I never met anyone who actually liked having braces.
I remember my orthodontist, Dr. Carter, telling me that I had no crooked teeth, just a gap between nearly every tooth so that when I smiled my mouth looked like an open zipper. Growing up in an American society, I quickly learned that no one would ever love me unless my teeth were perfect, so my mother contributed several thousands of dollars into making my teeth at least somewhat bearable to look at. I felt indifferent at the time at only twelve-years-old, but what I hated most was the process of binding the braces to my teeth, which proved arduous. The orthodontist forced me to lie down with my mouth wide open for at least an hour as some woman glued each bracket to a tooth and strung them with wires, all the while wondering when I’d close my cramping jaw and bite the orthodontist’s assistant out of spite and general amusement as a sassy twelve-year-old. However, I found the cleaning of my braces to be even more cumbersome.
Dr. Carter instructed me to gently brush around each bracket, use plastic toothpick-like floss threaders to floss my teeth, and even suggested using a water pick. Overall, the process seemed more time-consuming than I would have liked it to be. However, the ordeal of cleaning around these braces and coming in for regular “tuning” every month or so lead me to the promise of a dazzling white smile sure to make me look like a movie star and “get all the girls,” much to my chagrin. The orthodontist’s office cleared off a wall to display before-and-after photos of various patients who had teeth to be jealous of. I figured that one day my face would be on the wall, looking down pretentiously at the younger kids who were soon to get two racks of metal slapped in their mouths for several horrible years.
Despite any effort I took in ensuring the cleanliness of my teeth, it was never enough. My gums would swell and some parts grew around the brackets and left me looking like an abomination from a horror film. One of my bi-yearly trips to the dentist had the hygienist scrunching her face up at the stains on my teeth.
“Do you smoke?” She tried to be casual with her question despite her accusing tone, but we both felt awkward.
“I’m twelve,” I told her. “No.”
“What about tobacco?”
“Ew,” I said. She sighed.
“You can tell me if you do either. You won’t get in trouble, I promise.”
“I told you I don’t.”
“Well either way, honey, you’re gonna need the special treatment. Come to the back room.”
I reluctantly followed her, wondering what this so-called special treatment entailed, though it was much worse than I imagined. After I sat down in the mint green chair and reclined on my back, the hygienist stuck a suctioning spigot in my mouth and demanded I keep my mouth open. She grabbed a larger spigot and proceeded to pressure wash my mouth with salt water for the next thirty minutes. Salt water splashed out of my mouth and into my eyes, burning them, and the hygienist snapped at me every time I went to wipe my stinging eyes. When she finally finished she eyed me scornfully, as if she found me shameful, and said, “go clean yourself up” and I did. I couldn’t feel my gums for the next several hours, which proceeded to bleed every time I looked too long at them in the mirror. The same scenario unfolded with each visit to the dentist until my braces were removed and always ended with the dentist yelling at me for not flossing better.
Two years passed. I tried to clean my teeth to the best of my ability and endure the physical and psychological trauma of visiting the dentist and orthodontist every so often, though the time finally arrived to have myself stripped of my braces. The moment the orthodontist removed my braces was one of the more anticlimactic experiences of my life. I flicked my tongue across my teeth to test their smoothness without the chunky metal brackets. My lips almost felt sunken in like my grandmother’s when she took her dentures out.
“Let me see,” my mother commanded. I forced a smile for her. “No more gaps,” she said. Dr. Carter and his assistants assured me that my teeth had no more gaps but said no more. No one commented on “what a beautiful smile” I had. I then envied everyone else at school who had their braces removed and received compliments like white was the new black. I almost expected them to snap a photo to plaster on their wall but it never happened.
Once I settled into the passenger seat of my mother’s Acura, I flipped down the visor and scrutinized my smile. My teeth shone dully in the afternoon sun with hints of a faded yellow. My gums looked mismatched from where they had grown over my braces but I thought nothing of it. At age fourteen, I felt my teeth were a minor part of my appearance and paid them no mind, despite any promises of flocking teenage girls.
A year later I found myself in an oral surgeon’s office waking up in a drugged up stupor. The surgeon informed me that my wisdom teeth had been successfully torn from my mouth.
“I told your mom to make you an appointment with Dr. Peacock. He’s a periodontist. Fix your gums right up. Oh, and you might want to invest in some Crest whitening strips.” I staggered drunkenly out of his office.
Dr. Peacock, who oddly resembled Scott Baio, moved my lips with his gloved fingers and glanced around at my gums.
“Yeah, I can take care of this,” he said, pulling up a tray of various sharp instruments. “I’m just going to give you something to numb you first.” He flicked a needled syringe and liquid shot from the top before he stabbed me in various places around my gums. He whistled. Then he leaned my chair back and casually grabbed a razor blade. “I’m just going to cut away some of your gum tissue.
He worked away at my mouth and looked as though he was cutting up a steak, which is to say, my face. “So how’s school going?” he asked, knowing damn well I couldn’t answer him with my mouth open and filling with my own blood. He continued to make small talk and I continued to grunt back to him in response, though whether or not he could actually decipher my grunts was beyond me. He’d pause every once in a while to wipe away some tissue or clean his bloodied white latex gloves. He finished the procedure using a pair of scissors, which to this day I’m still not entirely sure what he did with them in my mouth. He shoved a wad of gauze between my teeth and upper lip.
