Emotional Labor

Although he wasn’t sure when exactly it had happened, sometime between his first routine cleaning and the last of his two porcelain crowns, Nils Templeton had fallen in love with his dental hygienist. Her name was Echo, and she had eyes that matched the lavender exam gloves she used to tenderly probe the inside of his bacteria-laden mouth. At his first visit, Nils was certain she wore contact lenses—no one’s eyes could be that purple, could they?—but in the course of his multiple appointments, he’d searched for the barely visible border between silicone and eyeball, that slight convex edge that domed the iris in violet, and he had never found a trace.

He knew, deep down, it was a little creepy to feel this way about a dental professional. His sister—who had majored in Women’s Studies at a better college than he’d attended—had explained to him all about “emotional labor” and the unfair sexualized gender roles women were forced to play in the workplace. But despite his attempts to be enlightened, Nils could not disregard his yearnings. Echo was not just attractive—though, yes, she was quite pretty with high cheekbones and a hygienist’s luminous smile—she had also guided him through a rocky hell-scape of gingivitis and calcification, showing nothing but patience and aplomb in the face of his unspeakable tartar.

Nils was also willing to admit that he was a bit on the emotionally vulnerable side of late. At the age of thirty-four, he was still flailing in the wake of an unexpected divorce, and since his wife had left him he’d often been nervous (and freakishly sweaty) around women he didn’t know. But in Echo he had found a woman too self-assured to make him anxious. Without blinking, she had reached into the ugly depths of his face and tended to his ailing teeth with the calm attentiveness of a paleontologist. She had spritzed away his nervous tension with each cold rinse and quieted his soul with every incidental squeak of her latex-free glove across his lips.

“I love you,” he said to her now. “I love you, Echo.”

But he spoke into the chasm of a deafening, spit-sucking straw, and what came out were mostly vowels. She gave the straw a tug and it popped from his mouth.

“What was that?” she asked. He moistened his dry lips.

“I was just saying thank you,” he said. “For all your help these last few months. With everything.”

She gave him a perfunctory, close-lipped smile and placed the straw back in his mouth. Then she opened his file on a sleek desktop monitor and tapped in some notes about his gum levels. Her tight brown ponytail bobbed while she typed, and he noticed she had trouble reaching the delete key with her delicate pinky finger.

“You’ve come a long way,” she said.

 

# # #

 

This kind of fleeting conversation was usually the best part of his visits. Most of the time, it was only a minute stolen here or there, but with frequent appointments the time added up. And over the course of these micro-conversations, Nils had managed to learn some essential facts about his hygienist. For instance: 1) She did not like smokers or tobacco chewers. 2) She was raised Catholic, though she mostly went to mass on holidays. 3) She was prone to dizzying migraines that sometimes caused her to hallucinate. And, most importantly, 4) She was, it appeared, unhappily married to a hot tub salesman named T.J. who didn’t read books, didn’t like to travel, and enjoyed shooting game birds from the passenger seat of a moving jeep.

Nils didn’t have to pry much to loose these facts from her. During a cleaning or while assisting a procedure, Echo was all business. But when the work was over she often relaxed into a calm chattiness. And while he sat there recovering, his gums pulsing or his cheeks benumbed and cotton-stuffed, he asked her short, nonjudgmental questions and stored away each of her answers like a rare coin.

Today, however, he was halfway through his appointment and not feeling its usual therapeutic effects. In fact, as Echo shut down his dental history and moved the glaring spotlight over his face, he felt his pulse begin to jump. The hard fact of the matter was that, after today, his next visit to the office was six months away. One hundred and eighty-four days to be exact. It hardly seemed possible. But as the result of his four fillings, two crowns, and the repair of one chipped incisor, Nils’s mouth had finally passed inspection. He was cured. And now he could return to the land of the bi-yearly cleaning like the rest of those lucky enough to be insured.

A few months ago, this news might have pleased him—his mouth was no longer the pit of decay it had once been—now, however, it made him want to vomit. Which was why, after pacing around his apartment all morning and chewing his fingernails nearly down to the cuticles, he had finally arranged to have an enormous bouquet of purple Dendrobium Orchids delivered to the office precisely at the end of his appointment. Every time he thought about this, he felt a squall of dizziness whip through his head. He knew, sooner or later, he’d have to say something to her.

He watched Echo now as she replaced the plaque-smeared paper towel under his chin with a crisp new one, and a longing pinched his throat.

“Bubblegum fluoride again?” she asked.

