Bracing Myself

Jan Allister  <allistej@stolaf.edu>

I

The ceiling is low, white, and featureless, and as I wait for the super-glue to dry on my teeth, unable to look elsewhere, I wonder why someone hasn't stuck a few posters up there. Finally a woman's face appears, frowning studiously. This is not the sweet-faced man I consulted with, but must be my orthodontist, because the woman who applied the glue looked way too young. Neither woman, however, has introduced herself, by name or profession.

I feel a twisting, now, on each tooth. I'm having trouble picturing exactly what's going on, but I know whatever she's fiddling with is the business part of my new braces. It hurts. And I'd swear my teeth are starting to move already, in blind obedience.

"All done," she announces. This surprises me. I've been sitting here for close to an hour, most of the time with my mouth forced open with a big plastic mouth jammer, and this woman has spent a total of five minutes setting into place thousands of dollars worth of metal appliances.

"I want to see you in about six weeks," she says, and moves on.

The assistant returns to give me instructions and supplies. No biting down on hard food; use this special threader to get floss through your teeth over the braces; rinse with this hydrogen peroxide solution if your mouth gets tender. And oh yes, the wires at the ends will lengthen as the teeth pull in, and they will probably poke you. Just use the eraser end of a pencil to push those wires down. If you're badly poked, stick globs of this special wax on the end of the wires. Dry everything off first. That's a little tricky, of course. Any questions?

I have hundreds, all slamming into one another, but can't articulate even one.

"No," I say weakly, my mouth feeling stretched into a grotesque Jim Carrey smile from being held open for an hour. "Thanks."

I make my next appointment, walk to my car, and examine my teeth in the rear-view mirror. I have acquired a middle-school smile in a middle-aged face. The effect is weird, like some mythical creature composed of two different beasts, equally formidable. I laugh, thinking of this, and see the flash of silver. Oh no, I look ridiculous. No more laughing, I tell myself, until these things are off. I will keep my mouth closed, even when amused, and smile only a Gioconda smile, quiet and all-knowing.

For a moment this depresses me. How will I keep from laughing for 14 months? I wonder what they'd think if I were to walk back into the office and beg to have my braces removed. Now.

I continue to sit in the stuffy car and begin to think about the times I used to stand in front of another mirror, as a child, and wrap reconfigured paper clips and rubber bands around my teeth to see what I'd look like with braces. In those days, at least for me, there was a mystique attached--I wanted the actual silver bands more than I wanted straight teeth. But my parents, scraping to pay the bills, had already gone through the expense of braces for my older sister. There was no money left in the orthodontic budget.

Once, when I was about 11, they took me for a consultation with somebody in a white coat--I never could figure out who he was. He looked at my teeth for about two minutes, then reached into a drawer and handed me a tongue depressor. "Every night before you go to sleep," he told me, "press this against your two overlapped teeth for a few minutes. They'll straighten out after awhile."

Young and ignorant as I was, respecting most adults as I did in those days, even I knew a charlatan when I saw one. I half-heartedly pressed the stick against my teeth several evenings in a row, then dropped it into my wastebasket. And in the recesses of my increasingly suspicious mind, I imagined my parents, down on their luck but feeling guilty, setting this up with him ahead of time.

"Just give her something to hope for," they might have said, "So she'll quit talking about this braces thing. We just can't afford it, you see. Not now. Maybe in a year or two."

I've never asked them about that visit. Who knows--maybe they were completely taken in. But they never asked me about the tongue depressor.

That deferred dream finally brought me here.

II

Six weeks before getting the braces, I went for a consultation. I just wanted to explore options, half-expecting to hear that orthodontics are not all that successful for adults, that I'd have to take my chances. Then I would walk away, accepting my overlapped teeth for good--perhaps with some relief. I'd wondered about adult braces for years, and always found some excuse not to ask my dentist about it, worrying that it was, after all, just a little outrageous for someone my age to enter the domain of 12-year-olds. To every thing there is a season, and I had missed my season for teeth straightening. Decades ago.

But then, who should greet me when I walked into the office but Rhonda, the receptionist, a middle-aged Mia Farrow look-alike who flashed a big smile at me--a big metal smile. She had braces, top and bottom. And she looked, well, maybe not beautiful when she smiled, but really, really cute. I was mesmerized, as we talked, by those shining silver bands.

I took a chair in the waiting room, surrounded by a sea of middle-schoolers, and self-consciously hid behind a newspaper. Eventually a woman in a flowered lab coat appeared and summoned me for x-rays. Laurie was a talker, and a smiler, and it took only seconds for me to notice her teeth. Braces, top and bottom.

I now envisioned two ads in our local newspaper:

Help Wanted: Orthodontic x-ray technician. Qualifications: Must have braces, or be willing to undergo orthodontic treatment immediately upon hire.

Help Wanted: Dental receptionist. Qualifications: See above.

"This is my second time," she told me, after I mentioned my surprise that she and Rhonda were both wearing silver bands. "I had them when I was 12, but my teeth relapsed. So I figured, why not? It doesn't take that long." She then took the x-rays, and about 15 color photos of my teeth and mouth from every conceivable angle.

III

The first thing I notice, when I return three weeks later to have the braces put on, is the changed mouth of Rhonda the Receptionist. She greets me with gleaming, fence-rail-straight teeth.

"Oh my gosh," I say stupidly. "You've got your braces off."

"Yes," she replies joyfully, "And Laurie got hers off, too."

"No!"

"Yes!"

Deflation. I've been betrayed. What about the camaraderie of shared experience I had envisioned, the anticipated monthly exchanges about our progress? I entered into this contract based on a tacit understanding: we're all in this together. Now I'm alone.

