She asks me questions and I give her half-responses. Answering. It’s difficult.
She says, so what do you do?
I say, I’m not sure. Mostly temp jobs doled out by this place called Express Employment. Last week it was filing at a funeral home. This week, I’m painting eyes on fishing lures.
She says, hm. Do you like it?
I try to respond, but can’t.
When she asks me where I’m from, I don’t say Sugarland, Texas. No one on the east coast wants to hear that you, or anyone, is from Texas. I get the side-eye, so I’ve learned to say other things like I’m from Guam. It’s simpler than having to explain. I lived there for a year when I was twelve and know it well enough to bullshit my way through small talk. Which this is, bless her heart. When people ask me where I’m from, I have to wonder if what they’re really asking is for me to explain my beige skin and frizzy hair. Part of me always wants to say that I’m actually a white Texan whose mother’s mother was Austrian-Jewish and that’s why the curls. But I don’t. I tell this woman, like I tell most people, I’m from Guam. They stare at me blankly—which is always better than a look of disgust—and say something like: Gee, I’ve never been there.
She says, your tongue’s going to go crazy when I’m done here.
I try to smile, but can’t. My mouth is too full of her hands.
She turns away, reaching for a new tool.
So, she says. How was your morning? But she’s back in my jaw before I can answer. I watch her bloodshot eyes, watch as tiny globules of sweat form at her hairline. I can’t imagine the mess she sees in there, and I want to apologize, but I don’t. Instead, I just close my eyes and listen to her scratching and scraping.
She steps back. Sorry, I didn’t let you respond. How was your morning?
Good, I say. A line of drool slips down my chin.
It was not a good morning, but what was I going to say? That I had bad sex with a guy from the fish eye painting place? That it’s leak week, and I left him to deal with the bloody sheets? That I actually said, sorry, friend, but I’m going to be late for a teeth cleaning?
The woman sighs audibly and pulls down her face mask.
There, she beams. Her mouth full of pearls. Goodbye, crud!
I want to laugh, but can’t. I’ve never heard anyone so proud. I admire this woman. She’s funny and confident and direct. I like her. She pays attention to me. I can’t say word one, but she’s so goddamn sweet, I mean what the hell. Shoot. This is great.
Oh, she says, noticing a problem spot in the back. She uses a small square of gauze to move my tongue, and then, next thing I know, her tool falls and she lets out this crazy, Laura-Palmer-type scream.
Whaadt?! I mumble.
A spider! Jeannie, I need you in here!
She drops my tongue back into my mouth. Gauze and all.
There are three voices in the room now, each flipping their shit in their own unique way.
I got it, one says, while another is shrieking, Ew! Gross! Get it out!
The dental hygienist leans into my ear. Stay calm, she tells me. I’ll be right back.
I am calm. I’m just sitting here in sunglasses, the bright arm of light warming my face. Soon, they’ll have this spider thing dealt with and I’ll lie back and let this woman floss me. She likely has some complicated technique that I’ll never understand. Oral health is so important. I once read a newspaper article that said poor dental hygiene can sometimes lead to brain damage. I won’t let that happen to me, though. After this, I’ll go back to my friend’s bed with my bright white teeth on display. He’ll have changed the sheets and we’ll have sex again which is great cuz I really need somewhere to crash.
The dental hygienist returns, apologizes, and finishes with my mouth. I say, thank you. And I can tell by her warm face that she appreciates the gratitude.
At the counter, the receptionist sits at her computer and smooths her blonde hair back. Thanks for waiting, she says. Eventful day in there.
It’s like they’ve never seen a spider before, I say, and smile big. Shameless.
Well, she says, typing. They are dirty.
Then, the receptionist turns to me and tells me what I owe.
I don’t have that, I say.
She stares through me. Blinks.
Behind closed lips, I run my tongue over the slick, clean surface.
Fine, she says. I’ll mail it. What’s your address?
I glance at the long line that’s formed behind me. A woman in a blazer looks me up and down.
I don’t have one, I say.
The receptionist’s eyes go soft. She turns back to her computer. Delete, delete.
Please, she says. Don’t come back.
About the Author: Alissa Hattman is a writer and teacher living in Portland, Oregon. Her fiction has appeared in Propeller, Prick of the Spindle, Ellipsis, and Voice Catcher, and her short story, “Beyond the Bay,” won WORK’s fiction of the year contest in 2011. In 2009, she received her MFA in Fiction at Pacific University and, in 2011, she completed a MA in English Literature from Portland State University. Currently, she teaches writing at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon.