I don’t remember how old I was when someone first told me I had a weird mouth. Maybe three or four. My dentist, at the time had habit of filling the awkward, sometimes painful silences with aggressive UNC sports boosterism. I was neither Tarheel born, nor particularly Tarheel bred, and when I died I hoped I would be less Tarheel dead and more “suite at Cannes, at twilight, surrounded by doting admirers.” So the dentist and I didn’t have much to say to each other.
He directed most of his advice toward my mother, poking and prodding at my still baby teeth. “Look at this gap,” he said about my front teeth. “It’s a big one. Also, Alison has an unusual mouth. Once her adult teeth come in, she’s going to have way too many teeth.”
I glanced up at the mirror by the light and tried to figure out what they were talking about and found myself both panicked and fascinated by the fact that I might sprout multiple rows of hideous, razor sharp monster teeth. I was a child enamored of Roald Dahl’s The Enormous Crocodile. I wondered, was I part crocodile? Would I also end up with claws, scales, a long swishy tale, secret plans and clever trick? None of my friends seemed to have been told they had too many teeth. As they lost theirs and collected quarters from the tooth fairy, cheerily anticipating adult teeth, I wiggled my mine and wondered how long before I went sprouted some sixty more canines.
When I tried to talk to my mother about this, she’d pat me on the arm, “Don’t worry. You just don’t have enough space. You have a delicate features and very small mouth.
This was literally the last time in history anyone would ever accuse me of the latter.
Mom seemed untrustworthy. I thought it was possible she was a beast herself, who just wore human skin to make me feel more comfortable until I molted into a dragon or whatever. I went to the library and researched reptiles until I was quite sure I couldn’t go suddenly cold-blooded, but somehow I stumbled into a history of freak shows and became convinced that I was becoming a monster, and if I expressed any misgivings about it, the universe would punish me for being vain by transforming me into something even more hideous and forcing me to spend the rest of my life as a pariah. And yes, Greek mythology does a real number on an imaginative kid with a guilt complex.
The dentist worked out a scenario to start pulling my permanent teeth as they came in, starting when I was about eight years old in order to make room in my mouth for the others. Most of the pulled teeth were molars and the experience of their removal was . . . not without discomfort. I was too young for pain killers, and though the Novocain helped, I usually came out with terrible headaches, a bruised lip and that weird dull, sometimes electric pain of an empty gum. I’d nurse a consolatory chocolate milkshake and the bring home the bloody-stained extracted teeth as souvenirs. I kept them—eight total—in a heart shaped satin box on my night stand. The tooth fairy brought me five-dollar bills, and at least one time, after tooth number seven, she took me to the toy store and let me pick out whatever I wanted (I went with a then-coveted pink Care Bear).
I didn’t look like a crocodile, just a little girl with swollen cheeks and a buck-toothed smile with a gap everyone told me was unfortunate. “Braces will take care of that,” said Nana. And so, I crossed the office park parking lot from dentist to orthodontist at eleven so another obsessive Carolina fan in a white smock could take impressions of my teeth so they could be correctly imprisoned.
As a slightly north of middle-class kid whose peer group was mostly comprised of other slightly north of middle-class kids in the 1980s, I had come to recognize orthodonture as a destiny inevitable as puberty, divorced parents, a liberal arts education at a four-year university, and a sincere appreciation for both the Paul Simon discography and (eventually) the films of Wes Anderson. Thus, I didn’t mind being fitted with braces because it meant I fit in, even if they did tear at the inside of my lips and ache after tightening. I beamed with the rest of the metal mouths, all rotting food particles and slimy rubber bands. We did all look pretty monstrous in those years, I suppose. All transformation is a kind of body horror, even the sort of that ostensibly makes us more attractive, or at least more socially acceptable-by-current-standard of beauty. David Cronenberg could really knock it out of the park if he ever decided to make something about preteens in headgear.
I didn’t get the class implications of the teeth thing, yet, which was pretty funny given that I grew up in Appalachia. I watched people blacken teeth at Halloween to go as caricatured White Trash or Tramps or Trailer Trash without much thought to the fact that the people they were mocking were our literal neighbors. People made jokes about British people and their bad teeth, which I both hadn’t noticed and understood to be commentary on how much better America was at everything. Can’t you tell how much we love freedom by our straight blinding white smiles?
But it was Nana’s enthusiasm for the orthodontic experiment that really drove the point home. A daughter of a coal miner, she’d achieved a lot of material comfort in her life, but always rued the insult of her imperfect teeth. I knew Nana’s mouth well and I can tell you honestly that I didn’t notice anything weird about it, maybe because I myself am a person with a weird mouth who has never quite been able to figure out why people think it is so weird (you know how some people just don’t notice when you cut your hair unless you, like, dye it green or shave it into a mohawk? Well, something has to be pretty goddamn radical for me to notice your teeth).
Nana was absolutely ironclad in her insistence that I would have perfect teeth. Those braces would come off and I would have a kind of smile that opened doors. Nobody would ever mistake my mouth for being low class. My teeth would be elite, my grin to the manor born.
