No one ever remarked on her teeth and that was just fine with her. But perhaps her teeth were less white than they used to be. Her grandmother had purchased for her birthday a gift certificate to a dental clinic. White, Overnight was written in a thin black serif on the envelope cover. So she went and sat in the reclining chair, to please her grandmother, she told herself, to not waste her grandmother’s money.
Afterward, she wasn’t sure—were comments a good thing? Did people noticing mean there had been a lack before? Was this now a different person , a person that shined, as the silly advertisement had promised. Or did people feel a need to comment to confirm their suspicions, mere lookie loos of her transition?
Do I feel prettier? was a question she began to ask herself.
Was it dishonest to make an investment in one’s appearance and then be so modest about it afterward, as if it were just a natural whiteness?
You have a nice smile was something no one had ever said to her. People continued not saying it.
The answer was no, she did not feel prettier. But she kept checking with her tongue. Testing the paint, or whatever it was, to see if it would peel.
It seemed at odds with the rest of her. She was not pretty but had a certain delicate attractiveness. The teeth though, so pristine and bright, drew attention from her face. They crushed her subtleties.
People began to make remarks but about her teeth, not her smile.
Reverse it, she wanted it reversed.
Can they be redulled? she thought.
I miss my old teeth, she said.
She began to dream about them. That’s normal, her mother said. Everyone has those anxiety dreams. So common. But it didn’t feel common to her. Some nights she pulled them out with pliers one by one until she was a left with a bloody grin, her gums protruding ostentatiously, like a second set of lips. In another one, she complained to an anonymous bureaucrat that her dentures no longer fit comfortably in her mouth. But we just adjusted it, he said.
One day she ran into her dentist at the grocery store. Odd, to see him in a simple t-shirt, anything other than his gown.
He looked at her, confused, and then realized. Oh!
How are you? he said quickly, but then sped on without waiting for a reply. You know, I really did a good job with you. He even lifted a finger to her chin, as though she was still in the reclining chair. We should’ve taken a Before picture. The contrast is really something.
She just walked away, abandoning her items on a random shelf.
The mirror waited for her at home. She pulled back her lips, like a wolf bearing fangs at itself. On her phone, she learned that whitening usually fades within a few years. She experienced it as the reading of a verdict, a sentence now to be served as this version of herself.
Her friend had reassured her that it wasn’t so noticeable. Try not to think about it so much. But she didn’t believe that, not at all. The friend was trying to make her feel better.
Forgetting about it was inevitable, but so was the remembering.
Looking in the mirror took on stakes it hadn’t had before, with each session its own test. The whitening also meant she became intimately acquainted with other mirrors in the house, each somehow with its own slightly different portrayal of herself.
She kept her mouth closed so often she began to imagine her lips were sewn shut. Laughing became a liability, and a private affair whenever possible. She came to think of smiles as “reveals.” She drank cup after cup of tea, for the stains. Some days, she thought maybe she could learn to organize her face in a new and alluring way. But she couldn’t maintain any particular expression for long — they all sank back into her skin. She looked in the mirror again and there she was.
Jason Schwartzman is the senior editor at True.Ink, a revival of a heritage adventure magazine. His writing has been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Narrative.ly, The Rumpus, Hobart, River Teeth, Atlas Obscura, Nowhere Magazine, Human Parts, and is forthcoming in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, among other places. You can find him on twitter @jdschwartzman.