My mouth was full of puddy.
"I'm gonna come in from behind," the hygienist told me, reaching around my head to stretch open my lips, stuff in a tray full of Play-Doh then press it against my top chompers (that's the medical term for what we laypeople call "teeth," she explained). When she did, globs of goo oozed from the sides of the trays, all but blocking my windpipe.
I stifled panic and breathed slowly through my nose.
"Think about anything other than the plaster," she told me. So I stared out the window and pictured a rotisserie chicken — instant Zen. Then it hit me:
So this is what my midlife crisis looks like, huh?
I’d been building to this. My pearly whites have been more like pearly wongs lately, but it was more what the dinge represented that bothered me: the wear and tear of everyday life. Time stubbornly passing.
Peeking out from behind my lips, my tarnished teeth were like the 10% of an iceberg that's visible above water, while another 90% of swirling, so-cold-it-hurts anxiety hides beneath the surface, inside my broken brain. For months, I've been spiraling:
Should I move away? Launch a startup? Become a nomad? Finally make the switch from Frosted Mini-Wheats to un-frosted Shredded Wheat?
And all that rumination led me here, to Cypress Point Family Dentistry, desperate for answers.
"If it can stain a tablecloth, it can stain your teeth," the hygienist, Marsha, said, offering the type of sage counsel I've come to expect from this church of oral/spiritual renewal. "Coffee, red wine, blueberries — you name it."
"But I love all of those things!" I yelped.
"Well, there ya go." And in the silence that followed, I felt we were sharing memories of me back in my prime. Naturally white teeth beaming. Smile lighting up a room. All the potential in the world!
Now? Marsha was clearly disappointed in my decline.
"It happens," she said, shrugging. But I knew what she meant: "You ... disgust me."
Some people buy boats or learn karate when they feel 40 looming. Others jump out of airplanes or eat blowfish. Me? I get my teeth whitened, which, really, was kind of my only option here.
Too cheap to buy things, too scared to do things and too ashamed to nip or tuck things, whitening offers all the delusion of self-improvement without any of the time, cost or effort. And hey, I know a deal when I see one!
"Just 30 more seconds," the hygienist told me, as a stray streak of plaster tightened on my cheek. Next, the bleach. "You'll feel some zingers," they said.
But of course pain is part of it, right?
Fact is, I've been here before — both in the throes of a philosophical whirlwind, and in the Observer. Ten years ago, I was a reporter here and wrote about my twentysomething angst in a weekly column. Today, I notice that everything and nothing has changed.
I'm back, but I'm older now, married, a stepfather; I have two dogs and one air fryer (see: chronic rotisserie chicken cravings above). And from my dental chair, mouth crammed full of concrete, I'm watching through the window as a businessman in a full suit and tie swats at a wasp's nest next door. He's swinging a pole at it, muttering and wiping sweat from his face, willing to risk a sting or two if it only means he made a difference, did something. He's flailing at the nest as if it really matters, like the bugs won't just rebuild again tomorrow.
And in this moment, I see that we're the same.
Mike Cavaliere is the author of The Humorist: Adventures in Adulting & Horror Movies, available on Amazon.