Amanda Thompson needed a root canal. But first, she needed a cleaning, so Kelly sat alone with her in the office, prodding at her gums. It amazed Kelly: the lengths these celebrities would go to for great teeth. They were petrified of dentists, most of them, more willing to undergo a needle than a conscious appointment. But the entertainment industry demanded pearly whites, so they showed up as if for jury duty.
Amanda’s teeth were narrow, and natural for the most part. She wasn’t famous enough yet to have needed any done except the front few, and these, Kelly regarded with caution, remembering how they’d glinted in white flashes as the actress had made chit-chat with her boss, Clint, in the waiting room. He’d laughed too hard at Amanda’s jokes, and seemed taken by her ethereal cheekbones. But now, the actress was neutralized by benzodiazepines and Kelly was free to assess the competition.
“So I was thinking,” Kelly whispered into the pink void of Amanda’s mouth. “You’re what, twenty-seven? And you’ve already got more money than I’ll make in my whole life. But I’m thirty-two, and I’ve got college debt worth as much as this little number.” She tapped Amanda’s necklace. “So maybe, given these inequalities, you could do me a favour and not flirt with my boss. Deal?”
Amanda didn’t answer, so Kelly tapped her slack mouth, making it jiggle. The gesture was childish, but satisfying.
When Kelly had started at the office four months earlier, she’d been quiet as she cleaned, awed and contemplative and wondering what people back in Colorado would say if they saw a picture of her in these moments. The clients always looked surprised at their own silence, and Kelly had relished this wordlessness as she travelled the same paths as their lattes and lovers. At times, she’d felt almost afraid of this intimacy, as if she’d eventually be billed for it. But by now, she was used to the closeness: this privilege that some would pay thousands for.
“And why wouldn’t they?” she whispered to Amanda, her pick grinding nervously against the actress’s plaque. “You were voted #14 on Maxim’s list of the Hottest Stars Under 30. Impressive stuff.” Google had also bragged about Amanda’s modeling career starting at age eleven, about the two years in soap operas before a feature film breakthrough, and then finally, on the fifth page, about a romantic history conducted in LA’s swankiest cocktail bars. Kelly had been scanning the list for pop idols when she’d seen the reference from three years earlier: “Clint Atmore—two months.”
The air-conditioning in the office was acting up, and through the open window, Kelly could see the beige-grey skyline pulsing with the day’s heat. She was wiping the sweat from her lip when Clint popped his head in, leaning a hand against the doorway.
“How’s everything going in here?” he asked.
“You startled me,” Kelly said, snapping back to her position over Amanda’s mouth. “Just about finished.”
“How’s it look?”
“Some recession near the incisors. A chip on one of the canines. No major problems, except that molar. Well, and this lipstick.” She held up a glove, stained pink where Amanda’s lips had pressed. Catty wasn’t Clint’s style, but he still laughed, indulging her out of compassion or guilt—it was tough to say.
“Chanel, I’d bet,” he said. “Should I come back in ten?”
She searched for a sign of confession in him, for a sliver of awkwardness, but he just smiled at her like he always did: like she’d just made him $2000 and he’d thank her later that night.
Clint Atmore: sedation dentist to the stars. He’d never be so gauche as to advertise it that way, but it was clear from the moment you entered the office: the slick, granite counters, the premium coffee in handcrafted mugs, the carpets compacted by the imprint of Gucci footwear. No copies of People in the waiting room, no plastic hangers in the closet. They didn’t even give out those cheap packages of floss with the dentist’s name embossed on them, but instead, gift bags of artisan mouthwash in rhinestoned bottles. Kelly had never known, before entering this sunny climate, that artisan mouthwash was a possibility. What did rosemary want with bicuspids?
“You’d be surprised,” Clint had joked. “I can get pretty much anything—if you’re looking for a designer night guard, I’m your guy. There’s an orthodontist over near Rodeo that’ll do sapphire braces.”
Kelly had beamed. “What about gold floss?” she’d joked. “String a few diamonds on there for texture.”
He’d laughed. When he did, with her, it was natural and kind, his mouth as small as an orange slice. With the clients his laughs were larger, his white teeth sparkling. She wondered if he pushed them outwards somehow, performing with them in the hopes of inspiring envy.
Clint had been her first, since Russ. And for the most part, he’d been a capable distraction from the lingering pangs of that early-thirties dumping, and her hasty decision that the best solution to heartbreak was a new city a thousand miles away. It didn’t take long for a workplace romance to kindle: a couple months of fluoride flirtations, some slightly-too-considerate Starbucks runs, warm hands bumping into each other over sets of gaping lips. Then, one stuffy afternoon, a client had cancelled and Kelly had found herself pressed against that bench in the back where she usually did inventory, keeping track only—on that particular Monday—of the tight rhythm of Clint’s panting.
