The children are off school this week, but due to parental fecklessness and a general lightness of wallet we are not “going” anywhere. This is what everyone asks in the school parking lot on the last day of any semester: “Are you going somewhere?” Correct answers include, “Venice,” or “Colorado,” or “the Arctic Circle,” but currently I am obliged to reply, “Oh, nowhere. We’re going nowhere.”
This can be more fun than it sounds. “Going” is, in fact, often highly overrated, since it usually entails many hours enclosed in a vehicle, honking and cursing; or in a tin torpedo, slowly dehydrating across the Atlantic; or standing, shuffling, in a line that eventually takes you past a series of gruff, neutral-faced security types who will check you, your shoes, your husband and his shoes, your children and their shoes, and your diaper bag for plastic explosives and nail clippers.
During this school break, my husband has gone to work, as is his custom, and on this particular day, while other mothers are taking their children to the Louvre, I am taking our children to get their teeth cleaned. It is not for nothing that my left-wing detractors call me America’s Worst Mother (TM).
“She was very brave,” says our family dentist, who is from a small Latin American country and who radiates elegant courtesy. He is the only pediatric dentist we’ve had who does not shout with bluff, terrifying enthusiasm at children. He never asks “Mom” to hold the struggling patients on her lap. The walls of his office are emphatically not decorated with giant smiling teeth holding toothbrushes. This is an immense relief to all of us.
The only problem with this excellent fellow is his name, which sounds dangerously like that of one of history’s great medical fiends. I have to be extremely careful whenever I am about to say it, repeating it inwardly and flexing my lips a little, so as not to blurt out the wrong thing.
The dentist gives Violet a parting pat on the head, then bends solicitously over the next patient, rubs her tiny hand, and asks whether she brushes her teeth.
“Phoebe,” she assures him, beaming.
“Good, good,” says Dr. Mongelos, as he and his assistant lead her away to The Chair, closing the door behind them. I spent much of my youth in The Chair, with some dentist or other grinding merrily away. The experience stayed with me, and when Ted Bundy got The Chair, way back when, I visualized a tray of drill bits beside him. Today’s lucky children will have no such barbaric associations. To them, the chair will be forever lowercased, forever benign. Children have their teeth painlessly sealed against decay nowadays, for heaven’s sake, not drilled to the roots and filled with heavy metals, as used to be the case.
In the waiting room, Molly is bent over a cartoon strip she is drawing on the back of a school bulletin pilfered from my handbag. The cartoon depicts two rabbits, one of which is deeply puzzled by the conversation of the other, which in the final frame turns out to be a wind-up toy. Paris is absorbed in running a plastic truck back and forth along the carpet. “Nneaaarrrgh!” he growls.
“Pa-ris!” Violet yelps, injured, and immediately looks up at me.
“C’mon Violet, he didn’t even go near you–”
“Grrrreaughhhh…” goes the truck, closer this time.
“Paris, darling, please don’t–”
“I am so hungry,” says Molly, swooning. I point out that she devoured an enormous bowl of oatmeal an hour ago. She clutches her stomach and makes what I am beginning to recognize as the all-purpose pre-pubescent Face of Victimhood.
“Seriously, I’m going to faint–”
“Mummy!” Phoebe is back, milk teeth gleaming. She is radiant. The dentist smiles at me and shakes his head reassuringly. I am radiant.
“Thank you so much, Dr. Mengele–”
The dentist blinks politely.
“I mean, Dr. Mengelos–that is to say, Dr. Mongelos. Thank you!”
Suppressing a kind of strangled mortification, I busy myself in wrapping the children up against the bitter April cold. The doctor waves cheerily, “See you in six months!” I think I am forgiven.
Out we go into the blasting wind, which pelts us with thousands of tiny blossoms from Washington’s famous cherry trees. The beauty of the annual bloom brings something like a million visitors to D.C. every spring, and this
year neither the threat of OBL nor the risk of frostbite seems to have deterred them. We drive from the dentist’s office towards the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial–derided as “the muffin” when it was first built, now known fondly only by that name in our family–to view the profusion of blossoms from the toasty security of our car.
Tourists in parkas stride grimly along every stretch of open ground. Parents pushing blanket-wrapped strollers wait shivering on every corner. A long line of pilgrims snakes up from the main road towards the Washington Monument, past the huge bomb-resistant planters that have sprung up all over the Mall. Teenagers hop up and down in place to keep warm. It is almost incongruous to see the frothy heads of cherry trees poking out from behind the security barriers.
“Wow!” yell various voices inside the car.
“No, Phoebe,” Violet says witheringly, “Not blue–”
“There must be 20 trees in bloom–no, 50!” Paris shouts. “No, five hundred thousand!” In the front seat, I drone on placidly about how the city of Tokyo gave the trees to the people of the United States in 1912 and how in Japan people pack exquisite boxed lunches and eat them beneath the evanescent blossoms in order to reflect on the swift passing of beauty, the brevity of existence–
“I’m hungry,” various voices realize. At this point, precisely, the slow-moving traffic sets like concrete. It is spring break, we are going nowhere, and, strange as it may sound, we are having a lovely time.