I was never much of a smiler after the summer I cracked my front teeth. I was nine or ten years-old, playing a rough game of tag outside the apartment building in the shadow of the el tracks where we lived in the basement when Julio, my nemesis, the other fat kid on my block who lived right upstairs from me and always seemed to have what the rest of us saw on TV but couldn’t afford, pushed me down the cement front steps where I landed mouth-first on the last one, revenge for beating his ass in our almost daily boxing matches, egged on by our friends.
My teeth, of course, were fucked. My front two cracked into jagged halves, blood trickling out where the broken pieces had punctured the skin of my gums. I blacked out, came to in a fit of tears, one of those deep, undulating child cries that seem to last eternally, with everyone on my block standing over me. Then my mother ushered my shaken body to a mirror to see the carnage, insisting it could be fixed in that anxious tone mothers have when trying to soothe even when they know otherwise.
But my teeth were never fixed. I refused, at first, because I was afraid of the dentist, having been in for two fillings a couple of summers before with a regular Dr. Giggles. My earliest memories of dental work were blacking out (again) and waking up with blood all over me in an empty room of some back alley dentistry, all my mother could afford without insurance. I wouldn’t go to the dentist next until my freshman year of college.
Once in my teen years, my teeth became a badge of honor, yet one I rarely showed off because, by then, I had stopped flashing my big cheesy smile altogether and practiced a more subtle one, standing in front of the bathroom mirror holding my upper lip down over my broken teeth. I wanted to smile without letting the world see my damaged pearly whites. I didn’t want everyone to think we were really poor. Eventually, I developed a half-smile where I barely opened my mouth at all, just a little crook of the lip, a flash of dimple. My teeth were a secret I wanted kept, something I hoped girls wouldn’t notice and boys wouldn’t tease me about, though, as fat as I was, there were other options.
It had been years since I thought about my smile, no longer awash in that teenage self-consciousness overselling every imperfection on the psyche, until recently when I was shaking this dumbbell rattle over Sonny’s head, and his little lips perked into a huge smile that made me cheese out the way I did before my teeth were broken. Then, the funny faces began, opening my mouth real wide, wrinkling my nose, doing crazy shit with my eyebrows and tongue (See Exhibit A.; Exhibit B.; and Exhibit C.), hoping to earn the precious reward of another Sonny smile. The boy relented, cooing and giggling, swinging his sausage-like arms around in excitement.
That night, after Sonny was asleep, I was brushing my teeth and began making funny faces in the mirror, toothpaste foaming from my jowls. Quickly, I understood what made Sonny smile: my face did look kind of funny. Fifteen years ago, what would have embarrassed me so much is now a source of happiness for my son, something I’d do again and again just to see that little smile of his, toothless and perfect, his chubby cheeks like two mounds of rosy gold surrounding a treasure worth letting go of all that childhood shame.
I still won’t have my teeth fixed. They remind me of where I came from, that basement apartment in Queens where the roaches squatted in the cupboards and the roar of the J above made the ground quake beneath us, and where I am now in a house with a clean, well-lit living room where Sonny has space to stretch out on a shiny purple toy mat while his dad shakes a rattle and works on new funny faces for him, ones only Sonny sees because his smiles deserve the best.