TERRIBLE TWENTIES: RAINBOW RETAINERS, REGRET, AND GENERAL SHIFTING
As a kid, I wanted to be cool, but I didn’t want to be a nerd. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand that all the things I thought would make me cool were, in fact, the nerdiest. Glasses, braces, inhaler, cast for broken wrist. I wanted them all and, eventually, I got what I wished for – except for the cast, which was not for lack of concerted trying.
The reason I thought they were cool was because all of these things intrinsically elicit a lot of attention. Being popular and cool meant everyone gave you attention, right? So, even though it seems counterintuitive, it makes sense why I wanted these painfully dorky items in order to feel cool.
Glasses were easy to check off the list in second grade, followed by an inhaler for my “exercise-induced” asthma – which basically confirmed my status as an indoor kid.
I had to wait until I was eight years old to get my first taste of orthodontics when my big adult teeth began to crowd each other in the small little cavern of my mouth. From my first visit to Dr. Yamada, I knew what I eventually really wanted: a fucking cool retainer!
On the arm of every chair in the orthodontist’s office were two laminated index cards. One listed the impressive amount of flavors to choose for impressions, and the other was my holy grail: retainer color choices. I knew I still had about 6-7 years of time left before I had to make one of the biggest decisions of my life, but I thought about it every single visit.
Over the course of my time with Dr. Yamada, I had a myriad of excruciating appliances and oral surgeries. But, there were awesome things too. I had braces TWICE, which meant that once a month I was able to choose seasonally spirited colored bands for my brackets. And although, to my disappointment and dismay, I wasn’t made to wear headgear, I was forced to wear rubber bands that connected my top and bottom jaw.
When I was about three years old, I saw a cashier in a department store (probably the late Bullocks) in the late 80’s with neon rubber bands on her braces. I knew then what cool looked like. After being given regular rubber bands, I inquired about the neon variety that I had seen ten years prior. The assistant went to the back and dug some up from the early 90’s no doubt. They were so old, they snapped constantly, but I loved them.
When the time came for my braces to be removed, the pressure was on to choose a retainer color. I had known friends who brought in tiny purple butterfly stickers for their retainer molds, people with glow in the dark, glitter, neon, and even ones that looked like a watermelon – seeds and all!
I half-joked with my friend Lauren that I should cut out a magazine photo of Tobey Maguire for my retainers because he was my ultimate celeb crush at the time.
Sadly, D-day arrived and I was faced with one of the greatest decisions I’d ever had to make, a decision seven years in the making – half my lifetime – and I didn’t want to screw it up. I wish I could tell you that I didn’t, but the truth is I choked. I got nervous and chose something safe. I told them I wanted bright red, because it was my favorite color, and because it was a fun color that also blended into my mouth. Why I believed anyone would look inside my mouth is beyond me.
At the last second, the assistant told me they could split the retainers in half and I could choose two colors. I made a game-time decision and “yellow,” was released out of my mouth. And so, that’s how I ended up with two of the ugliest little pieces of plastic and metal. I owned MacDonalds themes retainers.
But, retainers are expensive and, unfortunately, I was pretty responsible with them. I didn’t have a dog to accidentally chew them up, and I diligently put them in their case at night. I wore them for 15 years straight, until I began dating my current boyfriend. I wanted to come off cool and sexy, and besides, they had been bothering me for some time. Into the bathroom drawer they went – in their case of course.
This is how I found myself at the dentist for a chipped tooth, with him inquiring if I had worn my retainers, because my teeth had moved. I was shocked and offended! I had worn them religiously for over a decade – two years of laziness shouldn’t be so harshly punished.
(This is STILL in my folder at the dentist office. The hygienists always expect a 12 year old when they retrieve me from the waiting area.)
But, he was right. I knew it. Since I started making a real adult level income, I have known in the back of my mind that I really should man up and get a new pair. I made an appointment to come back in for impressions, and I realized that I was giving myself a do-over in the retainer department. “Excuse me,” I flagged down the dentist before he walked away. “Can I choose a color for my retainer?”
“I usually just order pink,” he replied. “But, I’ll look into it for you.”
One week later I returned to the dentist’s office to take my impressions, remembering how much they make you want to gag. As I wiped the saliva and strawberry flavored plaster from my mouth, my dentist returned with a large laminated chart of retainer colors.
I suddenly realized that at 29 years old, I was faced with yet another life altering decision. I would do it right this time! I flipped the options from front to back, oohing and aahing over nostalgic choices that were still available. The watermelon was still around, as was glitter and neon, but there were also new intricate designs depicting a snowy mountainside, a meadow, and a strawberry.
Should I finally get my Tobey Maguire retainer? I earnestly considered.
Ultimately, being the almost 30 year old that I am, I placed my order for the classic rainbow design. Because I have always loved anything with rainbows, and nothing, absolutely nothing has changed.
I had to wait an anxious two weeks to come back to pick them. But when I did, it was worth it. They were nothing short of beautiful. Such craftsmanship! The minute the dentist opened the familiar hard plastic half-moon shaped case to reveal my shiny new rainbow beauties, I was in love. Not to mention, the retainer artisans took the liberty of adding glitter to the yellow panels. They were just as inspired as me, it seemed.
I walked away feeling great for so many reasons. I had made the adult decision to go out of my way to have them made. I paid for them all on my own, in full. They fit like a dream. And, I finally felt like I had rectified a real regret.
I wear them every night because it’s nice to know that I am preserving my parents’ $10k investment in my smile, because I paid for them, and because they are really fucking fun. I even recently discovered they are also glow in the dark. Can you even??
Even now, I am struck with my guttural desire, the same desire I had 15 years ago. We mature and grow so much, but we’re still so very much the same. It’s comforting to know that these versions of you still exist, ingrained in who you become.
But, just as I am excited to have the dream retainers I always wanted, this time it isn’t in an effort to be cool. It’s not for attention. It’s just for me. As much as I wanted to seem cool with my attention seeking glasses and neon rubber bands when I was younger, it was always for me. I realize that just being me, nerdy ol’ me, was what made me cool and I was doing it all along without trying.
I share my dumb elation on Instagram. I share them here with you. I will probably receive attention for it. It might even make me cool. But this time I don’t care either way. We all get excited about weird shit, and this is mine. It’s comforting to know that even though the 8 year old me, and the 14 year old me are still in there, I’ve grown up quite a bit.
Retainers are meant to hold things in place, but despite their best efforts, things still shift a little.