BEHIND THE SMILE
by Geoff Graser
“Now you are, after all, basically a charitable and kindhearted person . . .
but not every child has the endurance and fearlessness to go on searching
until it comes to the kindliness that lies beneath the surface.”
—“Letter to My Father” by Franz Kafka
Human skulls leered from a shelf in my father’s basement den. Sets of false teeth lay on his desk like paper weights. Before the age of ten, I’d bring my younger brother into the den with me, more than a little uneasy to go it alone. I’d occasionally take a skull from the shelf, surprised it was light as an apple, and cradle its smooth dome in my hands, poking my fingers in the nostrils and running my finger along the teeth, which remained sturdy in spite of yellowing enamel. Teeth endure.
A nineteenth-century dental chair with a plush velvet seat also decorated the room. I liked climbing into it, but could never recline comfortably because of the torn head cushion. I have no recollection of my father in the den with me. When he went to work in there, he closed the door and we knew better than to bother him.
I dreaded my father most of childhood. I think my older sisters and brother feared him, too, his dress shoes cracking against the floor when he came home from work. He ruled with a booming voice and the threat of The Belt. No memory remains of him using it as more than a threat, but I figure he must have used it at least once, since those two words—The Belt—and the sight of the wide brown leather strap in his hands evoked a terror that made me want to disappear instead of search for the kindliness that lies beneath the surface. So I did disappear, in a sense. I was an incredibly shy child, crying at my mother’s side when she tried to drop me off for nursery school.
In some early childhood pictures I look like I’m scowling. In others, trying to force a smile. As a boy, I sometimes wondered if I’d caused the underbite, especially since my mom had read me a children’s story about a freckled boy like me that both scared me and made me laugh. “If the wind changes,” the big adults warned the little freckled boy when he made a funny face, “it’ll stay like that forever!” I never fully believed the big adults in the story, but I couldn’t make my teeth return to normal. In second grade, while I learned to read, multiply, and memorize the names of my teacher’s favorite birds, my orthodontist fitted me with a plastic mouthpiece. At first, I liked when people asked about it. And it could’ve been worse—both my older sisters had to wear the headgear with the blue strap, which my mom would remind them to take in the morning as if a school supply. I wasn’t free much longer, though. Before the end of second grade, my dentist had branded me with silver brackets, thick and shiny number signs on my two front teeth, and I started monthly visits to Eastman Dental Center. Like eyeglasses for some, braces became my identity.
I wore them ten years, until the summer right before senior pictures for high school.
“Were your teeth that bad?” people ask.
They might envision a child with crooked tombstones in his gums.
“I don’t think so,” I say.
“Why’d you have them so long?”
“I don’t know,” I say and shrug. “My father’s a dentist.”
They laugh. I tell them I’m serious.
“Well, you do have a great smile,” they say.
Dr. Graser is beloved by colleagues. He was chair of his department at Eastman Dental Center in Rochester, NY, and president of the National Academy of Prosthodontics, lecturing throughout the U.S. and internationally. I’ve heard dentists talk about him in reverent tones I associate with Lombardi, DiMaggio and Ali.
Eastman, where I went for braces and where my father worked, is an impressive brick building that’s a philanthropic legacy of George Eastman, who founded Kodak in Rochester. Especially compared to the neighboring box-shaped hospital where I was born, the dental center—with its seven-story triangular tower, angled windows and asymmetrical ledges—has the feel of a cutting-edge modern art museum. My father hung a framed picture of it in his den.
My father was never my dentist. As a prosthodontist, his patients were the ones who needed dentures, not braces. He chose prosthodontics because giving patients new teeth would make them happy, even smile, he’s said. It beat pulling children’s teeth for a living. My father had considered med school before dentistry, but after shadowing doctors he decided against a career with such long, unpredictable hours. He wanted a family.
Even though my father worked in prosthodontics on the second floor (our orthodontist appointments were on the first), if anybody knew the answer to why I had braces so long, it was him. Yet for years, well until adulthood, I didn’t dare ask my father this question. It’s hard to admit shrinking from someone three inches shorter than me who wears glasses and a comb-over, but as a boy, I’d learned not to question him.
When waiting for an appointment at Eastman, I’d sit in a long, dimly lit room, hoping to find a spot where daylight sliced through a narrow window. My dentist always seemed to run late, so I’d pick up Sports Illustrated, my favorite magazine. I found it difficult to focus, though, and I’d watch moms and their children with fierce curiosity. At least once a visit, a baby wailed inconsolably. It wasn’t until returning to Rochester in my late twenties that I learned Eastman is where people on public assistance go to the dentist, and, now, I presume I also went for financial reasons. Before putting us through college, my father had four children to put through braces, so an employee discount must have eased the financial strain.
