I recently told a friend, over for a while from California, that when I was about six or seven one of my teeth fell out during dinner. It had been loose a long time (one of my greatest pleasures as a child was flicking my tongue against the tender tendril that connected a loose tooth to my gum). We were eating Neapolitan ice cream and, attempting to get through the meal with minimal drama, my dad advised that though I could skip the vanilla and strawberry wedges and eat the chocolate one. After saying this he sighed, as if to make it clear to me that I should understand the deeply tedious grind of raising children, of dealing with their teeth. I’m still able to recall my surprise that, as he predicted, the blood didn’t stain the chocolate ice cream. It disappeared. I stared into my bowl at the rapidly melting gloop, watching blood turn into nothing, the liquid swirls swooping around the bowl and on the spoon, the harsh white of the strip lighting above falling into the chipped ivory crockery, dancing but illuminating nothing. 

Wonky: it means that something isn’t straight, that it’s not quite right. But it’s not totally terrible, either. Passable, but only just. I have never had the confidence that comes with a set of all-American pearly whites (most of my teeth are a shade of light yellow). My jaw sits awkwardly: I grind my teeth in my sleep and I struggle, sometimes, to smile, my two jaws refusing to sit together as they should. There are photographs of me in which the shadow of one tooth falls over another, making it look like the second tooth is missing entirely. I look like a witch, despite being, so hindsight now tells me, a gorgeous 22-year-old with worlds for the taking.

But currently, the top two teeth having grown forward when they were meant to stay stillI cannot close my mouth without some foresight and planning. I mentally rehearse the gesture of putting my lips together, pursing them so that both lips meet and both teeth are covered. My teeth reflect microcosmically how I have always felt about myself: they are ungainly, awkward, unwisely prominent, inelegant. But not utterly, totally terrible. Wonky.

Seeing the world afresh after wasting too many years in a dead-end relationship, I decide: This is the year. This is the year I go. Talk to someone. Get this fixed. I go to my dentist and explain that I think I need a brace due to overcrowding. She agrees instantly and I wonder, for the first of a million times, why no dentist has ever suggested this to me before now. She refers me to a local orthodontist and after having summoned the courage to make a decision on something that has blighted me for many years… everything goes quiet. Bureaucracy takes over and I am forced to wait for my orthodontic transformation. I realise that the next two years (“It can take up to 27 months!” my orthodontist keeps saying in a panicked tone) will involve a lot of waiting and watching, trying to see, with my naked eye, microscopic progress. Lots of curling my tongue around my teeth, slowly slowly, feeling for what’s where and when.  

Why go through this in my thirties? Fixing my teeth might seem a small thing, but increasingly I realise it’s the small things that matter. It’s in my control, more or less, to fix my teeth: it is something I can do, for myself and, an appointment every eight weeks aside, by myself. I can be responsible for this change in my life. Though it seems both self-evident and a little vain, having braces fitted — things that are repressive, that force movement where it isn’t wanted, that push against how things are — reveals the freedom I have in my life and a new kind of self-confidence. 

It took two trips to remove the four teeth that had to go before braces could be fitted. The first I remember little about, the anaesthetic having worked on my mind as well as my body. On my second trip, my dentist gets straight on with it. There is nothing in the way of pleasantries or small talk. He goes in for an injection on the bottom left gum outside (not too awful), then the top left outside (pretty bad), then the bottom right inside (not great) and finally the top right inside (horrendous). Wailing, loud and high-pitched, is eventually replaced by a deep groan. 

He asks me to wait outside for a few minutes to let the anaesthetic take effect, and when I walk into the reception a smartly-dressed lady in a red coat uncannily similar to my own stares at me, her accusatory eyes revealing to me that I have, terribly, affirmed all her worst fears about the dentist. I try to smile reassuringly at her but by this point I have no control over my mouth and realise that despite my best intentions, I am only making things worse. 

Soon I go back in. I sit down confidently and he begins to lower me down. The chair whirrs noisily and the bright light — now shining directly down onto my closed eyes — is painful, so I try to squeeze my lids even more tightly shut. Despite the anaesthetic, all senses are in overdrive: my hands, which previously, sweatily, gripped the faux-leather of my dentist’s chair, are now smoothing down my skirt and the clinks and tinkles of the metal instruments on the tray in front of him rattle noisily in my ears. I breathe deeply and try to pretend to myself that the anaesthetic will take control of my whole body, if I could just let it.

