behind his back.
Tall and lanky, with the kind of smile you’d expect and want a dentist to have, Dr. B—– leaned back, the mirror and the little silver pick still in his hands, and narrowed his brown eyes at me.
“Uh-oh,” I said. “I guess I’d better not talk to you about Obama.”
The Vietnamese dental hygienist’s eyes got wide and she shook her head more urgently.
Even then, Dr. B—— had a gleam in his eye. He said, “You have a particular fondness for socialism?”
For the first time, I wasn’t flippantly honest with him. I didn’t say, “Yes, as a matter of fact I do.” I kept my mouth shut, which is an irony in a dentist’s office.
He said, “I was an army dentist, you know.”
I hadn’t known that, and I could have said, “Yeah, well, the military is about as socialist a culture as you can conjure up – tax dollars paying for healthcare, education, housing….”
Instead I defaulted to our usual comfortable flirtatious banter, saying, “I bet you were a real studly guy in your uniform.”
The hygienist giggled and began to put my free toothbrush, toothpaste, and tiny container of dental floss in a crisp, little blue bag.
Dr, B—– shrugged smugly. In a slow, but intelligent drawl, he said, “I’m a studly guy no matter what I’m wearing.”
That was more like it. But I don’t think either one of us ever really eased up completely after the partisan cat was out of the bag.
Our mutual admiration cooled.
He patted me on the shoulder and said, “Teeth look good – see you in six months unless you run off with some Irishman.”
More giggles from the hygienist. Dr. B—– winked at me and that was it for another six months. It never occurred to me that someday I would come to his office and he wouldn’t be there.
When I got the tooth problem in Greece, the only comfort I had was that Dr. B—–would be standing next to the dental chair with the blue paper mask pulled down around his throat, ready to calmly repair and heal me, asking me if I’d been in Ireland recently.
I’d tell him about almost going to a Greek dentist. I’d tell him about how my current husband (Dr. B——- had been my dentist through several marriages) and I rented a house on the western side of the Peloponnese. It was high up on a hill on a 5 acre organic olive farm on a dirt road that wound up through the olive trees, past an old granite cistern where little frogs hung out. After the road passed the house, it went to the top of the hill where a long and thick stone wall and the remnants of a pillared hall from 300 B.C. crumbled slowly in haunted solitude, as the world below it cluttered itself with plastic water bottles.
I blamed Republicans for all that corporate trash, and for the circumstances that propelled thousands of Greek citizens into the streets of Athens. Before going there, friends asked if I was afraid of going where people were rioting in the streets. I wasn’t. I’d rioted in the streets myself, back in the day. I was more afraid of someone’s child kicking the back of my seat on the airplane for ten hours.
I’d felt a slight stinging kind of aching thing in that troublesome pocket around one of the crowns the night before I flew into Athens, and what with only taking carry-on luggage and not being able to take a lot of liquids, I only had a minimal amount of the antibiotic mouthwash Dr. B—— had prescribed for just such problems. I had carried the aqua-blue liquid in a transparent white film canister and took little swishes of it twice a day to abate the pain, maybe overcome the problem. I could not imagine a country whose alphabet was so unrecognizable, whose last letter looked like a horse shoe – I could not imagine such a country, despite Homer and the Parthenon, providing me with proper dental care.
I did, in fact, almost go to a Greek dentist. The people who owned the house we rented, the portico brimming with roses and geraniums, were Brits – ex-pats who lived a bit up the hill in a slapped together house with their two year old daughter who ran around smartly with no pants on. The man and woman were at least 20 years younger than us, but the kind of people we once were, or once pretended to be. They’d left England and explored the world for a place to settle, finally living in their small camper on the beach we now looked down on, until they got it together to buy land. They lived in the swank house during the winter, but financially survived by renting it out during tourist season.
We respected each other’s privacy for a few days, until it became obvious that we were politically aligned, angry at the same people, fed up with the same bullshit, laughing at the same ironies. The wife, a tall woman with long brown hair and no need for make-up, held the child on her slim hip while talking to me. She stood on the long portico lighted orange by a slow moving sunset. I was sitting in the loving arms of the 100 year old olive tree just in front of the house.
In a Cornwall accent, she said, “Yes, we often find our guests in that tree.”
When I told her I might need a dentist, she said, “Sure, I could take you to a dentist in Zacharo. I’d have to translate for you.”
Zacharo, the closest big town, was not a tourist place, to its credit. Trucks rolled through; men of all ages and of all stages of unemployment, sat at outside tables smoking cigarettes down to the filters, sipping on coffee, maybe a beer, and speaking in nothing but Greek.
How do you say “infection in a little pocket where the bone has deteriorated around a crown” in Greek? In Zacharo, I left my husband on a bench outside a hotel, where he could siphon off some free wireless, to look for some bread to buy and eat. On a side street I found a small bakery open where a woman sat behind the counter, talking to a friend.