He nodded, internalizing for the first time that his choice in fluoride gel had probably not done his masculinity any favors. Why in the name of Jesus hadn’t he chosen mint? Or an unflavored option—did they have those? He had never once thought to ask. Instead, he’d gone right for bubblegum without considering how a professional hygienist might weigh this selection from a grown man. If she was judging him though, she kept it a secret. She just tucked a loose strand of glossy hair behind her ear, coated the round head of her little electric tooth-buffer, and began to varnish his teeth. The bristles whirred, and the noise echoed in a deafening roar through his skull. He’d already missed his first chance to speak, and now it was too loud for a second try. So he closed his eyes and let the electric brush obliterate every sound but the beating of his own heart in his ears.

It was a reverberation he’d heard often after his wife was gone, the steady tic of his heartbeat, like a doomsday clock inside him. In retrospect, the sound might have been his body’s way of reminding him he was still alive as he sat cocooned in a musty afghan and watched cooking programs in his briefs. Three years of sound marriage had buckled beneath him, and what remained was not particularly dignified.

In the month before the split-up, Nils set up a counseling appointment for one last shot. It soon backfired. Each week, Nils was chastised for his habit of focusing on the negative and downplaying the positive aspects of his marriage. In the end, however, his pessimism was vindicated. Four sessions in, his wife admitted to having an affair with the I.T. guy from her office. “We’ve been in love for half a year, give or take,” she’d said with little identifiable remorse. Nils instantly remembered the imperious little man from an office party. “Napoleon in chinos,” he’d quipped on the way home. The man had a firm handshake and wore the permanent smile of a small shark. When he’d said good-bye to Nils, his wide grin had exposed a single peppercorn lodged between his front teeth.

A week after Claire’s confession, she’d moved out. But it didn’t fully sink in until a month later when she showed up to collect her half of their shared possessions. She packed without saying a word, and then left for the computer man’s house. Soon after she was gone, something felt different to Nils. Gradually it occurred to him that it was the absence of their objects. Somehow it brought everything home, and as the weeks piled up he noticed he had no interest at all in replacing what she’d taken.

If their microwave was gone, it stayed gone. Ditto with the hairdryer. The clock radio. The window air-conditioner. And, perhaps most importantly of all, the electric toothbrush they had shared, each using their own color-coded detachable head (his was green; hers purple). There was something especially painful about the missing toothbrush. Each night, before bed, they had taken turns in front of the bathroom mirror, handing off the buzzing wand like Olympians at the end of some kind of dental relay race. It was just a product, in the end, but it facilitated a moment of intimacy. I used this to touch the inside of my mouth, it seemed to say, now I want you to do the same.

As a result of this specific brand of grieving—if that’s what it was—by the time Nils showed up at Grand Avenue Dental and met with Echo, he had been brushing his teeth irregularly for eighteen months. Unfortunately, it showed. His mouth was decaying. Literally. His teeth were on the verge of falling out. And after the dentist had read his litany of offenses, it was Echo who had softened the blow.

“It happens,” she’d said, filling out his reminder card for the next of many return visits. “Things get busy, and you neglect your teeth. It’s not good. But it happens.”

“I don’t know…” he said.

His voice had quavered when he spoke, and he knew he was on the verge of tears. The severity of his prognosis had stunned him along with the dawning awareness that he had been walking around like he was dead for the last year.

“I’ve seen worse,” she said.

He thought she was just trying to make him feel better. But her eyes widened. “One guy came in here, he’d never been to a dentist in his entire life,” she said. “He was a chewer, and a soda drinker. His teeth were green! We had to pull all of them but two. He didn’t want dentures or implants, though. He was fine with the two teeth.” She finished filling in the card, dotting the “i” in his name with a heart.

“I’d like to keep more than two,” he said, “if possible.”

“We’ll see what we can do,” she said and winked.

 

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In the appointments that followed, she was always there. It was a small office and the other hygienist was on maternity leave, so it was just Echo and an aging dentist in plastic clogs who had startlingly terrible breath and treated Nils like a child. “The bacteria are having a party in your mouth!” he’d exclaimed more than once with a patronizing simper on his doughy face. And when he wasn’t infantilizing, he was trying to sell Nils something from a line of high-end dental care products he hawked out of the office. A dazzling display of electric brushes sat atop the counter in the waiting room, guarded by a heavyset, elderly woman with a centurion’s protective gaze.

