by Julie Artz

The plastic chair cover crinkles as I sit down. I blink back tears despite the cheap loaner sunglasses that are supposed to protect my eyes from the bright spotlight shining in my face. The hygienist, I think her name’s Meeta or Myrtle or Myra, snaps exam gloves onto her hands and rattles a tray of implements of torture behind me, out of sight.

My heartbeat pounds in my temples. I try to recall the mantra I learned in a meditation class a while back. Softness. Stillness. Softness. Stillness. But there’s nothing soft or still about this freaking dentist office. Each exam room is open to the one next to it, separated by partitions that block sight but not sound. A drill whirs somewhere on my left. The dentist tries to get a child to “open wide” on my right. I sit here, sweating in my clothes and trying to think about anything other than the clink, clink, clink of the tools.

“OK, shall we begin?” Meeta-whatever says. Her eyes crinkle, so I know she’s smiling under the mask she wears.

I smile back, which requires a concerted effort to unclench my jaw, relax my fingers, uncurl my toes. Softness. Stillness.

“I’m going to get the nitrous going,” she says.

I nod, thinking about asking for a side of Valium, but I’m too wound up to carry it off.

She straps a soft rubber cup over my nose and turns on the oxygen first. Focusing on my breathing helps for a minute until she shifts the shiny chrome tray of tools to the workstation suspended next to my chair. The tray is all points and hooks. I shiver.

“Now for the nitrous,” she says.

The sweet gas tickles the back of my throat and sinuses as I breath in. She leaves me for a few minutes, and I huff a few quick breaths to get things going.

My arms go heavy. My head sinks into the chair, a series of little pops running down my spine as the tension ebbs away.

Two photos of Venice hang on the walls, the water of the canals lapping against the ancient stone buildings as a gondola floats by in crooked silence.

My cheeks sag as my face goes numb. I pull in another breath and the brown walls of the office explode with tiny fissures of neon green and electric purple capillaries, pulsing with my suddenly slow, steady heartbeat.

We used to pay fifteen bucks for a balloon of this stuff at concerts when we were kids. I forgot how the combination of oxygen deprivation and Nitrous could take you from stress case to tripping in two minutes and a few quick breaths. Sitting in a circle on the ground so that we didn’t hurt ourselves if we fell over, we’d breath from the balloons until the whole world concentrated into the charged air around us, pulsing with the low mechanical rumble of what? Our hearts? The universe? The collective energy of teenagers bent on getting off one way or the other?

I hear it now, wawawawa, low and steady, as I let my eyes relax and enjoy the colors on the dentist’s wall. They’d definitely cut me off if they knew how much this stuff affects me. But I doubt I could keep from squirming in my seat like a four-year-old without it.

“How are you feeling now?” a distant voice asks.

“Just fine,” I say through rubbery lips as I close my eyes once again and let my mouth fall open so she can begin.

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Julie Artz
Julie Artz ( writes stories that feature the natural world, folklore, mythology, history, and all that is magical about those things. Since her first work-study job editing papers and resumes at DePauw University, she’s made her living writing everything from computer manuals to training materials, from press releases and marketing copy to gardening articles, from flash fiction to novel-length works. Now, in addition to her creative writing, she works as a book coach for Author Accelerator, contributes regularly to bookish blogs From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors and The Winged Pen, and is on the advisory committee of SCBWI-WWA.

4 thoughts on “Nitrous

  1. Sometimes I get stuck on little things. Would a hygienist administer nitrous? I’ve only had a dentist administer any numbing substance to me. Also if it’s a hygienist, then I presume this is a routine cleaning. This scene would be more credible to me if it were a dentist doing the work. It is a depiction of a scene more than a story.

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