May 16th, 2016
My mom hates the dentist, but I always thought the orthodontist was much worse. Jaw aching and mouth dry, listening to an old man debate over what he can fix. I am twelve years old when I go to the orthodontist for the first time, and they take my x-rays twice because I move too much.
I sink into the reclining chair as they poke around with shiny tools in latex gloves, leaving behind a metallic rubber taste in my mouth. A dull blue light shines through the flimsy x-ray sheets, and my mother is invited into the room, smiling at me despite the pointy plastic pieces holding open my mouth.
The orthodontist explains each picture to my mother; “see how her teeth stick out too far here?” and “this tooth is crooked, but we can fix that with rubber bands.” I never realized how wrong my mouth is arranged, and I have the urge to cover my mouth and hide the teeth that stick out too far. I am suddenly all too aware that my teeth are on full display, and I clench my fists against the chair to stop myself from prying out the plastic pieces with my neatly trimmed fingernails. I listen in, but he talks over me like a keynote speaker, asking me to turn my head a certain way so he can poke at my teeth some more. Every few minutes he asks me a question, to which I can only reply by nodding my head, but he does not wait for this response before turning back to the scans. He talks for eternity in seventh grader-time before finally taking the pieces out of my mouth, asking me if I have any questions. And in all that time sitting silently, listening and nodding, I still have nothing to say.
June 8th, 2017
I get my braces off three days after my middle school graduation, two days before Moving Day: June 10th, the day I’ve been dreading all year. My teeth feel slimy, and maybe a bit too smooth, but they don’t stick out like they used to. It doesn’t feel as monumental as I pictured; after putting in the rubber bands after every meal and going through every color of elastics the office had, they’re gone and there are bigger things to worry about than my metal-free, too-smooth teeth.
My dad is already living in California, and has been since October, flying back nearly every weekend and in a constant state of exhaustion. My mom is just as burnt out, having spent the last several weeks packing up the house while running my two siblings and me around to make sure we can have a proper goodbye with every person we’ve ever met. She takes me to my appointment and is sitting in the waiting room when I walk back out with an ear-to-ear grin, despite having left to run a few errands on her never-ending list.
The next person to see me braceless is my best friend, Emma Kathryn Sculles, who I have insisted on calling by her full name ever since she started calling me Alexandra everywhere we go. She is the person who simply makes me feel good every time I am around her, and the person I know I will miss the most, even if I would never say it out loud for fear of hurting my other friends’ feelings. I know she knows, so I don’t have to.
Emma and I tie-dye t-shirts that I will keep past when they’ve been stained beyond public acceptance and the colors have all bled to pastels, and we don’t talk about me leaving in two days.
March 21st, 2018
Another orthodontist office, another old man poking at my teeth. This office is brighter, smaller, but mostly the same; the smell of antiseptic and a metallic taste in my mouth. My teeth have shifted since my braces came off, forming a geometric pattern rather than a straight line, due to my flimsy retainer.
If I’m being honest, I noticed my teeth had shifted months ago but didn’t say anything because it was too late to stop it from happening. I just hoped it was more noticeable to me than it would be to anyone else, like a zit or uneven haircut, and that I might be able to ignore it. I find myself trying to ignore it a lot these days, not because I think it will go away but because I don’t want to face it. I can deal with some crooked teeth, as long as I don’t have to get braces again; sometimes the solution is more painful than the problem.
“She’s going to need braces again,” the orthodontist says to my mom over me. Tears spring forth against my will, and I try to ignore them as they trickle down to my ears from the corners of my eyes. I know it’s childish, and I’m embarrassed, so I don’t say anything.
January 5th, 2019
I’ve cut off all my hair and grown it all back (almost), and it is finally time for my braces to come off, hopefully for the last time. I shift and the plastic-wrapped chair squeaks. I stare into the soul of the light hanging over me, and it stares back. My eyes start to burn, tears pricking at them around the edges, but I can’t look away. I’ve always been stubborn, but lately, I’ve been digging my heels in more, almost against my will. I hold on to every little thing like a lifeline, grasping desperately onto silence– it protects me, holds me close when life becomes a chore.
