by Tabitha Blankenbiller
The orthodontist asks me to bite and bite again. I grind on a slip of magic paper. A woman hovers behind him with a water pick and instrument tray, and knows what he requires before he asks. Together they file down a stray edge to my front tooth, the one I’ve paid hundreds of non-insured dollars to fix. I have spent the last 30 months with my mouth corralled by invisible fences, yanking my stray right incisor back in line with the friends it abandoned so long ago. In the commercials they tell you that Invisalign should only take you a year, but that’s because your teeth weren’t as fucked as mine.
The orthodontist bucks his stool backward, giving the woman berth to lean in and hand me a mirror. I hold it in profile, the way I did for the years from college graduation until today at age 30, watching with incremental panic as my smile glacially shifted from the tidy rows my parents paid to wrangle in my childhood to a warped, uneven monstrosity.
I attempted to talk myself out of this slow-motion reality as it unfolded. It’s my imagination, I insisted at the bathroom mirror, and my bite marks on a banana. I was promised my teeth would be perfect. I’d put my hours into the wire adjustments, the headgear, the rubber bands. I absconded the forbidden taffy and popcorn. I’d been assured, we’ll fix you. I hadn’t understood what was wrong with me back then, at age ten, when my dentist ushered my mom into the patient room with a ceiling wallpapered in posters of aquarium fish.
“You see this, here,” he said, guiding me through my bites and opens and closes as my mother stared down, her lips tightened to an empty canvas, the set jaw that kept a salesman from drawing blood. He moved on to a set of x-rays with my milky teeth and ghost-whisp roots. “We’re already developing a severe crowding issue that’s only going to get worse within the adolescent years.”
We walked together into the lobby, where the showstoppers waited on his desk. Two disembodied plaster jaws, one perfect. One mine. I recognized my big front teeth from the bathroom mirror. I marveled at these two puzzle pieces of my head and how they fit together as a set, and ignored the immaculate version of the mouth he was selling. It looked like a Halloween skeleton’s; it looked like anyone’s.
“If you’re going to pursue the recommended treatment,” the dentist said, “I’d strongly advise getting the braces on within the next six months, before any significant growth causes further damage.”
On the car ride home I ran my tongue along my smooth, freshly polished teeth, trying to imagine a system of wires and pulleys in their place. “It’s going to take too long,” I said.
“Two years isn’t long,” Mom replied, forgetting as we do the vortex of childhood that warps two years into twenty.
“It looks like it’s going to hurt,” I said, because the idea that braces won’t is one of the world’s least-convincing lies.
“It won’t hurt like it did in the seventies,” she said more to herself, recalling some teenage horror I could not see.
Two decades later I clutch this adulthood orthodontist’s mirror and turn my profile to the right. It’s the profile I began Photoshopping if it was caught on camera, the side I still don’t trust. “Are you sure it hasn’t moved at all from that last tray?” I ask. “It’s not crooked?”
The orthodontist flicks his magnification up and stares down my mouth. “That’s as straight as they come,” he said.
“You’re probably seeing the shape of your tooth,” the woman behind him chimed in for the first time since the man with his name on the door took charge of the instruments. “No natural tooth is perfectly symmetrical, if you look at it that closely.
“Sorry, I think I’m tootharexic,” I say, and we all have a good laugh before a scraper is back in my mouth again. We smile until I get into my car, and I stare myself down in the visor mirror. And my makeup compact. The selfie camera of my cell phone. I bite into a banana and read its misfortune.
A few months after my last orthodontist appointment I meet my friend Alyssa for cocktails. Alyssa was another writer, and a woman I met in grad school while getting my MFA in writing. I was a year into my degree when I was fitted for my first Invisalign tray, part of an evolution I can only track now from a seven-year distance—a late twenties emergence from one of my life’s deepest depressions, a transformation of my interior and physical being. That simple concept that takes much too long for most of us to realize: I am worth more.
Alyssa and I were meeting to toast mutual successes: Alyssa had just signed a contract for her first book, and I’d been published in my largest market to-date. It was happy hour at one of Portland’s most pretentious cocktail bars, tucked into a musty prohibition-era tunnel. The menus glowed in the dark, as you could hardly see the tables in the faint tealight glow.
“Cheers!” She offers, lifting a frothy Grasshopper to my Old Fashioned. “Who knew that little snaggle-toothed girl from so long ago would come this far?”
I smile that big, gracious mask one does when they’ve been shattered. I’d thought, even now after all the time and work of wearing 35 different tray sets all day every day save for eating meals, that I’d been overdramatic. That my teeth had never actually been that bad. Not bad enough for others to notice. Not bad enough to define me.
I lean back into the booth, thankful for the swath of darkness.
I hadn’t been able to slip by her. All my smoke bombs of shimmering personality and publishing accolades and worthwhile workshop feedback and cupcakes to share could not define me the way my jacked up, warped front tooth could. I was not who I thought I was, I was something worthwhile in spite of the misshapen hideousness I wrought. That first impression I feared more than the specter of death: what a stupid, common piece of trash.
Redneck. White. Trash.
