Or, How to Remove the Restraints on Your Freedom and Beauty When You Are Seventeen, Popular and Well-To-Do But Your Parents Are Stubborn and Your Orthodontist Is a Manic-Depressive Alcoholic Who Doesn’t Know What He’s Doing and You Don’t Want to Look Like a Freak for the Prom Because You Are the Best-Looking Girl in School Except for Your Braces.
Studying her face in the mirror, Christie places a Post-it on her top lip. This is so she can practise smiling with her mouth open, something she has not done since her braces went on six months ago. The trick to smiling is keeping your eyes open and your cheeks relaxed (unless you’re ugly, in which case it doesn’t really matter).
Peeling off the Post-it, Christie bares her teeth at her reflection. The braces have to come off before the prom, she thinks. That’s just all there fucking is to it.
At first she tries to get them off with a piece of wire from her sister’s beading supplies. When that doesn’t work, she moves on to a pearl-handled nail file from the travel kit she got for Christmas. She works an hour a night, sliding the file back and forth while pushing against the glue behind each metal brace, tracking her progress on a diagram sketched in the back of her agenda. Every three days, she switches teeth.
After a week, she’s whittled a significant space behind each bracket, but the file starts to stick in the gaps and won’t slide through. When she tries to file upwards, it scrapes her tooth and gives her a headache. Christie thinks about prisoners digging escape tunnels out of Alcatraz, with shivs fashioned from combs and toothbrushes. It’s all about stamina, she thinks. Dedication.
Her first solution to this problem is a hammer (wiped with Scope to kill bacteria), which she uses to pound lightly on each bracket. This method is abandoned when her brother knocks on the door and, startled, she lets the hammer hit with excessive force. The pain is substantial.
Soon, the underside of Christie’s bed looks like a tool box of suburban torture: wires, files, a cheese knife and various items from the garage. It occurs to her, as she futilely tugs on a brace with her mother’s tweezers, that she needs a partner—someone as ruthless as she is determined. She enlists the help of former school bully and future criminal Tonia Lamb. Tonia is six foot three, muscular and wild-eyed. She’s the only person Christie knows who wears her ponytail to the side.
One night, while Christie’s parents are playing euchre, Tonia comes over with her own pliers and a bottle of Southern Comfort. She kicks off her boots while Christie runs to the kitchen to grab two glasses, a bucket of ice and a towel.
They head to the basement. At Tonia’s request, Christie puts on Pearl Jam. Tonia downs some Southern Comfort, removes her jean jacket and throws it on the floor. “I have to wash my hands,” she growls, and weaves out of the room.
This is the only time Christie allows herself to consider the insanity of what she is about to do. Sitting on the couch, her glass half-empty in her lap, she takes a deep breath and feels sick. She thinks, Maybe this isn’t—
But then Tonia is back in the room, handing her an ice cube. Christie holds it up to her gums while Tonia wipes the pliers with a dishrag. Then, she straddles Christie and grabs her jaw. With her free hand, Tonia moves in to grip the first bracket with the pliers. Christie focusses on the long hairs growing out of Tonia’s chin.
Tonia has the focus of a mad scientist—breathing hard, blinking away beads of sweat as she struggles to get a firm grip. Once she’s squeezed a bracket, she tips the pliers up and down. One by one, the brackets wiggle loose. As she gets farther along, Tonia moves in closer. Her eyes are almost purple. Christie tries to think of the celebrity that was supposed to have purple eyes. Someone her mother likes.
It doesn’t take long, but by the time Tonia sits back to admire her work, Christie is shivering, her arms rigid against her sides, her neck cramped into a backward stretch. As soon as Tonia rolls off, the sick feeling returns and Christie has just enough time to run to the bathroom before she pukes into the sink: Southern Comfort, barbecue chips and spaghetti. Looking up from the drain, Christie squints at her image in the mirror and lifts her bottom lip, then her top one. Her braces dangle helplessly on their wire, like refugees being pulled out of a river.
It’s remarkably easy to rinse the vomit from her teeth. She practically skips back into the room to pay Tonia, making a quick detour to get the wire cutters from under her bed so that she can complete the job.