Remembering your dentist’s name is a hallmark of adulthood, even if he’s the same guy you’ve seen twice a year for the past eight.
“Hello, Rory, have you,” Andrew drolled, “had a, uh, busy day?”
“No, not at all. Still on uni break, nowhere to go, lockdowns and all.” I shuffled into the operating chair, cold plastic cover. I took off my mask and glasses as Andrew stood up and put on his, like our bodies had decided we’d trade places. He handed me shades and asked if I wanted to be numbed before the anaesthetic injection.
“I get the option?”
I don’t remember being asked before.
I squinted at the dental assistants. They had those clinical-blue facemasks on as well – couldn’t make out their expressions.
“Numb me up, I guess.”
Executive adult decision.
On went the shades, softening the room from whites to greys. Andrew applied the gel as I focussed on the lamp above, electric eyes abuzz, watching the whole procedure. Anaesthetic seeped in, cool to freezing, till a needle was the sharpest feeling and my back gums were chipped ice. Done, Andrew sat back.
“We’ll, uh, wait for that to take effect.”
“So, you said last time you do, uh, creative writing?”
“Yep, I’m a first year again.”
Uni had come up a few times before.
“Actually, I uh- we have a few writers in here,” Andrew said.
I tried smiling. “Lots of writers with cavities?”
The dental assistants laughed, and I thought I could see Andrew’s brown eyes crease together. It’s hard to imagine him outside the dental clinic, the same way kids think teachers live at school.
“Fair few patients are writers, more than you’d think, and with, y’know, all kinds…” He trailed off. “What genres do you write?”
A lamp bulb winked down at me.
I’d had a conversation close enough to this once already that week.
So, when in a dentist’s: rinse and repeat.
“I used to really be into fantasy,” I said, “but right now I’m trying to write- I guess, ‘genre-less’? I can’t imagine having an idea big enough to write anything like a book.”
Andrew bobbed his head. “Hmmm, yeah.”
“Like, plenty of students get stuck on feeling like they need to write a book when there’s still so much left to do and learn.”
Outside that room, a door sighed open, a phone blared.
Andrew adjusted his mask. “Well, I’m actually writing a book.”
I squinted. “Oh, really?”
“Have been for ten years,” Andrew said.
It was about his grandad. He’d been twelve, just twelve years old, when the Nazis invaded Poland. His WWII had been in and out of prison camps.
“After he escaped a few times, they figured he must be smart enough, so they sent him to South Germany to make ammunition,” Andrew explained.
“From there, he escaped again and fled through southern France and Switzerland. Because Switzerland wanted to stay neutral, they sent back any prisoners they found, so he travelled mostly on foot, until he caught a train to Italy, where his brothers were fighting in the Polish infantry. By then, the war was almost over, and he was eighteen.”
No one expects that from their dentist.
“Between work and kids, yeah, it’s been ten years. But it’s almost done. Another patient, a teacher of- a historian, read it. Picked up on some details I hadn’t got right.”
“Historical discrepancies?” I asked.
Like Nazis hunting long-dead Polish bison.
That’s where the other conversation had marooned – me talking about a book I’d once read, Landscape and Memory. I was completely wrong about Himmler plugging wisent.
Don’t ask me how I got there.
“Yeah, some facts that weren’t quite right,” went Andrew. “Can’t travel everywhere, not that I really want to.” His eyes flickered away from me, and Andrew exhaled. “I’ve researched what I need and read a few non-fiction books, but that’s not the way I want to tell it, y’know? It’s figuring that out too.”
Through my own skewed eyes and smudged shades, I tried to make something out.
But it’s impossible to know everything.
“Have you tried seeing how it’s approached in fiction?” I asked. “There’s plenty of other books based around WWII.” I named a few pop titles I knew. “And, if you’re trying to fill out something you already know, you don’t have to add anything more. You want what you already have to stand on its own.”
Andrew nodded. “What was that last one?”
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran-Foer.
“Safran-Foer travelled to Ukraine searching for family records and history – for a Jewish shtetl, his ancestral village,” I said. “But he didn’t find anything, so instead he wrote down what he wished he’d found and the stories and people that came with the finding. It’s a dark comedy, but half reads like a collection of folk tales.”
It’s impossible to know everything, and masks are a reminder of that. But sometimes in writing, even without the absence of truth, an impression serves better.
“So,” Andrew clicked, “how’s the numbing?”
I hadn’t felt it spread till it reached my lips.
I stared into light as it chipped through the shades, from grey to lightning-strike silver.
“Yeah, good to go.”
You can’t feel your tongue on its own either. I touched it to teeth I knew were still there, and trailed it across to the big, blank space where the inside of your face should be.
I think facemasks make new conversations – new people – easier.
There’s less to look at. You can’t get distracted by the puck of someone’s lips, creases rounding an expression, set of their jaw because there’s this big, blank space where most of their face should be. Besides body language, you must focus on two things: eyes and words. With those, you should have enough to fill the shape of their mask.
But you might be like me, with a touch too much cynicism. Facemasks are the new small-talk weather report. Every conversation touching on them melds together, no matter the characters. And I like small talk as far as I’m good at it.
Guess how much that is.
But you, just like me, don’t need to remember everything. The impression left behind should be enough to fill the outline you have, maybe add a little more, even if that’s part of you. If you can tie an impression to something said behind a mask, then perhaps that’s just another fabric, made to slip.
Author: Rory is a second-year Creative Writing student who has now bought three whole books of poetry and promises to maybe, even someday, read them. Find his works of prose and poetry in ScratchThat’s previous issues, online with Glass Magazine and other nerdy things through his Instagram: @rory_writes_sometimes
Artist: Anastasia Notaras is an emerging artist based in Brisbane. She is currently in her third year of BFA in Drama at QUT. Her work has been published in ScratchThat Magazine and can be found on her Instagram @anastasianotaras. Her creative work is multidisciplinary as she delves into painting, collage, script writing and performance.