“Do you know you’re bleeding?”: An American vampire in Juarez (Pt III)
Oswaldo is twenty minutes early again, and I have to make him wait as I get my stuff together.
[Previously: Part Two]
We have to pick up the couple from Colorado, out near the airport, and we greet each other like veterans. Colorado wife tells Oswaldo she almost passed out walking over the bridge yesterday after her protracted dental work, and she wants to ride back with him, even though it means they’ll have to skip the express route for regular back-and-forth drivers and wait something like 45 minutes to get back across the border.
I tell them about the ominous procedure I’m having done today. My upper wisdom teeth are so badly impacted that their removal will require actual maxillofacial surgery — the specialist Rio Dental is bringing in will have to cut the teeth into pieces to extract them, as the bone of my skull has grown around them. If it’s anything like the last party my lower wisdom teeth threw in my mouth, it’ll leave me in pain and unable to eat solid foods for the better part of a month.
Colorado wife leans forward from the back seat of the van and pats me on the shoulder. “Have you accepted the Lord Jesus Christ?” she asks me.
I tell her no: I’m a solid atheist. She tells me she’ll pray for me anyway, and I thank her: even if I don’t believe in God, I appreciate the concern.
Pulling up to Rio Dental we are greeted by Miguel, the administrator. I take a seat in a corner of the lobby, using another chair as a desk to put my iPad on. (I didn’t want to bring my laptop across the border, as I’d cheerfully slit the throat of anyone who tried to steal it, and ending up in the Juarez jail on a murder charge with a mouthful of stitches is no one's idea of a good time.) As I wait for the assistant to call my name, I work on writing up the notes from my previous day's adventures, and Tweet nervously. I don’t really talk to the other Americans in the lobby, the Coloradans and the North Carolinians. I’m too scared to make much chit-chat.
I go outside for a cigarette. Oswaldo is washing the van with a washrag and a bucket. I look at the cloudy sky. “I think you’re calling the rain,” I tell him. He smiles, but doesn't laugh. I’m not sure if he doesn’t understand or doesn’t find it funny.
I head back inside. I type. I fret. I Tweet.
“Yosh?” the pretty assistant says from the doorway.
Okay. Waiting gives the devil time, right?
Miguel is there, and he introduces me to the maxillofacial specialist from the University, Dr. Dias (or maybe Diaz), a good-looking blonde lady in her early forties. She shakes my hand and we head into the operating room.
She explains the treatment: slicing my gums open to expose my wisdom teeth, cutting them into pieces, and pulling the pieces out. It’ll take about a half-hour.
When I had my bottom wisdom teeth removed, they knocked me out with general anesthetic. But Miguel told me that in this case, general anesthetic would require an anesthesiologist to be brought in, and will cost me four hundred dollars per hour. So I’ve reluctantly elected for a local anesthetic... which means I’ll be awake and aware the whole time.
Into the chair. The assistant clips a blue paper bib around my neck. There are some extremely disturbing tools on the surgical table. One looks like a Dremel. I’m trying to breathe normally.
My gums are slathered with topical anesthetic, and a few minutes later Dr. Dias takes an extremely long needle and begins to inject my gums with local anesthetic to numb the nerves that run through my face. The topical anesthetic doesn’t really do much, and it’s pretty painful when she goes deep with the needle. We sit and wait for the numbness to kick in, while Dr. Dias and the dental assistant keep up a rapid-fire, happy conversation in Spanish.
Soon my upper lip is made of inner tube material. Dr. Dias prods at the inside of my mouth and asks if I can feel it. “Muh uh,” I say, because I can’t form any other words now.
The assistant puts a vacuum in my mouth to suck away the blood and saliva. The doctor takes a scalpel and slices into my gum on the left side, behind the rest of my teeth. It doesn’t hurt, but I can feel the scalpel’s blade clicking over the surface of the wisdom tooth, which has never seen daylight before. A curious sensation.
