For six weeks, I looked like I had a glob of paste across my top row of teeth.
On one hand, it wasn’t a sidelining injury, thankfully, because track season started on Wednesday. But on the other, it was the middle of sophomore year, when everyone’s braces were already off. To me, this felt like an abrupt and embarrassingly junior high step backwards.
People understand broken arms and legs. People know what casts are. You scratch them with a coat hanger, your friends sign them with a silver paint marker, and you move on with your life. But here I was, with six brackets on my teeth, coated in a thick layer of acrylic. That was my cast. That was how my teeth would heal.
For six weeks, I tried desperately to keep my mouth closed, but I was an apple-shining model student, keen on class participation. Besides, I already had some long, rabbity-ass chompers that could barely stay inside my mouth as it was. I couldn’t possibly expect to keep them indoors with a 3D shelf installed across them, the same girth as a squeeze of toothpaste.
My teeth, like the rest of my face, weren’t the prettiest, but it wasn’t worth spending thousands of dollars to fix anything. They worked fine. Chomped like a dream. Besides, how would I fit in an orthodontist appointment with basketball practice every day after school? We homely tomboys know our priorities.
So, when Bobby Hillegass, the approachably hot senior whose super-special athlete locker was close to mine, asked me how my weekend was, I didn’t even think to conceal my teeth. I could have kept the locker door open between us like some kind of enigmatic coquette, but instead, I played myself.
“Cool,” he said, staring directly at my mouth before walking away. Actually, not that cool, Bobby.
Never having spent a day in the brace-face game, I hadn’t learned to do that disaffected teenager lips-over-the-teeth-on-picture-day Mona Lisa. I’m not complaining. I’m just trying to explain why this injury put my face in such a contorted tailspin.
To be honest, I only remember a few things. The chalkboard at halftime. Holding bags of ice against my gums. My dad standing on the bleachers and yelling, “Call the dogs off!” to the other team, still running their full-court press while up 40 points.
He wasn’t usually that dad. He didn’t scream at coaches or refs or players or me. He usually sat back and enjoyed the Title IX Americana of having two athletic daughters. But I remember him yelling with the kind of ferocity he reserved for slow drivers in the left lane on Route 18.
I’m not sure why, but I was angry too. I felt off. Fuzzy. I felt… elsewhere. I kept taking the bag of ice away from my mouth and throwing it onto the hardwood floor. But my mom, a former dental hygienist who forcefully reminded me to floss nightly, wasn’t having it. She’d climb down the bleachers, pick it up, and tell me I had two choices: keep the ice on, or we had to leave.
I pulled the ice back up to my face, resenting the cold against my skin, resenting my mom, resenting this weird pain in my mouth and my head.
It was the second round of the State tournament, and coach gave me, a bucky young sophomore, the start. I tried to play it cool, to act like I’d been there a million times. Pretending to be a badass, I licked my hands and dragged them across the bottoms of my shoes to get the dust off, pulled up my knee pads, and waited for the tip-off.
For a long time, basketball had been my best sport. I played in the boys’ leagues until middle school, had a pretty nice handle, and a crossover that elicited oooohs and yo she broke your ankles yo from the kids waiting for the late bus after detention. And we’re not talking Steph Curry, but I can still sink a three-ball from surprisingly deep.
I may have been pint-sized, but I was scrappy. A hustler. Fearless. Quick to the floor to win a loose ball. And though I don’t remember it, that grit (and my inordinately big rodent incisors) are what did me in.
Again, I don’t remember it, but they tell me it happened 40 seconds into the game. We had missed our first shot and backpedaled on defense. I waited to match up with their team’s point guard at half court, but she bobbled a pass before she crossed, leaving it right there for the taking. And though I don’t remember it, I can picture it because it’s the only way I ever really knew how to play. I went hard for it, sliding in on my knees, swiping with one hand, and that was it.
I don’t think anyone, myself included, knew that I lost consciousness.
Apparently, I laid there until the play was over, then picked myself up and stormed off the court, pissed. Coach, who looked like a frosted-tip combination of a Ken doll and Guile from Street Fighter, leaned forward on the bench and asked me if I could go back in. Again, I don’t remember, but poor Bethany, who sat beside me in terror as I bled from the mouth, told me that I snapped back at him with a “NO!” like a two year-old fighting pajama time.
And so I stayed there on the bench, helpless, useless, and fat-lipped, watching this band of savage ponytailed Amazon women dismantle my team until the fourth quarter ended. I don’t remember if I shook hands, but knowing me, I probably did. That kind of sportsmanship pageantry used to mean so much to me. You know, back when I wore recreational knee pads.
My sister must have been home from college because she was there in the back seat with me. I was upset. I don’t remember crying, but I may have. I always took losses hard, especially when they meant the season was over. They hurt. And here I was, ice on my teeth as my parents sped to an oral surgeon, open late on Saturday. A lifetime milk devotee, I’m proud to report that front tooth wasn’t cracked or chipped or broken. And though it hadn’t fallen out yet, it most definitely wanted to escape.
But it wasn’t my tooth that bothered me. There was something else deeply upsetting.
I leaned my head against the window. “What happened?”
My parents, being parents, didn’t want me to get down on the team.
“They were a really good team, you know?”
“Yeah, they had a really strong press. And that shooting guard!”
“Yeah, but what happened?”
“I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault, they were just the better team.”
“Yeah, but what happened?” I asked, still confused. No one had the answer I was looking for, and I didn’t know how else to ask my question. I couldn’t reach back and find the two words I needed to complete the thought—What happened to me?
Luckily my sister, sharp and fresh from college, understood. “No, she’s not asking about the game,” she said, in that older sister-y protective-but-know-it-all kind of way. “I don’t think she knows what happened to her.”
After that, I remember biting on a popsicle stick to level my teeth while the surgeon put brackets on them and coated them with a coat of goopy paste, which soon hardened into an ugly plastic mouth slug. Later that week, I remember the porous acrylic turning orange when I ate spaghetti. Later that month, I remember the gap between my two front teeth closing, an unexpected benefit of my injury. And then the gradual greying, dulling, and dying of my left front chomper, resulting in a surprisingly painless root canal. I guess that’s what happens when the nerve is already dead.
Looking back, maybe the injury wasn’t so bad. Maybe it’s better than a broken leg or wrist or finger. Maybe it’s better that I don’t remember it. Maybe we would have lost anyway. But that’s not how I remember it.