It’s about a two hour drive one way from Hampstead, Maryland to Fairfax, Virginia. My parents said Uncle Charlie, my step-grandmother’s son-in-law, who I had never met until his gloved hands were reaching into forced open mouth with sharp instruments, was giving them a really good deal on my braces. It must have been some heck of a bargain between the cost of gas and my dad taking off time from work to transport me to appointments, but however my parents came to the decision, that commute became part of mine and Dad’s bimonthly routine. A roadtrip to promote straighter teeth.
Packing for such trips involved the Jess & Dad mix tape, a spiral notebook, plenty of pens, and a brand new box of tissues, as I was prone to nose bleeds and Dad always feared we would run out if we relied on a previously opened box.
We would spend nearly the entire trip listening and singing to the cassette, which included favorites such as “Under the Boardwalk,” “Sad Movies Always Make Me Cry,” “The Locomotion,” “Big John,” “I’m So Hurt,” and “Splish, Splash,” while we watched for out-of-state license plates for me to record.
Depending on how much coffee my father had drank that morning, we might need to pull the car over to the side of the highway so my father could relieve himself in the bushes. Generally, when he returned I would have locked him out of the car, and we would both laugh as he banged on the driver’s side door to be let in.
Short of the red clown nose, Uncle Charlie was the Patch Adams of orthodontistry. Inside his office were toys and gadgets galore. Appealing to my Dad’s love of all things plastic, neon, and free: wind-up teeth, creatures with googly eyes, Where’s Waldo books, and Magic Eye posters would entertain him while I reclined in an exam chair with a bright light in my face and the supposed taste of “bubble gum” lingering from some kind of gunky mold.
We always left Uncle Charlie’s with a pretty extensive goodie bag that encompassed more than just a free toothbrush and floss. Everyone in the office loved my father, and to show their appreciation for us coming such a long way, all of the receptionists and assistants would spoil us to pieces with homemade sweets, Frisbees, smiley face key chains, Silly Putty, balloons and other Dr. Charles Price and Associates paraphernalia. We had gone to get my braces tightened, and it looked like we had left a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese.
There was this pretty amazing frozen custard shop at a strip mall near Uncle Charlie’s. We would go there after every visit, but not without getting lost first, even though it was just around the corner from the office. Our driving in circles was part of the routine, and we both respected tradition.
The drive home would be pretty much a replica of the drive there. Same tape, same loud, obnoxious singing, same license plate games. Sometimes, as long as Mom wasn’t waiting with dinner, my dad would take the long way home so we could drive past the huge, beautiful Mormon church.
Upon arriving home, we would be immersed again in the goings on of the rest of my family, and I would have to go to my room to do homework. But, while traveling to and from the orthodontist’s, the road would belong just to us.