Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

Name:

Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Bad Teeth

I got my braces off yesterday.

Everybody told me I’d be running my tongue over my teeth, marveling at their smoothness. I’m not. My tongue is busy with the new permanent retainer glued to my bottom front teeth. My mouth aches a little bit. I was warned it might. I’m used to dental pain.

How do I look? Like Carly Simon. Long brown hair surrounding total horse teeth. The orthodontist told me everyone says that—how huge their teeth look. When I relayed this to Hockeyman, he said, yeah, but you’ve never really seen all your teeth.

It’s true. My teeth were so crooked I never knew what they looked like aligned. Now I do, and it’s like somebody else’s teeth are in my mouth, on temporary loan.

I have many habits to break, like the one that surfaced Sunday night, when Hockeyman brought the laptop out the to couch. He had it on the camera setting. “We have to take before and after pictures,” He said. He passed the laptop to me. The camera sized me up. The woman looking back at me appeared every minute of her thirty-nine years and then some. Her mouth was closed, as its been since she was ten. “I can’t,” I said.

“Why not? C’mon.” He was celebratory. I had dreamed the night before that I’d visited the orthodontist and he’d refused to remove the braces. I wasn’t taking any chances.

“No,” I said. My left hand drifted up to my mouth as I spoke, and stayed there. “I can’t,” I said through my hand.

He stared, his smile fading into puzzlement. He has perfect teeth. In the fourteen years I have known him, he hasn’t had so much as a cavity. Whereas I have had multiple root canals, crowns, three root canals on one tooth that failed, removal of said tooth and part of the jaw around it, along with countless little fixes.

I handed the computer back to him.


I have been ashamed of my teeth for twenty-nine years. Since I was ten, and my baby teeth, instead of falling out, rotted and decayed. There wasn’t money for the dentist. My baby molars blackened; I covertly spit little pieces of tooth into my palm when I thought my mother wasn’t looking.

She must have seen me, though, because one day her father called me over to his chair and counted a hundred dollars into my palm.

“Go to the dentist. And if you need more, you tell me.”

“Why are you doing this?” What a question from a ten-year-old! What an odd child I was!

“So you’ll remember me when I’m dead.”

My grandfather lost all his teeth as a young man. He had diptheria. Only now does it occur to me that he, too, knew about the shame and suffering associated with teeth.


Everyone knows there is nothing like dental pain. Perhaps it is the immediacy of pain so close to our brains, the way a sore tooth can short-circuit any attempts at logical thought. The way dental pain refuses to capitulate to all but the strongest medications. The way it stops us from the human necessities of talking and eating.

Perhaps it is a deep-seated animal fear: without teeth we are helpless, like infants. Or, more frighteningly, like the very old. If nothing else, depending on your generation, you remember Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man or the X-Files’ Duane Barry. Nobody will ever forget Steve Railsback screaming “They drilled holes in my teeth!”

Thus the American love of a Farrah Fawcett megawatt smile. Tooth whitening centers spring up on corners like so many Starbucks franchises. Entire supermarket aisles are taken up with fancy whitening systems and special toothpastes.

I say Americans because the many Europeans I work with were amazed when I got braces. They all told me I looked fine. When I explained the braces were for medical reasons, not vanity, I was dismissed. I suppose those who have survived world wars have a different take on trivialities like teeth. But I was American, thirty-seven, and down one adult molar. I was told my nasal cavity was too shallow to permit an implant. There was nowhere to put a bridge. Worst of all, my crowded teeth led to endless infections, no matter how vigorously I brushed and flossed.


With my $100 in hand, I went to a dentist who pulled the rotted teeth and advised my mother to wait for my adult molars to grown in. I have a small mouth—child-sized—with an unusually high palate. This drove those adult molars inward: I could lay a finger between my backmost tooth and its neighbor. This also meant no end of trapped food, no matter how much I cleaned. Meanwhile, my Grandfather died, and I remembered him. I did not see a dentist for another seven years.

When I was seventeen, my father got a new job with full dental benefits. I made an appointment with another dentist.

He was horrified. It took him to two visits to clean my teeth. My gums were so tender that I required massive doses of Novocain. Then came the cavities—five—and a replacement crown for the front tooth chipped in childhood.

Then the first root canal of the right back molar. To gain access to the tooth, the dentist had to tilt the chair until my feet were higher than my head. He prescribed Vicodin for the pain, which is how we discovered my allergy to it. I remember crouching on the floor of his office bathroom, my head between my knees. I thought I might be dying, and hoped so, because then I would feel better. My mother and the dentist stood in the doorway watching me, discussing whether or not I should be taken to the hospital.

