I start and end every day with the same series of clicks. Two clicks in, a variable amount of sleep, and two clicks out. Almost always, these four clicks bookend my best, worst, and most ordinary days.
My retainers and I have been together for fifteen years — by far my longest and most stable relationship. Over time, beds, bedrooms, and bedfellows have changed, but the metal wires and two pieces of plastic that nightly curve along the roof and floor of my mouth have stayed the same.
Like many a snaggle-toothed middle-class American child of the late ‘90s, I approached the orthodontist with the same air of inevitability as the arrival of my first period or going to middle school.
A parade of expanders, spacers, rubber bands, braces, and dental wax grand marshaled by two orthodontists followed me for almost five years. It carried me through the days of Lemony Snicket and Bop It, all the way to our post-Friends society.
Shortly before I turned fourteen, the time finally came for me to exchange my metal mouth for a pair of retainers.
Choosing their customizable colors was a particularly proud moment, a sign of the endless possibilities for personal expression. I was no longer weighed down by brackets and wires. For the top retainer, I selected a simple cobalt blue. For the bottom, I stuck with cobalt on one-half, and to be daring, went with a burnt yellow on the other — simply because I could.
Sleek and gleaming, each retainer could be popped in and out with a flick of the tongue, accompanied by a satisfying click as metal and plastic latched onto or sprang free from my teeth. I followed the standard orthodontic prescription to wear my retainers daily, day and night, for those first six months, removing them only while eating or brushing my teeth. After that, my previously purchased, perfect smile would be secured, and I’d only have to wear my retainers while I slept — but “for life.”
Except for most people “for life” was more like a few months — but not for me and my retainers. We endured.
My retainers came across the country with me to college in Western Massachusetts. Together, we made the move to Connecticut for graduate school. My retainers have traveled with me as far away as Russia; a constant in hotels, in beds, on floors, on couches, on overnight flights around the country and the world. They’ve kissed parents, they’ve kissed lovers good morning or goodnight. They’ve been privy to countless heavy-eyed conversations with roommates.
Certainly, no relationship is without work. My retainers have their own toothbrush that I use to brush them daily, and I may have occasionally “deep cleaned” them in a bath of denture cleaner. Whenever I travel, I carry-on my retainers rather than leave their fate to chance in the bowels of a plane. In more ways than one, I could never afford to replace them.
They’re a mass of memories, formed and smoothed into an exact mold of a part of who I was, and a part of me who continues to be.
My retainers have emerged as the rare adolescent habit acceptable in my adulthood. As I’ve grown older, I like to think part of me continues to wear my retainers to acknowledge the bite my orthodontia took out of my parents’ wallets. Mostly, though, I don’t want to loosen my hold on the one thing that has been present for so many moments of my life.
Still, I must admit that I hate the litany of privileges that American culture in particular ascribes to “perfect” teeth. And with each click of my retainers, I’m aware that I reinforce those problematic notions, that I’ve absorbed these biases to the point that I choose to entrap my teeth in plastic and metal every night rather than risk them being slightly out of alignment. At this point, my doctored teeth are what look and feel natural when I see my reflection in the mirror. My smile, and the retainers that made it, are part of me.
Well, chances are if you’re meeting my retainers, I’m already pretty sure we click.