The pain shoots up the roots of my molar into my left eyeball as I hang up the phone. I almost cry. Through a fog, I hear a voice, “Melissa, hey, are you joining us for the deposition? Oh! You look terrible…” Kathy, my paralegal, stares down at me with concern and pats me lightly on the back. Each pat reverberates through my body like a punch in the cheek while the heavy floral scent of her perfume sets off explosions in my sinus cavities.
Cradling my face in my hand I say, “My tooth. I think I need a root canal. I mean, I’ve thought I needed a root canal for weeks, and I let it go too long.”
A whole month until my dentist can see me. “It’s August you know, and he loves his golf,” his receptionist had quipped.
I expect Kathy to regale me with her own gory pus-and-blood dentist stories, but she surprises me by providing potentially useful information instead. “Oh honey, my sister lost a crown last week, and her dentist was away on some sailing vacation.” I nod in empathy. “She tried that new alien dentist—are we supposed to say alien?—and raved about the experience. Let me go get Dr. Nallirk’s card. My sister gave me a stack, so she could get credit for the referrals.”
I consider Kathy’s option. Of course, I’m aware of the Grork dentists. My worry? The potential explosive reaction when my dental phobia meets a tiny-eyed, huge-toothed, blue monster with sharp instruments. By afternoon, I’m incapacitated by pain and out of options. All the human dentists are booked into next week, and Dr. Nallirk, the Grork dentist, has an opening the next day.
The Grork’s waiting room looks similar to my human dentist’s waiting room but smells more like a spice store than a medical facility, with tangy notes of sweet and sharp comingling in the air. My pre-appointment stalking of Grork websites found marketing fluff explaining how the Grorks’ dental philosophy is based on organic compounds from their home planet. (Nothing calms the nerves like internet research, and I wasn’t sleeping through my pain anyway.) A human receptionist—her badge says Cheryl—checks me in and hands me a clipboard with papers to read, emphasizing, “Every page needs your initials or signature.” She then offers me complimentary rallka-urk juice from a glass-fronted mini fridge.
“There are microbes in the rallka-urk juice that help to calm pre-dental anxiety,” she explains with the passion of a low-budget television commercial. It’s cold, like it’s come out of the freezer, and the bottle is made of a material like silicone, not glass or plastic. The avocado green liquid responds to my touch, violently effervescing where my fingers compress the container. Small particulates dance in the churning liquid. As my stomach squirms, I place the container on the desk, declining lamely, “Sorry, I don’t really like fizzy drinks.”
At the top of the paperwork, there are glossy handouts about “new pediatric dental implants,” “total tooth replacement discounts,” and “friends and family referral bonuses.” One by one I initial the “not at this time” entries. By the time I get to the written description of my upcoming Grork dental procedure, all nine pages of it, the motion of looking down at my clipboard paperwork makes my tooth feel like a tiny overinflated balloon threatening to pop. I can’t focus. My lawyer brain tries to send warning signals as I initial and date each page without comprehending them. When I’m done, I just sit and stare at the art on the wall: photographs that portray the ascendance of Grork dentistry over the past six years. There is the famous picture of Dr. Shalark’s grand-opening of the first Grork private practice. The Manhattan skyline in the distance, Dr. Shalark is surrounded by celebrities—there is even a red carpet—and she is arm and arm with Julia Roberts. Dr. Shalark is smiling, because the lipless Grorks are always smiling, and Julia’s iconic grin looks positively dainty compared to the enormous white chompers of her dentist.
A jolt from my tooth bursts my escape into reverie. Reality overcomes me. In a matter of minutes, one of these creatures is going to be my dentist. The underside of my tongue starts watering in the back of my mouth like I’m going to vomit. I try closing my eyes and breathing deeply. Just relax, I tell myself. It will all be over soon, and then you’ll feel better. I open my eyes at the sound of a deep voice asking, “What do you think, Cheryl?” An attractive older man with salt-and-pepper hair smiles at the receptionist.
“Oh Greg, let me see! Did you get all six of the top fronts implanted today?” asks Cheryl.
“Nope, just four. Dr. Nallirk took out the canines to regrow. By next week, my smile will be perfect.” Greg opens his mouth and shows Cheryl the gaping holes from his canine removal.