My father took time from his work day to come downstairs periodically and check my progress. One word could best describe the progress: slow. A visit from him at least broke up the monotony of appointments usually lasting more than an hour. I liked my father’s attention in this setting. I silently observed this gentler, patient side of him without any chance of drawing his ire—or The Belt. With my mouth stretched and the back of the cold metal mirror pressed on my tongue, he muted me while issuing foreign observations like “mal-occlusion” and “bicuspid” in a measured voice. While I had no idea what he was saying, and it didn’t sound all that positive, I still felt special because all my dentists knew I was “Dr. Graser’s son.”
I say all my dentists because I had a new one every year. They were dental school interns practicing their future profession the year before graduation. I felt their inexperience. They’d catch my lip when making a snip or stab my gums when twisting a wire. Many times I’d later ask my father at home to clip a wire because its unruly end dug into my cheek.
Surprisingly, I never feared going to the dentist. The large circular office lent itself to the imagination of a boy obsessed with Star Wars. As I entered from the waiting room, I treated the five-foot wall encircling the dentists as the outside of the Millennium Falcon. I embarked through the narrow entryway. Once inside, I saw more than a dozen chairs with beaming lamps surrounded by fascinating cords and buttons. The dentist pushed the tray against my chest to lock me in, lowered the back of the chair with a mechanical buzz, and the countdown to blast off began. During some of those hour-long appointments, it would’ve been nice to pee right there like an astronaut, but I prided myself on being a willing and obedient patient who didn’t interrupt my dentist’s work. I knew my performance as a patient was information well within my father’s reach. I was “Dr. Graser’s son.” I should know what I was doing. I sat there quietly. My appointments did feel endless, though, in part because the dentists often needed approval from an elusive Obi-Wan character with white hair, thick glasses and dangly ear lobes. And when he did finally appear, with a slightly croaky but firm voice, this Ortho-Jedi often told my dentists to undo their young-Skywalkerish handiwork and start over. I’d watch another 45 minutes tick by on the clock.
In addition to the lower cost of dentistry performed by students, I’d guess we went to Eastman because my father liked having a say in our treatment. In this way, he was an admirable, vigilant parent with deep loyalty to the institution where he worked his entire career. Still, I wonder how long I would’ve worn braces if I’d gone to an experienced professional? Having one apprentice dentist pick up where another left off is like asking a dozen eager creative writing students to each pen a chapter in a novel.
My sisters had talked about the monkeys that lived on the fifth floor of Eastman. They’d even seen them. I wanted to see the monkeys, too, so one day my father rode the elevator with me. It felt like a field trip. A handful of monkeys crawled behind glass windows. They lived without an artificial jungle or ropes to climb, but otherwise looked exactly like the ones at the zoo. As a child, I had no clue they used these monkeys for experiments. It simply thrilled me I’d gone somewhere off limits, where only Dr. Graser could take me.
As I approached my teens, though, I found it harder to shrug off the frustration triggered by classmates who’d wear braces only two or three years and then gleefully bare coconut-white smiles. Not surprisingly, my emotional discomfort in braces coincided with the time I started watching girls nearly as much as I watched sports. Braces made me ugly. Add this deformity to my already shy nature, and it’s little surprise the only kiss during my time in braces was sometime in middle school, a peck during a game of Truth or Dare. The girl I kissed wore braces, too, so we kept our mouths shut to prevent locking together forever.
My sister Joanna said having braces on so long was a mistake. She believes our parents put them on too soon. She also thought she was the family record-holder at seven years until I reminded her of my ten-year sentence.
“Ten years?” asked my younger brother John incredulously. Somehow he got away with less than three years, but still remembers the impressions and headaches after the tightening appointments.
“They were experimenting,” said Suzanne, my oldest sister and perhaps most practical sibling. She asked if I thought it was worth having straight teeth. When I hesitated, she suggested the affirmative.
My father wasn’t only a dentist. I’ve seen him away from the office, mostly, at a safe distance from career ambition and the field of dentistry.
Childhood memories of him project as grainy silent home movies. He’s in dungarees, as he called them, and that faded denim shirt he only wore around the house. He takes my brother and me to pro wrestling matches and even wrestles with us on the family room carpet. He’s at our sporting events straight from work, shedding only his lab coat to root for us in jacket and tie. My father provided us a luxurious home in a safe, affluent suburb with great schools. We’d go on at least two family vacations a year. He wanted us to be happy, to give us reasons to smile.
Still, between my childhood fear and the difficulty I found moving beyond small talk about sports or my latest job as an adult, the emotional distance sometimes pained me. I’ve always longed for a deeper connection with my father, so not being able to ask a question as seemingly simple as why I had braces for ten years served as a lingering reminder of our difficulty of having an open dialogue, let alone a relationship.
Ultimately, it took the end of another relationship to bring me to the question. It happened after the breakup with my first serious girlfriend after my divorce. I was 36 and arrived at my parents’ house a little after 7 a.m. It was rare for me to show up unannounced, let alone at this hour. They’d returned from a winter in Florida the day before. I’d slept only a couple of hours, so for me the open blue sky felt like afternoon. Outside their door, though, I worried they might not be up, or clothed. I opened the storm door and by the time I stuck my key in the lock, their dog started barking. As my mom opened the door, the pressure in my chest, throat and face exploded into tears.
