What Loving Candy My Whole Life Cost Me

The story of my expensive mouth

I’ve met many dentists in my life and they have all told me, with varying degrees of sympathy, I have soft teeth. They are not the kind of teeth that will stand up for me or do anything to protect me. As a kid, when I returned from an appointment with a devastating six-cavity diagnosis, my brother, with the good teeth genes, would laugh and my mom would say, You can’t help it, you have soft teeth. But you also love candy.

It’s true. I have and will always be a sweets person. Chocolate, ice cream, hard candies: whatever is going to spike my blood sugar, I’m into. Skittles in particular were a clear favorite in my adolescent years. In high school I ran track and I had to wait around at these all-day meets to run one lap around the track. I had nothing to do for seven hours but fixate on my 60-second race. My nerves were so intense I couldn’t eat anything but a single pack of Skittles. I bought whatever flavor was available at the concession stand: tropical, berry, original, I didn’t care. I sucked down the pack and tossed the wrapper moments before getting into my lane.

With the Skittles still clinging to my teeth, I ran my 400 meters until I could safely hand off the baton to my teammate.

I grew up in the ’90s when candy really came of age. I brushed my teeth with Crest Sparkle, which was candy masquerading as toothpaste. I huffed empty tins of Bubble Tape hoping to ingest the remaining chalky gum dust into my fructose-coated lungs. And I had soft teeth. It was out of my hands. Which was great because I could use those hands to dip into a bag of video store Sour Patch Kids, or movie theater Buncha Crunch, or those Caramel Apple lollipops my JV field hockey coach used to reward the team with on the rare occasion we won a game.

I got my first filling in one of my back molars when I was in elementary school. It was one of those old silver fillings. All of my silver fillings from childhood have since been replaced with a more modest sealant, something discreet that wouldn’t ruffle any feathers at a dinner party. But I know the truth. My mouth has been repaired so many times, in theory it’s worth tens of thousands of dollars.

In the beginning, before braces, before middle school, I was gap-toothed. I could stick a quarter between my front teeth and it had room to breathe. It was adorable for a while until I reached 6th grade and decided it wasn’t okay to look different than everyone. None of my friends had gaps and neither did the Delia’s catalogue models I obsessed over. Fortunately, inexplicably, braces were a cool accessory in my town in 2000. I begged my parents to let me get braces and, when I got tired of that, I willed metal to sprout from my teeth. Then came the palatal expander.

A palatal expander is something orthodontists use to expand the palate to eliminate crowding and crossbites in pre-braces kids. The metal appliance fits over your teeth and adheres to the roof of your mouth. There’s a solid piece of metal in the center with a small hole. The hole is where your mom or dad, or some other unfortunate adult figure in your life, sticks a metal key and turns it each night for a period of time. My mom dutifully turned my mouth key for several trying months.

Our routine involved me, a pre-teen, lying on my back, on my bed, staring up at the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling, with my mouth hung open. My mom would reach her hand into my mouth, holding the tiny key, and align it until it clicked in its keyhole. During this, because I was a morose child, I forced myself to imagine an alternate, horrifying timeline where my mom dropped the key in my mouth and I choked and died. A poetic death, caused by the literal key that could have unlocked my potential, a beautiful, seamless smile — but a death nonetheless.

In 7th grade I was finally allowed to get braces. I remember coming into school mid-day so I could show all my friends my new look. All of them were in various stages of orthodontia and we compared notes: who sounded the weirdest, what foods were the hardest to eat, what were the best rubber band color combinations for expressing our burgeoning personalities.

When I got mine taken off the summer going into high school, I no longer had a gap between my front teeth. I was given a retainer that I designed with a really cute, silver sun/moon tattoo and was told to wear it for an indefinite amount of time. My orthodontist, who seemed so old at the time but was really more like 35, said he still wore his. I was skeptical. I didn’t know I was committing to a lifetime appliance.

I wore it into college, but then I began to neglect it. I kept it in its case, I slept in my contacts, I ate processed cheese for days on end, and took scalding hot, hour-long showers that I emerged from pink-skinned and on the brink of collapse.

I did not practice self-care, and my teeth suffered.

With my dental history, it’s imperative that I see a dentist at least once a year. But after college, I couldn’t get a job, so I couldn’t get health insurance. Around this time, my late blooming, wisdom teeth began to erupt from the back of my mouth. Every six months, for one day, the teeth would rise up and I experienced tremendous throbbing pain, inflamed gums, etc. But once that day was over, things returned to normal and I could continue to convince myself that I didn’t need to go to the dentist.

Except I definitely did. When Obamacare became available I signed up immediately and scheduled an appointment at a neighborhood dentist. On my first trip back to the dentist in three years, I was told I needed a crown and then a root canal. In my haste to fix the problem before it snowballed, I did not read the stipulations of the dental insurance. Instead, I went ahead with the procedure and gasped when I received a bill for close to $1000, to be paid out of pocket.

“What is this?” I asked the receptionist.

I was shaking but she didn’t look fazed. This was a question she received all the time from other clueless millennials who don’t bother to read all the way through.

“Your insurance doesn’t cover root canals until a year in,” she said.

“But I was told by the dentist I needed to get this root canal done now. I would have waited if I knew I wasn’t eligible. Why would I ever agree to this?”

I trusted the doctor and he lied to me, was what I wanted to say. But even in my white-hot rage, I knew that was not how the adult world worked. It was my responsibility to know my business and to make informed decisions based on that comprehension. Still, something felt gross, like I was being taken advantage of.

I told myself I would try harder at being an adult. I stopped eating candy for a few days. But it didn’t last.

In the movie Home Alone, Joe Pesci, playing one half of the Wet Bandits, has an identifying gold tooth. It’s a gaudy accessory that Pesci flashes when he sneers, and it ultimately becomes his undoing, when kid hero Kevin McCallister uses the tooth to identify Pesci as a fraud. Several Halloweens ago, I dressed as Joe Pesci, a.k.a. Harry, complete with a gold tooth cap I bought off the internet.

I agree with having a prominent gold tooth. It appeals to me. If I’m going to invest so much money into my smile, I’d like people to be made aware of it. Not by the way my mouth turns up at the corners or the ways my eyes crinkle when I smile, but from a piece of mouth jewelry that lets the world know: Hey! I like candy, I have soft teeth, and this is my badge of honor.

Ali Kelley is a writer living in Chicago. She hosts and produces the long-running storytelling show, Story Club Chicago. She writes about ’90s pop culture, teen angst and riding the train on her blog, Sleepoverz.

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