I avert my eyes and focus on the huge image of Grork arrival day directly behind Cheryl’s desk; I don’t want to witness this stranger’s tooth sharing. I remember the Grork first-contact speech. Sitting in the common room watching the news coverage with my college roommates, we marveled at these new beings. From the Lincoln Memorial steps—the location of all fictional and now nonfictional first contact—the cool-hued creatures promised to do us no harm and asked us to think of them as Dentists Without Borders while they grinned their huge, lipless, toothy grins. It took a couple of days for the press to get the message straight. Without lips, the Grorks can’t pronounce the letter B, so the “Dentists Without Orders” message led to some panic: what, were they just globular dentists flying off the handle? It was the first of many missteps as humanity acclimated to this alien life form.
Long after my classmates returned to studying, drinking, and hooking up, I found myself returning to the empty common room for cable news Grork coverage. I’d shiver with fascination as the Grorks frankly discussed their polyamorous multisexual families. While watching perfectly coiffed news anchors try to react appropriately as Grorks discussed their decoupled physical sexual needs from their parthenogenic reproduction, I’d laugh and say out loud to the empty room, “They have sex with whoever, and don’t need a partner for babies. It’s not difficult to understand.” Night after night the Grorks returned to news studios patiently attempting to teach away human biases.
The Grorks’ earliest work was all pro-bono in underprivileged areas where the population didn’t have access to dental care and legal systems didn’t require licensure. The before and after pictures of kids with fractured brown teeth—bites seemingly taken out of them rather than by them—transformed into movie star smiles was powerful television. Crying mothers embracing the gummy saviors of their children turned public opinion in favor of Grork dentistry. I scan the waiting room and see the expected Pulitzer image of a decrepit school gymnasium made of concrete blocks and filled with humans in graying tattered clothes offset by Grorks in a rainbow of colors, looking like jewels performing dental miracles. As the Grork legal team leveraged positive press into Grork admission into human dental schools and eventual dental licensure, I tuned out. Aliens were fascinating; the bureaucracy of dentistry was not.
The sudden quieting of Greg and Cheryl’s conversation draws my attention, and I notice them looking at me. The tooth show-off adds five bottles of rallka-urk juice to his bill. As he leaves the office, Greg shakes a bottle at me and says, “This stuff really takes the edge off!” and winks at Cheryl.
Cheryl waves at Greg, turns to me, and says, “Okay Melissa, Dr. Nallirk will see you now.” I go into dental autopilot mode, gather my sheaf of signed papers, and grab my purse. I’ve survived root canals, gum surgery, and braces. This is just a new form of dental torture. My knees give out as I take my first step, but I use the chair to steady myself before bravely continuing to the reception desk.
Cheryl takes my paperwork, scans through the first few pages, then leads me down a hallway lined with closed, frosted glass doors. She says, “Just so you know, Dr. Nallirk identifies with he/him pronouns.” Sliding open a door that looks like all the other doors, she motions me to enter, then says in a low voice, “Now, don’t be nervous. I saw this is your first time visiting a Grork dentist, but it’s amazing what he can do. He’s replaced all my teeth with Grork implants, and I love them.” She smiles and I can see Cheryl has perfect white, straight teeth, but are they a little too big? I try to investigate as I walk past her. A complaint of early Grork patients was that implant smiles were a bit too large for humans.
I settle into a normal-looking dentist chair in a room that’s more spacious than a human dentist office. The doctor’s stool looks like a large, clear, molded plastic nest on wheels, perfect for the Grorks’ prodigious hindquarters. Although something else is different, but I can’t place it until Cheryl says, “Dr. Nallirk has exceptional vision, so you won’t have that bright light shining down on you during your procedure.”
“It’s not like this is an interrogation,” says a smiling Grork bouncing into the room. From Cheryl’s big smile and fake-sounding giggle, I realize they are trying to make a joke. I find the dental torture innuendo inappropriate, not funny. “Nice to see you,” he pauses before mispronouncing my name, “’Ulissa.” His English is a bit off and reminds me of the voice from one of those fortune teller booths: inhuman and oddly paced. He points to himself, “Dr. Nallirk,” then holds out a three-fingered hand.