But even the galling Doctor Brodsky and his crony couldn’t scare Nils away. The allure of his prize assistant was too strong, and her role too significant. Echo did all the prep work. She applied the numbing agents, measured the crowns, and outfitted him in his crisp paper bib. She was always there in the heat of procedure, passing instruments and suctioning away his drool. Above all, though, she provided Nils with somewhere to look while he suffered the punishments of his own neglect.

And now, when he opened his eyes and looked up from his fluoride treatment, she was doing it again: making direct eye contact. He wasn’t deluded enough to think she only looked at him like this; it was likely part of her caregiving strategy, a way to soothe a patient’s discomfort just by allowing them the kindness of her attention. It was probably “emotional labor” in the first degree. But she did it so naturally; it didn’t seem like the exploitative drudgery his sister had spoken about. It seemed like the essence of sincerity.

The buffer shut down, and Nils tried to read the clock on the computer desktop. It looked like 11:45. The flowers were coming at noon, if the delivery service could be trusted. His senses returned in a rush, and the cloying flavor of bubblegum was all he could taste. Again, Echo held out the long metal handpiece for a rinse. The cold water sent a toe-curling jolt through his nerves. Then came the straw again, that portable black hole of dental instruments. It roared in his mouth, taking with it all sound. He was hovering on the cusp of the event horizon, only fifteen minutes from flowers. This time he found the fortitude to remove the straw.

“Hey!” he said, a bit too loudly.

Echo turned in her swivel chair and looked at Nils like he was a coma patient who had just spoken for the first time in years.

“Hey,” she said. She was gripping a small dispenser of waxed floss.

“How is T.J. doing?” he asked.

It wasn’t the smoothest introduction of the subject, but Echo’s face relaxed. “Oh,” she said. “He’s fine.”

She yanked out a taut strip of floss and looped it around her thumbs without looking. The little lassos pulled tight and the tops of her thumbs began to redden.

“He’s out fishing again this weekend,” she said. “Last weekend was the opener.” Nils opened his mouth when she lowered the floss, and she began to work deftly, moving the spearminty string down the sheer cliffs of each tooth. She hit the gumline but without making him bleed. No hygienist had ever been able to do this.

“You sound a little upset,” he said, in between dips. “Is everything alright?” She paused, holding the floss over his open mouth like a tightrope. He felt his armpits growing hot and wondered if they were beginning to darken. He held his arms closer to his body. Echo pulled the floss away and let out a long exhalation.

“Nils,” she said, “can I tell you something?”

The sound of his name on her lips made his arm hairs stand up. “Of course.”

Her tone had been quiet, measured. She looked up at the ceiling and he saw up her nostrils. Even the inside of her slightly upturned nose was perfect.

“I’m not married.”

Nils tried to sit up in his chair, but he banged his elbow against a tray of instruments and dropped back down.

“You filed for divorce?”

She smiled and shook her head. “This is embarrassing.”

He looked at the clock. 11:52. No. 11:53. “It’s okay. You can tell me.”

Why was he talking like his old therapist? Echo exhaled again and finally unlooped the floss from her thumbs. The redness dispersed little by little.

“I was never married,” she said.

Relief, like a wave of painkillers. There was no marriage. Just a boyfriend. A fishing boyfriend who sold hot tubs. “T.J. is… kind of made up.”

Nils swallowed, but his bubble-gum flavored saliva seemed to stop in the middle of his throat.

“I don’t understand,” he gurgled.

“This is going to sound bad,” she said. She chewed at her bottom lip. “I kind of have this problem here with male patients… hitting on me. When I first started, it was happening a lot. I guess guys like the nurturing aspect or something—I don’t know. Anyway, I talked to one of the other girls and she said she used to pretend she was married, just to nip things in the bud. So one night at happy hour, I made up a husband.”

She had a pained look on her face.

“I feel bad sometimes about lying, though. Like, I know you’re not one of those guys who’s going to ask me out or anything, but I have to keep the story consistent or it doesn’t really work.”

Nils felt like his entire body had been drained of something vital. His soul was gone. Down the straw-hole. Into a tank of other people’s spit. He had no mass. Soon he would float out of the chair and hit the ceiling. They would have to get him down with a broom. The clock read 11:57. He cleared his throat, and when he spoke again it came out as barely a whisper.

“But what about your ring?”

“Oh,” she said, “Another hygienist got it for me as a joke. It looks super real, doesn’t it?”

She took it off and set it on the tray of tools. Up close it looked like it had come out of a machine at the grocery store. The “stone” in the middle didn’t even catch the light. 11:58.

“Oh, gosh,” she laughed, “I feel so much better telling you! You wouldn’t believe some of these guys. They proposition me the minute I take off my mask.”

