By Ella Torres-
Dr. Dennis’ office was littered with signs. Even before you stepped into the small makeshift dentistry office, signage led the way. Outside of the bodega, where his shop was tucked between the cat food and toilet paper, a large chalkboard read ‘Local Dentist Dr. Dennis (I won’t bite.) 24 hours. Closed Mondays.’ Each word was written in bubble letters, stacked on top of one another. Pieces of paper, which in large red letters said ‘This way to your teeth,’ lined the aisles. And finally, covering the entire glass panel of his door, the last sign before you entered: ‘Door closed, patient in. Stand and wait (no longer than 30 minutes).’
Her curiosity and her lack of any social life propelled her through his curated maze, intrigued her to the door. But after 45 minutes and no stirring from inside, she began to fidget. So entranced by the poor signage, she realised she was stood in a bodega for 45 minutes. Her roommates had not even texted her to ask where she went, though she was only going to get booze. What was meant to be a funny story to tell them, to give them, had now developed into a sad secret she was sharing only with herself. She imagined the quiet judgment that would come from standing in a bodega for a dentist she didn’t need. They wouldn’t understand she had done it for them.
Just as she was about to turn back, a man that filled the entire door frame, wearing an Adidas tracksuit and yellow crocs, opened the door.
“Why didn’t you knock?” he said, waving her in.
Inside, she could not see the walls. Postcards of license plates and attractions from all over the world covered every inch of the space from floor to ceiling. Some were stained with the wilting yellow of time, while others looked crisply white. The silence made her feel uncomfortable. For such an eccentric display, Dr. Dennis seemed rather demure.
‘Lots of signs,’ she said, hoping to make some sort of conversation. She was met with more silence.
‘The one outside is funny. Why’d you write it?’
For such an obvious question, he did not offer her a quick explanation. He didn’t even seem to be thinking of one. Instead, he sifted through a drawer that held his dentistry tools, of which there were just a handful, and a grainy photo of a young woman. Perhaps he had not heard her.
“Your sign. Outside. It says ‘I won’t bite.’”
“I know where my sign is. I just don’t understand the question. I wrote it because it’s true,” he replied, still sifting through the drawer. His fingers, before caressing the tools, now tossed them about as if the one he wanted was hiding itself. She hadn’t meant to upset him and was prepared to leave it, but found herself pressing more.
“It’s just a funny thing to write. Don’t you think?”
He dropped the tools, abandoning them back into the drawer and looked directly at her: “I don’t think anything about my profession is funny. Now open wide.”
He tapped on each tooth twice with his index finger and flicked her tongue with his thumb.
“Butah chourseuwont. Why woul you bieme? I feelie now uwhill bie me.”
He stretched out the corners of her mouth.
“Ih thi norml proseeure?” she asked.
“Skin rips very easily, even inside your mouth if you’re not careful.” She wondered how smart it was to go to the back room of a corner shop with a man she didn’t know.
In the three weeks she had not been outside, the scenery of New York changed entirely. Gone were the leaves and bistro sidewalk tables and skateboarders. Now there was snow on the ground and the river was frozen. Even the trash was different. No longer scattered and strewn, it now looked stuck to the ground, embedded in the snow. The couch was gone too. It had been there for a month or so and each time she spotted it, she reminded herself to ask Jon if he wanted it. It was for the best someone else took it.
The corner shop was one of the few places that had no memories of him. He preferred the Whole Foods that was a 20-minute walk away and that was only when they stayed at hers, which they rarely did. Her apartment had her dresser in the kitchen and her roommates used the oven for shoe space. At first, he found this quaint and they laughed together. Then one day he asked when she was going to move out. Slightly startled, she said she had not thought of it. “What? Come on. Your place is a shit hole” he replied. It was the first time she realised he was laughing at her. That was three weeks ago.
“What do you want?”
The only furniture inside Dr. Dennis’ office was a white plastic lawn chair, where he sat, and a red loveseat, where she lay.
“Oh no, nothing. I mean I don’t actually need the dentist. I was just going to the bodega. To replace my roommate’s booze. They said I didn’t have to but I think it’s one of those things people just say. Like when I told them my boyfriend and I broke up, they said they’d never liked him and I think they thought they were being a comfort. But that’s why I’m drinking their booze. We broke up. But I don’t need the dentist.”
Dr. Dennis was not so much staring at her, but through her. She fidgeted in the small loveseat, embarrassed now that she let herself be so vulnerable.
“Your wisdom teeth. Are they removed?” Dr. Dennis asked.
She felt startled. Shouldn’t a dentist who had just been in her mouth be able to tell? “Yes. I got them out a few years ago.”
“I can tell. Your teeth are horrible. Should have never got them taken out. Now the others are shifting backwards, trying to fill that space.”
“What? I mean I don’t feel anything.”
She felt silly once more. A ridiculous thought to think there was anyone in the world worse off than her.
“Of course you don’t. You won’t until it’s too late.”
This caught her attention in a way that some smells do. They bring you back to a specific place and time and, for a second, you are engulfed. She felt engulfed by a sense of truth.
“We will clean you now,” he said, though when it came to it he merely suctioned a saliva ejector to her tongue and sanitised his hands.
“So how long were you two together?”
The ejector made her tongue heavy and uncomfortable. She tried to move it as little as possible.
“No time at all then,” he said.
“Ihwuzuhallahfuhmii,” she said with more bravado.
“Can’t hear you.”
She snatched the tool from her tongue and clenched it in her fist.
“It was a lot for me.”
“Well,” he said, with the distraction of someone who suddenly found themselves in their past, “everything is.” She thought of the picture, of the woman in his drawer and wondered who she was. Dr. Dennis sat down on the lawn chair though, shifting about and settling back into who he is now.
“Now you’ll need to start brushing your teeth under sunlight and wearing a mouthguard at night. I don’t have one, but did you play sports in high school? Use one of those and you’ll be fine.”
Dr. Dennis said would she please pay him for his services in cash and if she did not have cash now please could she return to the store the next day and slide the envelope under his door. She was on the other side of the door before she even realised he practically lifted her off the love seat, put her coat in her hands and shuffled her out.
When she returned the next day, the chalkboard was gone and the pieces of paper had been taken down, though she could still see the tape from where they were. She realised, passing the fridges stocked with beer and wine, that she never ended up buying the booze.
Dr. Dennis’ door was locked and no lights were on inside. Under the door was a draft blocker that prevented her from leaving the money. She turned back, thinking of asking the man behind the register where the dentist had gone, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to know.
Not ready to return home, she passed her apartment and walked on to the East River pathway. Her surroundings changed again since last night. The snow was now grey, but the freeze of the river thawed. The water now flowing, completely into and around itself. When it was summer, she thought she might swim in it. She imagined diving in and sinking into the murky blue. The trash that once littered the river would beam bright, like hidden treasure. She thought she may even see the couch. It would be weathered with the memories of others, of a happier life where the cushions sunk towards each other and the stains were tinted with nostalgia. But that was some months away. For now, the water was still too cold and the stains too fresh.
Ella Torres lives in London where she works in a restaurant learning about produce, sustainability and wine. She previously worked as a journalist in New York City, covering a slew of topics including coronavirus, sexual assault in the military, and gun violence. Now, she is attempting to create some stories of her own.