I reach up, expecting his hand to feel slimy, but it’s more like the underbelly of a snake: cool and smooth with faint ridges. His fingers taper to sharp tips, which are extremely strong, and are used instead of dental implements during the procedure—again, from my pre-appointment research. The blue-green tinge of Dr. Nallirk’s skin contrasts with the white of his lab coat. He’s naked underneath, but as the Grorks’ genitalia are only visible during their sexual rituals, there is no impropriety. At least, that’s the social standard we humans have agreed upon with this alien race. “Nice to meet you,” I belatedly respond, embarrassed that I’ve been staring.
“Dr. Nallirk can’t pronounce the letters B, F, M, P, V or W. None of the Grorks can: no lips. That’s why I use my middle name at work because my first name is Poppy,” Cheryl says.
Dr. Nallirk shrugs, and his body wobbles a little, “I cannot say ‘o’ee.”
I can tell this is a practiced show. I think they want patients to understand that Dr. Nallirk’s odd speech is due to physiology and not stupidity, but I can’t figure out what part I’m supposed to play, so I say nothing.
After an awkward pause, Cheryl smiles. “If there is anything else you two need, I’ll be in the lobby.”
Dr. Nallirk plops down, scoots his chair toward me, raises my chair, and then reclines me. The throbbing in my tooth increases the lower my head gets. He evaluates me with tiny, orange eyes while his two nostril slits pulsate slowly. “So, this is your initial outing to a Grork dentist. Are you okay? Your scent is scared.”
I’m in pain, feel vaguely nauseous, and the alien dentist can smell my fear, so I go with honesty. “Dr. Nallirk, I’m terrified of the dentist on the best day, and my tooth really hurts.”
Dr. Nallirk throws his head back and makes a sound like a dolphin. He slaps his thigh and I watch his skin ripple up and down his torso like it’s made of gelatin. “’Ulissa, thanks. I like your honesty. Let us discuss the stages. In case you get scared, just say ‘halt,’ and I’ll halt.”
After I show Dr. Nallirk which tooth hurts, he goes on to describe the procedure to fix my infected molar. He will apply Stalshirsh gel to my gums which will numb my nerves, provide an antibiotic to fight off infection, and loosen my tooth. Then he will remove the crown, exposing the tooth underneath.
He explains, “I’ll add additional Stalshirsh gel and take out your tooth. Next I’ll insert the Grognorg…”
I hold up my hand to stop the procedure litany, “You’re just going to pull my tooth out? That’s what I read online.”
Dr. Nallirk says, “Stalshirsh gel loosens the tooth and quiets your hurt. It’s a little scary, I know. I’ll go slow, and you’ll say ‘halt’ to any hurt.”
My heart pounds and cold sweat makes my back stick to the vinyl chair. What the hell am I doing here? I’m going to let an alien put alien goop in my mouth and then rip out my tooth? The throbbing in my tooth intensifies as my face heats up and my stomach wrenches like it wants to escape from my body. I know I can’t leave but each of my cells begs me to run out of this office. Shutting my eyes, I try the deep breathing trick again. Unexpectedly, I feel my heart slow and calm spreads over me. I open my eyes and see Dr. Nallirk’s hands pulsating two inches above my heart in the same rhythm as his nostrils. His eyes are focused on my navel, as if he can see my insides, but then refocus to meet my gaze.
“Yes,” I say, “What did you do?”
“Grork dentists use a sonar that quiets anxiety. Shall I start?”
I open my mouth in assent, and Dr. Nallirk raises his hands. They begin to shimmer as he initiates the production of antiseptic Grork fluid from glands under his skin. My desire to run has calmed, and I feel rational. I can’t go home until this tooth is fixed. Dr. Nallirk dips his digits in a clay-looking pot and the gel he applies tastes like licorice and cardamom. As soon as it touches my gums, the pain recedes. I sigh.
“The tooth hurts less now, doesn’t it?” Dr. Nallirk asks as he probes around my gums and mouth with his slender fingertips.
Apparently even alien dentists don’t understand that patients can’t talk with things in their mouths. I make a slight nod. “Great! Let’s get this old crown out.” Dr. Nallirk responds. I feel a tug which shoots pain up my face, but Dr. Nallirk quickly applies more gel. As the exotic smell of Stalshirsh fills the room, my pain vanishes. Really, this isn’t bad. I transport myself to an alternate reality, pretending I’m at the spa getting the newest tooth and gum facial. There is no scary clinking of metal instruments on metal trays, no chitchat with an assistant about Novocain shots, no tiny vacuum sucking my spit, and I’m not missing the whine of the drill at all. I almost enjoy the sensation of Dr. Nallirk massaging my gums to work the infection out of the tissue.