After that, I just lie there as she fiddles around in my mouth for a long time, all the while keeping up a cheery conversation in Spanish with her assistant. It’s one of the strangest moments of my life, having two strangers standing over me happily talking in a language I don’t understand as one of them uses something like a cross between a scalpel and a chisel to break off bits of my tooth and the other one sucks blood out of my mouth. I can’t see what Dr. Dias is doing — it’s all below my line of sight — and I can’t ask, because my lips don’t work, and because she has a scalpel in my mouth. I can see the bright red blood going down the transparent tube of the vacuum out of the corner of my eye, though.
Finally the tooth extraction begins. There’s a hideous tugging inside of my head and a sharp series of cracks that resonate through my entire skull; it lasts for a few minutes as she wrestles with the overgrown son of a bitch. Finally, there’s something like a pop! and she’s holding my wisdom tooth up for me to see in a pair of forceps. I’m surprised to see that it’s nicotine-stained, since it’s never been exposed to cigarette smoke or even air before. It’s about the size of a fifty caliber bullet slug, weirdly barrel-shaped and smooth; it only occurs to me later that I’m only seeing the main piece that didn’t get chopped up or ground down or whatever the fuck she did to it. She drops it on the steel tray next to me.
She picks up a curved needle and a length of black suture thread and begins sewing up the wound. Every time she tugs on the string to tighten one of the loops, it pulls on my whole head; I’m acutely aware of what a fish on a hook feels like. Finally, she ties off the suture and clips off the long end. One tooth down.
And then she does it all again, only on the other side.
When she’s done, both teeth are lying on the tray and I’m extremely aware that the anesthetic is already beginning to wear off, on the side where she started. I can feel the incision as an undefined sharp pain in my mouth. I groan.
“Are you okay?” she asks me.
“Ah ‘ess so,” I say. There’s not much anybody can do about it at this point, right?
Dr. Dias says goodbye to the assistant, but not to me, and walks out of the room — she’s not doing the rest of it, she was just here for the hardcore shit, apparently.
She’s replaced by another dentist — not Ana Jessica Andel, who did my exam yesterday, but a broad-chested, good-looking dude in blue scrubs. He doesn’t introduce himself or say a word to me — just sits down on a stool next to me and begins directing the assistant, who starts rubbing topical anesthetic around my upper right molar, which is the next thing they’re going to pull out of me.
Dr. Dias had waited for the topical to kick in, but the new dentist just goes at me with the needle after about twenty seconds. It hurts like a motherfucker, and I groan loudly.
“What?” he asks, a little too impatiently.
“Fuck! It hurts,” I say. I get a sense of irritation from him. “I’m sorry, guy, I don’t know what to tell you, it hurts like hell,” I say, trying to enunciate carefully.
He and the assistant converse, and then he goes back at me with the needle. “Is numb now?” he says.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
He begins doing a basic cleaning on my teeth using a pick. It hurts, and I groan a bit, but he doesn’t seem to be too concerned about it. It takes about twenty minutes. He and the assistant are chatting away and laughing, and it’s frankly a bit irritating — I’m in fairly serious pain now from the scraping and the wound where my left wisdom tooth used to be, and I’ve also got that paranoia you get when you hear two people laughing and talking in a foreign language: namely, that they’re laughing at you. I hear him use the word dolor, which I know means “pain”, and that doesn’t alleviate my paranoia that they’re basically talking about what a massive pussy I am.
He picks up the thing that looks like a Dremel and goes after the cavity in my front right canine. It doesn’t hurt, but I can see smoke and bits of tooth enamel in the air, and there’s the distinctly unpleasant smell of my tooth burning as he buffs it down.
He slaps some composite filling on it and then puts an extremely weird instrument in my mouth that looks for all the world like somebody put a square tube on the end of Captain Kirk’s phaser. It has an orange light filter around its barrel and when he turns it on, it emits a bright blue light, maybe UV — it’s hard to tell from this angle. I guess it’s doing something to the composite filling, but God only knows what.
During the whole procedure — Dr. Dias’ removal of my wisdom teeth, the cleaning, and the filling — I’ve been staring up at the white light of the dental lamp above my head. It has the word UNIK on it, upside-down from my view, and at first I misread it as UBIK, which is the title of a Philip K. Dick novel. But this doesn’t feel like Philip K. Dick — it’s more like J.G. Ballard, somehow.
Finally, I guess, he’s done with the filling, and he begins to inject more anesthetic in my upper right gum. It hurts, and I whimper a bit, but it’s become obvious that this dude either doesn’t speak much English or just doesn’t really give a fuck.
He picks up a weird instrument that looks like a steel pole with a pointed screw on one end and, I think, a dial on the other side to turn it with — it’s hard to tell from this angle. He puts it in my mouth, and my strong impression is that he’s screwing it into my molar like a drywall anchor, as an alternative to yanking on it with forceps.
There’s the familiar pressure and cracking, and he rips my molar out of my head. He shows it to the assistant and she laughs — at least, I think she does. I’m feeling mighty woozy at this point. “You see?” he says. “This is why you have pain.” He shows me the hole in the side of my tooth, way up where it’s invisible to the naked eye, where the inner root and pulp is exposed.
My other dentist told me this was partially caused by my mutant wisdom teeth pushing on the molars, crushing them together and trapping food particles between them that couldn’t be removed by flossing or brushing.
Without any break in the festivities, he goes after my lower right gum with the needle. It’s a horrid, sharp pain, but I’m resigned at this point to not looking any more like a fucking sissy than I already do.
He takes his tooth-screw and applies it to my tooth... and my head is filled with white-hot pain. I yelp and he pulls back. “What?” he asks again. “Pain?”
“Fuck! Yes, there’s pain, Jesus fucking Christ, goddamnit,” I snarl. I’m not mad at him — not really — but holy hell, yes, there’s pain. All of it.
So he goes back at me with the needle and waits a minute. If you asked me, I’d swear to you I can’t feel anything between the bridge of my nose and my Adam’s apple... but when he goes after the tooth again with the screw, it’s still incredibly painful.
But by now, it’s been a couple of hours at least and I’m sick and fucking tired of lying in this chair while people giggle and chatter in a foreign language and stick my mouth full of needles and pull shit out of my skull, so when he asks if it hurts, I mutter “Yeah, but fuck it, man. Let’s do this thing.”
He bores the screw in, and immediately I regret it. The tooth isn’t numb at all. He’s boring a hole into the root of my tooth, and I can feel every last metric ounce per square inch he’s putting into it.
“Oh FUCK,” I roar, and begin pounding the arms of the chair with my clenched white-knuckled fists and the linoleum floor with the heel of my Doc Marten. The dentist and the assistant both leap back, as if they expect me to tear free and go after them... and they’re not entirely wrong to do so. If somebody did this to me when I wasn’t in a dentist’s chair, I would — absolutely with no exaggeration — kill him for it.
“What’s wrong?” he says. “Pain?”
“YES, FUCKING PAIN,” I snarl at him. I sound like a Parris Island drill instructor. Tears are running out of my eyes down my numb cheeks and my hands are shaking.
“You want to stop?” he says. “No... fuck... no, let’s just finish this,” I say.
So he puts the screw to me again, and begins to whipsaw the tooth back and forth, left and right. It’s the worst pain I’ve ever experienced in my life; I’m screaming at the top of my lungs and sobbing, and I can see blood spraying out of my mouth as I choke on it. I clench my eyes closed. I start laughing maniacally — it’s the only way I’ve ever known to deal with immense physical pain. You just laugh at it, because fuck it: there’s nothing else you can do but laugh, or go crazy, right? I think it scares the other two people in the room even more.
It seems to go on forever. And then it’s done.
He drops the tooth and just walks out of the room — angry, frightened, I’m not sure which. I’m shaking and crying, muttering “Fuck... fuck... fuck... ” to myself over and over. My whole face is wet with tears, but I can’t feel it; I only know when I reach up to wipe my eyes and there’s moisture on the palms of my hands.
