Like so many other hapless teenagers, I had braces. And while the vast majority of middle school has been blessedly blotted out of the fabric of my mind with the stain-remover of Time, there are a handful of notable traces left of those three years of awkwardness. My orthodontic experience happens to be one of them.
I should have known that it was going to be an interesting ride when I learned that I would need to have two teeth extracted even to have the braces put on; something about the roots being too close to the gum, or some similarly frightening warning that made me think I’d be eating pre-chewed food for the rest of my life unless those teeth were yanked out of my head. A seventh-grader with dentures: that would be my fate unless I went under the knife.
So I did. And I survived, obviously. The extractions themselves must not have been but so traumatic, because there are really only three things I remember clearly from it all. First, the feeling of the holes in my gums where my teeth once were. Weird, slimy, and something that caused my tongue to constantly wander to the little mine shafts that once housed fully functional dental units. Secondly, I remember eating applesauce for a few days. Little did I know what a harbinger that would be of the next two years of my orthodontic experience. And lastly, I remember the post-op experience like it was yesterday. Or at least one moment of it. My mom walked me out to the car, a goldish-silver Dodge Caravan, and I’m sure I was still a little loopy and woozy. I was definitely entertained by my numb lips’ inability to enunciate anything, and was probably talking up a storm of slurred nonsense. Amid this jabbering, though, I remember sitting at the stoplight, waiting to turn onto Rt. 4 N to head back home, and as I looked down at the pink brushed-cotton shirt I was wearing, I noticed a respectable-sized tendril of drool extending from my lower lip to a puddle near my bellybutton. How that had gone unchecked, and for how long, I don’t know. I distinctly remember laughing hysterically at this. I think my mom shook her head and prayed that the light would turn green faster.
At some point, I finally went to the orthodontist to get the whole process underway. The taste of the stuff used to make the impressions of my mouth comes back to me every so often and brings with it a fresh sense of nausea and discomfort at having to hold the hardening plaster in my mouth for far too long. But that was the means to an end: the braces.
My orthodontist was I’m sure a very nice man. Serene, competent (I think) and satisfactory. Sounded remarkably like Ernie from Sesame Street, minus the hissing laughter. But there’s one thing you need to know about Dr. Dowling: he was obsessed with the color gray. His office may have had some forest green accents here and there, but I think there was a lot of gray in it. Normal for a business-park locale though. And ok, he had gray hair and I think frequently wore gray pants. But let’s talk about how he tried to inflict his bland passion on others.
All the kids I knew who went to Dr. Seidel (the other predominant orthodontist in the county where I grew up) talked of how downright fun their monthly visits to get their braces tightened were, even in spite of the resultant pain. He had frogs! He was hilarious! Rainbows and puppy dogs and sunshine! But my two friends and I who went to Dr. Dowling always compared a different set of notes after our visits. The conversation usually began by sizing up the new color on the braces. You know, the little plastic rings that fit around the metal bracket that’s glued to your teeth and secure the wires. The cool kids got red and green for Christmas (I have a piano student who did that this year, and boy did it take me back), or pink for Valentine’s Day, or blue and red for the 4th of July. Braces weren’t torture devices! They were fashion accessories!
“So, I went to Dr. Dowling yesterday.”
(peering at the braces anxiously) “Aaaand…?”
9 times out of 10, the answer to that suspenseful question was one word: gray. Whether it was because he wanted to try and neutralize the braces for us by picking a color that blended in with the metal brackets or because he just had an ungodly amount of gray plastic rings, we more often than not got saddled with the most boring braces ever. Making a request for a color was frequently futile. You’d work up the nerve at just the right moment to say, “So I think I’d really like to have turquoise this time.” But that was met with, “Are you sure you don’t want [you cringe, knowing what’s coming] gray?” You’d want to scream, “YES I’M SURE.” But instead you sat there and plotted out how to bite his hand without making it seem intentional. Or the color options would be placed before you like the world’s greatest restaurant menu to a starving person: red, pink, blue, orange, brown, purple, yellow, green…They were as varied as Joseph’s Technicolor dreamcoat. But there was always a bag of gray too, lurking. “What color would you like this time? I have gray, and blue, and gray, and gray…” Sometimes there wasn’t even a chance for discussion or input! Wires were tightened (cringe), ends were clipped (wince) and the new bits were secured with trusty ol’ gray (grimace). And you were stuck eating mashed potatoes and applesauce and soup for three days, and with ugly, ugly, dishwater-colored teeth for another month.
But gray braces and all, we made it through those couple years of subjection to someone else’s dull preferences. And even though I was pretty bad about wearing my retainer and haven’t had my wisdom teeth out like I ought to have done, my teeth are still fairly straight. I’ve even gotten to the point where I’ll show teeth when I smile for pictures, so I don’t look like a smug cat who’s just eaten a bird. So thank you, Dr. Dowling, for your efforts. I’d send you flowers as a belated sign of my gratitude, but you know what? I don’t think they come in gray.