Everything is going better than I could have expected until Dr. Nallirk says, “Your tooth extraction is next.” He calls out to the hallway, “Cheryl, can you get the Grognorg?” He returns his gaze back to me and says, “You should sense no hurt.” I’m watching out of the corner of my eye to see what the Grognorg looks like, when I hear a sucking sound. I feel nothing but make the mistake of looking at Dr. Nallirk’s hand. In two of his teal fingers is a tooth nubbin attached to a bloody root. I faint.
I wake to Cheryl and Dr. Nallirk arguing in the hallway.
“Scared ‘atients need the rallka-urk juice.” Dr. Nallirk says.
“I know,” Cheryl replies, “And I tried, but she didn’t want—”
Dr. Nallirk cuts her off. “The sonar is less good if the ‘atient doesn’t drink the rallka-urk.” He sighs, and it’s a wet sound like his disappointment is coming from deep inside his gelatinous body. “You know this, Cheryl. It’s in the training.’Ulissa ‘ainting is not okay. Did she sign the release ‘orms? I don’t need a lawsuit.”
“Yes. I’m sorry. I’ll do better…”
“Halt. She’s alert. Go to her.” Dr. Nallirk says.
Cheryl enters looking concerned. “Are you okay? Do you need me to call anyone?”
Embarrassed, I shake my head. “I’m sorry. I kind of have a hobby of fainting in the dentist’s office. It always happens when I have a big appointment.”
Cheryl shakes her head, “Oh, I wish you would have taken the rallka-urk juice. If you get nervous, it helps so much. Next time, you can even drink it before you come in. I’ll send some home with you.”
I nod, feeling ashamed that I didn’t take the juice when she first offered it. A feeling not dissimilar to the shame of not flossing during a normal dentist visit.
“Dr. Nallirk will come back and explain the rest of the procedure. Are you ready?”
I nod, and Dr. Nallirk oozes in next to Cheryl and asks, “How is your tooth? Okay?”
In my embarrassment I had forgotten about my tooth. I stretch open my mouth and rub the side of my face. There is no pain and no post-root canal numbness. Other than the gap where my tooth used to be, I feel fine—no, I feel great! I smile at my new dentist. “No pain at all. Thank you so much Dr. Nallirk.”
“Are you ‘oozy at all?” he asks.
“No…uh…sorry about the fainting.” I reply.
Dr. Nallirk keeps one hand above my heart, using his sonar to ensure I stay calm and conscious. He explains how he embedded a Grognorg into the gum cavity of my extracted tooth while I was passed out. He apologizes for not explaining the process to me earlier but said he had to do it right after the tooth was removed, or the hole would have closed. My curiosity is heightened now that I feel better. “What exactly is a Grognorg? From my research, I couldn’t tell if it was a salve, an instrument, or some kind of medical device.”
Dr. Nallirk looks at the clock before saying, “You are okay? I can go get another Grognorg and show you. It’s the Grork secret sauce.”
Cheryl’s smile falters a bit as Dr. Nallirk leaves, probably afraid I’ll faint again. I try to sound upbeat, “Secret sauce? He sounds almost…” I almost say human but switch to, “…American.”
“I know. Sometimes I forget he’s different,” Cheryl says.
I marvel at how easy the procedure was. In under twenty minutes, I went from the worst pain in my life to feeling perfect. “I feel so much better. Thanks for all of your help today. How long have you worked here?”
Cheryl’s full smile returns. “Almost a year now. I really like it. At first, I was nervous, but as long as you follow the Grork protocol…well the doctor is a great boss, and I believe in what he’s doing: dentistry without pain.”
“It really is amazing.” I agree, wishing I hadn’t avoided the Grork dentists for so long. “I’m sorry about not drinking the juice.”
“It’s okay. Next time we’ll both know better.” She pats my arm like I’m a newly-trained puppy.
Dr. Nallirk returns and says, “Here it is,” and shows me a Grognorg floating in clear liquid near the middle of what looks like a baby food jar. It resembles a cracked egg yolk the size of a booger with a thin, red line running from its center to its edge.