Finally. I’m the lowest I can go and the extraction is about to begin. I can feel his leg against my leg on the chair (he’s kneeling over me to get the angle just so). The intimacy is contrived and professional, and though I know it should bother me that the dental nurse is holding my head down — it reminds me again that this is a place where I am not in charge of my body — her touch, her increasingly forceful fingers pinning my head to the chair, begins to feel something like a head massage, the kind of cheap thrill you get with a haircut. In giving me this treatment, of a kind, she accidentally knocks the chemistry goggles I’m wearing off my face meaning that, should my gums start spurting blood everywhere, it’ll end up on my face, as well as everyone else’s. The extraction itself, which happens moments later, is painless and as if to testify to this, the blood that I know is in my mouth, and which the dentist removes a moment later with the suction stick, tastes of nothing and smells of nothing.

I am mopped up and sent to wait, again, in the reception. Smart Red Coat Lady is still there, waiting. I text my friends, fishing for sympathy, when the dental nurse appears with my teeth. “They’re now disinfected, so you can do what you like with them,” she sings, jiggling a small pot at me, the teeth tinkling against the sides of it. Smart Red Coat Lady now stares at me not with disdain but with horror, as though I am planning some kind of satanic ritual. I try to make the right facial expression to convey “I have no idea why she said that! They’ll just go in a little box at home! Nothing crazy, just in the bathroom cabinet! They offered!” but my lips and cheeks are still buzzed with anaesthesia and I’m not even able to tell if I’m dribbling or not. When I get home I see the mascara stains under my eyes as well as dribble, and realise she was right to look at me so fearfully.

Later, I examine the teeth and find what looks like parts of my gum are still attached. The teeth are long, of course, and yellower than I expected, even quite brown in places, though this might be blood. Their straightness surprises me. In my kitchen, by the big window that lets in light and gives me a vantage point over my neighbour’s garden tree, the one that even in winter attracts all the birds, I roll them onto kitchen paper to dry off the disinfectant, gently nudging them in the right direction with my infantile, pudgy fingertips. But this freaks me out — what? why? — so on putting them back in the Tupperware I slide them off the lid, tapping it slightly on the side of the box so that I don’t have to touch them again. 

Why am I so repulsed by my own body? They’re not where they’re meant to be, I know, but they never were. That’s precisely the reason for all of this, for all of these feelings and decisions and indecisions and painkillers. On reflection, I realise it wasn’t the colour or thin slices of what could be gum or might be something else: it was, again, the texture. They felt hollow. Maybe teeth are hollow? I hadn’t expected that. In this childish moment of playing with the teeth that are no longer in my body (and this time I have had to pay for this privilege and will be visited by no Tooth Fairy and will eat no ice cream), I feel intensely childlike and yet also old as I watch something go, leaving my body, irreplaceably.

This is it: the braces will be fitted tonight. Bonnie Tyler and Fleetwood Mac play on the local radio station that is being piped around the dental clinic. A dad and a teenaged daughter come in together and after a few minutes, she’s called in: “Amy, come in, darling!” The place feels friendly, girly, with the vibe of an early-but-not-that-early nightclub toilet. My dental assistant, Emily, walks past and mentions I’ll be seeing Jane: “Ooh, she’s lovely.” 

Jane is lovely. She does a quick clean and polish and the braces go on with no fuss or trouble. She offers some guidance, including a daunting long list of things that should not be eaten while wearing a fixed brace. I have already lost a little weight in the past few weeks due to the teeth removal and anticipate that January will be a slender month. Tonight I will try to eat a pizza, and cry with frustration at the sheer difficulty of this; tomorrow, it will hurt to bite into a banana at breakfast and the egg mayo sandwich I try to have for lunch will also leave me in tears.

The first week is the worst. The hard metal rubs against my soft wet cheeks and the elastic bands rip the already-sensitive skin red raw. But I have to eat. I have to eat three times a day! (I don’t, of course, I could try and have the self-discipline to go down to two meals a day, or just snack, but I am a woman who likes food too much to do this). I experience a sudden rush of empathy (a deeply self-involved one, admittedly) for everyone who has ever struggled with food in any dimension. Food becomes my utmost preoccupation for the next few days. My boyfriend and I cancel a date because I can’t eat (when we reschedule, I eat sloppy pasta at the restaurant we had our first date at, and he tells me funny stories to cheer me up); other than him, I avoid eating in front of anyone. 

Being a woman who likes food too much, though, I soon get over this and even begin to see the joy in it again. At the end of week two, I buy my boyfriend a brownie from the posh coffee stall near my work as a ‘thank you’ for his support in recent days. He eats it one Sunday afternoon with a cup of tea while I nap blissfully in his bed. Food and love, love and food. “I know your teeth are close to your heart at the moment,” the Californian says when I tell her about this.

About the Author:

Helen Saunders is a writer based in London. Her work has been published in the Times Literary Supplement, The Conversation and The Bookseller. She taught English at King’s College London, where she completed her PhD on James Joyce. You can follow her on Twitter at @helenksaunders.

Feature image by tiburi / Pixabay