Back in my car, I tear the driver’s side visor down and flick open the mirror. An LED light washes my face in a faint blue, medical undertone. I turn to the right and scrutinize the gum space in my front teeth. I press my thumb against my tooth and command it stay still. I press until my skin turns white.
At home, I brush and floss and rinse off my retainers. “You’ll need to wear these every night for the rest of your life,” the orthodontist had warned me. I have worn them blackout drunk, on red-eye flights, in camping tents and Parisian apartments. I cannot close my eyes without them, for fear of the beast that will wake. They are my talisman against the future my dentist foretold, to fix the broken oracle. We can keep your daughter from becoming her greatest fears.
I wanted to fix my teeth, again, when I began seeing myself. It was after almost a year of unemployment that began when I was 23. I was let go from my job in July of 2008, weeks before our bank folded and the fledging stable world of adulting I was constructing collapsed. I waited every day in our apartment to find a dead-end job amongst hundreds of other older, more qualified applicants, all of us steerage passengers thrashing in the sea toward the one life boat left. By the time a company agreed to bring me into their bottom rungs, my self-esteem had cratered.
It would take a few years for action to calcify. Maybe I could lose all that unemployment weight. Maybe I could go back to school. Maybe I could apply for a better job. Maybe my hair doesn’t have to be flat and dead. Maybe I could wear eyeliner.
Maybe I could fix my teeth.
When I mentioned this idea to others, that I had an appointment with an orthodontist who could change my smile with trays, an embargo lifted. The question stirred by my ever-widening smile—my acknowledgment that I needed a fix was a call to eke out the root.
“What did you do?”
“Did you get hit in the mouth?”
“Did you fall?”
“Did you stop wearing your retainer?”
They were starving for the missing variable of the equation; my action to my consequence and expensive, painful retribution.
I tried to explain that no, my retainer was hidden behind my teeth as a thin wire cemented by my childhood orthodontist after he was finally satisfied. Intended to keep my teeth from shifting for a lifetime, my adult-era dentist explained that it had the opposite effect, warping the front tooth to a state far worse than the original problem.
I answer their questions with an apologetic air, as if transparency and disclosure can salve my scorching embarrassment. What is my decision to seek treatment but an admission of guilt, that I am flawed beyond forgiveness or my own acceptance?
I wonder if I should send out a press release, to assure everyone that measures are being taken. I didn’t do this to myself. I didn’t decide to let my body go. This is not a sin of neglect or carelessness. This is not my fault.
I am so sorry for the untidiness of my body.
Let me make it up to you.
As my mouth incrementally aligned, my tolerance for that snaggle-toothed girl I’d been plummeted. I sent my sister a message on Facebook, pleading with her to take down the picture she’d taken last Christmas from the wrong side of my face. I untagged myself and hid posts. I rearranged our wedding album. I could make her disappear, I thought. Memory is fallible. All those colleagues and acquaintances could soon forget in her absence that my teeth had ever been anything but perfect.
They’re going to figure you out, I wanted to scream into the glossy photo paper girl, oblivious in her joy, her youth, her moment, forgetting the side of her face that was cursed. All beauty radiates that I cannot see in the midst of tectonic asymmetry.
They’ll see right through that ever-widening cavern between your fangs straight into your darkest truth, the one that no procedure, no prestige can remedy.
You are common, and you are plain, and you are ugly. Without the privilege of orthodontia, or department store makeup, or bold patterned dresses, or kitschy heels, your feral state has no grace, no beauty. You exhale smoke and slink through mirrors, a beast masquerading as woman. One day, someday, the money and the options are going to run out, and you’ll have to reckon with what’s not there.
And they will fill themselves with the relief of knowing, as bad as things may seem, at least they’re not you.
Four years after my initial retainer visit, I came back to the same orthodontist and reclined in the same dental chair. I stared up at the same Holiday Facts that decorated the wall, switched out by the same receptionist every month. I was here for a second set of retainers, after the months of wear wore them to pieces. My teeth had ground and gnashed their way through the security of tidy plastic. As they will do every half-decade for the rest of my life.
The doctor sat down with a vague recognition I imagined he feigned with each of his hundreds of patients, up until the moment he opened my chart. “Oh!” He exclaimed. “It’s you! Wasn’t this tooth sticking straight out before?”
“Pretty much,” I admitted, running my tongue along the spot where bone once breached.
He kept flipping through the pages, in awe of his handiwork. “This would make quite the case study for Invisalign. Quite the case study, indeed.”
As I turned onto the freeway to go home, I imagined a billboard erected over my exit. A perfect smile, and a promise, you can be this happy too! There is no before, only pristine possibility. My vanity is immovable in this, that it is better to be forgotten than remembered ugly. It is an insidious belief, a poison, a fallacy too dark to nurture happiness. But within these bodies we haunt, there are some monstrosities even the finest plastics can’t exorcise.
Tabitha Blankenbiller’s essays have appeared in Tin House, Salon, The Rumpus, Electric Lit, and elsewhere. Her debut book EATS OF EDEN was published in March 2018. She tweets @tabithablanken.