In Spitting Distance
Patricia Black-Gould“You only spit on the boys you like,” said Nancy.
“Spit?” I didn’t understand.
“Yeah. My cousin Renee says if you like a guy, you spit on him.” Renee just turned thirteen. Nancy said teenagers were really smart so every time she went to visit, she came back with stories about boys, something I knew nothing about as a ten-year-old.
“But isn’t spitting a sin?” I wasn’t sure because there were so many sins in our catechism book, it was heard to keep track of them.
Nancy shook her head. “I saw stealing and cheating, but not spitting.”
“Maybe we can ask Sister Lawrence once school starts.” I said.
Nancy and I went to St. Mary’s Catholic School of the Immaculate Conception. We would start fifth grade in a few weeks.
“I don’t know, Catherine.” Nancy chewed at the end of one of her long, blonde braids. “Nuns marry Jesus. They don’t know anything about boys.”
It was almost the end of summer vacation. The day was sticky and too hot to roller skate or play hopscotch. We sat at the picnic table in Nancy’s backyard, sipping lemonade. Connie Francis sang “Where the Boys Are” on my new transistor radio. She was one of my favorite singers and now she was an actress, too. I heard she sang this song in the movie with the same name. It was about college girls on spring break. My mom said I was too young to watch the movie, but one day when she was out, it was on TV. She got mad when she found out I watched the show, even though I told her I didn’t understand it much. That’s why I liked it when Nancy came home with stories from her cousin. Renee was old enough to watch those types of movies. She even got to the movies -- with a boy!
Nancy jumped up. “Let’s practice.”
I put my glass of lemonade on the table and stood up. “Practice what?”
“Because Renee said we’re getting older and soon we’ll like boys better than dolls. We need to learn what to do.”
“By spitting on them?”
Nancy searched the backyard. “Let’s find something to practice with. Go get one of your dolls and I’ll get mine.” She raced into her house. The screen door slammed with a bang behind her, leaving me standing in the backyard alone, open-mouthed.
I shut my mouth and grit my teeth, trying to think of a boy I liked enough to spit on. I couldn’t seem to come up with one, but I figured I could practice, just in case. I ran next door to my house and searched my bedroom. My favorite Barbie sat on my dresser.
Don’t worry, it’s not gonna be you.
In the closet, underneath a pile of my outgrown clothes, I noticed my old teddy bear, the one with a missing eye and stuffing sticking out of his arm.
Sorry Teddy, but I guess it’s you.
I rushed back outside. Nancy stood next to the picnic table with her Barbie in one hand and a wrinkled piece of paper in the other.
“What’s that?” I asked.
She placed the paper on the table and smoothed it out with her hand. “Renee gave me a list of teen idols and said this would help me, uh, what did she say? Oh yeah, ‘get in the mood.’ Look at these. There has to be someone you like.”
Running my finger down the list, I read the names, “Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell.” I shook my head.
“You wouldn’t even spit on Frankie Avalon?”
“Nope. But I like Dean Martin.” I watched all the Rat Pack movies. I thought Dino sang better than any of the teen idols, and I thought he was handsome.
“That old guy?”
“But my parents would kill me if I spit on Dean Martin.”
“Ok. It doesn’t matter.” She put out her hand. “Give me your teddy bear.” I held Teddy tight in my arms, but Nancy grabbed him from me and plopped him down at one end of the picnic table. She sat her Barbie on the other end.
“You’re going to spit on your Barbie?” I couldn’t believe she would do that.
“Heck yeah. That’s what Renee uses when she practices.” Nancy looked back and forth between Barbie and Teddy. “Okay, we’re ready.”
“To spit, stupid.”
“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head.
“Come on. Here’s what you do. First, you make a big wad of saliva. Remember in science class we learned about that stuff in our mouth?”
“Then you aim and spit like this. Just watch.” Nancy’s spit landed on the ground in front of her white sneakers. We both looked down. “I need more practice, but you get the idea. Your turn.”
I mustered up a mouthful of spit, looked at Teddy in his one good eye and let go. The spit dribbled down my chin and landed on my Mary Jane shoes.
Nancy sighed. “Thank goodness we have a few weeks left before we start our new class.”
We practiced so much my mouth got sore and Teddy was soaking wet. My mother wondered what happened to him. I told her I left him out in the rain too many times.
When school finally started, I had trouble concentrating on my schoolwork because I kept wondering which boy I was going to spit on.
“Look around and choose,” Nancy declared at recess one day. “There must be someone here.”
The boys in our new fifth grade class were scattered around the playground. Some were on the swings, swinging high and jumping off. One of them was my cousin, Stanley, also in our class. I watched him jump off a swing, fall, and skin his knee. Sister Lawrence ran over to him, yelling. Stanley always got in some kind of scrape.
“Can’t I spit on Stanley?” I asked.
“You can’t spit on your cousin.” Nancy shook her head. “Find someone you like-like.”
“Who are you going to spit at?”
“Guys in our class are dumb. I’ve got my eyes on a seventh-grader.”
But I was worried more about my soul than spitting on some boy. “You’re sure this isn’t a sin, Nancy?”