Afterwards, they’d had an understanding. He hadn’t wanted to make their coworkers uncomfortable, so the Starbucks runs continued, and the conversation remained charged, but they wore the new secret subtly, their smiles shining with unspoken pleasures. Mostly it was bedrooms and backrooms, but when he’d invited her to a retreat in San Diego, she’d gone without hesitation, bragging to only her most cherished friend back home:
“It’s this whole lavish thing. Lobster, foie gras. Manufacturers love to pamper their clients. Clint’s been on heli-skiing tours, hot spring getaways, the whole works.”
“Why bother?” her friend had asked. “Sounds expensive.”
“It’s a loyalty thing,” Kelly had explained. “These dental companies, they have money to burn. They want to make sure we’re upselling their product, not turning around and suggesting a competitor’s model.”
“But won’t someone wonder why you’re there with him? How will he introduce you to people?”
“This is California,” Kelly had sighed, delighted by her own flippancy. “They don’t ask those questions here.”
She was, somewhat to her own surprise, correct. No one had blinked as she’d walked in with Clint, beaming up at him in the lobby of the San Diego Hilton. What followed was three days of orcas and orthodontists, banquet dinners and the stoned sensation of velvet dresses being slipped off her shoulders. They’d even had brunch in a stingray tank, sipping mimosas while puff pastry floated by on buoyant platters. Clint had chuckled as she’d grabbed after each tray, the liquid slopping out of her glass. Beneath the water, he’d pressed a hand against the back of her bikini.
The drill was charged and disinfected. As Kelly waited for Clint to grab Amanda’s x-rays, she searched the actress’s teeth for signs of intent. You could never tell which clients would live up to their photo shoots; sometimes a goddess in Vanity Fair was a peculiarity in the waiting room, the features looking too stark outside their preferred lighting. But Amanda was no dud. The actress had long eyelashes and small feet that would fit sleekly into club heels. There were no bile lines on her teeth, despite her lean frame—that calculated balance between muscle and bone that seemed to facilitate Hollywood success. Desperate, Kelly pushed Amanda’s bangs back from her face, trying to accentuate the homely highness of the actress’s hairline.
“It’s a complicated root,” Clint announced, settling into his chair. “But I think we can get it if we take our time.”
“Of course,” Kelly purred. “We wouldn’t want to rush it.” She curled her eye into an unfortunate wink.
Clint looked at her strangely. “You okay?”
She nodded, handing him the drill.
Clint whistled as he excavated the first layer of enamel, sending white specks flying towards Amanda’s throat. Kelly whisked them away with the suction hose.
“You going hiking this weekend?” she asked.
Clint continued his tune, waiting for a natural break in the melody before answering. “Thinking about it. Depends on what comes up here. What with award season on the way.”
Kelly nodded. Amanda’s vanilla lip balm had filled the room like an airborne weapon. Her blonde locks were radiant against the chair’s headrest. Even her handbag—perched regally on the provided shelf—cast off an unwelcome brightness, its gold clasps gleaming in the sun. Kelly thought of her own body—her legs so smooth and lotioned they could have served as mirrors. But she could have waxed down to the marrow: nothing could shine like Amanda.
Clint drilled further, exposing the tooth’s pulp. Another smell filled the room, like singed game. Kelly remembered it from a fondue restaurant where Russ had taken her once. They’d dipped elk into hot oil while she’d tried not to think about those waffle-knit sweaters he always insisted on wearing, as if his face wasn’t dough enough. They’d moved to Boulder when Kelly was just twenty-three, and it took her half a decade to realize how much she hated Russ’ style: his pepper-speck stubble, his rotation of weary underpants. It took another three years for her to realize how much she relied on this consistency, even when she resented it.
With Clint, it was different. Unpredictable. It was ankle bites and kale. And though she’d tried not to rush him, she was beginning to wonder how long she could watch him hover over Cosmo cover models—and now, over ex-girlfriends—without some assurance of her standing. She watched as he wiped a line of saliva off Amanda’s chin. Next, he would use slim metal files to mine the tissue from the tooth’s narrow channels. Kelly had already laid the files out: the whole set in various widths, tiny as dollhouse accessories.
“Shoot,” Clint muttered. “The dam popped off. Pass me another clip?”
“Huh? Oh.” She handed him one. He remounted the rubber sheet on the molar, his finger tight against Amanda’s cheek. He smoothed the dam down with a finger.
