There’s a man who stands at the bottom of the brown line steps I descend every Monday through Friday. Sometimes my heels get stuck in the grate. Sometimes I don’t wear heels.
But he’s always there.
As reliable as a weatherman’s three-day prediction.
By the time I get to the last step he’s seen me and he yells, always, as I pass, “Hey, pretty smile!”
And I smile and turn down the free newspaper he’s selling for a dollar.
But I always smile. And he always gives me the compliment.
Here’s the thing though: I don’t have a pretty smile.
It’s yellow, like the pages of an old book that loves to bask openly in the sun. They’re a sign of a life lived for fun. Coffee stains and nicotine and a snaggled-up bottom row made a mess by forgetting to wear a retainer. Or refusing to. Or just simply having better teenager-things to do than remember where I put the plastic and metal that meant mostly nothing to me.
I think of my teeth every time I see my dad. They are a direct bloodline hand-me-down from him. Well-worn and hardworking. We’ve never had a cavity, neither one of us. Though my mom, with her pioneer-white grin, has had many. As a kid, I always thought she had been sneaking Oreos and that’s why her teeth in the back were black.
Dad’s teeth are a bit of a joke between me and my siblings. He used to jut out his bottom row and make a “Beep beep beep” alarm with his voice whenever he saw something out of place after we were supposed to have picked up and tidied a room.
At first he did this out of anger, but it made us giggle so hard that eventually I think he liked that this technique allowed him to scold us while not being too harsh. His is a pretty smile because it’s so ugly.
I’ve been pricing out adult orthodontics, driven by my upcoming wedding and knowing the photos will be around forever. I know how important looks are, how much they matter even though we like to tell each other they don’t, with a pat on the head.
Looking at old photos, dusty from decades in a shoebox, I know I’m drawn to the ones with attractive people. I know the photographs I want to keep or imagine the stories behind—and they’re always ones of pretty people. What will happen to my photos if my teeth are bad? If I’m not beautiful? Where will my story go?
I’m calmed by knowing that generally people are beautiful when they’re young, even if they’ve got touches of mistakes. Like a right front tooth that juts out and slants to the side a millimeter further than the one on the left. Like mine.
I’m calmed by knowing it shouldn’t matter and I want to tell the people who care about these kinds of things to, well, bite me.
But here I am.
Looking for the stranger, with the news no one wants to buy, to tell me I’m pretty.
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