Then another, darker thought. Maybe it was a setup. Those weren't real braces, on either of them. They were fakes. Stuck on with silly-putty. Halloween trinkets, purchased at the Family Dollar Store, and now stored away until the next adult makes tentative inquiries into the remote possibility of orthodontia. I've been trapped!

But I can't back out now--I've signed, paid, told my friends and family--in every way I've committed. I feel like Little Red Riding Hood, recognizing the clever disguise too late.

And so I let them lead me off into a large treatment room and show me to the only empty dental chair, where I lie down flanked by 12-year-old boys with their wide-legged pants and big untied sneakers.

IV

The braces applied, I am sitting in my car, staring at my mouth in the mirror. I am transfixed by the image, but I need to return to work.

And I am worrying about this. I have a high threshold for pain, and know I can stand the teeth and mouth tenderness I've been told to expect. But I have a low threshold for embarrassment, and I must teach two classes today. I am starting to feel the fear creeping up on me. I chastise myself for it--what am I afraid of? That my students will think I'm foolish? (Yes.) That they'll think I look funny? (Yes.) That they'll suddenly notice that my teeth need straightening, when they didn't notice this before? (Yes.)

Are all of these worries senseless, immature, and embarrassing in and of themselves? (Oh, yes.)

But still, there it is, and I momentarily consider canceling my classes. The semester is nearly over--three teaching days to go. Could I find a way to cancel all three days? Claim a debilitating mouth injury? Conduct the classes by e-mail?

I can't do that. I am a grown-up, for heaven's sake. So I drive back to school, and try to think of some way to get through two 90-minute classes without talking or smiling. I soon realize that this is a temporary solution --not to mention a stupid one. I have all next year to teach, too, before these come off, and like it or not, I will have to open up.

I close the door to my office, take out a small mirror, and practice talking, trying to determine how to hold my mouth for the least possible metal exposure. If I press my top lip tightly over my teeth, Humphrey Bogart style, I can pull it off. But interestingly, I also sound like Bogart.

Then I work on the smile. I discover that by sliding my bottom lip up to cover my top teeth when I smile, I can hide most of the braces, which have been placed low on my front teeth before they swoop up toward the gums on my back teeth.

I practice the smile several times. It is quite effective at covering all that silver. But there's no getting around it, with my lip stuck up that way I look like Jim Nabors, or maybe Forrest Gump's friend Bubba. I summon my nerve and try out a broad, natural smile, exposing every bracket and wire. Ugh. Why don't I look like Rhonda the Receptionist when she had her braces on?

As I practice behind my door, someone knocks. Oh no, first public appearance. How should I hold my mouth? Should I try not to smile? Who is it, anyway? Doesn't this person know that when my door is shut I'm either not there or I'm working? Sigh. I open the door, a crack.

It's one of my students, David, a thorn in my side because of his obtuse, tortured prose, but still, a favorite. He's funny. He gives me apples, compliments, jokes--along with the incomprehensible essays. And he looks like a toothpaste ad, with a smile that could melt metal.

"Hey, Professor, just thought I'd bring this paper by. I did a little revision after we talked."

"You rewrote it? Well, okay, I'll be interested to see. . ."

"Whoa! You've got braces!"

"Oh," I say, addressing his shoes. "Yes, well, I was hoping no one would notice."

"Ha!" he said. "No chance. Well, it'll go fast. I had braces. It went fast."

"I'll take a look at your paper," I say feebly, my mouth doing bizarre gymnastics as it wages war with an involuntary smile. I realize that I can't look at someone with a big happy grin, and not smile back. So now I know--I'm stuck. I guess I'm no Mona Lisa after all.

Minutes later, I walk into class, plop a stack of papers down on the table, and smile broadly at my students. Okay, it's over, the secret is out, now we can get on with things. No one reacts at all. They just start asking the usual questions: When is the paper due? Were we supposed to have that story read by today?

Well, okay then, I've survived.

V

Six weeks later, I return for an adjustment. Again Rhonda the Receptionist is beaming and friendly, but when the assistant calls me in, she simply tells me to sit down and open up. A half dozen middle-schoolers lie supine in their chairs, mouths propped open in various stages of waiting. No one is talking to them, either, so I don't know whether I get this cool treatment because I'm an adult, and they assume I don't need coddling, or we all get it. I'd love to be coddled, fussed over. Maybe I'll write an anonymous letter. Or better, an essay for an online orthodontic journal.

She immediately begins tugging at my appliances, loosening things. I wonder if she's going to take them off and start all over.

My orthodontist, whose name I still do not know, appears, and after a small wave of her fingers to acknowledge me, silently begins. She uses a tool--needle-nose pliers perhaps?--and twists away to tighten things again. To the assistant, who has returned, she says in a surprisingly forceful tone, "Watch this, see, I like to do a figure-eight on these. I'm going to get really aggressive. I want these teeth to start MOVING."

I glance up at her face, which looks just a touch maniacal. The mad scientist. She continues her twisting, each figure-eight making me wince and do a little jump. "Are you all right?" she asks, almost accusingly, after several such reactions. I nod, resolving to steady myself for the next one. But she is finished. "I want to see you in six weeks," she says, and walks off.

The visit has taken under 10 minutes. My teeth hurt beyond words. But I dance out of there happy, feeling I am now one big step closer to my perfect smile.

My orthodontist is being aggressive!

I smile, and again examine my teeth in the rearview mirror. I think they've moved. Maybe not drastically, but I am pretty sure they are straighter. This is going to be great.


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