Without warning, she relooped her floss and plunged right back into Nils’s mouth. Her admission seemed to rejuvenate her and she returned to her task with unusual vigor, digging into his gums. Two teeth in, he tasted the salty trickle of his own blood. Echo snapped the floss from his back teeth, and on the last crevasse her face tightened up and she brought a hand to one of her eyes.

“Dammit,” she said.

“What is it?” Nils asked.

He managed to suppress his instincts for a moment, but once he saw her fingertip reach her eyelid he knew exactly what was coming. And the thing was, he didn’t know if he could take it. Look away, he told himself, look away now or forever pay the price! But his body wouldn’t cooperate.

“Nothing,” she said.

But she was still rubbing her eye. She opened her mouth to speak again. “It’s just this stupid contact.”

Nils gasped.

“Can you sit tight for a minute while I go fix this?”

11:59.

She didn’t wait for his answer. She just got up and gave him one more apologetic smile. Then she slipped a tiny lens from her eye, and he watched her right iris transform from purple to a muddy brown. She tried to keep the little bit of silicone balanced on her fingertip while she speed-walked to the bathroom.

Nils took a deep inhalation of antiseptic dental air. Then he forced himself to move. First his feet. Then his legs. Then, at the pace of a man who’d been hit by a bus, he peeled himself from the leather chair and looked down the hallway for any other staff. Brodsky was back in his office cave, chuckling at something on the internet. The receptionist was likely still at her desk, maintaining her vigilant glower. He started off at a trudge but as he advanced toward the lobby his gait quickened. Escape crowded out all other thoughts.

He looked down at his feet as he wheeled around the corner.

“Hey! Look out!” came a woman’s shrill voice.

It was the receptionist, but her warning was too late. Nils took another bumbling step and collided with the deliveryman. Like a defensive tackle in the backfield, he knocked the man backward, sending an explosion of orchids over the man’s shoulder and into flight. The vase hit the lip of the receptionist’s desk and shattered, sending a squall of water and glass to the patterned carpet below. Purple blooms somersaulted through the air, landing on the hard-backed chairs of the waiting room. The deliveryman himself dropped to the floor, sucking air and holding his left knee. Nils stood against the wall, his back against the frame of a terrible abstract painting, watching the chaos.

As the receptionist waddled back into the office for help, Nils found the presence of mind to look for the card that accompanied the flowers. The one that said his name in fake cursive letters. If he found it, there was still hope that he might retain one small bit of his dignity. It hadn’t landed in plain sight, so he got down on his knees and searched frantically under chairs. He saw wounded orchids, baby’s breath, broken glass. But no card. Voices approached in the hallway. Including Echo’s.

He got to his feet and gave the place one last look. He knew already it would be the last time he ever saw the office. He tried to take it all in at once: the goldfish circling a small aquarium near the magazine rack, the faux-bronze lamps on the end table by the chairs, the wall of old manila records behind the reception desk. His eyes stopped when he looked at the counter.

Sitting there in plain sight was something he had, in his haste, initially overlooked. Next to the stack of clipboards and the jar of pens was the altar of electric toothbrushes. The display models. And, in the center, on the highest platform sat the Excalibur, blinking in its gilded charger, surrounded by all of its high-tech accoutrements. Nils pushed off the wall and leapt over the writhing deliveryman. He grabbed the brush. It felt solid in his hand. Just before the reenforcements rounded the corner, he swiped the charger and sprinted for the door. He made no attempt to look back as he kept up his run into the blinding daylight of the street, holding the brush in front of him like a baton, running a solitary dental relay.

Echo would put the pieces together soon enough, he reasoned. The deliveryman would get up off the floor and tell her the flowers had been intended for her. He would also tell her who they were from. It was unavoidable. Even if the card was never found, she would soon learn the truth: Nils was just another lovesick patient. Another desperate fool who had mistaken her kindness for intimacy.

The ache of this humiliation and heartbreak tingled in every cell of his body, but still, he kept running with the electric toothbrush in his grip. People on the street stopped in their tracks and watched him race by. He knew he looked like a maniac, but he didn’t plan on stopping. Even though his thighs were already throbbing, he knew that he was going to keep sprinting all the way back to his empty apartment, all three miles. It didn’t matter if his lungs burst, or if he couldn’t walk tomorrow. He could already see himself there, reflected in the bathroom mirror. In his vision he was sweat-drenched and panting, gripping his new brush, hunched over his bathroom sink, ready to fill a long-empty space.

Front page image by armadilo60.

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