“Catherine, how many times did we go through the list of sins in the Catechism book? It’s not there anywhere.”
But what if she was wrong? The thought of going to confession and telling Father Novak that I spit on someone I liked frightened me. Father could get angry at us kids. Last year, he kicked Walter Gordon out of the confessional for chewing gum. Then Walter said a bad word and Father chased him around the church with a paddle.
* * *
Every new school day, I checked out the boys in my class, trying to figure out who deserved my spit. They all seemed nice enough, except for Walter, who was a bully. There was no way I’d choose him. But I needed to find someone soon and get it over with or I might flunk out of fifth grade.
One day, as we were getting in line to go to lunch, a boy lined up next to me. He had black wavy hair, dark eyes, and a nice smile.
Wow. He looks like Dean Martin.
“Hi,” he looked at me and made his smile bigger.
Just like a young Dean Martin. Hmm. I could like-like him.
I turned to him, gathered as much saliva as possible, and with all my strength, spat directly into his right eye. He stood still, a dazed expression on his face, liquid oozing down his cheek.
Finally, I did it. I showed a boy I liked him!
I hoped he’d like me, too. But then he burst into tears.
“What’s the matter? Why are you crying? Don’t you know I like-like you?” I blurted out.
“Catherine.” Someone called my name. “Come here this instant!” I turned to see Sister Lawrence glaring at me.
Sister grabbed me by the ear, dragged me back into the classroom and ordered me to wait there. Tapping my fingers on my desk and rubbing my sore ear, I wondered why Sister Lawrence was so mad. After a long wait, she returned and said we were going to the principal’s office.
“The principal?” I repeated, my voice shaking.
I followed Sister down the narrow hallway. Her sturdy shoes clicked on the hardwood floor. She opened the door to the office. Sister Ignatius, the Principal, sat behind her desk. Above her head, a crucifix hung on the wall. I looked at Jesus on the cross because I was too scared to look at Sister Ignatius. I wondered if Jesus was mad at me, too. My mother and my Aunt Rosie sat on the other side of the room.
My mother sat tall and stiff with rosary beads wrapped around her fingers. I heard her whispering the Hail Mary. My aunt had pink curlers in her hair and a white towel around her neck.
“I was in the middle of fixing my hair when your mother came over and told me Sister Lawrence called. She was so worried about you that she dragged me out of the house looking like this!” A pink curler popped open and fell to the floor. “Jesus Christ,” said Aunt Rosie as she leaned over to pick it up.
“I can explain …”
Sister Lawrence pointed to a chair. I sat down. Sister closed the door and sat next to the principal.
“Catherine, I’ve known you since kindergarten and you’ve always been such a good girl. You’ve never done anything like this before,” Sister Ignatius said.
“But I’m still a good girl.” I protested.
“Good girls never spit on their classmates. Good girls are never mean,” Aunt Rosie declared, her hair springing free from several more curlers.
Mean? How could liking someone be mean?
My mother’s lips continued moving in silent prayer as her fingers moved along her rosary.
Sister Lawrence spoke again. “Tomorrow, you will apologize to the young man and his mother. Do you understand?”
But I didn’t understand.
“Apologize? What for?” I balked, my feet scuffing the floor. Sister Lawrence glared me into silence.
My head hung low, I walked out of the office. Sister Lawrence had ordered me to go to confession and tell Father Novak what happened. I wondered what kind of penance I’d have to pay for spitting.
“Catherine,” my mother said. I looked up at her. She removed a small bottle of holy water from her black patent leather pocketbook, dipped her index finger inside, and made the sign of the cross on my forehead.
Aunt Rosie frowned at me. “Honey, you can’t spit on boys.”
“I’m not sure why, Aunt Rosie, but I promise I won’t do it again.”
I saw my cousin, Stanley, waiting down the hall and ask to be excused.
“Go ahead,” said Aunt Rosie. Mother was still speechless.
I ran to my cousin and told him what happened.
“Nancy told you that spitting on a boy means you like him? Stanley looked surprised.
“Not just like him, Stanley. It has to be someone special I like-like.”
Stanley shook his head. “I don’t know, Catherine. Once I heard the older boys talking on the playground. They said when you like someone, you do something called ‘swap spit.’”
“Yeah. It’s kinda when you kiss someone, and then stick out your tongue, and the spit goes in the other person’s mouth …”
“Yuck! That’s disgusting!” I shuffled back and forth from one foot to another. “How could anyone do that?”
“Well, that’s what I heard them say, anyway.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever like anyone that much, Stanley.”
* * *
The following day, sure enough, I apologized to the boy and his mother, unable to look either of them in the eye. That Saturday, when I went to confession, I told Father Novak why I spit on the boy. He gave me my penance, but I had a hard time understanding what he said It sounded like he was coughing.
When I got back home, I felt bad about what I did to Teddy, so I asked my mother to wash him. Then I put him on top of my dresser next to Barbie.
Nancy and I still played together. But I didn’t listen to any more stories from her cousin, Renee. I’d figure out about boys by myself. I hoped it wouldn’t take me too long because there was a new boy in my class that I could really like-like.
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