They say you can tell a lot about a person from the way he treats his subordinates. I was born with an under-bite and my parents, not wanting their daughter to be mistaken for Jay Leno’s bastard (can a girl be a bastard?), decided to get me braces when I was in elementary school. I say “get me braces” like it was a gift, and looking back with my straight teeth, it was, but at the time I saw my friends wincing from the pain of newly tightened braces and thought, “I think I’ll live with this under-bite.” It seemed that the only person in the world who wanted braces was Joanna, the daughter of my parents’ friends.
Our parents often dined together on the weekends, leaving me, Joanna and her sister Jennifer at home to entertain ourselves, which Joanna did brilliantly for all three of us. When I showed up one evening with my new decked out smile, she gasped. “Brace are gorgeous!” she gushed and raced about finding wire to put on her own teeth. Joanna, who’s favorite television shows (from the age of 10 to 14) were “Xena,” “Hercules,” and “Power Rangers,” had perfect teeth. Instead of giving her an under bite God gave her half a brain.
But before my mouth was to be admired by Joanna, my parents had first to find an orthodontist.
“Your aunt recommended someone,” my mom said one afternoon, “Angela and Michelle see him too.”
I’m pretty sure that by then, I’d spent a good amount of breath laughing at my cousins, calling them “metal mouth,” “train tracks” and, had I been clever enough, “tin grin.” But back then I didn’t yet know about my unspoken deal with God or Vishnu or whomever is in charge of Karma around here. Basically, what goes around comes around – in my universe anyway – and a few months after my cousins got their braces, the rough hands of a rather burly dentist glued the same metal torture devices were glued onto my teeth.
I forget his name, but let’s just call him Cuddles. To his patients he spoke soothingly, his voice smooth and thick, the cadence of which was meant to mask the brisk, jerky movements with which he worked. On my first visit I walked in and heard the unmistakeable spine-tingling whirr of the dental drill and a strange hammering, followed by an even more terrifying pluck – the sound of braces being popped off one by one to reveal straightened, obedient teeth along with, surprise, surprise, the festering decay. That’s the dirty secret of braces: you’ll have straight teeth, but if you didn’t brush correctly during the correction period, well, you’ve got about five years to enjoy them. Max. Cuddles’ waiting room was filled with kids and teens, as though he marketed himself exclusively in cafeteria lunch trays.
“Apparently he’s a real hit with the kids,” I had heard my mother say to my dad, and now, looking around the waiting room, it appeared to be so. Mothers waited languidly while their children lay on a deceivingly comfortable vinyl and paper wrapped chair, mouths stretched as wide as they would go while Cuddles ducked in and out with his picks and small mirrors. When he emerged, the mothers would leap up to pat their children (lips cracked, mouths slightly bigger) on the head and nod vigorously and concernedly at whatever Cuddles was saying. Always, he spoke with an exaggerated graveness, as though poorly kept teeth and loose braces would lead to long spells in prison. I could tell, even at the young age of nine, that Cuddles was in love with himself. What’s more, I could tell that several of the young mothers were in love with him as well. What’s not to love about a man who knows how to use tools, keeps unruly children in check and could practically call himself a doctor?
As befitting a man with a short, fast temper, he drove a fast, expensive car, purchased with the deformities and decay of pubescent teeth. He spoke at a pompous volume and walked with a swagger that seem to afflict many men with similar degrees. His surgical mask was never fully on, and instead hung limply from his left ear like a forlorn, discarded handkerchief. Its intended use, I could see, got in the way of his view of himself in the office’s many mirrors. However expected of someone with his ego, his habit of self-adoration confused me. Cuddles was ugly. Not only was he short and stocky in a most unattractive way, he had suffered cystic acne as a child and it had left him with small, gaping craters on his face, as though he’d seen a meteor shower and stuck his face into it.
I’m certain I wasn’t the only kid to hate him – after all, the man tortured our teeth every few months or so, having his assistants call us at home every few weeks during a particularly delicious lunch to remind us that we were overdue for a tightening. As soon as we hung up we’d look down at the food, knowing full well that it would be weeks before we could enjoy biting into it again. But you can’t fault a man for trying to help you. No, my teeth are straight; he did his job well. I didn’t like him because he seemed to hate each of his soft-spoken, doe-eyed assistants. It was as though he lived by two rules: never bite the hands that feed you, these being the hands of his patients’ mothers, and chew off those of whom you pay.
He employed a handful of young, timid Asian girls who had hoped for quiet careers as dental technicians but had unwittingly enlisted to work for Satan in a white coat. They were screamed at and humiliated. No matter what juicy gossip was being divulged in the latest of People Magazine, one could stop cold when Cuddles berated his assistants. He called them “idiots,” “dummies,” “morons,” and other Chinese equivalents. He threatened to fire them in front of his patients and, I heard from my aunt, actually did once, right in the middle of a removal: (“You idiot… pluck…you’re….pluck… FIRED!”) The brave ones who didn’t quit after a week courageously stayed, I like to think, for the patients’ sakes. They did their jobs well, for it was their presence more than anything that put me at ease, and held their hands steady even while Cuddles barked behind their ear, his hot breath showering over both of us.
In the end, my teeth were more cooperative than most other kids’. My under-bite became a proper bite in less than half a year. Even Cuddles was surprised by my progress, but he masked this quickly with his usual hubris. “My…pluck….amazing…pluck…technique…. blah…pluck…blah…pluck…blah.” I guessed that jaw, tired of Cuddles’ constant, violent intrusions and temper tantrums, worked furiously to correct itself. “Anything to get away from that horrible man,” it said. I got out with two cavities, a set of gum-pink retainers and directions to wear them everyday when I went to bed.
“If you don’t,” Cuddles warned, “I’ll be seeing you again real soon.”
For the first two months I wore those retainers with militant devotion until one afternoon, I’d wrapped them in a napkin to eat lunch and was horrified to find that I’d accidentally thrown them away. Rather than dig through the school’s trashcans, I decided to pray. To God, to Vishnu – whoever was in charge of Karma, paid in full. “What goes around has come around,” I whispered, “Please, please, please keep my underbite at bay. I don’t ever want to see Cuddles again.”
And whomever I had appealed to took note and let my teeth retain their position without the retainer. Now, when people compliment my teeth I give credit where credit is due.
“I had a dickhead orthodontist named Cuddles,” I say, “But he had some great assistants.” Hope they’re not there anymore; but if they are, they ought to remind themselves that what goes around come around, however long it may take.