MENTAL HYGIENE • by M. Elias Keller

She was a small young woman with a small, appealing face. Not mousy, but perhaps chipmunky. Her features were neither acute nor obtuse: just compact and parsimonious, like her speech. She looked like she went to church: not regularly, but sometimes.

“Open wide. That’s good.”

The dental scraping. Many people would not agree but for Jon these ten or so minutes were among the most satisfying of the year. There was plaque on his teeth and the hygienist was scraping, picking and chiseling it off. In the messy collage of life, among half-finished tasks and endless waiting, the tooth scraping was effective and soothing. Something was getting accomplished.

“Chin down. Thank you.”

He looked away from the hygienist, at the decrepit air conditioner in the window. It was silly, Jon warned himself, to indulge in any attraction to her. She was, in effect, being paid to be nice to him. It was part of her job and mistaking that for attraction or interest would be — backsliding. He had been through all this before, with baristas and waitresses and hair stylists and medical assistants. But that was in the past. No more service-worker infatuations. Nowadays he was only a customer: pleasant, chatty at times, but not flirty.

“Tell me if you feel any pain.”

Her navy blue tunic was on the baggier side, so when she adjusted the water-sucker device he could peer down her sleeve all the way to the edge of a leopard-print bra. It seemed out of character for this demure chipmunk, but — no. He was again conflating professional demeanor with personality. So she wore a leopard-print bra. It did not mean she was wilder in bed than her manner suggested. The bra might have been a gift. It might have been on sale. It might have been the only pattern the store had that day in her size. It meant nothing.

She adjusted the hovering yellow light and continued scraping as Jon lectured himself. It’s all imagination, all assumptions based on nothing. All you are to her is a mouth, a client that pays her salary. If you were on a date with her, you could get to know her, gather real facts. But here as a patient you’re just looking, peeping, guessing and assuming. But he felt himself slipping, like a recovered drinker drifting helplessly toward a bar. When he could next speak intelligibly he gave her his standard opening: “Do you like this job?”

She nodded. “It’s good.” — which of course she was going to say, because why would she complain when her boss is in the next room? If they were on a date, she could actually answer the question. He resolved no more talking and kept to it until she asked what flavor toothpaste he wanted.

“I have bubble gum, cherry, mint, and piña colada.”

A dozen flirty replies popped into his mind, especially about the piña colada option. But Jon simply asked for “trusty old mint.”

The cleaning began. There was no pain except for the glimpses of the leopard-skin bra.

What finally broke his habit was the tea café. It had been a Tuesday afternoon and he was the only customer. He and the barista, a cute hippie transplant from Humboldt County, California, had chatted for ten minutes. She was still finding her way around the city and liked jazz music. Then other customers had come in and he stepped away to drink his blueberry green tea and read Schopenhauer essays. When again he was alone with — what was her name? he could not recall — he rehearsed his lines: “I don’t usually do this, but there’s some good jazz playing tonight downtown. Maybe you’d like to join me.” Direct, but non-threatening.

“Just a little wider. Thank you.”

But he never even got to say the lines. The moment he approached the counter he was met with a tepid, almost suspicious expression. It seemed like their conversation had never existed, that it had vanished into the tea-scented air without leaving the slightest trace. It even seemed like she barely recognized him and had already forgotten she had just talked with him, that she thought he was another customer just entering the cafe.

“When you brush, try to get the back of your teeth, too. That’s where plaque gathers.”

That was when Jon realized what he was to the barista: a customer. A wallet that paid her wages. Their chat was merely part of the transaction, like his receipt. Coming to the café was, in a strange but real way, part of his social life. But for her, this was not life. It was work, a job to pay her bills so she could live her real life. Which he was not a part of.

The hygienist swiveled around to refill the brush with trusty old mint. “So what do you do?” She pressed a pedal to fill a pleated, medically-blue plastic cup.

“I work for a theater company,” Jon replied, a bit curtly, annoyed by the temptation. In the old days he would have asked if she liked the theater, to establish a potential date activity. But now he opened his mouth only for her to continue brushing.

That was it: the barista, hair stylists, medical assistants, the hygienist — all of these women he had seen as romantic prospects — they had to be there. They could not just leave and they could not be rude to customers or clients without risking their job. He was taking advantage of them being trapped, just like panhandlers took advantage of him while he waited in line at outdoor food trucks. Which annoyed him.

“Turn to me. Perfect.”

No. NO. No more visions of luring the hygienist to a show with his comp tickets. No more fantasies of seeing more than just the edge of the leopard-skin bra. No more reveries of gently cupping her compact chin and saying her words back to her. Turn to me. Perfect.

“Okay, rinse out and spit. We’re all done.”

Yes. Exactly.

M. Elias Keller grew up in Bucks County, PA and earned degrees in Anthropology and Urban Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. He has been a freelance and journalistic writer in Philadelphia and San Diego, as well as publishing short fiction in various literary magazines such as The Head & Hand, APIARY, Slush Pile, Pindeldyboz, The Bucks County Writer, Spork, The Legendary, and Forge. He lives in Philadelphia.

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