Published in Macalester Today
“Emotional Labor” is from a short story in progress by Peter Bognanni ’01, who has been a visiting professor in the English Department for several years. Bognanni will spend the 2013-14 academic year in Rome as winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Literature Prize. When he returns to Macalester in fall 2014 it will be as an assistant professor.
Although he wasn’t sure when exactly it had happened, sometime between his first routine cleaning and the last of his two porcelain crowns, Nils Templeton had fallen in love with his dental hygienist. Her name was Echo, and she had eyes that matched the lavender exam gloves she used to tenderly probe the inside of his bacteria-laden mouth. At first, Nils was certain she wore contact lenses—no one’s eyes could be that purple, could they?—but in the course of his multiple appointments, he’d searched for the barely visible border between silicone and eyeball, that slight convex edge that domed the iris in violet, and he had never found a trace.
He knew, deep down, it was a little creepy to feel this way about a dental professional. His sister, who had majored in Women’s Studies at a better college than he’d attended, had explained to him all about “emotional labor” and the unfair sexualized gender roles women were forced to play in the workplace. But despite his attempts to be enlightened, Nils could not disregard his yearnings. Echo was not just attractive— though, yes, she was quite pretty with high cheekbones and a hygienist’s luminous smile—she had also guided him through a rocky hell-scape of gingivitis and calcification, showing nothing but patience and aplomb in the face of his unspeakable tartar.
Nils was also willing to admit that he was a bit on the emotionally vulnerable side of late. At the age of thirty-four, he was still flailing in the wake of an unexpected divorce, and since his wife had left him, he’d often been nervous (and freakishly sweaty) around women he didn’t know. But in Echo he had found a woman too self-assured to make him anxious. Without blinking, she had reached into the ugly depths of his face and tended to his ailing teeth with the calm attentiveness of a paleontologist. She had spritzed away his nervous tension with each cold rinse and quieted his soul with every incidental squeak of her latex-free glove across his lips.
“I love you,” he said to her now. “I love you, Echo.”
But he spoke into the chasm of a deafening, spit-sucking straw, and what came out were mostly vowels. She gave the straw a tug and it popped from his mouth.
“What was that?” she asked.
He moistened his dry lips.
“I was just saying thank you,” he said. “For all your help these last few months. With everything.”
She gave him a perfunctory, close-lipped smile, and placed the straw back in his mouth. Then she opened his file on a sleek desktop monitor and tapped in some notes about his gum levels. Her tight brown ponytail bobbed while she typed, and he noticed she had trouble reaching the delete key with her delicate pinky finger.
“You’ve come a long way,” she said.
This kind of fleeting conversation was usually the best part of his visits. Most of the time, it was only a minute stolen here or there, but with frequent appointments, the time added up. And over the course of these micro-conversations, Nils had managed to learn some essential facts about his hygienist. For instance: 1) She did not like smokers or tobacco chewers. 2) She was raised Catholic, though she mostly went to mass on holidays. 3) She was prone to dizzying migraines that sometimes caused her to hallucinate. And most importantly 4) She was, it appeared, unhappily married to a hot tub salesman named T.J. who didn’t read books, didn’t like to travel, and enjoyed shooting game birds out of the passenger seat of a moving jeep.
Nils didn’t have to pry much to loose these facts from her. During a cleaning or while assisting a procedure, Echo was all business, but when the work was over, she often relaxed into a calm chattiness. And while he sat there recovering, his gums pulsing or his cheeks benumbed and cotton-stuffed, he asked her short, non-judgmental questions and stored away each of her answers like a rare coin.
Today, however, he was halfway through his appointment, and he was not feeling its usual therapeutic effects. In fact, as Echo shut down his dental history and moved the glaring spotlight over his face, he felt his pulse beginning to jump. The hard fact of the matter was that, after today, his next visit to the office was six months away. One hundred and eighty-four days to be exact. It hardly seemed possible. But as the result of his four fillings, two crowns, and the repair of one chipped incisor, Nils’s mouth had finally passed inspection. He was cured. And now he could return to the land of the bi-yearly cleaning like the rest of those lucky enough to be insured.
Read more from Peter Bognanni: The House of Tomorrow (Putnam, 2010)