judging outsides from the inside

(originally written on 2.9.09. don’t know why i didn’t post then.)

I’m a sucker for a smile. I’ll fall for a great set of eyes, but I’m naturally drawn to mouths: laughing, talking and smiles. I can nearly always tell when someone’s had braces. It’s sort of a point of pride with me. Having suffered through several years of them myself, I feel like I can spot the sets of teeth that have been steel trained. They line up nicely and they are evenly spaced, and there’s a subtle, unconscious symmetry I can pick up on. Maybe this is unfounded, but I think people who are confident with their teeth tend to smile more, too.

I looked over at Brett as we were bowling, and caught the side of his mouth; his teeth were gorgeous. I suppose I had noticed that he had a great smile before, but honestly he was one of those guys who was all around … I don’t know. My grandma would have said “handsome.” He’s a friend of mine, so it’s hard to say something like “hot.” If it had been another time and another place, I definitely would be swooning. He’s just got a great all-around look. He’s got a little bit of rock and roll and a little bit of Bowie feminine glam. He’s got a little bit of punk and a little bit of rockabilly. He’s got these icy blue eyes and if you didn’t know him, you might be a little scared. But if you see him smile, you’d get yourself right back on track again.

It was the smile that caught me in that second, and I asked him, “Did you have braces?” He said, “Yes. My Uncle Al bought them for me.” I inwardly grinned, patting myself on the back for my wonderful braces guessing game batting average. I don’t know why this pleases me so. No one’s betting me and I’m not getting any money. I suppose it feeds the deep and constant inner need in me to be right as much of the time as I can. There was some money deal that happened with my sister’s and my braces, too. I think my grandpa kicked in some of the money or something and then the money that my parents were going to use for the braces went toward my first car. Something to that effect. I remember hearing about that arrangement for the first time long after it had happened and being extremely humbled and grateful that my parents had had the foresight and the kindness to do that for us.

There is a meme going around on Facebook. It’s this “25 things about me” thing. You just write down 25 things about you. First of all, I find it interesting to read all the different things people put down about themselves. Second, I think it’s even more fascinating to watch the people who haven’t done one get really pissed off about the fact that this meme is going around and around. Thirdly, I find it really interesting to see the comments on these memes — I think it’s a cool way to reveal things about ourselves and find out that we’re not alone in this world. That yet again, we are not terminally unique, and even the things we think only we do or think or have done or been or felt, others have done or thought or been or do. I think that’s a very powerful and healing thing.

Lastly, someone I know said in the meme that when she was a child she wanted braces, glasses and a cast. Oddly (?) enough, I told her that I also wanted all these things. Call it the secret, call it what you will, but I ended up with all of them. The cast I got when I was 7 … it was a compound fracture of my right arm after awkwardly landing on it after a cartwheel. The glasses I picked up much later in life, and while I still don’t need them exclusively to see, I use them more than ever for the computer. The braces I acquired during high school and the first night after I had all of the hardware on and wired up correctly, I had a horrible headache and cried and cried because my mouth hurt so badly and my teeth were loose and I was horrified that my permanent teeth were loose and falling out.

But the needle dropped and scratched the record when he said something to the effect of, “But these aren’t real. … I had 18 teeth pulled.” I didn’t quite catch what he said. I thought he said he had to have 18 teeth pulled to get his braces. My sister had to have four pulled when she got her braces cause she had a mouthful of teeth; a few were what we called her ‘snaggleteeth.’ So, I repeated it back to him and said something like, “Shit. You must have had a mouthful of teeth.”

He read my eyes and realized I wasn’t following. He said, “No. None of these are mine.” He went on to describe that after he got clean, he had all of his remaining teeth pulled and got teeth that were no longer his own. Doing so many opiates and living the life he had been living led to decay that was more than emotional and spiritual; it was physical as well. Not brushing one’s teeth for days and days plus copious amounts of soda drinking combined with a lack of saliva due to the effects opiates have on the body leads to the decay and destruction of teeth. I found out one doesn’t have to just use crack cocaine or methamphetamines to lose a head full of teeth.

The problem with A Million Little Pieces wasn’t the story. I never thought for a minute reading it that it was at all improbable for this to have happened to someone. The problem was that James Frey didn’t tell the truth about his own truth. Or that he exaggerated it. Either way, once you hear a story and come to believe it and it turns out to be another reality, it’s hard not to feel betrayed — it’s a difficult pill to swallow. But the whole teeth thing? It’s not even remotely out of the realm of possibility.

Brett said to me, “You really can’t tell? They’re *too* perfect.” I thought it was interesting that he would think the fact that his teeth looked too good would be a bad thing. That they’re too perfect, that maybe people can tell that, like people could tell a bad hairpiece for how fake it was? I don’t know. He’s not yet 30, so it never would even occurred to me that he might not have his own teeth. Why I’ve always been taught not to compare my insides to anyone’s outsides, is that given his looks, I wouldn’t think he’d ever be insecure about anything. But it was in that moment that I realized that we all have our peccadillos, nagging at us, relentless in their pursuit to take down our self-esteem and our serenity and out to make us feel small and less than. They go unnoticed by the average bystander or are part of what makes us endearing to our friends. But to many of us, they are the ongoing battles we wage against skin and hair and extra weight.

If we could only ourselves as beautiful and hilarious and intelligent and wonderful as we see each other.


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