I think it might have been because I wasn’t expecting the dentist to be a woman that we started our brief relationship on a slightly rickety footing. She, not I, was 25 minutes late for the appointment.
The receptionist and I glared at each other from time to time. She busied herself on the telephone with friends from far and wide. After a long while, she actually spoke to me.
“Uh dunnah wheh she uz,” she said. I glared. There was an awkward silence. Then, out of the blue she said, “Hev you evah met a blek then invented anything?” I said I had not. “Thet’s right!” she beamed. She hadn’t either! This appeared to prove something profound to her. She was quite unmoved when I added that I had never met a white that had invented anything either. I pondered the prospect of what it must be like to look at a picture of, say, Thomas Edison, and experience a feeling of deep racial pride swelling in my breast.
Her next conversational offering was “Wheh does your waahff buy her washing powder?” I explained that I did not have a “waahff” – (“shame”, she said) but that we bought it anywhere we happened to be shopping. (“Rehlie!” she said). Could she interest me in a whole complicated scheme of biologically friendly products, so pure you could literally drink the water after doing your washing? There were facial creams for the girlfriend (she decided I must at least have a girlfriend), and slimming products – (she wasn’t sop rude as to say for whom these might be put to use). Oh, and gardening products as well. Before I could blink, she had a glossy pamphlet out, with all her products on display. I was sampling the Aloe Vera suntan lotion and she was filling in a list of items I would be purchasing.
Luckily, at that moment, the dentist came in, gesticulating and muttering about the children and school. I listened hard, but I didn’t hear any apology. But then who has ever been apologised to by a health practitioner who is late?
I was shown to another room and made to lie in that extraordinary position which, I imaginbe, would be ideal for giving birth. “Ah”, she said, endearingly, as she snapped on her rubber gloves. “I like this kind of mouth. So big and wide!”
Then she started poking about and counting things off. The hygienist type person, behind me, was writing things down. There was lots of counting. “H1” and “B12” and “S12” – and stuff like that. I wondered what it could all mean. Then X-rays were taken. “Shouldn’t you be hiding behind a screen wearing a lead vest?” I asked. “Oh no”, she said in a rather patronising voice, “technology is so advanced these days” (don’t you just love that…?) “that the dose is completely harmless”.
I was told that there was nothing “essentially” wrong with my teeth. I could have told her that. But despite this fact, it was her considered opinion that I should have all my “ugly metal fillings” removed and replaced with porcelain fillings. “You have a lovely smile”, she said, pandering to my not inconsiderable vanity, “why ruin it with all these ugly shadows?”
I suddenly saw my mouth in a whole new way. What was before, just my mouth, had now become a ghastly pit of black, shadowy fillings, begging to be removed! “And how much would this whole thing cost?” I asked gingerly. “Oh” she said vaguely, “what medical aid are you on?”
Before I knew what was happening she had the oral hygienist on the telephone to my medical aid asking how much they would pay “for this kind of procedure”.
The news wasn’t good. The medical aid would only pay R2 000 a year. That translated into about one-and-a-half teeth, she said. “But”, she brightened considerably, the new medical aid year is in April, so we could fit one in now and then get more in the new financial year!”
And I, gormless twit that I am, allowed her to book an appointment for me for the next week. It took me an entire day to see the light and change my mind. I related this story to someone who sells things for a living. He smiled knowingly. “All she needs is one in eight clients to buy her line and she will make a very good living. That is the way we all work it.”
This article first appeared in The Natal Witness, March, 1998