The first time I remember someone telling me I had bad breath was before I was five years old. I only know this because we lived in Eureka at the time. We moved from Northern California to Southern California when I was five.
I have very few memories from back then. I remember the color of the pink carpet in our house. I remember running around on it with my brother like crazy wild-things in our slippered pajamas. I remember my uncle was visiting and he was playing us songs on his guitar.
We loved his songs. My uncle is very funny and he’d often make up songs about regular every day happenings in our life. He’d have us rolling with laughter. My favorite song was called “Birds Eat and Eat and Eat” and it was taken from some random book I checked out at the library. Because of that song, that book quickly became my favorite book and I checked it out over and over trying to relive the fun of my uncle’s singing.
But this night I remember trying to squeeze into the chair with my brother and my rather large uncle and his guitar. Maybe I was climbing up the back or sitting on the arm, I don’t remember. I just remember my uncle telling me to go brush my teeth after I had just brushed them already. I ran back down the hall and brushed them again. I hated the taste of toothpaste but I wanted to hear another song. And that is where that memory ends.
* * *
Fast-forward to college. I am living at my aunt and uncle’s house (a different uncle than the guitar-playing uncle). I am going to Cal State Hayward in the Bay Area and the world is a great big scary place for me. I am living with them because I am not quite ready to be on my own and live in a dorm like my classmates.
I’ve never been called an old soul. I’ve always felt and looked four years younger than I really am and because of that, college itself is terrifying. I never even drove on a freeway before I moved here. Every day feels like the first day of school.
I am standing at the counter where the family room meets the kitchen. It is a big counter with large brick-like white tiles. The grout between the tiles is putty-colored but very clean. My aunt’s house is always clean and this is a novelty to me. I feel like I’ve moved up a notch on the caste system because I am living in a two-story house that has lush brown carpet which is vacuumed more than twice a week.
I am leaning on the counter and my aunt says she has a present for me. It’s a little bottle of green fluid. The tiniest bottle you have ever seen. The size of one of those food-coloring squirters. It reminds me of green food coloring. It’s concentrated mouthwash and it smells like alcohol. Though I do not know what alcohol smells like yet because I am young and naive.
My aunt explains to me that sometimes I have really bad breath and these drops will help. She shows me how to dispense a drop or two on my tongue. It tastes like Nyquil and I hate it but I squirrel it away in my pocket and use it daily.
I didn’t know I had bad breath. I start to become obsessed and think about it more than being fat (which is a lot). I worry that I’ve been spewing brown clouds of death all these years and no one has told me. I feel like I am handicapped and I can’t tell anyone. I lump myself in with the kids I remember from high school that had b.o. so bad that everyone shunned them and made jokes about them when they were out of earshot.
Eventually, I forget about this sequence of events and learn to live in the real world anyway. I think I may have confided in a few girl friends and being the great friends that they were, they consoled me and told me they had never noticed that I had bad breath. Maybe they lied or maybe they really couldn’t smell anything.
* * *
I am home from college for the summer. I am cocky and self-assured. I am the big shot in my small hometown. My head is filled with liberal ideas from the big city and for once I don’t feel like a floundering idiot. Even though I have a so-called boyfriend, I go out on dates with some of my old high-school friends who happen to be men now.
I don’t think of the dates as “dates”. But I do get dressed up and practice my newly-acquired flirtation skills. I am an awful flirt. Years later I will cringe when I think of the things I use to say to the boys I collected like shiny rocks. I do not realize it now, but I am naive fool.
Hormones were raging but I am a goody-goody church girl who reads her bible everyday. I am a walking contradiction in my cut-off jeans so short you can see my butt cheeks hanging out the bottom. I have never kissed a boy or even held hands.
I am out to dinner with an old high school friend. He is a cute Mexican boy who sat next to me in biology and probably passed only because he had a crush on me and I tutored him. We are at the Red Lobster, an hour and a half away from our small town. The food here seems expensive to us and it is sort of a big deal that he pays for me. He still lives with his parents and is probably paying for dinner with money he earned working for his father who owns a watermelon farm.
We are sitting on the hood of his truck in the parking lot after dinner. Just shooting the breeze. We are enjoying the warm summer night air and not wanting to go home to our parents house. Not wanting the night of independence to end. He offers me a stick of gum.
I had recently read, in one of the popular Chicken Soup for the Soul books, that if someone offers you a breath mint you should take it, because you probably need it. Being the cocky fool that I am I bring this up flippantly. It doesn’t even register that this may be the truth. That I actually may be the brunt of this joke. My friend looks me in the eyes and gently says, “You do have bad breath, Brenda.” Part of me knows that he cares about me and does not want to hurt me but the truth hurts and I shut down. I go inside myself and try not to breathe.