It doesn’t take as long this time, maybe thirty minutes go by and he rolls his chair over to the middle schooler in the chair next to mine. My teeth feel slimy, and maybe a bit too smooth, but everything else feels different. The last time I had too smooth teeth, it was in a place of stability standing in the face of instability, but this time it’s flip-flopped. I’m afraid to accept a place on solid ground because I don’t want to get trapped there, in a place without Emma and sweaty Midwest backyard parties. At the same time, it could be nice to have somewhere to set down the overwhelming weight on my back, maybe sit down and take a deep breath for the first time in a few years.
The orthodontist’s assistant comes over with a palette of pink goo, a substance that is a large part of my “The Orthodontist is Worse Than the Dentist” argument. I face off with the rubbery goop, trying not to twist my face up in disgust at the chalky plastic smell.
The assistant counts down, giving me a pitying look– as much as I hate being pitied, I appreciate her supporting my dramatic reaction. As soon as the plastic palette is shoved into my mouth, I start to think maybe I wasn’t being dramatic enough. I gag as it pushes its way down my throat, as the plastic edges poke at the roof of my mouth and my slimy teeth are covered in the sticky mold. I take shallow breaths because if I breathe too deeply, maybe I will inhale it into my lungs, and maybe I’ll always have a little pink gummy goo in there. As much as I don’t think that could happen, I’m not going to risk it.
I try not to think about it too hard, rather debating the pros and cons of whether or not to tell Reese about the boy I have a crush on. I decide it’s better not to say anything yet, so I don’t have to act on it. It’s all very logical.
February 12th, 2020
I am not getting braces again. I told my mom that before leaving for the appointment, and I think it again as I stare up at the orange light suspended above my chair. One of my bottom teeth is crooked. She insisted I have my orthodontist look at it and see if he could give me a new retainer or fix it somehow. I have been ignoring it for the past several months, refusing to acknowledge it, out of outright refusal to get braces for the THIRD time.
I also haven’t minded since this girl I have a crush on pointed out we have the same crooked bottom tooth. It’s nothing, nothing at all, really, but every time I notice my crooked tooth in the mirror, I think of her instead of an old man pointing out what he can fix.
I shift and the plastic squeaks beneath me. I am not getting braces again, he tells me, but rather a new retainer that will set the rogue tooth straight. I smile and nod, relieved. I let my mind wander back to her, as it does at every opportunity, filling every moment of silence I once treasured. I can’t bring myself to care, I can only check the lock as I trap myself in .
December 8th, 2020
I am standing before the mirror in my best friend’s room when I notice it: my crooked tooth isn’t crooked anymore. Reese laughs as she walks back into the room and observes me examining my teeth two inches from her mirror, shocked that I never noticed it before. After all of these years, all of these dreaded trips to the orthodontist, my teeth are finally fixed. How insignificant, my teeth lined up all pretty; when did I start thinking it mattered so deeply?
I smile, nonetheless. The crooked tooth was one less thing to remind me of Olivia, the innocent crush that spiraled into a self-destructive love affair that kept me chained with a glittering display of rose-colored glass. I held on long after it had shattered and blood was trickling down my wrists until Reese had to pry it from my hands. I picked at the scabs for weeks, reopening the wounds became a habit that I never thought I would give up.
Now, I’m standing before a mirror, and my crooked tooth is straight. I spent all this time staring at my teeth in the mirror, wrenching them into place with wire and rubber bands, just for them to straighten up in the moments when I was distracted trying to fix other parts of myself.
I turn away from the mirror. I spend the evening with Reese and my uncrooked teeth, and I don’t think about all the things I am desperate to fix. I do my best to look away because everything falls into place whenever I’m not looking.
I would like to thank Lulu Dalzell and Sam Palmer for all of their wonderful insights and suggestions. This essay wouldn’t be the same without their help, and they inspire me to be a better writer in each and every class. I would also like to thank Professor Kovaleski Byrnes for her critiques and for guiding me throughout the past several months to become the writer who is capable of writing a piece such as this one. Finally, I’d love to thank my parents and my dear friends Emma and Reese for all their love, and for never making me doubt it. I hope my love for them is just as clear in this essay.