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I’m lying down on a pale blue reclining chair, with a tray hanging over my side and a bib over my chest, in a tiny office off Lexington. I close my eyes and inhale deeply. It’s only for a few months, I think. Just a few months. The sterile silver tools clink as Mea unwraps the package and spreads them out on the tray. Smooth jazz streams down from the speakers on the ceiling, and when I open my eyes, that’s all I see. Speckled, grey ceiling. I open my eyes again, and Dr. Cicio’s face looms over me and all I see now are his warm grey eyes behind his glasses. The rest of his face is hidden by a surgical mask. His fingers, covered in rubbery blue gloves, pinch my arm and the mouth behind the mask asks â€˜how’s the boyfriend?’
I smile wryly and remember that I have one last non metal smile before I am condemned to let everyone know what I had for lunch.
â€˜Nonexistent’ I reply. I stretch my mouth into what they think is a cheerful grin. But it’s not cheerful. I’m not cheerful. I’m seventeen years old, for goodness sake. Seventeen and soon to be braceface. Again. It’s not worth it, I decide, and I relax my face into the scowl that I wore as I walked into the office. The scowl that I wore on my face walking down Lexington. The scowl I feel inside of me every time I examine my teeth in the mirror. If only, if only my retainer was perfect. If only my teeth were perfect. If only I was perfect.
My mother once told me that my best physical qualities are my hair and my smile. So, I got a haircut. I absolutely hate haircuts. My teeth were a problem though. That little incisor, pushed aside, pushed out of the neat little semicircle that was chained for nearly 2 years of my life. 18 months, I endured the pain, the headaches, the swelling. Twice a month I visited the little office off Lexington and stretched my mouth open, wide, wider, as wide as it could go so that they could stick their fingers into my mouth and perfect my smile. One shift at a time. I would choose colors. My bat mitzvah theme was pink- and so, I sported pink braces.
They told me to wear rubber bands in the back of my mouth. Tiny rubber bands. I used them for my hair instead; tiny little braids in my hair. Sometimes I did a whole head of braids and I would go to school with crimped hair the next day. I would go to the orthodontist with little braids and crimped hair but my teeth did not move. They delayed the date I would get my braces off. I wore the rubber bands in my teeth from then on. I couldn’t go to a new camp with braces on. I couldn’t go to a new school with braces. I just couldn’t.
Teeth alignment is always very important in my family so I never have much of a choice when it comes to braces. This is because I am a legacy in that little office off Lexington. My Grandpa was a well-known orthodontist who designed a computer program called MacBraces. Whenever he would fly in for a visit we would all show him our teeth; all of us would be inspected. I would stretch my mouth open aaaaand… bite! By the time I was ten, the year he became interested in my teeth alignment, my sister’s teeth were already wired, and she was coming back from her orthodontist with colored toothbrushes, minty floss, and even flowers. I went with her one time and waited. The waiting room was a game-zone, complete with a pinball machine, a video player, and a glass enclosed case of teeth molds. My orthodontist on Lexington Avenue just has magazines.
Later that year I flew by myself to California to get my teeth x-rayed for Grandpa to examine. Grandpa wanted to put braces on me himself. I was terrified; I thought I would have to wear a night brace, one of those hideous wires strapped around my head. But I was going to get a â€˜Dr. Drandell smile,’ the only child in my family who would get braces put on personally by my Grandpa. But throughout the visit, Grandpa scolded my posture and the way I stuttered when I talked. I sat ramrod straight for the rest of the visit, spitting marbles out of my mouth, miserable to the bone. I was ten years old, and not only was I alarmed by Grandpa’s constant admonishing, but my mouth wasn’t ready to get braces. My teeth always came in late.
A year later I visited the tiny office off Lexington for the first time. There were no white doors, no display cases. It was actually so tiny, there were no doors at all. But it was in that office, in the blue reclining chair, that I began to understand my Grandpa. Dr. Cicio always spoke of him with respect and high regard, and as he probed my mouth I would see Mea sitting at the computer, working on the program Grandpa designed. While we waited in the office my mother would share stories about Grandpa, about his tough love, his unrelenting passion for his family and work. He was a strict orthodontist and a strict father, she would tell me, but he only wanted the best. He would tighten braces, but he always created beautiful smiles. He would scrutinize report cards, but education was important to him. It was there that I understood that it wasn’t just the teeth or the posture that was important to him, it was the person. He saw the whole picture, the whole package; he wanted his family and his patients to be the best they could be.
My braces came off the summer before high school. I don’t think Grandpa ever saw me after my braces came off. He saw me with braces, I know. Whenever he flew in to visit he would come with me to the office and chat with Dr. Cicio, his long time acquaintance. Everytime I went for a checkup or adjustment Dr. Cicio would ask me â€˜how’s Grandpa?’ The last time he asked me, I hadn’t had a checkup for a while. No more bimonthly visits; I had been instructed to come back every six months for a retainer adjustment, and that was it. The office had since undergone a renovation and I was starting my second year of high school. When I told him that Grandpa had passed away, my eyes filled with tears and I stared up at the newly installed, speckled grey ceiling.
â€˜I’m sorry’ he said, â€˜he was a good man.’ Dr. Cicio turned back to my teeth and I closed my eyes again and listened to the music streaming from the ceiling. Grandpa loved me, even though he didn’t express it in the traditional, â€˜Zaidy’ way. I could still picture him examining my teeth x-rays over his kitchen table, his constant peanut butter jar at his elbow. Even if I had to get braces again, at seventeen years old, I would do it, for him. Because he wanted me to be the best I could be and that includes straight teeth.
I left the tiny office that day with an appointment to come back to discuss my wayward tooth. Just before I entered the swarming crowds on Lexington Avenue, I pulled my shoulders back and walked just a little bit straighter.