Last week I smiled at a waitress as I walked into my favorite little neighborhood bar.
She stood up straight from the table she was wiping and gently grabbed both of my shoulders.
"Oh my gosh," she said. "Smile for me."
I knew what was coming.
"I'm good," I told her, millennial slang for please leave me alone.
"It looks like you have something stuck in your teeth, I just didn't want you to be embarrassed," She said. "I'm sorry."
This happens to me often. At least once a week. My most uncomfortable secret is one that everyone who interacts with me can see: I have a big, dark stain on one of my two front teeth. It's on my left side, your right. You can't miss it.
My relationship with my teeth has always been one that swings between anxiety and loathing. I was terrified of pulling out my baby teeth, so I would sit in the classroom and play at recess while allowing them to hang by a tiny thread of nerve for days too long. The adult teeth that replaced them grew in a jumbled mess, tiny fence posts stacked one on top of the other.
Through a complex combination of shaky genetics, sloppy hygiene, and sugar abuse, my teeth started bad and have only gotten worse over time.
I know the waitress was just trying to help, but I was already having a day: a bill for improved public transit had just gotten shot down, I had my first long day at a new job, and I barely survived a bike commute that was only one humid mile.
When I was pretty young, I fell in love with the idea of fake teeth. I remember watching Steel Magnolias on television with my mother, probably not for the first time. For one reason or another, my mom explained to me that Julia Roberts had caps on her teeth. That's what they were called then, before the age of porcelain veneers, caps. I lusted after her perfect too-big smile and her impossibly straight teeth.
I knew right away I wanted caps.
Several years later, in the summer before eighth grade, I got braces on my teeth. At my first appointment, they took a series of x-rays, planned for me to have four teeth pulled, then jammed tiny rubber inner tubes between each of my molars. These were called spacers, meant to give some room for my back teeth to be banded. In my memory, I started crying two days before this first appointment and didn't stop until those spacers were pulled out two weeks later.
A few more appointments and I went from being the chubby, sportless kid who loved musical theater to being all of those things with a mouth full of metal. Which is to say I was a middle school caricature: a social pariah in an oversized Phantom of the Opera t-shirt.
I wore those braces from the time I was 13 until a month after my 21st birthday. Eight years of having metal glued to my teeth. This might help you imagine how I ended up with a few stains.
The day I got those braces off, they gave me a t-shirt with three goofy cartoon faces across the front, and the words "Get 'em, Got 'em, Had 'em." Of course Get 'em has jagged, angular teeth, while Had 'em bares the perfect smile. While I clutched that t-shirt, I leaned back in the chair for a final exam of my mouth. The orthodontist's assistant grabbed one of those tiny little dental hooks, like the miniature scythe of a soul harvester, and poked it into a small cavity that had formed in one of my upper molars.
Pain shot through my body. It jumped across every synapse, a distillation of all the fear I had ever felt about dentists and orthodontists and classmates and ugly smiles and everything and anything.
Every once in a while for over a decade now, I find myself flipping through online photo galleries of smile makeovers in the same way other people visit car shows or create Pinterest boards of dream kitchens. I am sustained by the same hope: that someday I will have the expensive thing that completes me.
It is a story that I am still figuring out how to tell, the one about my rotten teeth. How to fight the cumulative effect of wanting cosmetic surgery from the time I was 10 years old, how to feel about being briefly envious—envious!—of a high school classmate when she was in a car accident that knocked out her two front teeth.
How to let go of it all, even the things that have put down deep roots, the things that have to be pulled out with pliers.