Perfect Bite image
A warm spring night, a country club dance,a date with an attractive young man—and braces on my two front teeth.
My mother was determined to make me perfect, including perfect teeth, in the early 1930s while I was still in high school. This required weekly after-school visits to an orthodontist, a cheerful woman named Dr. Goethe. She fastened metal braces, with tiny hooks attached, to straighten recalcitrant teeth. Small rubber bands applied to the hooks increased pressure on the braces. I relieved my aching jaws by snapping the rubber bands with my tongue, especially at night, when I often lay awake aching and snapping.
Right after my sixteenth birthday I demanded that all my braces be removed. Dr. Goethe took everything off—what a relief!—except the metal bands around my two front teeth. Grandma Good, my maternal grandmother, had a lovely face, but her smile was spoiled by a gap between her two front teeth. When my second teeth arrived, I had the same space, and Dr. Goethe dedicated our dental appointments to closing it.
That spring an attractive ‘‘older man”—two years my senior, known as Junior—invited me to a dance at the local country club. I was thrilled. It was the first time he had asked me for a date. He had a reputation as a good dancer and I loved to dance. There weren’t that many opportunities to whirl around a dance floor, especially to the tunes of the well-known orchestra hired from New York for the occasion.
Dating for me and most of my friends was an innocent pastime. The boys’ parents knew our parents, and usually we went to the local movies. Your date called for you promptly after supper, driving his parents’ car.
By the day of the dance, all my braces were gone except, unhappily, the ones most visible, and Dr. Goethe was making her final assault on those two front teeth. She put an extra little hook on the front of each of the two banded teeth and threaded them with tough dental string. Then she pulled the ends of the string as hard as she could, and made a double knot. I could actually feel my teeth moving toward each other.
Dr. Goethe held up a small mirror and said, “Open your mouth so you can see for yourself.” I was confronted with the glint of metal, and white strings hanging from the offending teeth. “I’m sixteen years old, I’m too old for braces,” I wailed. “Please take them off.”
Dr. Goethe patted my shoulder. “We’re making great progress,” she said. “You’ll be so pleased with the results!” She was smiling as she helped me out of the chair. “Make an appointment to come back every week so we can keep those strings tight.”
That night was a special occasion; I was going to a real dance. While I was getting dressed I kept looking in the mirror. “How disgusting can you get?” I asked Dr. Goethe’s braces. I must remember to keep my mouth shut.
I had recently acquired my first lipstick, and I carefully used it now to paint along the line of my lips. The first time I had worn lipstick my father stepped up to the door as I was leaving and wiped it off. We hadn’t spoken for a week, until he promised never, not ever, to do that again. Mother explained to me that he had to get used to my being grown up. “We must try to help him,” she said.
Junior arrived on time. I had read about dating etiquette in the “girls’ pages” of a magazine, so I kept him waiting a few minutes before gliding down the stairs to join him.
We arrived at the club, and when I left my coat in the ladies’ room I was startled to see a middle-aged woman sitting there on a chair, wearing a white nurse’s uniform.
“Are you really a nurse?” I asked.
“Yes, I am,” she said.
“Is someone sick?”
“No, but there is a lot of drinking at these dances and the club management likes to be prepared for emergencies. Some of the women get real sick. I take care of them when they throw up.” She laughed when I made a face.
I was too young to have seen a lot of drinking. The boys I dated were not old enough to drink legally, and we had attended the same dancing classes since we were twelve. My parents only served liquor at home when they were hosting a dinner party. Before the guests arrived my father laid a written cocktail recipe on the table and collected all the ingredients into a silver shaker. After all the guests were seated in the living room he made a great show of shaking the contents. My sister Jane and I peeked through the kitchen door when he poured the cocktails from the shaker into small glasses for the guests. A maid hired for the evening passed around a plate of delicious appetizers, which we had sampled in the kitchen beforehand. If wine was served with dinner, I never saw it.
When I came out of the ladies’ room at the club, the party was in full swing. Junior was waiting for me, and we walked through the two reception rooms to the big dining room, which had been cleared for dancing. All the tables and chairs had been pushed back along the walls and windows.
The musicians were taking a break. Right at the edge of the dance floor a beautiful dark-haired girl in a low-cut evening dress, with her skirt up around her waist, was “riding horse” on the back of a young man in a tuxedo, down on all fours. She was shrieking and very drunk. I recognized her; she was the daughter of some friends of my parents, several years older than me. I had seen her once or twice in the daytime, coming in from the golf course, very smart in white golf togs. She always looked so sophisticated and sure of herself, and I had always wished I could be like her.
But this scene was so distasteful. I was shocked. Seventy-five years later I can still see her, so beautiful, so out of control. We stood and watched her bouncing up and down on the unfortunate man’s back until the orchestra started up again. People returned to the dance floor, and the girl dismounted and sat down at a table of noisy drinkers.
Junior was a very good dancer. We danced through several music intervals, switching partners occasionally and having a very good time. Because I am five feet one inch tall, my face usually rested on the chest of my dancing partner. I would talk through the dance and still be talking as we walked back to our seats. I felt it was my duty to entertain my partners by talking.
At the end of the last dance, when the music stopped, all the dancers separated from their partners—everyone but me. I had been talking to Junior, and when we tried to draw apart, I found that my face was trapped in his tie. I tried gently to disengage, but I was hooked.
“What’s the matter?” Junior said.
“I’m stuck,” I mumbled. “My teeth are caught in your tie.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“The braces on my teeth have hooks,” I said. “I can’t get them out of your tie!”
By this time people were beginning to leave the dance floor, and all I could do was stand there with my head and teeth buried in his chest.
Junior began to laugh. He tried to help me, while other dancers gathered around to watch the fun.
“Listen, Junior,” I muttered from below. “Maybe if we get off the dance floor we can work it out.”
“But we can’t just walk off the dance floor like this.”
“I guess you’d better take off your tie,” I said. “If you can.”
He couldn’t. My head was in the way.
By then quite a crowd was watching us, laughing. We slowly manoeuvred to the edge of the floor. A friend of Junior’s slid up to us and said, “What seems to be the trouble?”
I pointed toward Junior’s tie. Junior said, “A couple of Edith’s teeth are caught in my tie. Help us out.”
His friend leaned down and flipped the tie off the hooks. Junior and I stood apart and chorused, “Thank you!”
I could hear trouble in the ladies’ room before I got in the door. The nurse was administering to a drunk guest in a toilet stall who was sick to her stomach. I thought, if this is what it’s like to be grown up, I don’t want any part of it.
A friend picking up her coat at the same time said, “What was going on between you and Junior at the end of the dance?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” I was mortified.
I was still embarrassed on the way home even though Junior and I laughed about the ludicrous scene we had made, thanks to Dr. Goethe. When he left my house I marched upstairs. My mother was wide awake, waiting to hear about the dance.
“Tomorrow,” I said. “All my braces come off. Tomorrow. No matter what.”
And they did.
After that evening, Junior and I always greeted each other as old friends. By silent, mutual agreement, we knew that one date was enough.