Instead I was sent to a specialist, who managed to clear up the infection. A couple years later, the tooth infected again. This time it took a portion of my jaw with it. When I visited my regular dentist to remove the gauze packed into my mouth, he pulled it out, looked inside, and abruptly excused himself. I heard him in his office, on the telephone with the specialist. What happened to all that bone?

Infected. Dead. Had to go.

The crown was gold, and lasted until three weeks before my wedding. I was twenty-nine. “Take it out,” I told the latest dentist. “Just take it out.”

He did, extending the remains of my molar in his palm. A shell, the gold eaten away.

This was my adult mouth: prone to tartar, infection, with crooked, crooked teeth that snagged every bit of food.

I become morbidly self-conscious about eating in public. When out with others I ordered soups, pastas, maybe roast chicken. Never, ever meat. Never corn. Never salads. I always excused myself afterward, pulling out my floss and toothbrush in the ladies’ room.

I was aware—always—of my four bottom teeth, which resembled a broken yellow fence. I noticed everyone else’s teeth, white and straight. Classy teeth.

Although my natural smile is a wide grin, I began smiling with my mouth closed. Especially for photos, which I avoided whenever possible.

Times passed. My husband and I got jobs with good insurance coverage. I asked my dentist about bonding.

“No,” he said. “braces.”

We paid off the car. At age thirty-seven, I steeled myself against the humiliation of being the only adult amongst so many adolescents and visited the orthodontist for a consultation.

I was told my midline—the top of my teeth compared to the bottom—could never be repaired. Too late. But they could straighten me out. Total cost: $5,100. Total time: unknown. The orthodontists—a team of three doctors—worried about my ability to tolerate braces. Just that week a woman had them put on, then removed. She couldn’t stand them.

I was determined to stand them, and did, for thirty months. Yes, they hurt. They cut the insides of my mouth up. Food got caught in them. Eating publicly went from potentially embarrassing to nightmarish. The rubber bands intended to align my bite gave me such severe migraines that I had to give them, and promise of a better bite, up. I tried every brand of floss on the market and destroyed a toothbrush a month. The braces impaired my speech, caused my lips to swell unattractively, and looked just awful.

Now they’re off, and for the first time in my life, my mouth looks decent. Even good. Oh, I still need some work—a cavity is asserting itself, and the front crown has discolored yet again, requiring replacement, which will affect the retainers. But the smile in the mirror is white and straight and belongs to another person.

I have to unlearn habitually closing my mouth, ordering the pasta, and, hardest of all, that migrating left hand, rising to cover my shameful teeth when I speak or laugh.

The saddest part is all these years later, with my beautiful smile, I realize that likely nobody ever noticed my terrible teeth, or even if they did, didn’t really care. And while the rational part of me understands this, the child with the rotting mouth will have difficulty remembering to keep her hand down for a long time to come.

3 Comments:

Blogger Moggy said...

I hope you do learn to smile. I have trouble with letting myself smile openly. I think you will get there.

April 24, 2007 8:02 PM  
Anonymous Jade Park said...

Even if you are not smiling outside, I hope you are smiling inside. :)

And yay for no more braces!

April 25, 2007 5:12 PM  
Blogger Martyn said...

I agree totally that Anna Gavalda deserves a wider audience - she is a stunning writer. And I have to say that this view of her is in spite of the rather weak translation by Karen L Marker for the short story collection.

I found the idiom used by Marker to be frustrating to the point of putting the collection down with no intent to return to it. It was only Gavalda's overall style that brought me back. I find it very patronising that Marker obviously believes that American readers will be hopelessly out of water without their "semis" and "coupe(s)" and without stunning phrases like "I go read". Annoying to say the least.

This choice of conspicuous phrasing and product placement is a distraction simply because it detracts from what Gavalda calls "the real life" simply because it's not how europeans speak, let alone the French.

I'm about to start "Someone I Loved" - I can only hope that Catherine Evans is not so short sighted! I agree with you that it is interesting that Anna Gavalda's books have three different translators, usually of course one person would take all of the writings, but I have to say I'm pleased. If KLM had translated all of the books I doubt I would carry on.

Time to brush up the French I think! At least I'll be able to avoid all the "ford pintos" (they don't exist outside the US Karen!!)

January 02, 2008 7:37 AM  

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