Twenty-eight teeth form neat pickets along my upper and lower gums. The teeth have been artificially straightened and whitened. My toothpaste contains fluoride, tartar control, and additional whitening agents. My electric toothbrush rotates forty thousand times and oscillates four thousand times per minute. Each night, after brushing, I gently prod a plastic-bristled pick between each tooth and along the gums. I drink milk to make them stronger. I wear lipstick to make them seem whiter. I smile.
When I was a snaggle-toothed tomboy entering kindergarten, my parents bought a Those Wonderful School Years Memory Album: a cheap, spiral-bound book organized by school year, each with a spot on which to glue a class photo; blanks for listing best friends, pets, favorite subjects, what I want to be when I grow up; a pocket for report cards and mementoes. Illustrations of wholesome multiracial 1970s children engaging in wholesome 1950s activities accompany each page, and age accordingly, so that the freckle-faced lad shown menacing a blond pixie with a toad in first grade becomes a tall, muscle-car driving teen taking that same blond to prom in the twelfth. When I was very young, my mother and I would assemble each page together; later I took over the job entirely, my cramped, boyish handwriting replacing her elegant script.
Here, in first grade, is a photo that for me best represents my grade school years. I’m wearing a red vee-neck sweater, have a blunt pageboy haircut (Mom’s handiwork), and look either stoned or miserable or both. I remember feeling gloomy and uncooperative (perhaps because of that sweater Mom had selected) on the day of the school pictures, and when the chipper photographer instructed me to “Say ‘Peaches!’” I did so in the best deadpan a six-year-old could deliver. Weeks later, when the pictures arrived, Mom was aghast. “You didn’t smile! We shouldn’t even buy these!” But she did, because that awkward, grim-faced kid was, in fact, who I was.
When did I first read Hamlet? I remember having to memorize and recite Marc Antony’s funeral oration for Caesar in twelfth grade, and dimly recall Romeo and Juliet around the tenth. I must’ve encountered the melancholy Dane in school, but I don’t remember when; the worlds of kings, queens, murder and magic that Shakespeare had created seemed cold and remote. I preferred Stephen King and the Beatles. But Hamlet begins close to home, with a mom and stepdad whose kid is bumming everybody out. C’mon, cheer up, they urge him; you’re bringing everybody down with the black clothes and the sad face. Would it kill you to put on a smile?
“You have a very small mouth,” my orthodontist said. I don’t remember what I replied; probably something like “unggh,” since his fingers and instruments were inside my too-small mouth at the time. At any rate, I was too young and naive at fourteen to find anything sexual in his remark, though boyfriends to whom I later repeated it certainly have. I was just there to be fitted for braces, which I insisted I didn’t need, despite the jumble my permanent teeth had become. I was afraid of the pain, the awkwardness of stuck food and popping rubber bands, of looking even dorkier. “It’s important to have good teeth,” my parents said. Both of them had grown up poor, had gone without a lot of things, including orthodontia. “We want you to have a beautiful smile.”
Approximately 80% of American teens wear or have worn braces. Just over 50% of American teens have engaged in oral sex.
Another photo: ninth grade, a pinkish vee-neck Izod sweater (what’s with the sweaters?), a Pat Benatar mullet haircut. Either someone said something funny, or Mom must’ve leaned on me that morning, because I’m smiling, a mouthful of chrome. Who could’ve cracked the joke, to make me grin like that? Not the photographer; it must’ve been a friend. I was just forming a group of good friends, who studied together for Shakespeare exams, smoked a little pot, swapped Kurt Vonnegut novels and Led Zeppelin tapes. I dutifully recorded their names in Those Wonderful School Years. We laughed a lot; we smirked more than we smiled. It must’ve been one of them.
“I just can’t believe it. Let me see again,” my father said. I swallowed my mashed potatoes and bared my teeth. “I can’t believe it. That’s such an improvement.” I nodded and forked more potatoes, the only thing I could bear to chew the day my braces were removed.
“Oh, it really is,” Mom chimed in. She and Dad eyed my sister, who looked nervous.
Why belabor the pictures? They’re all the same: the angsty teen, the terrible sweaters, the grim or glum or tentative or falsely cheerful line of my mouth. I was unhappy, and often angry. All teenagers are unhappy and angry. College students, too. Graduate students. Married women. Women whose parents are divorced. Divorced women.
“Smile, Juliana,” Dad said from behind the camera on Christmas morning, every Christmas.
Mom shouted, “Show your teeth!”
And, eventually, I did. I don’t know when, exactly, but perhaps around the same time I realized I no longer wanted to be with my husband, I started smiling. It’s as if some part of my brain finally sizzled with the message, It’s what people want you to do, so just do it. It’ll be easier.
And it was. I was charming and funny at dinners. I smiled at everyone. They smiled back. When I couldn’t remember someone’s name at a party, I said, “Oh, hi!” and smiled as if delighted. I made it through tedious anecdotes by grinning like a Cheshire cat. When I got stuck in an awkward conversation, I still got away from that person as quickly as possible, but did so with all my pearlies flashing. I made a good impression in job interviews. In my classroom, I became an upbeat professor encouraging her students with positive energy.
I went for long runs. I listened to loud music and hurt my hand pounding the walls. I sometimes cried. The laugh lines deepened.
“Assume a virtue if you have it not,” Hamlet advises Gertrude, begging her not to share a bed with her murderous husband, but to seem nonetheless a loving, faithful wife.
Earlier in the play, the Prince has a different epiphany: “That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”
No statistics are available on the number of American teens with braces who have engaged in oral sex while watching Hamlet.
It is quite possible, these days, that my friends and acquaintances consider me an optimist. They might even believe that I am happy. And, most of the time, I am, or at least happy enough. But what bothers me is how quickly the mask of a smile is replaced by directionless anger; how I drive away from boring first (only) dates by blasting Arcade Fire and pounding my fist into the dashboard; how I can endure a faculty party for only ten minutes before I duck out, shaking. Being happy is exhausting.
When I divorced my husband, a friend advised me in all kindness to talk with a therapist. I refused. It’s normal to be unhappy in a situation like this, I reasoned. Unhappiness doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me; in fact, it means the opposite. Happiness is not a default, or an entitlement. I believe this. I say it with a smile.
Brian Wilson was close to completing what would have been The Beach Boys’ finest record, Smile, when he suffered a mental breakdown in 1967. Wilson has struggled with depression and anxiety for over forty years. Smile—a very dark album—was released to unanimous critical acclaim in 2004.
Most of my friends take some form of antidepressant. I never have. Neither did Hamlet, and I don’t believe either the melancholy Dane or I really need them. When the wind is southerly, I know a vee from a vee-neck.
My father looked a little perplexed when I told him, a few years ago, that making me wear braces was the best thing my parents had ever done for me. He doesn’t get the smile– the mask, the shield, the sheer weaponry of it—because I use it on him. For the last decade, off and on, he has been dating the ex-wife of my orthodontist; in fact, he was seeing her when he and my mother divorced. Dad told me on his last visit that they were talking about getting married.
He could see how happy I was. I showed my teeth.
Juliana Gray is the author of Roleplay and Anne Boleyn’s Sleeve, winner of the Winged City Chapbook Press 2013 poetry contest. Recent poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from River Styx, The Journal, Unsplendid, and elsewhere. An Alabama native, she lives in western New York and teaches at Alfred University.