When, after a couple years, the braces came off, the gap had disappeared. I remember sitting in my mother’s car, boxed retainer in my hand, running a tongue over freshly aligned (though still slightly too large) front teeth. Mom was thrilled. She couldn’t stop telling me how wonderful I looked. I kept checking myself out the in the rearview. I didn’t look like a crocodile at all. Otherwise, I couldn’t really figure out what the big deal was.
I can’t remember how many retainers I lost. I can remember that they were hard to keep in my mouth. I forgot them pretty regularly. Even in the spans of weeks or months I didn’t, I started to notice things shifting. By the time I started my freshman year of high school, the front teeth had started to express themselves in the only way they knew how. At my late-blooming, full-on puberty some 8-12 months later, the teeth had resettled in their previous abodes. And I had the gappy, buck toothed grin that my mother lamented, and my grandmother raged about. There was a lot of blame thrown around—at the dentist for pulling all those teeth (“now she has too much space in her mouth!”), at me for being an irresponsible retainer user and wasting my parents’ hard-earned attempts to give me a perfect mouth (not unjustifiable), at my weird mouth for failing to fall in line. But no one forced me back to the orthodontist. My mother sent me to a new dentist, a kind, gentle man, who filled all the cavities (7) the braces had caused and never talked about sports but told lyrical tales about Kilimanjaro and the quality of light over the African savanna as he drilled into my molars.
I just couldn’t make myself care about the teeth. As a young woman, I believed my monstrosity to reside elsewhere. I was fat, oily, with greasy, flat mousy hair and moles, a stuttering, pig-nosed, no-necked, pock-marked wretch whose obvious best course through life was to distract everyone with statement earrings, self-deprecating humor and a really good record collection. The teeth were so low on my priority list as to be irrelevant. When it came up among family—as it sometimes did—I just ignored them.
In the summer of 2006, following an explosive end to a half-assed infatuation with a heavily tattooed, radicalized, ex-Jesus Freak, conspiracy theorizing line cook/poet, I started worrying about my teeth again. I’d had a wisdom tooth abscess the year before, because I’d been putting off having them extracted for, like, a decade in part because I’d had so many teeth removed as a child, I couldn’t really see the point of taking any more out. A tooth abscess is Hell pain. Like, overwhelming fade to black pain. And, in what feels like a weirdly cosmic nod to my childhood dentist, this abscess occurred about twenty minutes after the UNC men’s basketball team won the NCAA tournament in 2005 and I was observing the subsequent mayhem on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill.
Fear of the pain returning nagged at me, especially because I did not have a dentist to speak of or the means to pay for one. And the conspiracy theorist harped on my teeth when he rejected me. Something like—“The girls I like have beautiful hair and great bodies and perfect teeth”—and it struck me for maybe the first time in my life that, despite what Chaucer would have you believe, the gap wasn’t doing me any favors with men.
It was also around that time that an English friend listened to me tell how I was perennially misread in Europe as an English-speaking European instead of an American. I’d been mistook in Britain proper, even after people had even heard me speak. These were the W. years, when everyone was wearing Canadian flags on their backpacks. I took it as a kind of compliment that I appeared so more sophisticated than my fellow Americans. But after advising that being mistaken for Irish wasn’t always exactly a compliment in England, my friend said, “You know, it could also just be your teeth. Most Americans seem to have perfect teeth, at least the Americans that visit Europe. Most people probably just don’t see Americans traveling with teeth like yours.”
I started looking at the mirror again. I started looking at my teeth. They were slightly yellowed from a decade plus of smoking cigarettes and heavy coffee consumption. The front teeth were the same from childhood, gappy, bucked, one slightly chipped at the bottom following an incidental collision with a beer bottle after a raucous show.
I remember thinking how my grandmother had never stopped offering to pay for me to get my teeth fixed. She made her life goal, above and beyond anything else. I remember thinking, I don’t have a dentist. I remember thinking, hey, two birds, one stone.
My mother knew a cosmetic dentist in my hometown. I’d met her—the dentist—once at a fundraiser, when she’d swanned into the smoking lounge in an extravagant Alexander McQueen ballgown under a men’s tuxedo jacket. She sat beside me and bummed a light. When talked about art parties and gin cocktails. Before she flicked away back to the dance floor, she told me, “You know, I love your diastema. If I were your dentist, I would never fix it.”
That was the first time I’d ever heard the word, or at least registered the word. Diastema sounded like a poetic term or a lesser Olympian. Better than gap, anyway. I liked the fancy dentist too, and not just because I’d never been that close to an Alexander McQueen ballgown in person. I told Mom to book the appointment.
The dentist’s office was preposterously fancy. The hygienists were black blouses and skinny black paints. I had my teeth cleaned while laying on a massage table with thousand thread-count sheets while “To Catch a Thief” played on the wall over my head. Afterwards, I was offered espresso or champagne while the dentist and I reviewed my x-rays and discussed a treatment plan.