The assistant says “Is done. The suffering is over, okay? You can get up.” I stand up and fumble at the bib around my neck. She pulls it off for me. I pick up my glasses and laptop bag from the corner and shuffle out into the empty lobby.
Miguel comes out and hands me a wad of paper towels — a thick stream of blood is seeping out of my mouth, between my numb lips, onto my beard. “It’s all done,” he says, “you’re okay.”
“No, man,” I tell him, “I’m far from okay.” My hands won’t stop shaking and I can’t stop crying. My adrenaline is kicked up a thousand percent, and I’m honestly not sure that if the dentist walked into the lobby I could prevent myself from breaking his jaw.
“I know,” Miguel says, wincing. “There was an infection, you see, under the tooth, and it absorbed the anesthetic. He didn’t know.”
I nod. It makes sense. The dentist couldn’t have known — if the infection was under the tooth, it wouldn’t have been visible, and my entire mouth was swollen and red from Dr. Dias’ incursion into my gums. It’s not his fault. It’s nobody’s fault.
But holy shit, that was bad.
Miguel hands me a small white round pill in a blank foil blister pack. “It’s a pain pill,” he says. He thinks about it, goes behind the counter, and hands me two more. “This will maybe work better,” he says, “for your body size. Swallow them now.”
I lean my head back and toss the pills into my mouth — I can’t feel them when they land. I pour a paper cup of water from the cooler in the corner and pour it down my throat. Trickles of bloody water dribble down my chin. “Did you swallow them?” Miguel says. I laugh. “I think so,” I tell him. “I can’t tell.” I shake my head to see if I feel them bouncing around in my wounded mouth, but no go.
I go into the clinic’s airplane-sized bathroom to wash the blood off my face. Crimson droplets spatter on the lid of the tiny white plastic trash can as I stagger to close the door behind me. I lean over the sink and open my mouth and a torrent of bright red blood comes out of my mouth like a waterfall and splashes onto the porcelain.
I look at my face in the mirror. If there really is a vampire in Juarez, it could be me: two red rivulets run from the corners of my mouth into my goatee, and my lips are stained and stippled here and there with dark, thick spots where the blood has clotted. I wipe at it with the unbleached paper towels as best I can, but I’m only smearing it around. My mouth feels like someone shoved an M-80 in it and set it off.
I carefully rinse the blood from the sink. I take the lid off the trash can, set it on the toilet tank, throw the blood-soaked towels into the black trash bag, and replace the lid. I take another towel from the dispenser next to the sink and wipe the blood off the trash can lid, though I can’t quite get a small pink smear to disappear.
Miguel knocks on the door. I open it and he hands me a small stack of gauze squares. “Fold those over and put them between your gums where the extractions are,” he says. I feel bad for him, having to be the one to deal with this — he’s management, after all. I take two of the squares, fold them up, carefully wedge them between my gums, and clamp down. It hurts, but the blood flow into my mouth slows down.
I go outside and stand in the bright Mexican sunlight, trying not to break down completely. A car drives by and the driver does a double-take as he catches a glimpse of the big Anglo, crying and covered in blood, in the courtyard.
I go back inside. Miguel writes me a prescription for painkillers and antibiotics and a special mouthwash. The prescription is in Spanish, but I recognize that the antibiotic is amoxicillin; I don’t recognize the painkiller. There’s two days of painkiller. I tell him the last time I had wisdom teeth out, I was in pain for a month. And I can’t imagine this is gonna feel real good when the anesthetic wears off, I think. He adds a 1 in front of the 2: 12 days worth. He gives me a small piece of paper with instructions for taking care of my mouth, gives me some other instructions — no smoking or drinking from straws, or I’ll suck out the blood clots and cause a dry socket, no alcohol, et cetera — and tells me to use the mouthwash when I brush until the bottle is empty. The very idea of brushing my teeth sends chills down my spine.
