Orthodontea Flashbacks

"Just lie back and relax while I fill your mouth with metal appliances that will probably be there until you die."

It was a granola bar that did it to me – one of those really chewy Nature Valley ones. Yes, granola bars are at the top of the list of foods they told me not to eat all those years ago, but I couldn’t help myself. Nature Valley’s most popular flavor of granola bar has a thick peanut butter crust on the bottom, topped with the bare minimum amount of granola necessary to give the appearance of nutritional value, and I can’t resist peanut butter in any of its forms.  

I bit into the bar and the thick, rocklike peanut butter drove down over my lower front teeth, promptly colliding with the thin wire of the permanent lower retainer nestled back there. The orthodontic work my parents had paid thousands for ten years ago was sturdy, but it was no match for the bulletproof peanut butter Nature Valley armors their granola bars with, and the wire snapped loose.

My mother was pretty poor when she was growing up, and throughout my childhood she made a point of drilling it into me that she and Dad would provide for me no matter what. “You’re going to have straight teeth and a college education,” she would always promise me.

My teeth had a few awkward gaps, but they were far from crooked. I suppose my parents were concerned that any imperfection would be a target for middle school bullies, and equipped me with braces in hopes of sparing me that misery. What they failed to realize was that I had so many qualities that made me a glaring target for middle school bullies that the state of my teeth was really a moot point.

With this in mind, I would have rather they skipped the braces and instead applied that cost to HBO and a gaming computer so I could make the most of the years until I could take advantage of that much vaunted college education. But of course, nobody asked me.

When my parents took me to the orthodontist, he looked at my mostly-okay teeth and diagnosed me as a person in need of braces – a diagnosis that I’m sure was in no way affected by the fact that my parents would spend the next three years giving him money to apply, adjust, and maintain said braces and their accessories.

If you never had braces and want to know what it was like, you can simulate the experience pretty easily. First, make a list of every food and beverage that you like. Then go to the top of the page and label the list, “FOODS YOU CAN’T EAT WITH BRACES.” Once that’s done, all you have to do is have some guy you barely know stick his fingers in your mouth every month or so and you’re pretty much there.

My teeth looked more or less the same when the braces came off, but I appreciated my parents’ effort to straighten them out nonetheless. The orthodontist set me up with the permanent retainer behind my lower teeth, as well a removable retainer for my top teeth.

“So you’ll want to wear this whenever you aren’t eating or drinking for the next year or two, and then just at night after that.” He explained as I popped it in.

“And when do I stop wearing it?”

He looked confused. “Excuse me?”

“I mean, how long until the retainer has done its job? How many years until I’m not a person who wears a retainer anymore?”

He considered the question and shrugged. “You’ll probably just want to wear it a few nights a week for the foreseeable future.”

I spent the car ride home trying to think of any adults I knew who still had retainers. Were my teachers and friends’ parents all going home every night, watching Joey and popping in crusty old plastic retainers after dinner? “Well, when I got my braces off in 1974 my orthodontist told me I’d need to wear this thing at night for the foreseeable future, so…”   

Still, I was mindful of the money my parents had spent in an attempt to ‘straighten’ my teeth, so I kept up with the retainer at nights for the rest of high school. Once I moved on to the college education I’d been promised, my retainer and its little blue case eventually got lost among my possessions. I haven’t worn it for a good three years and my completely unflappable teeth don’t look any different than they did the day I got my braces off.

The permanent retainer, on the other hand, has been in my mouth for a little over ten years at this point. If it could talk I’m sure it would share some pretty interesting anecdotes about every meal I’ve eaten in the past decade. “40% of what this motherfucker eats is peanut butter. Half the time there isn’t even bread; he just spoons it into his mouth. He clearly doesn’t need his teeth for this diet, so what the hell am I doing here?”

Alas, if only I’d stuck to regular peanut butter instead of the brittle, hardened version Nature Valley uses, that retainer might still be with us today.

On Wednesday I found an orthodontist in Sherman Oaks and made an appointment to have my mouth fixed. I was either ten years older or 25 years younger than everybody else in the waiting room. I guess most people my age have already lost their retainers and given up – I would have too were it not for a bit of loose, sharp metal jabbing my tongue every time I tried to talk.

The orthodontist, a softspoken Asian man with a number of degrees from USC plastered on the wall, had a look at my lower retainer and then we had a chat about what to do.

“Well,” I said. “I’ve had the lower retainer in for over ten years now. It doesn’t bother me at all, but on the other hand, I think that if it hasn’t done its job in ten years, it probably never will. I mean, don’t you think there comes a point when we should just be content to let teeth be teeth? My mouth clearly wants to be the way it is right now, and I know from experience that no amount of metal and plastic is going to change that, so what if we just take the lower retainer out and be done with it?”  

“Hm.” The orthodontist said, glancing at my X-rays. “I think we ought to just replace it with a stronger one to keep everything in shape.”

Part of me wanted to say, “Fuck it! Straight teeth are my parents’ dream, not mine. Take the thing out and let nature take its course!”

But then I thought about how much money my parents had poured into my mouth, and considered the crushing guilt I would feel if I had the retainer removed and undid all the work they’d spent so much on.

“Well, okay then.” I said.

The orthodontist lowered the chair and snapped on some gloves, and only afterward did I get my bill and see that the procedure had cost me $400.

Now it looks like my parents aren’t the only ones who’ve invested in the straightness of my teeth.

Truman Capps doesn’t floss.