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Summer Block | Longreads | August 2019 | 11 minutes (3,179 words)

Here I am again, the only 40-year-old in the orthodontist’s waiting room. Dr. F works out of a strip mall in North Hollywood which, like every other business in North Hollywood, is across the street from an acting studio and a transmission repair center. In the waiting room a sullen teenage girl is frowning at her phone while her little brother drums the back of his heels against his seat. Four receptionists sit behind the front desk, each wearing perfect teeth and an embroidered lab coat, pointedly ignoring the drumming. Three large high-definition TVs are always on, and always playing Moana — but only the sad parts.

I have a significant overbite and a large gap between my two front teeth. As a child I wanted braces the way some girls want a pony. I was poisonously envious of all my friends’ braces, obsessed with the arcane magic of it: the little flat packets of wax, the seashell pink boxes of tiny rubber bands. Because my parents could not afford braces, I stopped smiling instead. In the last photo I’ve found of myself with teeth visible, I am 7 years old, posing beside my baby sister in a pale purple Laura Ashley dress, grinning a gummy, snaggled smile. In every photo since, my lips are tightly sealed, like a baby refusing a spoon. I’m not smiling in my senior pictures, nor at my college graduation, nor on my wedding day.

For years I planned on fixing my teeth when I could afford it, but by the time I finally could, I felt it was too late. I feared correcting an orthodontic mess as bad as mine would change the shape of my face. Would I still look like me when it was through? Did I want to? More than that, I couldn’t imagine living without constant low-level embarrassment about my teeth, like the roar of silence in a room after someone turns off the TV. I was used to my teeth. In some ways, I even liked them, in the way that all of us secretly treasure even the worst facts about ourselves just because they’re ours. Still I daydreamed about braces sometimes, about looking back at all my childhood photos and finding me in them now, smiling.

* * *

I didn’t learn to swim until I was a teenager. I didn’t learn to drive until I was 24. I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was 37 and I got into graduate school 18 years after I finished my BA. I didn’t have my period until I was 17; I was still losing baby teeth in junior high. I didn’t drink until I was in college, and didn’t do drugs until after I’d left. I got my first tattoo at 30. I rode a water slide for the first time last summer; I played baseball for the first time last month. I didn’t find my first friend until I was in fifth grade, and I found my true love when I was almost 40.

* * *

At my first Invisalign consultation, I offered up an eager, toothy grin. The hygienist took my photo, printed it out, and stapled a copy to my chart, so whenever I return for checkups, I see it there. My hair is thin and friable, the color of damp straw, my neck ropy and straining. I look like an emu.

At my initial consultation, I explained to Dr. F that I was hoping to fix the large gap between my front teeth. Dr. F assured me brightly that the gap was just one of many, many things wrong with my teeth. A series of 3-D images and X-rays revealed that I had both a significant overbite and a crossbite, the latter responsible for the slight visible asymmetry of my chin. I had a major gap between my two front teeth, of course, but the spacing of my teeth was uneven throughout, crowded on the bottom and rangy on top. Several of my teeth were twisted, most uneven, and I had a chip in my front left. My front teeth were too big, or my gums too small — the effect was very horsey either way. 

I sat through this litany of my many imperfections, my face set in a tight, conciliatory grin.

“Your gums show too much when you smile,” he said.

My teeth were supposed to be done last July, but I’m still waiting. Forty-year-old teeth are stubborn.

I was made to sign a stack of waivers and disclaimers acknowledging what Invisalign could and could not do for my teeth. Invisalign is a purely cosmetic fix, not a structural one. Invisalign can shuffle your teeth within your jaw like Scrabble tiles in their tray, but it cannot change the alignment of your jaw itself. Traditional metal braces would go further to fix some of the issues with my teeth, if I chose them, but they are more effective on adolescents whose bones are still malleable. My bones had spent 39 years solidifying into their present shape. At this point I’d need major jaw surgery to correct my overbite, Dr. F explained, and even then it wouldn’t change the size and shape of my palate.

“I thought there were palate expanders and things, I remember when I was a kid —”

“Oh yes,” Dr. F interrupted cheerfully, “you can fix absolutely anything when you’re young.”

* * *

My father has held many different jobs in his life, from taxi driver to short-order cook, shipping clerk, retail salesman, janitor. When he met my mom he was working at a factory that made drapes. Eventually he fell into being a purchasing agent and he worked for various manufacturing companies until, at age 63, his employer outsourced all their manufacturing overseas and pushed him into early retirement. But he couldn’t really afford to retire, and so he went to work as a substitute teacher. It was simply expedient, at first, but he loved being a teacher and he was good at it. Kids loved him, fellow teachers loved him, parents loved him. He went back to school to get his teaching credential to become a full-time elementary school teacher. He was the happiest I’d ever seen him. At 63, after a lifetime of jobs that were simply jobs, he had found his calling.

I tell this story all the time — because I’m proud of my father, but also because it comforts the listener, and it comforts me. I usually sum it up with some pat sentiment like, “It just goes to show, you really can do anything at any age!” 