I give him my debit card and we settle up the bill. He tells me Oswaldo will be here soon to take me to the farmacia to get my prescriptions and then to the border. “You need to sit down,” Miguel says. “You’ve got too much blood rushing through your head. You can sit on the couch.”
“I don’t want to get blood on it,” I tell him. Or rather, I say "I on anna et lood on ih". The couch is cream-colored leather. Miguel waves his hand at me. “Don’t worry about it,” he says, soothingly. “Just sit down.”
So I sit on the couch and try — successfully — not to bleed on it, and watch my hands until they stop shaking. One of the other patients — a lady I wasn’t introduced to yesterday, but whom I guess from her accent is Texan — comes out. She looks at me with sympathy. “I was worried about you,” she says. “I could hear you back there.”
Oswaldo shows up and I bid Miguel goodbye and thanks — "ank oo so uch, ‘Iguel". He shakes my hand, and the Texan lady and I get in Oswaldo’s gray minivan and pull away.
A few minutes later, we’re at the same farmacia we visited yesterday. Miguel told me not to drink any kind of soda, but that’s all I have in my hotel room and there’s nowhere nearby to get anything else, so I grab two big bottles of orange and lime drink from the cooler and a couple of bottles of Lipton citrus green tea while the Texan lady fills her prescription.
Before I came down to El Paso, a friend of mine who knew I was coming emailed me and asked for a favor: his wife has multiple sclerosis, and one of the drugs she takes is modafinil, which keeps you from feeling sleepy. It’s prescribed for narcoleptics, but doctors will often give it to law students studying for the bar and doctors in their first year of residency, as it doesn’t have the effects of a stimulant. I’d actually taken it myself experimentally a few years ago. It’s very expensive, my friend emailed me: could I buy some for her in Mexico, where it’s an over-the-counter drug, if he PayPal'd me the money?
I told him I’d try. I wasn’t sure I could get it over the border, even though it’s not a narcotic or illegal to possess. I’d heard that Customs could be weird about such stuff.
So after I get my prescriptions from the Mutt-and-Jeff pair of pharmacists behind the counter, I ask if they have modafinil. “Si, si,” says the smaller of the pharmacists, and hands me a box. “We only have the one box now, maybe come back in a week?” I tell him I can’t.
He gets a lewd grin on his face and produces a small bottle from the counter. “Maybe you want?” he says. “Is Viagra. Only thirty dólares.”
“No, that’s alright,” I tell him. I would like to make it perfectly clear that I have never needed Viagra in my life, except maybe a couple of times when I was drunk. I think. But he grins wider. “No, come on,” he says, “maybe you want to last longer with a señorita....”
Fuck it, I think. Why not? I’m too tired and in too much pain to argue. Maybe I’ll need to break it out in five years. Who knows? “Fine,” I say. “You take, maybe one half-hour before....” He makes a poking gesture with his finger. I nod. Yeah, yeah, buddy, thanks, I got it.
“So I won’t get in trouble for bringing this across the border?” I ask him. “No, no,” he says... but he looks at the taller pharmacist. “What you do, you put this in your pocket,” he says, turning around to pantomime putting the bottle of Viagra in his back pocket. “Show them your prescription and your bag, just don’t tell them, okay?” He opens the box of modafinil and pulls out the four blister packs inside. “Maybe you put in wallet, si?” I take the blister packs and shove them into my gigantic Harley-Davidson wallet; it’s big enough that I keep my passport folded in it, and the blister packs disappear into its folds.
I try to pay for the prescriptions, the modafinil, the Viagra and the cold drinks with my PayPal debit card, but it’s declined, which sends me into a moment of panic, as I know I have money in my account. I hand him my Wells Fargo card for my savings account instead. That one works.
I jump back in the van and we head back for the Santa Fe Bridge. This time, I’m not lingering in Juarez: all I want to do is go back to my hotel room and go to sleep. My face is still numb, I’m still drooling blood — I haven’t had a chance to swap out the saturated gauze pads in my mouth yet — and I’m beginning to feel everything they did to me.
