Today, owing to a multitude of orthodontic sins committed throughout early adulthood, I chanced to find myself, at the tender age of 35, seated in an orthodontist’s chair, getting fitted for a retainer.
The kind with a little wire band that stretches across the front of your teeth and curves up at each side, hemming them in like a crooked litttle chain gang. The kind that makes you lisp when you talk and drool when you smile and flash silver when you laugh out loud.
So there you go. I’m a grown-ass woman with a goddamn retainer. Go ahead and snicker. You’re in your rights. It’s funny and wonderful and undignified and just completely awful all at the same time.
Oh, I had the option of righting my crooked bottom teeth with the clear Invisalign kind of retainer, sure, but that would have cost an extra $900 out of pocket, and I can now officially confirm what everybody’s always suspected about me: I am more cheap than I am vain. So. This retainer it is. For at least the next six months.
I’ll probably be eating a smoothie for dinner tonight and perhaps also one for breakfast and lunch tomorrow, because the lower half of my mouth is an achy, throbby mash. Even the thought of chewing through noodles sets me on edge.
Oh well. I don’t mind smoothies so much. I also don’t mind lisping and looking silly so much. Really, I kind of dig that atavistic dissonance of it: it’s like an adult prom or a baby dressed up as an old man. Funny because it doesn’t fit. A social experiment of sorts.
Speaking of experiments: Today, Baby G, who remains blissfully gummy, tried solid food for the first time. Pear purée. (Homemade by me, but don’t be too impressed; peeling and boiling and blending for a quarter hour were all it took.) And she might have hated it. We’re still not sure. She gagged and grimaced and spit and smiled and licked her lips and then dismissively flicked the spoon away, covering herself and the seat in fruit mash. She consumed maybe a half-teaspoon of the stuff in total. But she was undeniably … intrigued. We would try again later, to similar effect, her determination not quite outpacing her disgust, but man did she try.
So I guess the both of us came face to face with the new and the strange today and walked away grimacing. Ain’t that some shit? I find it amazing that no matter old and wizened you get, you still stand a good chance of encountering the novel each time you step out the front door. If you’re looking for it, and sometimes, even if you’re not.
Back in the orthodontist’s chair, a dental assistant treated me to a cheerfully exhaustive rundown of the care and use of my new retainer. As she lectured me on proper cleaning and storage, I harkened back to the six or so retainers I had and then lost as an adolescent. Stepped on, thrown into garbages, left in hotel room drawers or cafeteria lunch trays, you name it. I was hopeless. My orthodontist — a cranky man with perpetual pizza breath named Dr. Saito — was furious each time I slunk into yet another appointment bearing a brand new empty retainer case.
“How can you keep losing them?” he’d demand, exhaling cheese and pepperoni in an angry huff.
But I had no excuse, no explanation capable of satisfying an adult. I was hopelessly scattered. I was 13. Teeth didn’t figure into my cosmology very much, save the indignity of these nuisance visits. What else was there to say?
My parents eventually gave up, and I got the unlosable kind of dental work: braces. Which worked, fixing up a mild overbite and setting me on course for a lifetime of unalloyed toothy grinning.
Except. Teeth have a tendency to migrate over time, to lose their place in the mess of things, to rebel. Especially when you don’t wear your maintenance retainers and let your dental insurance lapse for a decade and neglect to have your wisdom teeth extracted until age 31.
And that is exactly how I ended up there — in that orthodontist’s chair, a gloved hand coaxing a gold glitter retainer into my overaged, undersized mouth.
I was instructed to wear it at all times except for meals, then encouraged to practice taking it on and off a few times, just to see. The assistant held up a magnifying mirror to assist me in the task, and I’ve got to say: I think it’s incredibly cruel to bathe someone in fluorescent light and then wave a giant reflective surface two inches l in front of their face without warning.
I looked so haggard and greasy and tired! Unwashed hair specked with gray, dry skin flaking off my chin, the beginnings of a mustache (I’m Middle Eastern; give me a break), and sprouting above my reddened eyes, undeniable evidence that the grooming regimen my eyebrow waxing lady has set forth for me is rather too ambitious for a new mom. Gross! I plucked my retainer out of my mouth and quickly shoved it back in a few sheepish times, avoiding the gaze of the almost-middle-aged woman staring back at me. Who was she?And when had she gotten so frumpy? Retainer notwithstanding, nobody was about to mistake me for even a youngish woman.
They were satisfied with my competence, and I thanked them with my newly minted lisp, put $420 on a credit card, and went home.
Now it’s evening on what may well be the last fine day of the year here in Portland. No clouds in sight, a stiff breeze coming up over the bluff, the sun already dropping down behind the cedars and the maples. My mouth hurts, more than the orthodontist promised it would, so I’m drinking wine. My pride also hurts, so I’m listening to a jazz record and reminding myself how very good it is to be humbled. By motherhood, by childhood, by the way you’re asked to jump camp from one to another on the regular without warning. By the way you never really grow entirely up. You just shapeshift into new and ever more haggardly physical forms, a pretender to grownup-hood, a kid in a too-big body, wondering where the time went. Wondering where all those lost retainers went. Shoveling a palabum of the season’s last fruit into a tiny baby’s waiting mouth and palming Advils and crying for the joy and strangeness of it all.
It’s all so hard to swallow sometimes. Baby G was right to gag, just a little. She was also right to open her mouth wide and give it another try.
It’s the maddening and irresistible work of being a human of any size: To gag and grimace and spit and smile and come right on back for more.