* * *

When my children were with their dad, Zac and I would stay downtown in the industrial conversion loft he shared with three roommates and a cat he loved like a baby because he’d never had a baby. The building was a hulking concrete and brick shell choked with vines, its interior walls thrown together by the many resident architecture students. We’d order pizza and go sit up on the roof, where his neighbors gathered on summer nights for concerts and parties, or just to look out over the rooftops of the city and feel good about Los Angeles. 

Then we’d climb down a ladder through the ceiling to his bedroom, a concrete cube only a few inches wider than his bed. His clothes hung from an exposed metal rack, and a small air conditioning unit was mounted unsteadily into the small window above our heads. The room was dark and cool — freezing in winter — and cars rolled over the 4th Street bridge all day and night.  

* * *

Invisalign is a system of clear plastic aligners, each a mold of your teeth, that you wear at all times except when eating. Every Sunday night I put in a new set of aligners, top and bottom, one slight correction closer to perfection. Every two months I return to Dr. F’s office to pick up my next set of eight aligners, each in its own resealable plastic bag. My treatment plan was supposed to take 18 months, or 78 little plastic bags.

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This is my 48th week of Invisalign and the gap between my two front teeth is definitely closing. When I’m wearing the retainers, the space almost disappears, and I get a little preview of what I’ll look like when I’m done. I am still, for better or worse, recognizably me.

* * *

The truth about my dad is somewhat more complicated. He does love teaching, and he is great at it. But he’s 70 now, still taking night classes, still attending training workshops, still working with a mentor. He works the equivalent of three full-time jobs. He is subject to age discrimination in hiring, to exhaustion and chest pains and second-guessing. Not to mention the decades he spent doing things he didn’t love until he found, belatedly, the thing he did. 

* * *

It didn’t occur to me that Invisalign would hurt, perhaps because they were just flimsy plastic sleeves and not metal braces. The day I had them put in, Dr. F filed down some of my teeth and cemented anchoring brackets onto others, without any anesthesia. My jaw ached from holding my mouth open for so long. Then there was the actual movement of the teeth themselves, a part of me that hadn’t moved since infancy now subjected to a sudden geologic violence.

When I got back to our house after my first appointment, I was starving but it hurt too much to eat. Zac took a bite of a Snickers bar, chewed it up, and spat it into my mouth.

Zac had three children but no babies. He was 29 and I was 37. He said that with or without babies, he’d still choose me. I said he might change his mind. We went on a 14-mile hike and we argued about it the entire way, 7 miles up and 7 miles down. 

The night of the company Christmas party, I made a joke about how we’d probably never have kids, and he went outside crying. I caught up to him in front of a tequila-themed sports bar whose patrons were sloshing off the patio and we fought while people all around us shouted at the TVs. We were blocking the valet line, him still crying and me begging him to come back inside, while the black-jacketed valets carried on indifferentl around us, edging SUVs right up to the backs of our knees. At last we made it into our Lyft and we spoke to our bedroom ceiling until the room lightened into dawn.

* * *

The last time I spoke to my dad on the phone, he was thinking of going back to manufacturing. There are a lot of temporary jobs in Reno now, he said, and he has the experience. He loves his students and the work he does, but the administrative wrangling is wearing him out. He got his certification through a program called ARL, or Alternative Route to Licensure, and now it turns out some routes are better than others.

* * *

Today, Moana was bidding her dying grandmother farewell, on mute, while Dr. F frowned over my incisors. There was a gap between the tooth and the aligner that would necessitate new X-rays, new scans, and everything starting all over again.

My teeth ache a little now all the time, under a steady and unrelenting pressure just this side of ignorable. The aligners force a pinched, disapproving expression that ages me 10 years. Then there’s the business of taking them out for every snack, every drink, every meal, and keeping them clean. Nothing makes you feel more like an old lady than slipping your teeth out of your mouth, except perhaps leaving them to soak in blue liquid in a bowl on the bathroom counter.

With all the extra brushing and flossing I do now, I have plenty of time to inspect my teeth. Before all of my ire was directed toward that one gap, but now that it’s improving, I’ve started really looking at all the other problems with my teeth, the problems Invisalign can’t fix. My front teeth are too long and my incisors too pointy. My teeth are too yellow. When I smile my eyes scrunch up too much and my sharp nose points like an arrow directing attention toward my asymmetric chin.

Still, I’ve been smiling more often, though tentatively, and not in a way I would exactly describe as natural. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to smile as effortlessly as people who’ve had four more decades of practice. At times I doubt whether Invisalign has done anything much at all. Are they like Dumbo’s feather, simply giving me the confidence to bare the teeth I might have bared all along? I suppose that might be considered an uplifting ending, but then Dumbo’s feather didn’t cost him $3,000.

