Yesterday, a shingle of glue snapped off the little wire lining the back edge of my lower teeth. Today, Orthodontist Assistant Jen forced my teeth fractions of a millimeter closer before lasering the glue back in place. This has given me the sensation of a popcorn kernel jammed in the resulting imperceptible but cosmetically necessary space, relentless until my gums shift or I numb to the way things simply are now. I’m writing this to keep my mind off it.
Teeth piss me off because there are separate, billion-dollar industries for a) cleaning & b) aligning them. Worse, they don’t seem to get along—Dentist Team hates that wire because it’s tough to clean around and floss underneath. Sometimes they’ll even convince patients to get it removed—and then Ortho Team has to reinstall, deal with the slippage, and complicate Dentist Team’s cleaning maneuvers again. My mouth is their passive-aggressive battlefield.
I guess I assumed there would be a happy, professional consensus about what was best for such a small but sensitive corner of my body. (At least they can agree on raking my gums with hooks.)
What I remember most vividly about braces was the belittlement. Each new construction of bands and ratcheted wires felt like the ortho’s pet experiment, evaluated visit to visit, while the constant discomfort was something I alone lived with every moment, literally trapped inside my head. And I was expected to be diligent with rubber bands and flossers the whole time.
Really, everything teeth has been embarrassing for me. I didn’t experience the surreal horror of losing my first teeth until way after my elementary school peers had grown nonchalant about the process in their own mouths. Worse than late, my last adult teeth came in sideways. For a while I had doubled incisors on both sides, layered like scales in my protruding gums. My molars were even more grotesque. This meant I had to have six teeth pulled in one go. Just a few days later, they installed the actual brackets in my face hole.
Mom made fajitas for dinner that night. I’ve never been so aware of the texture and toughness of food—I kept trying to gum it down, stubborn, spitting it out in the napkin, going again. I honestly thought, “This is it. Applesauce only.” I ran to the bathroom and poked at my swollen gums and the circuitry in my mouth and cried. Dinner had to end early that night anyway so that I could be delivered to a choir concert—some cruel irony. There were tears again onstage. No one blamed me for my sloppy enunciation.
On the drive home, my mom doled out one of those frantic parental lunges at consolation. You know them—the light-hearted, well-intentioned comments that backfire fantastically: “Well, you won’t be making out with any girls any time soon.” I cried again. I was about to finish eighth grade and was very self-conscious about not having kissed girls and wanting to kiss girls and I felt slammed by now having those dreams deferred for the foreseeable future.
Really, “foreseeable” was the entire future—at that age, time is daily and investments are nothing. Right now, my gums just ached.
I got indignant: it felt cosmically unfair that the bone shards that didn’t do much besides allow me to chew required so much maintenance, money, intricate machinery, and gummy, gorey tension. I fumed at the thought that it could all be undone in an instant by gravity and the edge of a table. I was bitter with social evolution—that our brains, with an entire district dedicated to finding, reading, and remembering faces, light up on a good and charismatic smile as shorthand for compatibility and attraction. I resented that I had to sacrifice so much in that category (when it felt most necessary) to eventually come out pretty. I was very much in eighth grade.
I’m being melodramatic because I think being introduced to that sterile orthodontist chair was my first confrontation with the stark dread of not being fine where I was and realizing that getting fine would take unskirtable time and aching. I didn’t know how to take that.
And eventually, of course, once I was someone else, I got my braces off. I got caps put on those buds of incisors. (I also kissed a girl.) I even got lucky with a breezy wisdom tooth removal—a turn of karma I guess. And today I came back and paid out-of-pocket for an orthodontic repair because, for insurance purposes, as the receptionist told me, I’d “gotten finished” those years ago when the braces came off.
But maintenance is always ongoing. Walking out into the parking lot, I squinted and notched my pinky nail between my newly tailored teeth, feeling the adjustments, that little ache in a gummy corner, still insecure.