Dr. Nallirk explains that the implanted Grognorg will keep the tooth cavity open while my tooth regrows in Greygnor solution. He’ll make a mold from my crown to ensure the new tooth is the right shape and size. It will take about forty-eight hours to grow, then I’ll be able to come back. The Grognorg in the jar pulses; it seems like it’s moving closer to me. The tooth will be implanted over the Grognorg, which will first cement the tooth in place and then grow a thin film of regenerative enamel over the tooth. I think back to my late-night reading about the Grognorg. The information was vague. Dr. Nallirk says I won’t ever have to worry about decay or cracks because the symbiotic Grognorg will keep my tooth healthy. By the time Dr. Nallirk’s explanation is done, the little jarred, boogery Grognorg is pressing against the side of the jar closest to me, wiggling frantically.
“So the Grognorg is?” I ask, trying to reconcile this thing in the jar with something inside my mouth.
“It’s a symbiotic organism from the Grork home planet,” Cheryl explains with a simple candor that belies the fact that I have an alien living in my mouth. “The details were on page nine in your patient packet.”
“Can I get a copy of that?” I ask, not taking my eyes from the Grognorg.
There is a long pause before Cheryl says, “Of course.”
She turns to leave and I say, “Can you please take the Grognorg with you?” Dr. Nallirk hands the jar to Cheryl, the motion causing the Grognorg to float away from me.
I want to ask, “Can I eat?” and “Can I brush my teeth?” and “Did you really implant a tiny alien inside of me?” but I hide my growing anxiety by keeping my voice flat and level as I ask, “Do I need to do anything special while I have no tooth, and the Grognorg is in place?”
“So, you should chew on a…Cheryl, how do you say it?”
Cheryl has returned with a charcoal gray, two-pocket folder. “A bone. You’ll want to chew on some animal bones, unless you’re a vegetarian.”
Dr. Nallirk nods. “Yes, ‘one. The Grognorg grows stronger eating ‘one. You can chew eggshells too.”
“These instructions will explain everything,” Cheryl says as she pulls out a trifold pamphlet printed on thick, creamy paper featuring the image of a beautiful, smiling woman who doesn’t fear dentists or aliens. Later she will smudge and wrinkle from my sweaty hands as I read and reread the information. Already I am worrying. Could the Grognorg dissolve my jaw bone?
“I’ve also included the business card of Throck, our Grork legal counsel, in case you need any additional information about the paperwork you were provided.” Cheryl points to a turquoise business card trapped in the folder’s pocket-triangles.
My mind spins, but I paste on a big smile to convince Dr. Nallirk and Cheryl things are fine. I obediently make an appointment for my tooth implantation, pay my copay, and take a stack of Dr. Nallirk’s business cards for my friends along with a postcard asking again if I want more information on total replacement or payment programs. Throughout the transaction, my tongue is a timid explorer, darting in and out of the space between my teeth. I’m not remembering any information on Grognorg removal in my pre-appointment paperwork, but I’ll be looking closely when I get back to the office. Cheryl presses a cold bottle of rallka-urk juice into my sweaty hand and urges me to drink it before the next appointment. “It will help with the anxiety, and it really tastes great,” she says. Dr. Nallirk nods in agreement, putting his three-fingered hand on Cheryl’s shoulder and grinning his perpetual smile.
Waiting for the elevator, I pull out the stapled release form while balancing the bottle of turbulent juice. My pain long forgotten, I now scan with a practiced eye. All the information is here in obfuscating legal and dental mumbo jumbo. As I ride down to the ground floor, I find details on the rallka-urk juice, the tooth extraction, the sonar, the alien Grognorg, and its bone fetish hidden in a small font glossary on page nine. Everything questionable or scary is in the back, basically ensuring patients will never read it. It’s not illegal, but providing pages of marketing materials first then hiding important information in an appendix is worth a review by our firm’s malpractice attorney. A single colorful postcard tumbles to the floor, and I scoop it up. I read and process the information about the new Grork pediatric dentistry offering. Has anyone considered what long-term exposure to Grognorgs will do to human children?
Outside in the parking lot, my hands tremble as I throw the bottle of rallka-urk juice in a trash can. I have enough aliens in my body, thank you very much. The container makes a wet farting sound as it hits the bottom of the bagless can and juice leaks onto the sidewalk. Belatedly, I wonder what will happen if the alien microbes enter the storm water system. In my car, I turn the rearview mirror and watch my tongue slide into the empty cavity between my teeth, pretending I cannot feel the slimy, pulsing Grognorg hungering for bone.