* * *
When I get back to college I try to get to the bottom of the problem. I make an appointment with the college health clinic. They smell nothing on me. They inspect my teeth and find nothing. I go to the dentist, and he finds no decay. There is nothing wrong with my tongue, my tonsils or even my throat. It is a big mystery.
After I graduate from college and finally have decent insurance I visit doctor after doctor. No one can tell me anything. The best anyone can do is tell me that it is something in my stomach and there is no cure. The good news is that I don’t have bad breath every day. In fact, I sometimes go for six months without having it. Some of my friends swear they’ve never noticed. My parents never noticed it. It’s an elusive problem that hides just long enough for me to forget about it and then appears just long enough to slap me over the head for forgetting.
* * *
I have my first big corporate job and an extra hundred dollars to spend every week. It is freedom like I’ve never known before. I am living far away from my parents and having a torrid (though not-yet sexual) romance with my boyfriend. It is a long-distance relationship, with him in the Bay Area and me in Southern California. Frequently I drive to the airport, lock up my car in long-term parking and shell out that extra hundred bucks to hop on a plane for 45 minutes to go visit him. It is fun and exhilarating. I feel like a jet-setter even though I have massive guilt for keeping secrets from my parents.
My boyfriend doesn’t have a car for some reason. On one visit, he gets a friend to pick me up in her car. The friend is driving and he is in the passenger seat. I want to impress this girl by being cool with their friendship, so I tell my boyfriend to stay in the front seat instead of getting in the back with me. Later I will wonder if this friend was more than a friend but right now I suspect nothing. I am giddy and in love.
I’m leaning up front to tell them bits of this and that about my new real job as a graphic artist. I think I am hot stuff. I’m wearing my new baby doll dress with leggings and clunky clogs. I am so metropolitan next to them in their pajama bottoms, baggy gray t-shirts and running shoes.
Later, at his rented room, my boyfriend cannot kiss me. He tells me I have bad breath. I am crushed, and I think back to the ride from the airport. I remember talking, and laughing, and leaning forward into the front seat between them. I wonder now, were they communicating silently to each other about me? About my bad breath? Were they secretly laughing at me? I feel like something isn’t right.
I brush my teeth over and over in the ice cold water that runs from the old-fashioned sink. The cold-water handle is brass. There is a rust stain on the side of the porcelain bowl where the water drips constantly. I brush and brush and drink mouthwash like it is water and I am parched. Nothing works. We go to sleep in his single bed and I turn away from him because he cannot breathe the same air as me.
The distance, not my bad breath, takes its toll and we break up.
* * *
I have been dating Toby for a while when he experiences my bad breath full-force. We are at the beach, the same beach that my daughter and I will walk on nearly every day a few years from now. I am wearing some awful skin-colored work-out pants and a baggy t-shirt. Toby is in the middle of a getting-in-shape phase and we take a run on the beach together. We run one lap and then stop. Toby tells me about my bad breath.
He is really the first person who helps me understand what it is like to be around me when I am having an episode of halitosis. Because I really don’t know. Everyone assumes that I can tell when my breath smells bad. I mean, the smell takes up every ounce of clean air in a five-mile radius, so how can I not know?
I do not know the answer to that. It is something to do with how my nose works (I smell things differently than other people) and how the intake of breath is the exact opposite of my breathing out. I try to smell my own breath but I cannot. I breathe into my hand, I stick my finger down my throat and smell my finger… you name it, I’ve tried it. I do not want to be that smelly girl. But nothing works, I cannot smell my own bad breath.
Because Toby is Toby, he is very scientific about it. He is completely shocked that my body can emit such an incredible amount of foul smell. He is convinced that I have something seriously wrong with me. Kidney? Stomach? Rotting trench mouth? What could it be?
Over the months and years we research and keep track of common symptoms. I read a lot about acid reflux and we become pretty sure it is tied to that. It has a lot to do with what I eat, where I am in my cycle and how stressed out I am. A surefire way to cause it is to eat something with tomatoes, then drink a big fat mocha while I am pms-ing. I’m pretty scary.
We learn that the best way to make it go away is to eat something and not think about it. A green apple works wonders. Green apples are my friend. I pretty much always have one or two in my fruit bowl.
It’s not 100% proven yet because sometimes Toby doesn’t want to ruin my day by telling me I have bad breath. It still stops me in my tracks and sends me crying to my room wishing I had never been born. But we work out secret signals. He often just holds his hand to his mouth and looks me in the eye and I know that I need to back away and not engage in any intimate conversation. It’s not a perfect system but it works most of the time.
I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that I’m still lovable even if I smell like a garbage disposal. Can you believe it?!! I’ve heard that kids are the best for letting you know when you smell without hurting your feelings. So far Baby Bug hasn’t seemed to mind breathing the same air as me, though I’m sure the day is coming.