The doctor gave me three choices: Novocaine, Novocaine and laughing gas, or Novocaine and total anesthesia. I picked the middle option. I had good memories of laughing gas from some procedure I’d had done as a teenager. I remembered an initially bad smell that faded quickly, then the room spinning around like the old Time Tunnel TV series, hearing lots and lots of people laughing, and then realizing, before blackness, that all those people were me. The doctor said for most people, the effect of laughing gas was to make the patient simply not care what was being done to them, but that different folks had different reactions, and differing reactions at different ages.
At first, breathing in the laughing gas through my nose made me about 400% more nervous than I’d been. Which of course made me fear it wasn’t working the way it should. The doctor inserted the Novocaine needle in my mouth, and I felt it. I almost freaked. I said, “Laughing gas isn’t working. Felt that!” She reminded me that the laughing gas wasn’t meant to numb me; the Novocaine would do that, and it hadn’t had a chance to work yet. She also reminded me to stop breathing through my mouth and to breathe the laughing gas in deeply.
I found myself becoming more nonchalant. The room didn’t spin around me. I didn’t hear any laughter, not my own or anyone else’s. This was somewhat disappointing. But it wasn’t that disappointing, because I was feeling so nonchalant.
Then the doctor and her assistant began doing things inside my mouth. Serious things. Violent things. Violence involving an electric saw and a drill and at least one pair of pliers. I found this rather fascinating. Also horrifying, but in a distanced way, as though I were watching a film of some imagined person being subjected to violence. I thought to myself, If these women wanted to kill me, there would be nothing to stop them. They could do absolutely anything they want to me. I could make no real protest and offer exceedingly little in the way of resistance. All I can do at this point is trust them. It’s all I can do.
The violence being done inside my mouth grew more intense. More brutal. One likes to think that when one is being operated on, when one’s precious body (the only body one has) is being subjected to a procedure, that one’s substance will be treated with great delicacy and respect, like a damaged piece of crystal. In fact, one’s body is treated by surgeons about as roughly as mechanics treat the underparts of a car. I sensed my right bottom wisdom tooth being wrenched from my jaw like a recalcitrant bolt being unscrewed from the cover of an engine air filter. The amount of torque being applied inside my mouth was terrifying, or would be terrifying if I weren’t ten miles above it all. This is really brutal, I thought. Extremely violent. And yet my hands did not clench the arms of the chair. It was as though I was an observer on a bomber soaring at thirty thousand feet, seeing bombs being dropped from the bay and watching the explosions blossom like quick-time flowers on the terrain so far below. Huge violence was being done. Tears streamed from my eyes down the sides of my face. But I was so very far away. This is definitely the way to go, I thought. This is flying first class. I wondered who in their vaguely right mind would opt for Novocaine alone. If I hadn’t been given laughing gas, I’d be crapping my pants.
After they finished working on the right tooth, I began choking. This wasn’t terribly distressing. It was interesting, in a crude way, like watching the vomiting scene in Trainspotters. Hello, I thought. I’m choking. I’m choking here. My own voice in my head sounded like HAL’s voice in 2001: A Space Odyssey. You know the voice. Dave. . . Dave, I’m losing my memories. . . my mind. . . Dave, I’m scared. . . Daisy, daisy. . . The doctor told me to breathe through my nose. I obeyed and stopped choking.
They moved on to my left bottom wisdom tooth. I counted the freckles on the right cheek of the surgical assistant. I thought to myself, I am having teeth brutally wrenched from my jaw, and I am counting freckles on the assistant’s face, and I am consciously noting that I am counting freckles because I want to be able to remember this later and write it down. After a while, I noted that they had been taking what seemed to be a very long time working on that left tooth, perhaps three times as long as they’d worked on the right one. I asked myself, Has something gone dreadfully wrong? I searched for signs of panic in the face of the assistant. I saw none, and so I figured no catastrophe was occurring, at least no catastrophe out of the ordinary.
Then, at last, they either sewed me up or flossed my gums to get fragments of bone out. I couldn’t be sure. But they told me it was over. They stuffed gauze into the sides of mouth and told me to bite down. My lower jaw felt like a prosthesis, a glued-on piece of ape makeup, as though I were an extra in the original Planet of the Apes. Or, if I were one of the featured players, I realized with a slight shudder of surprise that I would be Dr. Zaius. Not Cornelius, the idealistic young chimpanzee whom I’d always imagined myself as when I was a young boy. But Dr. Zaius, the ornery old conservative, the protector of his civilization’s most sacred traditions, willing to sacrifice even truth and friendships if that’s what it took to do his job. I might not completely agree with the distinguished old orangutan, but I could definitely sympathize. I wasn’t the same person I’d been when I’d been ten years old, at least not fully. My skin had completely replaced itself five times since then. Laughing gas affected me differently now.
My wife helped me out to the van. Dr. Zaius climbed into the van. Dr. Zaius, minus his two bottom wisdom teeth.