Was she imagining it? The tenderness in his knuckles? The extra care he took as he pressed against the gum line, moving his glove against the glinting tissue? It always comes quietly; Russ had joined a Frisbee team. “Just a work thing,” he’d said. “I’ll be home around ten.” But he gave a strange smile and wore a crisp white t-shirt she’d never seen. Even his runners had seemed giddy with their newness.
She tightened her grip on the saliva hose. Clint worked the files into the tooth, one by one, plunging and extracting. And then she saw it: the trace of a blush. It moved from his cheeks towards his nose, settling into the curves of his nostrils.
Clint let out a slow breath. “I think we’ve got it,” he said, resting his arm on the chair. “Help me close her up?”
Kelly nodded. Clint packed the tooth with a rubbery compound. Then he applied a filling, smoothing down chunks of resin.
Soon, they would guide Amanda out of sedation. Kelly usually felt tender towards the client in those hazy moments, as if leading a child by the soft hand. This was the most naked they’d ever be: forget Twitter, tabloids. They were miles from their PR handlers, even distanced from their own consciousness. She always hoped they’d confess to something in this mental fog, or tell her whether Scientology was real. To Amanda, she begged silently, “Say nothing.”
“Cure,” Clint said. He was still flushed, the redness of his cheeks turning pink—like a steak slowly cooking. Kelly leaned forward, holding the light wand against Amanda’s molar. As she cured, she pressed the wand against Amanda’s plush lip, feeling the actress’s front teeth against the heel of her hand, the weight of her body against Amanda’s gums. She held—one, two, three, four. Amanda’s wet tongue lay disinterested. Kelly leaned in farther.
She yanked the wand out. A white shard lay next to Amanda’s gums.
“Jesus!” Clint yelped. He pushed Kelly aside, staring into Amanda’s mouth, where a broken incisor began to redden. “That’s a natural tooth. Shit!”
He grabbed a handful of gauze and swabbed the incisor while fishing out the shard. “Hold that,” he snapped, dropping the fragment into Kelly’s gloved hand.
“I’m sorry…” she started, holding the shard between her fingers. “I didn’t…it’s just a chip, right?”
“Just a chip? For god’s sake, Kelly! Are you trying to get me sued?” Clint jerked his head towards the clock. “And we’ve got another appointment in twenty minutes. Christ.”
“I was just trying to help.”
He held the gauze against the tooth. Kelly stared down at her knees. After a couple silent minutes, the bleeding stopped, and Clint left the room, grunting something about “back in five minutes.” Kelly followed.
“It was an accident,” she snapped, watching him pull off a glove in the break room. “I pressed too hard.”
“An accident? What’s going on with you? You’ve been weird all fucking day.”
She looked at him: his firm cheeks, his pursed lips. Those tiny pores, glaring at her in unison. When they had sex, sometimes, he almost went cross-eyed trying not to make eye contact. Still, she sensed a tenderness in him—there was something about the way he held his head at an angle when they watched The Daily Show after the act, his neck leaning towards her like a sick tree. She moved towards him now, grasping at his hand. He dodged her touch.
“Christ, Kelly! Not now.” He stormed back out of the room, leaving her alone under the bluish lights. The shard was still pressed between her fingers. She looked at it for a second, and then put it in her pocket. It felt heavy as a stone.
When she returned, Clint was leaning over Amanda, his hands half-buried in the actress’s mouth. He looked up at Kelly with sharp eyes. And something about his prince charming posture, his angle over Amanda’s face, made Kelly’s throat burn. Her lungs suddenly felt tight and precarious. She barely felt her feet move as she lunged forward and stormed past Clint, grabbing Amanda’s handbag from its royal perch. She gripped the leather beast in her hands. She looked up, meeting Clint’s eyes, then tossed the handbag out the window.
Clint ran towards her. Amanda, still limp, said nothing. For a minute, everything was silent as Kelly watched Clint’s lips twist like putty, his arms struggling to pin her down. They stayed there, frozen in each other’s grip, until a shout from outside broke the stillness.
More shouting. Kelly fought her way out of Clint’s grasp. She stuck her head out the window and stared down at the street.
The purse, split by the impact, had strewn its lipsticks and keys onto the sidewalk. Next to it, tan legs were splayed out, slim and shining with that careful calculation of muscle and bone. Kate’s, or Rachel’s maybe. She couldn’t see the face. The head was obscured by the awning, but the body was laid out in full sight, as still and serene as if sedated in a dental chair.
Kelly backed away. There would be news cameras. Tabloids. She pressed her tongue against her own teeth: stumpy and yellowing. They wouldn’t do. A hot wave of blood rushed through her, and she shoved Clint aside, pushing her way out of the office. She ran towards the stairwell, her body awash with a wild sweat that usually only found her during moments of desire.