Why caramel is the taste of victory

I’m 31 years old and I just got my braces off after over four years of cross-continental orthodontic bliss. I’m not sure why I started dreaming of a straight smile after so many years of what my husband semi-affectionately refers to as “snaggle teeth,” but I know it had something to do with suddenly realizing that everybody else bit into apples with their front teeth, while I had to use my side teeth (I had an “open bite,” arguably the hardest of the mandibular malaises to correct). We were living in China at the time, so I hopped on a crowded subway and marched my way to the clinic my high school students frequented. Within minutes, I’d become a metal mouth at the hands of a fellow expatriate, a Filipino orthodontist working in Shanghai.

I still remember that first post-braces meal– my husband and I went to our favorite noodle shop and I almost cried because bits of dumpling dough and green onion clogged themselves in every available crevice created by the ceramic and wire; plus, my teeth really hurt and I felt like a teenager. I searched my face for a few zits to pop to complete the image.

My students didn’t seem to think it too odd; after all, most of them had braces. We commiserated about dental wax and broken wires and loose brackets. To forcibly close the open bite, I had a freakishly intricate system called multiloop edgewise installed; it made my teeth look like they were in jail. Over time, though, they started to straighten.

When our two-year teaching contract in China ended, we headed for Bolivia, where I found a great orthodontist who worked meticulously and kindly with my teeth. I had four extractions–ouch–but made a lot of progress. When we moved back home, I visited yet a third orthodontist, a remarkable woman who made those teeth absolutely perfect. I taught high school students in three different countries in braces. I got pregnant and had a baby in braces. I never let them get in the way of anything.

It’s interesting how people react to an adult in braces, though. When I first got them, I ran into a colleague from school getting out of a taxi. She was notably adventurous; she’d backpacked through Australia by herself and loved fun. She took a hard look at my face and, after a slow nod, said, “You’ve got balls, Baughman.” A dentist at church said, “Well, that was pretty bold, to get braces at your age!” My mom took several opportunities to remind anyone who would listen that she, in fact, had wanted me to get braces over a decade ago. When I was teaching a parent-child class at a local farm, a woman with pretty crooked teeth herself admonished her daughter, who was chewing her hair, “Stop doing that, or you could end up in braces too.” As the years passed, I learned not to care what people said. My husband, bless his heart, swore he didn’t even notice them.

Really, they weren’t that bad. I mean, it was a long time, but I’m so glad I did it. After a year or so, biting and chewing became suddenly and overwhelmingly easier. And when they finally came off, I could not believe the way my face– in both form and function– had changed. It was one of the best things I had ever done for myself. I have to wear a retainer 24/7 for one year, and then only at night. Compared to braces, the retainer feels like nothing so far, and I can pop it out if I want to eat something crunchy or brush my teeth. I’ve started to love flossing, which is about a thousand times easier without multiple tiny wires to thread.

I paid for my braces myself and was therefore a “good” orthodontic patient; I didn’t try to crack jawbreakers or gnaw taffy. What I really missed during those four years, though, were caramel apples. Oh, how I wanted to celebrate my cure in double time by using my front teeth to bite into an apple that was coated with that sweetest of all forbidden substances, caramel. My friends threw me a little birthday get-together and brought caramel apples. They tasted just as good as I’d expected.

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