“What happened?” my mom asked.
“She’s not home,” I said.
The heartbreak of another doomed love petrified me. My parents listened and consoled. I sat between them, my father wearing only pajama bottoms. One positive result of my divorce is that I’d become more comfortable talking to my parents about my personal life—given my mom’s presence—and they’d proven an invaluable sounding board during the most difficult times of my marriage and eventual split. After I took a bathroom break, my parents moved to another couch and my father had also put on a T-shirt. He seemed far less vulnerable.
“I have something I’ve been meaning to ask you, dad,” I said. “I want to know why I had braces for so long.”
Though his eyes met mine easily, my father’s face remained expressionless.
“And why I got them on so early.”
He said nothing, undoubtedly caught off guard.
“When did you get them on?” my mom asked.
“You didn’t have them on in—” she said.
“I did. I got the thing for my underbite first and then—”
“Are you sure?” she asked. “We should get the pictures.”
I’d already looked through our family albums while they were in Florida, and said I’d found a picture from April 1982 confirming it. My father sat up straighter on the couch. He cleared his throat and began speaking the way I imagine he did at dental conferences.
“Well, there were studies done saying if you moved teeth too fast you could lose them when you’re older. The roots wouldn’t be strong.”
“Oh,” I said, quite surprised at such a plausible-sounding scientific explanation. He didn’t elaborate and my mom didn’t chime in, so I nervously filled the silence.
“I can’t say I’d be any different, more secure or whatever, but I know growing up I felt ugly.”
“Nobody had them as long as I did.”
Although the self-perception of ugliness began fading once I started dating in college, the core shyness and insecurity still crept in, especially after breakups. So it felt important just to say it, to tell the man I’d begun seeing as a tormentor why braces had become emotional shackles. However, my declaration lacked triumph. Was I looking for an apology? Scientific journal citations about the studies?
Years later, I’d finally Google my father’s explanation to discover a theory called “resorption,” which said teeth could fall out if moved too quickly during orthodontia. That theory had mostly been debunked, apart from people who have a genetic trait that causes abnormally weak roots. So perhaps there had originally been justification for the slow, methodical adjustment of my teeth, but my brother, only a few years behind me, had such a decidedly short stint. Questions lingered.
Not long after I sprung the question about braces that morning, my mom cooked bacon and eggs. As I pondered how to find a more suitable romantic match, I asked my parents more about how they met, and my father told a chapter of their story I’d never heard. While in dental school, he enjoyed one of the perks of working at a hospital—the nurses. After meeting my mom, who was in nursing school, my father didn’t ask for a date immediately. He was seeing someone else. My mom had a boyfriend at the time as well. The door to romance opened months later, when my mom told him she was getting her wisdom teeth removed.
“Can I observe?” my father asked.
Like the dentists who worked on our braces, he was a student. So our family began with my father hovering over my mom in a dental chair, the way he eventually examined our mouths as children. I can picture him with a brown crew-cut and clean-shaven face leaning over her, with both an anticipation for what he might learn about this extraction and the exciting possibilities about bringing a new person into his life. My father might have made small talk or told a joke to set her at ease before anesthesia. And my mother, self-sacrificing and demure, would have likely proven an extremely affable and obedient patient.
After my mother’s post-surgical pain, I wonder what came next. Did they talk dentistry and what he learned? Did she tell him about the pain she felt or wooziness caused by painkillers? I wanted the full story.
All along, I suppose that’s what I’ve always wanted. To reconcile my braces experience in an orderly way just as my father hoped for order in his life—well-behaved children with neat smiles. Instead of braces and dentures, I use words and stories to straighten and make whole a crooked and broken world. Perhaps all my own sitting in a dental chair had proved the perfect training for something more than the smile: a way to let my mind roam until I was ready to make my voice heard, liberate myself from the figurative braces.
In the story of our family, the image of my father plying his trade as a young dentist while my mother received dental care gave me a new plotline to follow. After my mother’s wisdom teeth appointment, I knew the story of a movie date that eventually followed. The main detail I remember is my father accidentally falling asleep in the theater restroom because he was so exhausted from work. Gone from the movie for more than fifteen minutes, my mother worried he’d ditched her. My curiosity leads me to wonder: how did he manage to secure another date? And when did they start talking about marriage? Children? Her giving up nursing to stay at home? Was there talk about skulls in the basement? The Belt? Braces?
One question chases the next, leading to the realization I’ll never fully comprehend the teeth so carefully tended until they one day reside in the earth, straight and rooted, but in a far darker, less understandable state.
Geoff Graser has published literary work in Santa Clara Review, r.kv.r.y., and The Big Brick Review. His journalism has appeared in USA Today, Washington City Paper, and Medium. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College and a Master’s in Journalism from Syracuse University. Home base is Rochester, NY, and geoffgraser.com.