“Bread?” I asked. She understood and shook her head: “No bread.”
I was hungry. I wanted something simple, plain bread; she must have seen my disappointment. Standing up on thick, tired legs she put two sugar cookies in a small, square bag and handed it to me. I thought maybe she had misunderstood, but I was willing to buy them.
I pulled out a five Euro piece and holding it toward her in my palm, I asked, “How much?”
She turned her head, pursed her lips and shook her head. Holding up her hand, she said, “No pay,” and sat back down back with her friend. I stared, still holding out the money.
She smiled and the friend laughed softly.
“No pay?” I asked.
“For you,” she said.
I thanked her in Greek – which was damned difficult for me: “eff-carry-so.”
I walked back to tell my husband about this simple generosity in a country whose economy was going to hell.
The Brits who owned the house we stayed in had other stories to tell about Greeks.
I drank tea with them when I went up the hill to dump some organic materials on their humongous compost hill. We talked about the Greek family that still believed they owned their land, even though it had been purchased legally. Cousins and uncles named Gino or Hektor left bullet shells scattered amongst the olive trees as remnants of their opinions. These feuds, always simmering, included a refusal by the Greek neighbors to stop dumping garbage in the woods, though a dumpster had been set up at the bottom of the hill.
Attitudes towards garbage clearly had cultural variations. I’ve never seen so much litter in such a beautiful landscape– including the empty plastic water bottles that ran for miles along the high water mark of the glittering Ionian Sea.
I passed on the Greek dentist experience. I knew that as soon as I got home, my American, capitalist, Republican English speaking dentist would take care of me. And we wouldn’t talk about the World Bank or Obama. I wouldn’t want to, anyway. I was feeling that tawdry feeling that Dorothy must have felt when she realized the Wizard of Oz was just another con man behind the curtain. Obama, a man Greek taxicab drivers and waiters idolized, was losing his grip on the levers, was looking like another man who didn’t care if plastic bottles covered the ocean and small bakeries that gave away cookies went bankrupt.
I just thought about how everything would be okay when I went back to the States and could see my dentist.
My husband and I drove to ruins like Olympia, dead stones, crumbled halls, grandeur long gone. We watched as one tourist after another got his picture taken at the ancient starting line of the track, pretending to be a contender 2500 years too late.
Every day we urged our little rental car down and then up the dirt road to “our” house where I either just had or was just about to swish a sip of antibiotic mouthwash around the sore gum. Whenever we got close to the small granite cistern with the frogs hanging around it, we’d guess how many of the little guys would be lined up on the edge. After a particularly full rain, you could see many little froggy heads, dark and shiny, poking out of the shadowed, brimming water. Often there were five or six of these guys sitting beside the water, and I thought of Aristophanes’ play “The Frogs.” I imagined those cute fellows going “Bre-ke-ke-kex” and Dionysus telling them they can go hang themselves because they show no sympathy for his hurting butt, the frogs say, “All the same we’ll shout and cry/Stretching our throats with song/Shouting, crying all day long.”
They had no concern for my dental problems either.
The frogs, the unemployed men sitting at tables in cafes and restaurants were sometimes compelled by night or rain or no money in the pocket to disappear. But later we’d hear the frogs in the night – “Bre-ke-ke-kex” — or see ten of them perched on the granite edge the next morning, in a line, thinking. And the unemployed men would be at the cafes in Zacharo as trucks rumbled by or stopped at traffic lights with their diesel engines going “Oy-yoi-yoi- yoi.” Most of these men leaned back in chairs, their legs straight out in front of them, as one man at the table spoke forcefully, his hand flying around above his head with a cigarette in it.
On the way back to Athens, we stopped at Delphi, but it seemed like there wasn’t even a hint of the oracle there, as though she’d predicted the plastic water bottles and busloads of Japanese tourists and left a long time ago. She had left. But she can be found in odd places, disguised perhaps as an aging femme fatale with dyed red hair running a Bed and Breakfast in Athens.
The day after Delphi we spent the night in a Bed and Breakfast in Athens run by a 60 something year old French ex-pat whose hair was dyed red and who always had a cigarette between her shaking fingers. By that time I’d run out of anti-biotic mouthwash in the little film canister. But I was flying out to go back to New Mexico the next day. My husband was to stay on to enjoy some solitude in a Leonard Cohen kind of way on a Greek island in the Aegean.
The French woman, who might have been on some kind of opiate, sat out in her garden letting smoke spiral up into dark leaves from the cigarette that trembled between her fingers. When my husband went to get our luggage she said to me, “He’s not coming back.”
