Today I had an emergency filling done for $15, with no appointment and no anesthetic, in a dentist next door to where I was dancing in wrapping paper and snowflakes on Saturday night. This is why I love Laos. But wait, I need to back up.
Sunday: After being out most of the night with most of the falang in town, I woke up tangled in said wrapping paper and blankets on my friends’ couch. I had gotten approximately 4 hours of sleep, and two thoughts hit me- one, my VTE BFF Peter was rolling out of the country that day, and I needed to meet up for one last brunch, which made me really sad, and two, I need to get out of here, but the gate, like all gates in Vientiane, is high, jagged, and locked. Every other person in the house had gone out the night before, and all were definitely still asleep. I waited until I heard someone stirring, then walking across the upstairs floor, then clicking into the bathroom. Poor Erica had me lurking outside her bathroom door like a curious cat or a clingy child, and she kindly let me out of her house with barely opened eyes but still, as always, with a big sunny smile. I drove home in the sharp-cold morning air, skirt flapping and crackling and shining silver, red, gold, and green in the sun. A motorbike gang of women heading to the market, laden with vegetables, pointed and openly laughed. I smiled back, happy to be their strange falang on a Sunday morning. I pulled into my apartment as I have so many mornings, wearing strange remnants of whatever costume I had put together the night before. I love my place because I live at a gay club, and therefore the owners have zero judgment of whatever I get up to. They barely batted an eye as I went fluttershining by. They’ve seen me in lights, in beards, in flowers- nothing to see here, moving on…
A few hours later I’m at Café Nomad for Peter’s last brunch. It’s attended by several of us all moving a bit slow, talking low, squinting in the light and talking casually all around the sadly commonplace fact of a friend leaving forever. Before it’s even started it seems it’s over, and he’s gunning off on his absurd bike. I know that I won’t know he’s gone until I head to Joma on a weekday and realize he’ll never randomly be there, calling out hello darlin’, pull up a chair. I’m tired and already a bit sad, so I head home and try to write something about it, but I find that everything is sliding, and why am I cold when it’s not cold? Oh. Oh. Great. I’m sick.
Monday: I am a flaming ball of food sick and or virus but who really cares, the end result is awful. I can’t be certain of what it is, but I do know that it feels a lot like the souvenir I brought back from Cambodia last year, when I sampled homemade tofu made with local water in buckets, pressed on dirty rocks. So, you know, not great. I had the foresight, when I was downtown and felt the first prickings of gut anarchy, to pick up some Gatorade, bananas, and crackers. That was smart. The last two weren’t happening; the first was barely tolerated at well –spaced intervals.
In between the naps filled with watery limbs and hot chills, I used my laptop as a heating pad on my belly and confirmed some last minute details for my upcoming trip, which I am wholeheartedly “I hope it will be fun” about. I’m trying, really I am, to get it up for traveling in SE Asia, and I don’t know why I just generally can’t.
I couldn't eat for over 24 hours, but when I finally broke my fast that night, I managed to chip a filling. I chipped that filling on, of all things, soggy crackers and soup. Then I barfed up the soggy crackers and soup. After that I cried a little bit because my tooth hurt and I was damned hungry and still sick. I posted a request for a dentist on Buy and Sell Vientiane, which meant that within about 5 minutes every single person in town knew that I needed a dentist, which is both useful and strange.
My stomach was killing me, my chipped filling was making ribbons out of my cheek, and I wanted more than anything to eat but my stomach was saying no in no uncertain terms. So I went to sleep.
Tuesday: I woke up still feeling somewhere on the spectrum between garbage dump and compost heap on a hot afternoon, but I dragged myself to school anyway. My students were epic- they really suit up and show up when I am a miserable sack of myself, and their empathy makes me happier than any spelling test or correct grammar ever could. All day I worry that chipped filling with my tongue, feeling somewhat relieved that my co-worker has assured me that the dentist- down the street from the best cheesesteak in town and across the street from the western themed pub where the waitresses wear cowboy hats- is wonderful, cheap, safe, and clean. I like all of those adjectives. The location, next to my first favorite restaurant, the best club in town for dancing, and a place that references all things Texas, seems propitious. I indulge in omens I don’t believe in as a sign that all will be well. I end the day haven’t not puked or otherwise expelled my late lunch, which leaves me feeling inordinately cocky and full of life and optimism. I head downtown and get the last train out of Suratthani on January 1st, and although it is fan only and the windows don’t open, I feel like I won the lottery. And then it’s off to the dentist.
The dentist’s office is somehow refreshingly casual, like going into your grandma’s living room. It’s neat and tidy, slightly careworn, some chipped paint here and there, but altogether it’s solid and spotless. I’m led back to a chair that is unassuming and out in the open, and quickly I’m turned over to the competent hands of a dentist. She pokes and scratches, and then comes at me, with no explanation, all nonchalant with a drill. I immediately lose my “No big deal, getting dentistry done on a random side street in Laos is FINE” cool, and protest as to a vital step being missed- where, excuse me, is my shot? How is there a drill without a shot? The receptionist pops around the corner, with a jaunty kind of fedora on her head, and she assures me that the shot will hurt more than the drill.
What. Are . You. Saying.
I do not believe this. I am unconvinced, to the point where I am actually clamping my hands over my mouth and shaking my head. Do not want. She laughs and promises it’s fine, saying “She just needs to drill out the filling down to where it’s cracked, and it’s not worth doing a shot for.” You don’t say? Just, not WORTH it, huh? Okay, okay, I’ll play this game. A part of me wants to test this theory just to see what happens. So I throw up my hands (literally and emotionally at this point), open my mouth, and let that tiny little Lao woman come at me with a drill. And the receptionist was right. Yeah, it hurt sometimes, but it wasn’t a big deal, and actually, it wasn’t worth a shot. I am having a revelation, sitting there in that chair, with a drill in my mouth and feeling all of it, but it stays at a level of uncomfortable, only crawling into ouch a few times, and when I place it on the scale of pain, I emphatically decide that my flaming brick of a stomach was far more painful. This is charming and novel, and I focus on the attentive eye of the dentist, an ink black pupil shining in a circle of brown reflecting the inside of my mouth. It’s over very quickly.
When I checked out, the receptionist grinned at me, gave me my shockingly cheap bill, and said “It’s funny, people from over there always think you need a shot. Most of the time you don’t. The shot hurts more than anything. It’s easier to be a bit uncomfortable.”
So I write to you with a brand new $15 filling in my mouth, and in my head I’m changing what that receptionist said into something far more profound. Numbing things usually does hurt more and take more time than just doing them. Living here involves a lot of just doing things, without any prior preparation or script to follow. I get randomly sick pretty often, from food to bizarre viruses to pneumonia to who knows what else. People I love often leave, and I often leave people I love, and relationships in general shift like sand and it’s hard to keep a firm footing. I find myself in uncomfortable new situations, having to trust in things I don’t really trust in, having to suspend my preconceived judgments, expectations, or fears. It can feel so incredibly vulnerable to go at these things with nothing between me and them but blind faith that it will be fine. But on the other side, 99% of the time, I am fine. I like those numbers.