What she offered was radical, even borderline Cronenbergian. She would crown, like, twenty of my teeth, possibly entirely replace a few. They were all in really bad shape, she assured me. So she would drill them down to crocodile points, fit them with shiny white toppers, and needed to switch out a couple for implants, we could. The cost of this endeavor was, to put it mildly, substantial. At the time it was somewhere around a mid-level car, a year of law school, or a credible down payment on a more than decent house. I could have used any of those things, and when we approached Nana with the estimate, I did ask, “I’m feeling conflicted, really conflicted, about the fact that we’re not using this for something important, like paying off my debt or buying a house.”
But Nana just shook her head. The teeth were all-important. “Just imagine how beautiful you’ll be when you smile with that new mouth.”
Even the dentist said something similar. “You’ll have so much confidence. It will genuinely change your face. It will make you so much more.”
I relented to initial molds. The dentist gave me a clear retainer to wear when I slept. Every night when I pulled it out of the box, it felt like rebuke to my junior high self.
The last appointment before the drilling was supposed to start, I sprawled on the fancy sheets in the dentist office and watched “Edward Scissorhands” on the screen above me during a cleaning. In the conference room afterwards, I sat with the dentist and listened to her outline the process in grotesque detail. I swallowed back my anxiety, my fear of the intervening monstrosity on the way to promised beauty. I tried to Good Riddance my familiar gappy smile. And then the dentist let slip—oh by way—that even after all was said and done, after all the money and all the drilling, I’d probably still be in a retainer—maybe some kind of permanent brace- for the rest of my life. Also new teeth would be more fragile, and they’d probably have to be replaced as I got older. Black lines might appear between the gums and the crowns. I’d have to devote myself to their care.
And I dunno. I looked down into my espresso and just kind of lost it. Like really lost it. I was crying and mad and yelling about how it is that anything that anything requiring so much pain and money and effort so it could appear “normal” could be anything but horribly abnormal. The dentist tried to console me; she was unconvincing. She seemed to know she was unconvincing. I reminded her of how when first met at that party she told me if I were her patient, she’d never fix the diastema. She gave me a long silence and shrug. She told me to sleep on it.
My mother called Nana for me. Told her I was trying to make all the dental procedures work with my calendar to buy me some time. I spent much of it staring at myself in the mirror, trying to figure out the degree to which I was not only looking a gift horse in the mouth, but choking it to death with my bare hands.
Two days later, my dentist disappeared. She left town. Her practice closed. The high thread-count sheets, the salon-like hygienists, the espresso machine and the patients waiting on fancy new smiles were all left in the lurch. There’s more to that story to tell, but it’s both sad and not mine, and the only relevant detail to this one is that she wasn’t coming back. My extravagant treatment plan was permanently tabled. And I was forced to admit that the universe or whatever does even the most ill-fated skeptics a solid every now and again
At about thirty-five years old, I went to see a new dentist, a congenial, easygoing young dude, who didn’t talk about UNC sports or Tanzania or Paris Fashion week. When I told him I had the worst, weirdest, ugliest mouth he’d ever seen and all of my teeth were bad, he pulled up my x-rays and shook his head. He said my teeth were totally healthy. No cavities. No cracks. No abscesses. He could refer me to an orthodontist if that was something I really wanted, but honestly, things looked fine. “And if you’ll sit tight for five minutes, I’d be happy to buff out that chip on your front tooth.”
I told him I got the chip from a beer bottle while he geared up, so I didn’t tear up at the notion that I was fine. Fine. My mouth was fine.
I called my mother on the way home and told her. She sounded relieved as well. Whatever disappointment at the idea I would never have perfect teeth had more or less been balanced by the fiasco with the fancy dentist.
Nana was a harder sell. Or rather, Nana wasn’t a sell at all. She never stopped asking me to fix my teeth. Up until the last year of her life she kept offering, promising, telling me how much more beautiful I would look. I felt a little guilty at letting her down, but over time it got easier to let the tooth talk settle back into the scenery. I stopped thinking about it as much, except every now and then I would meet a new friend or see a celebrity with gapped teeth and feel a twinge of affection, a touch of kinship.
Sometimes I like to imagine that I’m keeping weird teeth alive. That somehow we’ve collectively forgotten that teeth, like eyebrows or noses or ears or whatever, can be interesting and idiosyncratic. That difference in a smile might also be attractive or aesthetically pleasing. But I also have privilege to think that way and even still: I don’t kid myself.
Even if I don’t notice them most of the time, I suppose my teeth make the wrong impression on plenty of people. I might have been happier or more loved or more successful if they were straight and white and had no gap between them at all. Farfetched? Sure. At least as farfetched as the idea any part of any living thing could be perfect by some external measure, that perfection in and of itself is a finite process to be decided by someone else, then bought and paid for and guaranteed. That kind of perfection, the unimaginative, immutable, by definition ordinary, requires stasis, which is never possible when life itself is constant change. Things are only perfect in the moment. And in this moment, right now, when I smile I think it looks as close as this old crocodile is ever going to get to perfect.