I spent every morning as a child in the bathroom, brushing my teeth — stained yellow as if they had been dipped in melted butter — as hard as I could. My grandmother blamed the fluoride in the water that we drank. I didn’t know if she was telling the truth or not; in the end I was still ashamed of my smile. My classmates would gleefully shout “Butterteeth” whenever I crossed their paths, and the boys called me ugly. When I talked to other students, they would stare at my mouth and remark that I had something on my teeth. My face would turn hot and red, my sentence trailing off as they made a brushing motion; after realizing their mistake, they too would grow quiet and the air would be filled with shame.
I lived with that smile for 16 years. My family constantly struggled to stay afloat, and even though my single mother worked a full-time job, she couldn’t always afford health care. We went to the doctor when we were sick, not for checkups. Sometimes important issues got pushed to the back burner to make room for the day-to-day necessities, and one of those issues was dental hygiene. The appearance of my teeth felt like a declaration of my family’s lack of wealth. There are photos of me smiling brightly throughout that time, though, because even though a sense of shame followed me, I tried not to allow myself to be defined by what I looked like.
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When I turned 17, my best friend’s mother started bringing me to and from the dentist’s office, a place that I hadn’t visited in almost a decade, though I don’t know how those trips came to fruition. The topic of health insurance was never brought up, and my friend’s mother never mentioned having to pay a cent. It was suddenly available to me, and I didn’t bother to ask any questions. All I knew was that I was being helped and I was so grateful. I didn’t realize just how much pain the years of neglect would cause me, though.
My mouth would fill up with blood at any opportunity, to the point where my dentist would whisper to his assistant that he wasn’t sure if he would be able to continue with that day’s work. Even a basic routine cleaning would cause my hands to shake, and soon the assistant would be packing my mouth with cotton balls in an attempt to soak up the blood. The assistant would change with every session, but the dentist and I developed a routine because he never changed. He was a kind man, always asking how my classes were and if I needed more procaine. I’d shake my head or make a noise to answer, and then he would stare back into my mouth while tears ran down the side of my face.
On the worst days, the room filled with the smell of my teeth being filed down to make room for silver caps. One evening, as I was coming home from the dentist, I coughed up blood onto a bus seat as it was pulling up to my stop. I confessed to the driver and quickly ran out the door. At home I would eat soft food, wincing when cold hit the caps, freezing them for a moment. They weren’t joking when they said beauty was pain, but “it will all be worth it,” I told myself, massaging my sore jaws.
When I listened to the voicemail from my dentist telling me my insurance was covering the cost of five porcelain veneers, I smiled to myself as I cried on the school bus. I replayed that message over and over, and the next time I climbed into the dentist’s chair, I did it with pride. It still hurt, don’t get me wrong, but when he handed me the mirror and I saw myself with my new teeth, I burst out in tears. The sounds of those children taunting me were gone; I was one of the lucky ones.
Then I grew up.
As I grew older, I fell into the same trap as my mother. Cleanings became few and far between because I was working two jobs and the dentist’s office closed too early. When I was 22, the veneer placed on my right tooth fell off in the middle of the night and I swallowed it in my sleep. That morning, I had to rush to the emergency dental clinic on my one day off. The location closest to me was a short bus ride away, and I managed to keep my mouth shut tight the entire ride there, nodding “yes” or “no” in response to questions that were thrown in my direction by the bus driver or other friendly riders.
The office receptionist told me the procedure would cost me around $2,000, and when I told them I didn’t have anywhere near that amount in my bank account, they told me to sign up for the credit card the practice offered and start a payment plan. I sat in the chair, filling out my personal information, and was approved for an even $1,000. I sobbed as I walked down to the bank, punching my PIN into the ATM to get some cash for my first payment. I got a new temporary crown, and while I knew it was important and I desperately needed it, I asked myself if the cost was worth it.
I still believe that it was. I knew that if I went backward, if I came anywhere close to having my former smile, I would be screwed. I hadn’t been able to get a job with my old grin because the boss would spend the whole interview watching my mouth move, but after my teeth were fixed, the job offers came closer and closer together. I hadn’t been able to date comfortably beforeand now, with the gift of new teeth, I was suddenly lucky and in love. These teeth had saved me from a life that I was too afraid to think about.
It has been almost five years since I last went to the dentist. Every morning I wake up and press the tip of my tongue along the backs of my front teeth, hoping I haven’t swallowed another one in the middle of the night. I brush my teeth, ignoring the way the toothpaste turns a brownish-red color, and head off to work, where I work close to 50 hours a week between two jobs. Because I can’t afford to leave one and work full-time at the other, I don’t have health insurance, much less dental insurance. My dental plan consists of aspirin and liquid numbing medicine. It runs me an average of $12 every couple of months. I didn’t even know the pain in my tooth could be connected to the pain in my ear until I googled it. (That’s another thing that people don’t tell you about being poor: Google and WebMD are part of your health care plan.)
Now when people stare directly at my teeth, they are noticing how white the front row is. They remark that my teeth are perfect and want to know my secrets: Is it a special toothpaste? Mouthwash? Did I just get lucky? I always joke and tell them that they better be perfect because they cost me a lot, physically and emotionally.
The dentist still scares me, and I don’t know when I will be able to schedule another visit. I hope that one day, I’ll scrape together the money to have my wisdom teeth taken out. Better yet, I hope that one day, I’ll be able to work one single full-time job, a job that will offer me benefits including dental. I hope that one day, I’ll be able to have my teeth cleaned every six months instead of once every decade.
It occasionally hits me that even after all this, I’m still one of the lucky ones. People still think that I’m beautiful, and that’s enough to get me through this life. All I can really do is keep smiling.