The word was stuck in my throat, unmoving, unwilling to budge even an inch, trepidation apparent in my voice despite the fact that I hadn’t even mustered up the courage to speak. It wasn’t the word itself that had found its way lodged in my throat, it was the message it carried. The danger that word could bring to me. To my family. To my beautiful wife and four year old daughter. No, the word was easy. It was two letters. One syllable. Looking these people in the eye, though, and saying it, that was downright impossible.
My name echoed faintly around me. He had said it, not I. I still couldn’t speak, could barely even think. I swallowed, my saliva barely making its way down my barren, dry throat.
My eyes–to this point very much having been avoiding eye contact at all cost–made their way to a glass sitting on the desk in front me. My arm extended quickly, my fingers trembling and grabbed ahold of the glass tightly. It was room-temperature, presumably having sat there for a few hours to this point.
“Doctor Garrison,” I heard again. Him again.
I froze momentarily with my hand wrapped around the glass. I was shaking too violently at this point to pick the class up confidently. I swallowed again. It was a less than stellar feeling. I tried clearing my throat, still unsure of my ability to raise the glass to my lips without spilling its contents.
“Doctor Garrison, please.”
I brought the water to my mouth, realizing it was very much now or never. As the glass touched my lips, my still shaking hand attached to my still shaking wrist flicked upward, sending a cascade of approximately three drops of water into my mouth.
That hadn’t really done much. In fact it may have made the scenario a bit worse, if not solely for appearance’s sake.
“Doctor Garrison this is the last time I’ll ask you to please answer the question.”
“Randy,” I blurted out. It was more of a croak than anything else, but it had gotten the message across adequately. I wasn’t a real doctor for Christ’s sake. I had heard that enough times that I had begun to believe it. “You can just call me Randy.”
“Well Randy,” the man in the lab coat said. “Would you mind answering the question?”
I looked up at him, making eye contact for the first time in what must have been 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes of stalling; fifteen minutes of “ums” and “uhs” and “wells.” He was young–maybe 27 or 28–his blonde hair combed backwards and green eyes peering intensely into mine.
“The first nine didn’t have an issue answering quickly, Doctor Garrison,” he said gesturing to the window of the observation room to his left. It was the only window in the otherwise bland white interview-style room. Behind the glass were nine other individuals–three men and six women–with their faces pressed to the glass. They were waiting my answer, a mix of fear and anticipation washed on their faces.
I wasn’t a brave man, I never had been. I didn’t have moral convictions, I didn’t feel a purpose or a sense of righteousness about me. I wasn’t someone who stood up; no I was someone who would fall back. The last one to raise his hand and the first to put it back down.
But for the first time I knew what I had to do. I knew that the easy choice–the potentially life saving choice– wasn’t the right choice. And I had to do what was right. If not for me, if not for my wife, then for my daughter. For Jasmine. She couldn’t grow up in a world as broken, as tattered, as ruined as the one I’d create by by allowing this to happen.
“You’re number ten,” the man in the lab coat said. “We just need an answer–a clearly defined ans-”
“No.” It came out of me confidently.
“No what, sir?” the man asked, his face falling as he looked down, as if he was about to deliver a cancer diagnosis. “Please restate the question clearly.”
“No, I would not recommend Crest brand toothpaste. I prefer Colgate.” The words exploded from my lips, nothing having left my mouth as confidently as that series of toothpaste-related statements.
“Thank you Doctor Garrison,” said the man. “That’ll be all.”
“Randy,” I said. “Call me Randy. I’m not a doctor. I’m a dentist.”
“Where you’re going,” the man in the coat said. “You don’t need a name. Or a degree in dentistry.”
I wondered if he used that cliche line on every single one of us. Every number ten. The one who stood up. Who spoke out. The one who refused to give in to Big Toothpaste.
But it didn’t matter. Because I had done what needed to be done. I wasn’t sure what would happen to me, but that didn’t bother me anymore. My wife would make it out of the country, we had money and she knew to be ready at any moment to hop on a plane with Jasmine. But because of me — and because of the others who had stood up before me, there was a resistance. There was representation. There was someone, somewhere who refused to just sell his soul to the minty white giant. When people picked up a box in Giant or Aldi or Weis or anywhere, “9 out of 10 Dentists Recommend” was all that Crest would get. Emblazoned on its garish boxes for eternity. An eternity of consumers asking “yeah, but what about the tenth one.”
And to me, that’s what mattered.