* * *

We did everything at once. There wasn’t time or space to date casually, get serious, move in, calm down, get married and then have a baby. The first years we had so much living to do: moving once and then moving again, getting a pet, burying a pet, having sex until 2 in the morning and waking at 6 to pack the lunches, the ovulation test kits and love letters and the fractious night driving, the family vacation where all three children vomited in the car. Sometimes I think it’s easier to have young children in the early days of a relationship, when the fresh intensity of your attachment can mitigate all the stress and exhaustion. When the house is asleep I put my head on his chest and he sings to me, his low voice sounding far but not distant.

‘Oh yes,’ Dr. F interrupted cheerfully, ‘you can fix absolutely anything when you’re young.’

Strangers constantly stop us on the street to tell us we look so happy, excuse me, but they’ve just never seen such a happy couple before. 

The night we moved in together, into a three-bedroom rental house in Burbank, I cried because I wished I could have done all of it with him the first time. I sat on a hard-backed chair in the living room because we didn’t have a sofa yet. Zac moved in with only his books, his computer, and clothes. I had taken only a fraction of my things with me in the divorce, but still I had so much stuff: potted plants and a slow cooker, a sugar bowl from my old wedding registry, a box labeled “kids’ artwork,” plastic tubs of Christmas ornaments, and a 3-foot-tall wooden dollhouse.

That night Zac wandered into the empty living room in the middle of brushing his teeth. Through foam, he said, “I missed you.”

* * *

We got married at 3 in the afternoon on a warm day in June, 89 degrees and unusually humid for Los Angeles. I had ordered a dress for the occasion, pale blue tumbled with sprays of little red roses, but by the time it arrived I’d already grown too big to wear it, so about an hour before the ceremony I pulled on an old jersey dress with gray and white stripes that stretched over my pregnant belly like a dizzying optical illusion. My sister and her boyfriend flew down from Reno to be our witnesses.

Zac wanted a proper wedding, but I wasn’t sure. “I already had a wedding.”

“But I didn’t.”

We drove to the Los Angeles County Registrar’s office in Van Nuys. The office looked like a DMV, with linoleum floors and snaking lines of people clutching forms in their sweaty hands. The walls were painted avocado and lemon meringue, the colors of appetizers in a 1950s cookbook. A sign read “Birth, Marriage, Death” with an arrow pointing down the hall.

The couple in line ahead of us brought along a group of relatives, all dressed up and holding armloads of flowers. They went into the chapel for about 15 minutes and emerged looking excited. 

When it was our turn, we went in to find the justice of the peace, a short, energetic woman with dark brown curls wearing thick glasses and a black robe. She stood in front of a heart-shaped metal arch swathed in pale green tulle and fake flowers; on the wall behind her, little puff balls of orange, white, and yellow tulle hung from what appeared to be a giant coat hanger. The only other furniture in the room was a small table, covered in a white tablecloth and decorated with a vase of plastic flowers, and an empty office trash can. 

The wedding chapel was in a side room with its own door, but the partition wall stopped about two feet from the ceiling, so we could still hear the grumbles of the people on the other side, requesting certified copies of their birth certificate.

The justice of the peace asked if we had prepared any vows. We answered no and she politely carried on, as though she’d accidentally raised a sensitive topic and was now trying to tactfully change the subject. She asked if we had any rings to exchange. We said no again, and she made a comment about how we didn’t need rings — our real gift was the baby-to-be.

She asked us to hold hands and gaze into each other’s eyes, something we both found acutely embarrassing. She declared us man and wife. My sister took pictures and then we all went to Disneyland.

* * *

Our baby is named Margaret Héloïse. She was born on September 21 when I was 39 years old. September 21 is the start of a new season, but it’s a late season, too.

* * *

If you want to really surprise someone, try proposing to them a month after you’ve gotten married. We went out to dinner and Zac gave me his great-grandmother’s ring.

This summer we will have our second wedding. In the course of one year I will have gotten married, gotten engaged, had a baby, turned 40, and then gotten married again. Beatrice, 10 years old, has named herself a “junior bridesmaid,” a concept she read about in a bridal magazine. Five-year-old William will be the ring bearer, and we’ve dubbed Margaret the Baby of Honor. Arthur, 8, wants to pull her down the aisle in a wagon covered in flowers. 

My teeth were supposed to be done last July, but I’m still waiting. Forty-year-old teeth are stubborn. Each time I go in I tell Dr. F they’re good enough, but Dr. F is a perfectionist. The space between my two front teeth, the one that started all this, looks OK to me, but my crowded bottom teeth resist rearrangement. 

I’ve started printing out photos of me and Zac together, smiling. They’re mostly selfies, mostly not very good ones. Neither of us likes to have our picture taken, and it shows. But here’s one of us smiling in front of redwood trees, one at the beach. Some from his old apartment, one trick or treating with the kids. There’s one of us smiling at the Los Angeles County Registrar’s office, one at Disneyland, and a picture of me with Margaret, a few minutes old, wet against my chest — and I’m grinning wildly, artlessly, showing all my teeth.

* * *

Summer Block has written short fiction, poetry, and essays for The Awl, Catapult, The Toast, The Rumpus, and Electric Lit. She is writing a book about Halloween.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands