Gonzalez fitted me with some "temporaries," pieces of hard plastic cast from a mold of my row of four teeth, and I walked out to the waiting room and right into Marvin, that happy man with the hiking hat I'd met during my last visit. This time, he wasn't smiling. "My plate didn't fit right," he said. "I've come back to get it fixed."
Since my crowns needed to be cast, I had a week to wait for my next and final appointment. I coped with my panicky buyer's remorse by phoning Gonzalez incessantly. Was the yellowish color of the temporaries to be the color of my new teeth? No, don't worry. Why do my teeth hurt when I drink something cold? That's normal sensitivity.
At the start of the capping appointment the following week, I lunged toward the dental tray to take yet another look at the crowns Gonzalez was going to put in. He had to pry me away and say, "Let me work here." When he took off the temporaries by tapping on them, hard, with a metal tool that looked like a nutcracker, I stopped him because I was worried about root damage.
"I could cut them out, but this way you don't need the Novocain shot," he explained. "It doesn't hurt, does it?" When I shook my head, he gave the final blow that cracked the temporaries loose. Blood came rushing out of my gums. Gonzalez stopped it up with a wad of gauze.
And then my Mexican dentist went from reckless to perfectionist. After testing the crowns in my mouth and sizing them up for five minutes, he decided that one was a little too short and would have to be recast. I thought I'd have to come back in a week or so for the new crown. But one of Gonzalez's many relatives working in the office took the crown to the lab next door and came back with the new one in a half-hour, a turn-around time unheard of in the United States.
As Gonzalez finally pressed the cemented crowns into place, their sharp edges bit into my gums, making me yelp and squirm. "I know. I know. It's okay," Gonzalez said calmly, and I tried to make that calm voice my painkiller.
When Gonzalez was finished, the crowns looked better than my teeth had looked for 23 years. Six weeks later, I have a mouthful of natural-looking, relatively comfortable crowns, and though I worry a bit over one tooth's slight sensitivity to heat and cold, it's not intense enough to merit even an aspirin.
Before I left Mexico with my parents and their friends, who'd come along for the trip this time, I watched them wheel and deal their way through the kids' candy store of Mexican health care. My dad stopped to pick up some cut-rate Prilosec. My mom's friend filled a new prescription for her eyeglasses. When we got to the border crossing, the customs agent asked, "What did you buy in Mexico?" I just smiled.