The Texan lady and I walk slowly towards the bridge. She tells me she used to come down to Juarez to drink beer all the time, until the Violence. “Now you can’t even walk down the street. Fuckers!” she says. I tell her to keep her purse close, but not to worry — she’s with me, and in addition to being big and imposing, I’ve also got blood all over my face and hands. I pull the bloody gauze pads from my mouth and drop them into a pile of trash next to a bus stop.
We drop our quarters in the slot and begin walking up the bridge. I’m glad she’s with me, distracting me with chit-chat about the cost of dental care in Juarez and the prescriptions we bought.
We’re about halfway up the bridge when I see the tout leaning against the fence-backed railing. He’s wearing a soccer jersey and trying to look nonchalant, but he’s wearing sunglasses even though the sun is almost down, and I can see him watching everyone out of the corners of his eyes as they pass.
We’re not in the United States yet, not for another fifty yards. I’m not sure what he could possibly do to us here. Maybe he’s a purse-snatcher. Maybe he’s a pimp. Maybe he’s not looking at us at all, maybe he’s a coyote, looking for people to carry shit across for him or young girls he can talk into going off with him, to be drugged and dumped into a shipping container and sent off into the world to get turned out on the streets of some American town or another.
But I learned a long time ago that you don’t need to know what the con is as long as you see there’s a con in the first place. So as we approach him, I look him directly in the eye and open my mouth in a wincing approximation of a big, jolly grin. It hurts to pull my lips back, and I feel blood trickle from the corners of my mouth onto my chin. I’m pretty sure I look like the fucking Antichrist.
The tout steps back and turns away, as if he’s caught sight of a friend. I keep my lips pulled back from my teeth like... well, like a coyote... as we continue slowly past the plaque welcoming us to the United States.
I don’t want Chiclets and I don’t need a taxi and I don’t need a whore. I just want Mexico to leave me the fuck alone.
We reach the Customs building and go into the line for Americans with passports. The Texan lady goes before me and tells the Customs agent she has nothing to declare except the medicine in her little plastic farmacia bag, which she shows him. He waves her through.
When I walk up, his eyes bug out. “Uh, are you okay, sir?” he asks me. I can only imagine what he’s seeing. “Dental surgery,” I tell him. “Lots of surgery.”
He asks me if I have anything to declare and I show him my bag. “Same as her,” I say, “we were at the same clinic.” He looks like he just wants to get my insane ass out of there, so he glances at my passport and waves me on.
There’s an x-ray machine for bags before you reach the door; I hadn’t paid it attention before because I wasn’t carrying anything the other times I crossed the border. But now I put my laptop bag and farmacia bag on it and walk past without incident.
I hear the x-ray inspector whispering. Oh shit, here we go.
“Sir?” she asks me. “Do you know you’re bleeding?”
“Dental surgery,” I repeat, and she laughs, nervously. “Just wanted to make sure you were okay,” she says. One of the other guards wordlessly pulls a paper towel from a roll and hands it to me. “Thanks,” I say, and wipe the blood off my face with it.
I follow the Texan lady out of the Customs building and onto American soil. “I’m worried about you, sitting in that hotel room by yourself,” she says, sounding motherly — she’s about my mom’s age, in fact, and reminds me of her a lot. We’re originally Texans, after all. “I should give you my hotel and room number in case you need help.”
“I’ll be fine,” I tell her. “I have a friend in town.” I’m thinking of Rodrigo, who told me to call if I needed help... but mainly I just don’t want to bother her. I can take care of myself. And I’m tired and bloody and can barely think straight and I just want to go to sleep.
Up ahead we see Oswaldo, waiting patiently by his van, parked in the line of gypsy cabs who hang out at the border waiting for fares. Beyond him, the Camino Real looms against the frozen explosion of the El Paso sunset. The worst is behind me.
To be continued...