Raphael goes to the dentist
The small rectangular office is unnaturally cold. Framed pieces of paper — degrees, accreditations, credentials of validation — plaster the thin white walls.
The doctor sits behind a small desk. The window behind him peers onto the parking lot of the strip mall — striped yellow and white paint on dark grey cement. Before him lays a broad mahogany desk, the treasured pride of the small room. A few objects are scattered atop it: a pen, a handful of papers, a family portrait. Three figures fill the picture: wife, husband, and son — they all smile. Raphael thinks it seems genuine.
The room is silent. The doctor casts his eyes over a small x-ray print out. He holds the thing bizarrely close to his face, one eye shut as he peeks at it from under his glasses.
He rubs his chin and looks up and over at Raphael who sits shrugged, shy, hands tucked in between his thighs.
The doctor sighs and looks back at the x-ray.
“Yea, it looks like we are going to have to get a root canal done on one of those teeth.” His words peter out into the deathly silence of the air-conditioned room.
Raphael says nothing — but he does not need to. His facial expression says it all: absolute apathy.
Another moment of silence.
The doctor looks at Raphael and allows for some breathing space to let the apocalyptic words sink in. After decades of practice, he knows that no one ever wants to hear what he has to say. It hurts, still, sometimes — to be such a nuisance, a harbinger of inconvenience, to everyone’s lives.
Raphael is outwardly silent — inside, his mind rages.
On top of everything, now this … He is absolutely convinced that in some previous life, in some purgatorial realm, he has been condemned to eternal damnation through directed and incessant acts of minor inconvenience and annoyance. Day after day, thing after thing drops onto his lap and Raphael can’t help but think that there is some malevolent hand in all this. There must have a been a karmic mix-up, a judgment passed on him by error, a malefic deity he offended by mistake. He’s not sure what it is — but he knows he does not deserve this. The world never ceases to throw him off balance.
“It’s a simple procedure, in actuality…” The doctor speaks but Raphael does not listen. A list of things runs through his head: have to take car for oil change, have to call landlord about air-conditioner, have that presentation for next week, that thing with Tammy…
Like scrolling credits, this never-ending to-do list plays and re-plays without end in his mind; as a thing disappears down below, some new thing appears at the top, keeping the whole thing rolling and rolling. It is a constant chase, an incessant battle against the onslaught of entropy, of time. The Red Queen’s race has no end and he is absolutely exhausted by it. Life is exhausting — pure woe and distress. Raphael wonders if Jesus had to suffer the inexhaustible errands of modernity.
The doctor forces a small cough to break the silence.
Raphael stares blankly at the man. He has forgotten about language. His mind verges on dysfunctionality.
Muscle memory kicks in, however, and saves him. He coughs out some words, “Um… is it totally necessary?” There is not even an attempt to hide his cynicism and distrust.
“Well, you see, if we don’t do this procedure now the infection might spread and you could end up loosing the tooth.” The doctor tries his best to provide a coherent justification, to ease the load on Raphael’s back — it is evident that he is not taking it easy.
A hot flush begins to spread through Raphael’s face, deep ire to bubble inside his stomach. He clenches his jaw.
Powerlessness has turned to anger — his mind is cornered on all sides by the heat of rage and frustration. He is mad now, infuriated, for he has found the culprit of his woes: the doctor — all dentists for a matter of fact.
Not once has he come here without something being found, some small procedure needing to be carried out. Always, some absolutely urgent thing or other has to be done lest all his teeth fall out: nothing is ever finished, nothing ever completed. It is all a massive swindle, a sham, a pyramidal scheme. From their layers in the hidden, dark, depths of their monstrous caves, the kraken pharmaceutical and insurance companies cast their slithering tentacles across the globe, impregnating smalltime doctors with greed and middle-class lies, using them as their puppets to carouse ignorant, anxious, simpletons into hypochondriac neurosis. It is all a lie, a ruse, a joke; and he, Raphael, is at the butt end of it.
The doctor breaks the silence, “Plus you’ve been complaining about pain…We want to get rid of that,” he softens and sweetens his voice, as if he speaks to a child — “for your sake.”
Raphael stops a second. Despite all, this is true— he has been having a lot of pain this past week.
But he has fought it, been enraged by it — to his eyes, it is has been nothing but another demonic winged-entity sent by his karmic overlord to make his life marginally more difficult and excruciating. It has come to pile onto the weight of things he carries on his shoulders.
The doctor’s words have no effect. Raphael’s mind is still busy tying itself into deeper and ever tighter knots. It hates it all and hates itself and then hates itself for getting itself into this hatred. It is an addiction, a spiral of self-destruction, and it can't help but fall it into time and time again. Before he knows it, Raphael is at the verge of tears. Anger has begun to quickly unravel into utter helplessness.
The doctor looks at his watch. He seems to make some sort of calculation. Raphael shrinks farther into his seat.
He cannot bear it any longer. It is all too much. He does not know how to do it, how to keep his head up above water. He has fumbled countless things in his life and he is tired of trying and failing, time and time again. His energy is drained, his demeanor slovenly, gloomy. A dark cloud follows him everywhere he goes. And now here he is — stuck in some heavily air conditioned strip mall office, confronted by the prospects of a dental procedure he does not want, in the presence of some dentist whom he barely knows and whom he is sure has a steady, together, life, one totally alien to his own. He feels envy and anger.
“Look, I was going to have lunch with a friend in an hour,” the doctor speaks, followed by silence — “I can call him to push it back so we can do the procedure now.” More silence. Raphael broods in his misfortunes.
“The whole thing should take no more than an hour and fifteen or so. “ The doctor delineates his plan out methodically — it is evident he tries his best.
Raphael looks up. He feels shame, now. He is wasting this man’s time, dragging him farther and farther into his personal vortex of frustrated darkness, of dull and stale misery. He hates this the most — the feeling of being a nuisance, of being incoherent, of unraveling into a puddle of pure mess before others. It makes him want to hide, to find the darkest possible corner in the farthest possible recess of the most distant universe — at least there he can wallow in his own self-deprecating despair without the world’s presence, without his dark entangled aura seeping its poison into the earth on which others walk. His tooth stings with pain.
“Come on. You’ll get it over and done with, just like that.” The doctor snaps and smiles. It is a bit of a forced smile, however, for frustration is also starting to seep on in his end. He has his own things to get to.
Raphael does not know what to say. He is neither mentally nor spiritually prepared for a root canal. He has not had time to brood it over, to imagine and live out all the possible scenarios in which it could go wrong. He feels uncomfortable and debased doing anything without this ritual of anxious and neurotic forethought…
Yet, this man is offering to move his lunch for him! He has already gone out of his way …. He can't say no, now — it would be cruel. And all of this because of him, stupid Raphael, who couldn't help but react so disgustingly dull and apathetically.
Deep shame rushes through his veins and now Raphael grows angry at himself — for having been so inconsiderate, so negatively disposed. Now this man — who except for his place as one of the doormen of the corporate insurance and pharmaceutical overlords is by all other means a perfectly lovely man — changes lunch plans and moves things around just to accommodate his childlike inability to stand up to the fact of the necessity of a dental procedure. What a failed person he is, truly. He should just give up. Give it all up.
The doctor looks at him expectantly. The weight of silence begins to bear on the room. Standard conversational cues are rapidly disintegrating into a full breakdown of social intercourse.
Raphael knows he has to say something — and soon.
His brain begins to rail through all the possible responses, all the possible options available to him, weighing the pros and cons of each, trying to find the one deciding factor that will solidify the choice amongst all the chaos.
But time is up. There is no more waiting.
His mouth triggers, jumping over the befuddled mess that is his mind.
“Great,” the doctor answers immediately, allowing no time for Raphael to take it back, “it’ll just take a few minutes to set everything up. You can wait outside.”
The doctor gets up. Raphael, in a stupefied silence, unsure of what has just happened, follows — he drapes his coat over his left arm.
The doctor opens the door and holds his hand out, leading the way into the waiting room. Raphael walks through as the doctor shuts the door behind him. The man disappears into a back corridor. Raphael stands alone in the sterile, green and blue pattern carpeted reception.
Well, I’m in it now. Nothing I can do.
He stands motionless. The past fifteen minutes have been a blur. His mind has completely raced past him, grappling onto a million things at once, leaving him in total and utter confusion. Now, a decision has been taken and he has walked straight into a root canal.
Maybe he could still get out of it? No, no — it was too late. The man was already setting the thing up. This is what happened to him for being so indecisive, so convoluted, such a mess.
Raphael walks across the foyer. The young receptionist behind the front desk chews loudly on a piece of bubble gum, her eyes glued to the computer. Raphael walks by her and half-stops, thinking she might request something from him — a signature, paperwork, perhaps. Her eyes do not move an inch from the screen. She pops her gum.
Raphael walks on and out the front door.
It is a grey day. Clouds stretch over the parking lot and the highway beyond. Cars pepper the lot. A painfully overweight man in shorts and sneakers pushes a supermarket cart across the asphalt, hobbling as he limps on his left leg.
Raphael lights a cigarette. His mind is blank now, merely wallowing in a dull misery.
The tobacco fills his lungs. Twirling smoke drifts into the air as he exhales.
He sighs and watches as the spirals expand outwards into the ether. Melancholy swirls inside him.
He takes another puff and casually lays his eyes on the man trudging his way along the lot.
He is having a hard time. Short breaths tumble over each other and sweat accumulates around his neck and on his forehead. The trek across the cement plains of the parking lot is nothing short of a herculean task. Raphael can almost watch as time slows down for the man: this walk, this toil, stretching out for an eternity. The man does not notice Raphael’s gaze, however — he stares only ahead, completely consumed by this undertaking.
A strange feeling fills Raphael. He throws the cigarette on the floor and turns to go back inside. A woman walks out of the dentist’s office and holds the door open for him. “Thank you,” he intones. She smiles.
Here we go.
Eyes closed. Light jazz. The clinking of metal instruments.
The doctor’s hands move with beautiful precision. The various tools seem to flow in and out of his hands effortlessly as he cycles through them. He takes them to Raphael’s mouth with a steady hand — inserting, cutting, drilling. Without lifting his eyes, he passes them on to the assistant who sits opposite to him, over Raphael. The two men make conversation — the game, or something or other.
The doctor seamlessly weaves a few commands into the exchange. Immediately understood, the assistant holds out the pertinent instrument, spurts water into Raphel’s mouth, cleans the blood with a gauze — all while talking about last night’s score, the batting average.
Raphael watches on from afar. A few painkiller tablets have him floating in and out of the small room. The conversation, the music, the noise of the drills — it all drifts off into the distance.
A large grassland spreads out before him. Above, the sun shines in a cloudless sky. There is no telling where this is — but the question does not come to him.
Raphael looks down at his body. His legs stretch out over each other effortlessly in perfect synchronization — they seem to do so out of their own accord. Raphael merely watches. Awe fills him — the beauty of the movement, the fluidity.
He looks up and enters the scene more fully now. The texture of the world around him seems to come alive, to become more real. He is present, lucid.
Raphael starts to fall into the motion of the sprint, to synchronize with his legs. A great lightness takes hold of him, an inexplicable weightlessness. His chest opens and his breath is clear, translucent. He is the body — but his entire being spreads throughout the landscape: the field is him, within him.
Some impetus makes Raphael looks to his side.
In a not so far off distance, someone else runs along the plain. Their sprint is no less beautiful and harmonious.
Raphael cannot recognize the figure — then, in a flash, it comes to him: the man from the parking lot.
The overweight figure dashes gloriously across the land, slicing through the fresh air. The aura of the place envelops him in its glory and the sun shines radiantly on his face. The man is blissful but concentrated, entirely immersed in the divine movement of his sprint.
Raphael looks ahead then back at the man — they are closer now, somehow. They run alongside each other. Their movements are perfectly synchronized.
The man looks over. Their eyes meet.
Raphael is sure he has lived this moment before.
Suddenly, the man begins to laugh — a great, hearty laugh, from deep within his belly. It is infectious and before he knows it Raphael laughs too.
Both men laugh. The plain rings with the sound; even the blades of grass seem to shimmer with joy.
Raphael turns his eyes ahead. He stretches his arms out and embraces the land, the air, the sun.
He laughs and laughs as he breathes in the fresh air, the freshest air.
The buzz of the reclining chair. The sound of latex gloves being taken off.
Raphael is brought back to sitting position as he opens his eyes.
“Have a good nap?” The doctor looks at him, a sly smile on his face. The assistant stands behind as he rinses metal instruments under the sink.
Raphael says nothing — he is disoriented, startled. He has completely forgotten where he is, who he is, why he is in this place.
The doctor lets out a small chuckle as he turns around and throws something in the small bin at his side.
"Your mouth might hurt for a few days. Take painkillers as needed.”
Raphael steps out of the office. The left side of his mouth is numb. The sun breaks through the clouds.
There is no one in sight — the overweight man has disappeared and his car is gone.
Raphael stops and looks up at the sky for a brief moment.
The moment passes.
He walks across the cement lot and towards the bus stop.