The following post is inspired by the memoir In Stitches by Anthony Youn and Alan Eisenstock. The book chronicles Youn’s path to becoming a plastic surgeon from his high school years when he dealt with a disfiguring underbite to his apprenticeship with a celebrity surgeon in Beverly Hills. I received a copy from the publisher, gratis, as a member of the online book club, From Left to Write. I was not paid to write this article. You can read other blogs inspired by the book here, on August 9th.
This has absolutely nothing to do with Sophia.
I have great teeth. That sounds like a brag. It’s not. I earned these teeth. My mother calls it “the million dollar smile.” And she’s not kidding. Like Youn, I had a vicious underbite and years of orthodontia.
In my early years, my underbite was considered cute. My parents will still imitate my primate smile with an expression that conveys how adorable they thought it was. But, as my jaw outpaced the rest of my diminutive frame, they grew alarmed. At least, I surmise that they did based on the sheer amount of dollars and time they invested in my mouth.
I received my first contraption when I was about nine or ten. Contraption, not braces. Oh, I would have braces, for four long years I would have braces, but they were to come much later. First, I had a retainer that was cemented into the roof of my mouth.
This medieval device came with a little key, kept in a small pocket in my mother’s apron. Alright, I made up the last bit about the apron. But she did have a key that she periodically used to tighten the medieval device at my sadistic orthodontist’s whim. Of course, I hated it. I would pick at the metallic parts that were wrapped around my incisors, until one day, when my mother was on the phone, I finally dislodged it. Well, I half-dislodged it. The other half remained affixed to the other side of my mouth so that it hung askew making it impossible to close my mouth. “MAHRM,” came my garbled cry. With an exasperated, “You kids!” my mother hung up with her friend and took me on an emergency trip to the Drs. Vella.
I went to not one but two orthodontists. Husband and wife who plied their evil trade side-by-side. Mrs. Dr. Vella was very proper and all business. Her manner was brusque, her adjustments less than gentle. Mr. Dr. Vella was her polar opposite. He looked like Buddy Hackett from the Tuscan dairy popsicle commercials. He was silly, kind and gentle. Whenever we went for a checkup, I prayed that I would get Mr. Dr. V.
The two conferred about my case. I heard them tell my mother that if we didn’t comply with the preventative work, when I was a teenager I would have to have my jaw broken. That was sufficient motivation for me to keep my retainer in my mouth from that day forward. They added a chin cup to the mix. It fit like a cap over my advancing mandible, attaching to head gear with little rubber bands. Sweat would pool in the chin cup creating the perfect ecosystem for zits to grow and flourish. Before donning my orthodontic crown each night, I’d slather my chin with Clearasil in a futile attempt to keep the pimples at bay.
After two years, when I was released from the iron grasp of my retainer, I was rewired with the latest in brace technology. They were clear and meant to be invisible, however, within hours of eating, they adopted a yellow stain that remained for the next four years. There was no key this time, but I had to wear increasingly tight rubber bands that hooked my upper and lower decks together and would shoot out of my mouth at the most inopportune moments.
When, at last, I was cut free at 16, my braces left behind a memento of sixteen perfectly symmetrical cavities, my first ever. I was drilled, filled and presented with The Positioner. It was to be my last, and perhaps most vexing, appliance. The Positioner was much like a boxer’s mouthpiece—a large silicone mold of my mouth that I was to chew into for four hours each day. With a piece of plastic this large in your mouth, it is impossible to swallow. My saliva would pool in my mouth, inducing nausea and leaking down the sides of my face. I would sit in front of the television for hours with a hand towel to soak up the effluvia. Ultimately, it was too gross for me to tolerate and I stopped using it altogether. My orthodontist threatened me (Mrs. Dr.) that I would go right back to the way I started...but by some miracle this did not come to pass. My teeth stayed put, no trace of an underbite.
I wish I could say that it inspired me to take excellent care of my teeth. That I flossed and brushed and pampered my mouth with a newfound respect. But I didn’t. As soon as I had a beautiful smile, I began to take it for granted. I reveled in the blissful relief that I didn’t have to think about my mouth. That it wasn’t in constant pain. That it looked like other people’s mouths. Freed of my dental shackles, I walked away and didn't look back.
Reflecting on this experience, I wonder, what past afflictions others have walked away from, shed selves, now-invisible experiences that paved the path towards today. What hides behind the pretty little smiles?