“You’ll feel some tenderness once the numbing goes away and you may be a little sore.” Understatement. “Soak a cotton swab with some hydrogen peroxide and gently go over your gums twice a day. Let’s say once in the morning and once at night. You’ll heal soon enough.” I followed Dr. Peacock’s orders and my gums healed within a week. I remember admiring my gums in the mirror and realizing how normal they actually appeared. I spent the next two weeks whitening my teeth with the Crest whitening strips suggested by my oral surgeon. Soon I found myself with a dazzling white smile and near-perfect teeth (according to American standards) and felt too good to be featured on the wall of my orthodontist. With all the cosmetic work I realized had gone into making my smile look the way it did, I concluded that I just received breast implants of the dental world.
Of course, soon after my teeth appeared to be close to perfect in my own eyes, I began receiving a number of compliments that I let inflate my ego to the point of bursting. And when the compliments seemed to diminish, I felt something was wrong. Maybe I needed to whiten my teeth again.
“I don’t see why you’re spending so much money on whitening strips,” someone would say.
“That’s because you don’t understand,” I’d say back. “You don’t understand.”
My obsession with my teeth eventually lead to recurring dreams where they would break or chip or rot or just simply fall out of my mouth. Every dream manifested itself differently and I always woke up in a cold sweat and rush to the bathroom where I’d closely inspect my mouth for any damage. My obsession subsided over the years, as the effect of the braces do not seem to last forever. Despite wearing my retainer religiously each night during my sleep, my teeth refused to stay scrunched together and small gaps, though not nearly as severe as the gaps before I ever wore braces, reformed between select teeth. The dreams never stopped and always reminded me of when my teeth actually did fall out when I was a child.
I remember when I lost my first tooth. My family and I had just moved into a new house just before the summer of 1998. We spent most of our time in the summer in our swimming pool and I recall jumping headlong into the pool and smashing my face onto some hard plastic pool toy. I ran my tongue over my teeth to make sure everything was in tact when I felt the slight wiggle of one of my bottom teeth. My eyes grew wide.
“Look!” I shouted in bloody-mouthed wonder. “My tooth is going to fall out!”
Eventually, it did. Days passed and I wiggled my tooth back and forth, feeling it slacken in my gums as time went on. One night my mother suggested I let my father snatch my tooth out of my mouth and I reluctantly agreed. We went into my parents’ bathroom to clean up the inevitable blood spray and my father reached his large, coarse fingers into my tiny mouth and gripped the tiny tooth.
I mumbled “wait” before he would have yanked the tooth from my gums, deciding I’d prefer a much less brutal method of extracting the now uncomfortable tooth from my lower jaw.
The tooth finally came out one afternoon when I bit into a ham sandwich and the tooth decided to stay embedded in the bread than return to my mouth. “My tooth fell out!” I screamed across the house, spewing blood and bread crumbs everywhere. That night my mother wrapped the tooth in a wad of Saran Wrap and placed it under my pillow. She ensured me the tooth fairy would visit that night and leave something under my pillow in place of the tooth. The thought of someone breaking into my home that night didn’t bother me much knowing that something was in it for me, so I went to sleep that night expecting to find a nice stack of cash under my pillow the next morning.
The moment I awoke I shot my hand under my pillow and grasped something rectangular and hard. I did not expect to find a VHS tape under my pillow but knew that VHS tapes cost no paltry sum in the mid-1990s and decided it to be a worthy gift from the previous night’s home intruder. I was further pleased by tape’s contents: a series of Looney Tunes episodes featuring Taz the Tazmanian Devil. I watched the tape nonstop until it lost its appeal to me after the seventy-fifth viewing. It wasn’t long before I lost another tooth. When I placed it under my pillow, I expected to find a Nintendo 64 or a kitten the next morning, but was sorely disappointed to find a mere two dollars.
I eventually learned that the tooth-collecting fairy never existed and that my own mother had been sneaking into my room at night and exchanging my teeth for a few bucks at a time. Once she came clean, she told me to follow her to her bedroom.
“You want to see them?”
“See what?” I asked.
“Your teeth.” I ran my tongue over the top of my now perfect teeth (again by American standards). She plunged her hand into her underwear drawer and snatched out a Ziploc bag full of what looked like white chiclets—that is, my baby teeth. I cringed.
“You want ‘em?”
“I’m okay.” I said. “Really.”
I then realized that the tooth fairy was perhaps the most macabre invention by adults to instill another odd sense of wonder into children, though maybe I was more disturbed by the fact that my mother had gathered my teeth all these years. Questions swarmed my mind and I wondered why anyone would ever create such a horrifying creature that hoards teeth in what I imagined would be her palace with ever growing extensions made entirely of nearly microscopic teeth. However, one question worked its way through my brain like a fresh tooth out of a tender gum.
“Why the hell did you give me a VHS tape?”
Despite the various rewards given to me by my mother for knocking my own teeth out, I mostly treasure that she spent so much time and money on torturing me with braces. Without her help, I never need to feel self-conscious about having and unordinary array of teeth or having people awkwardly glance from my eyes to my mouth and peer through the gaps between each tooth. I attribute everything to America, where everyone is deemed beautiful by flashing their bones—their teeth—to everyone else and being judged by the most naked parts of their bodies.
Patrick W. Sanders grew up in South Carolina and attended the University of South Carolina Aiken, where he earned his B.A. in English and later the University of South Carolina Columbia, where he earned his M.L.I.S. He is currently a librarian in Boston, MA. He frequently explains to everyone that growing up in the South is exactly like living out a Flannery O’Connor story. A really long Flannery O’Connor story.