The first real job I ever had was as a receptionist in a dentist’s office. It was the summer before my sophomore year of high school, and I walked to work from my house. I booked appointments for patients, called them to remind them of upcoming cleanings, and pulled their files each afternoon to prepare for the next day. When there were insurance problems I sent them to the office manager. When they had complaints I listened and nodded and pretended to understand and care. I answered the phone like this, “Good afternoon, this is the office of Doctors Sorokin, Berman, Alexander and Rosenlieb, my name is Sarah, how may I help you?”
It was a summer job, and right away it was absolutely the most boring thing that I ever did. The dentists and hygienists were nice, the other receptionists were nice, the patients were nice… everyone was just so… nice. Over time, I even came to enjoy the 'lite rock, less talk' radio that gently jammed under the drone of drilling, suction and spitting. It was so incredibly predictable and mundane that the few interesting things that stand out weren’t so much interesting as they simply were not daily occurrences.
One day the head receptionist’s son came in to visit. Everyone immediately lost their mind over how much he had grown. I think he was in college. As soon as he was gone the entire receptionist staff asked me if I thought he was handsome. I didn’t want to offend anyone so I said yes. The guy was a total flatface. I guess they picked up on my lack of enthusiasm; shortly thereafter I overheard one of them whisper ‘lesbian’ to another receptionist.
Another day one of the hygienists asked me to develop some of the bite-wing x-rays. I had to peel back a layer of metal film and then load them in the machine a certain way. The fact that I remember these details gives you an idea of how bored I was on a typical day. That same hygienist told me that dentists are the first to know when a patient is bulimic, because of the specific acid-wear pattern caused by stomach acid on the molars. I asked if she ever had a patient who was bulimic and she said ‘tons’. A different hygienist in the office had a tiny apple painted permanently on one of her teeth.
But the most exciting thing that happened while I was working at this dentist office was that I got my wisdom teeth removed. They had been asking me about it all summer; they were really eager to get their hands in my mouth. Finally, the day came. I walked in as a patient for the first time and stood on the other side of the desk. One of the hygienists excitedly escorted me back to the operating room. I thought about those of my friends who had already had the procedure done, and how bruised and swollen their poor faces were for weeks afterwards. I started to ask all of the questions that I could have asked all summer long: What equipment are you using? Will it take long? How are you actually going to get these four huge teeth out of my mouth and how long will it take to heal? My employer laughed and pinched the back of my hand. In went the liquid valium. “This is called twilight,” he smiled, “You’re going to love it.”
A warm calm came over me. I opened my mouth and he shot me up with something else. “Count backwards from a hundred,” he prompted. “A hundred? It goes a hundred, a hundred, a hundred. You’re not bad looking,” I reported.
“Wake up, Sarah. Here. Look at this.”
A plastic cup. Big white broken marbles inside with red juice all over them. So pretty. “Can I keep them?”
“Nope. Biohazard.” Into the bin they went. I was too happy to object.
Grandma took me to her house. I lay on the striped couch in her cool, dark livingroom and slept. Woke up, took some codeine, made me anxious, didn’t need any more drugs. No swelling, no bruising. They did a nice job. A really nice job. I think Sorokin, Berman, Alexander and Rosenlieb would be amused to see me today, bottom teeth still a little crowded, performing a show all about dental floss.
Sarah Elovich is a writer and performer based in Oakland, CA.