I am supposed to loop rubber bands on the metal hooks in my mouth every day. The last time I saw him, he looked sternly at me and said, “Only take them out when you’re eating. You have to wear them all day, every day, for this to work.”
I am surprised my orthodontist doesn’t hate me—if he does, he does an excellent job of hiding it. Or maybe it’s the surgical mask he always wears. If there’s anything that this pandemic has taught me, it’s that it is all too easy to hide your emotions, the pursing of your lips and the wrinkling of your nose, behind the pale green and blue. The masks are to protect us from airborne death, but perhaps they are also a shield for the vulnerability, the exposedness that is the human condition. Maybe now that we’ve discovered that, they’ll never come off.
My mouth hurts, teeth tight and metal scraping against the inside, when I put on my bands for the first time in several days, which is all too often. There is no more scrambling to wear them day in and day out the week before my next visit, hoping to have his mask-clad face nod in approval as he shines a light in my mouth, and scrapes at my teeth with cold metal.
After all, teeth shift back. They are moveable and temporary and it’s not as if waiting an extra month will destroy over a year’s effort of forcing my teeth into place. I think they’re straight enough anyway. The last time I saw my orthodontist, he nodded solemnly, stripping off his latex gloves with a snap, and pushing away in his rolling chair to his desk. The nurse unclipped the bib and let me rinse out my mouth in the little basin. I spat out the taste of plastic and cold metal and ran my tongue over the grooves of my braces, feeling the way the wires cut into soft flesh.
Teeth are moveable things, constantly shifting in their beds. We pay thousands of dollars to move them into straight rows, neat and uniform, but as soon as we stop, they begin shifting back. They remember their places and the gaps between each other, and they want to go home. They are not so unlike us in that way.
I never thought that I would miss waiting in the room with the plastic chairs for my name to come on over the PA system. While I don’t miss the feel of latex fingers prying my mouth open and the bright light making me squint up at my dentist’s face, I guess I miss someone keeping me accountable.
Maybe the masks will become a staple in our lives, and we will hide our smiles and our frowns and our crooked teeth behind the bright cloth. And when—if—we ever take them off, some of us will have gleaming pearly whites and some of us will have spinach and overdue deadlines stuck in the gaps and Clorox stains on our teeth. But for now, orthodontists will fade out of existence because there is no use in making our mouths beautiful when all we can glimpse from six feet away are bloodshot eyes and mask-cloaked faces.