“Do you know that dentist that lives on the corner?” my super, Orlando, asked as he was unclogging the drain in my tub.
“Of course. He’s My Dentist.”
“He’s dead,” Orlando said, wiping his hands on a rag.
“They’re trying to sell the building now. I wanna buy it.”
“When’s the funeral?”
“They had it already. How’re you getting so many hairs in the drains? You need to get some of those little metal things for them. You know what I mean.”
I looked at him. I did not know what he meant. Orlando was tall and Puerto Rican and about forty-five. Sometimes he pluralized words incorrectly; for example, he called them “mices.” One of his front teeth was gray and it drove me to distraction.
“I’ll bring you one,” he said.
* * * * *
I sat in My Dentist’s blue vinyl chair and his assistant clipped a napkin, also blue, around my neck and left. I tried to check my reflection in the little mirror lined up with the rest of the tools on the tray beside me but could only see my nose. I am twenty-three and I’m black and I have short hair now. My teeth are very little and I don’t floss as I often as I should but few people do.
And then he came in, his eyes enormously magnified behind his red, plastic-framed glasses. My Dentist had been about sixty-five, with a dyed black comb-over and a lot of fillings for a dentist. He frowned at me.
“It’s been a while. Too long.”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I’ve been away.”
There was an Elvis clock on the wall and framed calendar pages of long, shiny hotrod cars. He was a 1950s enthusiast. There was a picture of his cat up, too. The clock swiveled its hips and I looked into his eyes. He tapped one of my back teeth with his tool.
“Does this hurt?”
“I’m sorry,” I said again.
“Don’t apologize to me
.” He looked at me for a long while until I began to feel uncomfortable. Then finally he smiled. “Want to hear something interesting?”
He yanked his gloves off and rolled his chair over to the large cabinet in the corner of the room. He pulled a cassette out of a drawer and popped it into the tape player on the windowsill. There was static-filled silence for a while, then I heard a high, eerie voice say, “I love you.”
“What is that?” I said and the voice repeated, “I love you.”
He tapped the picture of his black and white cat and rolled back to me.
“Veronica,” he pulled a fresh pair of gloves on. “Isn’t it great?”
“How’d you teach her that?”
“Simply with a lot of patience. I read you could teach your cat phrases if you just kept saying them over and over and over again. So I tried it.” My Dentist played the tape of Veronica repeating I love you for the whole visit. The only thing that drowned the voice out was the whir of the drill. I felt glad for the cavity.
I am a dentist enthusiast. I always have been. They are disappointed with you if you have a cavity, they make you feel so ashamed. But then, they’ll fill it for you so gently. Sometimes it hurts, but that’s just how it has to be, they don’t mean to hurt you. If you are judging me, thinking that I am a young black girl who fetishizes and exoticizes old white dentists, well then you’re probably overeducated. And you can’t understand.
My Dentist lived above his practice and I’d picked him because his office was so close to my apartment. He used to take Veronica for walks in the evenings and sometimes I would watch them: fat Veronica pulling against her purple leash, My Dentist elated whenever children would stop to pet the cat. I lived alone and liked it. But sometimes after watching the two of them together, when I’d turn back to my apartment, it seemed unnaturally quiet. I had no cat.
* * * * *
Veronica died about a month before My Dentist did. This I also heard from Orlando when he was, at that time, unclogging my bathroom sink. For the record, I’m not an unusually hairy person. The sink was clogged because I’d cut the hair on my head short. The tub was clogged because I’d been experimenting that month with shaving my body hair and there is nothing wrong with kids experimenting.
I sat in the blue vinyl chair and when My Dentist came in I shifted my hips.
“I heard,” I said. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, thank you. Tell me, what’s bothering you?”
“My teeth hurt when I drink something cold,” I lied.
I opened up and he hummed as his fingers ran along my gums and probed my mouth.
“The service was a couple of weeks ago,” he said.
“Oh. I bet it was beautiful.”
“It was. My sister brought a lovely bouquet of lilies, which was ironic you know. Lilies are lethal to cats. But as they lowered the little casket into the ground, I tossed some on top anyway.”
“I would’ve come if I’d known.”
“That’s okay. It was a quiet, intimate ceremony. Just family, really.”
Veronica’s collar was wrapped around his wrist as a bracelet and its bell ting-a-linged merrily as he reached for the little mirror on the tool tray.
“Is there anything I can do?” I touched his forearm.
“No.” He rolled his chair away and shifted his tools around on the little table.
“I really am sorry.”
* * * * *
At first I was upset that I couldn’t attend either funeral, but then I bought a ficus and that helped me get over it. I named him Stan. Stan thins the silence in my apartment, but it’s likely he’ll die soon because I can’t seem to remember to water him. But when he does, I won’t follow.