I spoke enough French to explain that he was just getting the luggage, and she smiled and took a long drag on the cigarette, looking at me through the smoke and nodding as though we’d agreed on something. When I got home, I immediately called Dr. B—–‘s office. The receptionist was very evasive when I asked for an appointment.
“He’s not here. There’s been a family emergency.”
“Oh no,” I said, wanting details. “I hope he’s okay.”
“So do we,” she said.
“’So do we’?” I thought. Shit. What does that mean?
We determined that one of the dental hygienists could handle the problem.
So, I went in, and the Vietnamese hygienist, smiling but a bit on edge, said, “I don’t know what happened. Nobody knows. He just not coming in.”
But she had the little antibiotic chip ready and expertly inserted it between the gum and the crown – no problem.
When I was leaning on the counter getting paperwork from the receptionist, I said again, “I hope he’s okay.” I was certain that this very young and charming, size 6 woman knew exactly what was going on. I was sure she had flirted with Dr. B—– a lot, maybe got her job that way.
Without looking me fully in the face, she said, “We do, too.”
A few weeks later I went back for my scheduled teeth cleaning. Dr. B—- was still not there. This was outrageous. I didn’t even speak to the “girls” at the desk. This time my hygienist was Talia, a large and witty woman who shared my politics and came down to my level of gossiping. She closed the door behind us and whispered, “No one’s telling us anything.”
Whenever she worked on me, we closed the door, especially after Obama was elected and we were both giddy about it.
Now we tried to guess what had happened to Dr. B——-.
“He was in California visiting his dad,” she said from behind the blue mask over her nose and mouth. Her eyes glittered. I had my mouth wide open with a suction thing in it. I just nodded. All we could do was tell each other the same scanty facts over and over again. After I sat up to spit out the minty blue mouthwash that had been in the little white pleated paper cup, I leaned back and said, “If the family doesn’t want anyone to know what happened, maybe it’s drugs. I mean maybe it has something to do with some addiction or something.” She shook her head and pulled the mask down to let it rest against her throat.
“No way. I’ve known him for years and I’ve never seen any sign of something like that.” “Heart attack?”
“Well, then why wouldn’t he call after all this time? I mean, he would call from Ireland when he was on vacation.”
“Stroke,” I suggested. “Or coma.”
She shrugged and put the mask back up. She worked on my mouth in silence for a while as I stared into the curved rectangle of light over my face.
“Turn a little more toward me, please,” she had to keep saying.
She did a good job, but it was disconcerting not having Dr. B—— come in to do a brief check of things, tapping that little mirror against my teeth and saying, “Looks good,” and winking at me. And I would have said something like, “I was in Greece for a couple of weeks. I almost had to go to a Greek dentist.” And he would have smiled wryly and said something like, “He’d probably be glad to get some American dollars. Did you join in any of the street protests?” And I would have said, “No – because the problem isn’t just the Greek economy, it’s the capitalist system.” And we would have said, “You know it’s people like you who are going to ruin this country, you and your man Obama.” And I would have torn the pale blue paper bib from its clip on wire, tossed it on the floor and said, “You fucking Reaganite – you’ve got your head so far up your ass it’s amazing you can even practice dentistry.” Then we would have fallen into each other’s arms. And he would have said, “It’ll be okay. It’ll all be okay.”
But the room was quiet – just Talia and me.
“There’s a dentist filling in for now,” she explained, which seemed like a very bleak development, “but she’s not coming in after cleanings.”
“Oh,” I said and then ran my tongue over the super smooth enamel of my front teeth.
Then I said, “Why would his family not tell anyone? Why is the office still open but no one knows what’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
She handed me a postcard with some cartoon on the front of it with a dental theme and told me to write my address on it – it would be the six months appointment reminder. I’d done this for many years.
All I wanted to do was go back to that house near Zacharo. Most likely I’ll never see it again.
I believe that the frogs are still there; and unemployed men are sitting together somewhere at outside tables, smoking and drinking. It doesn’t matter which frogs or which men. They take care of themselves and each other. A woman in a bakery will still be giving away cookies even when the money men and their slick talking lackeys are screwing us all.
When I told a friend of ours, a theater director who particularly admires the Greeks, that my husband was loving his Leonard Cohen experience on a small island in the Aegean, he said, “Maybe he won’t come back.”
I just stared at him, my eyes narrowing slightly.
“It happens,” he said.
Leaning in to speak quietly but forcefully, I said, “There are always husbands.”
His eyes almost closed, like a cat’s do when the cat pretends to doze.
After looking down at my own hand fiddling with a stainless steel fork I said, “My dentist has mysteriously disappeared.”
The frog chorus says, “When fleeing the storm, we went/ down to the depths, and our choral song /wildly raised to a loud and long /bubble-bursting accompaniment.”
No matter how long they have to stay under, or how deep they have to go, there are always frogs.