Tuesday, January 2, 2024

"Girls Don’t Spit!" (appeared in Bindweed: Winter Wonderland Anthology, December 2022)

My childhood summers usually stretched long and dull, but, to my surprise and delight, I was sent to camp after fifth grade. Nothing fancy. A huddle of barracks in a sandy fenced-in area accommodated a few dozen kids and a handful of counselors. Pine trees offered scant shade under the harsh gaze of the Israeli sun; pools of brown needles gathered at their feet. The air smelled of dust.
The camp girls were all younger than me, but I recognized Dudie: a curly boy a year above me in school, with warm smiling eyes. Together, we climbed an old oak tree at the edge of camp. I reached the higher branches while he followed me with tentative moves. We played catch; he’d dodge me with sharp turns just as my fingertips were about to tap his shoulder. We burst into waves of laughter.
When he befriended some boys from his group, our playtime changed to me tailing him around. He didn’t mind. In fact, I saw him glance in my direction a few times with a slight smile on his lips. I relished the fuzzy warmth in my chest as I watched him play Cowboys and Indians with his friends. I found him by the water fountain or in the yard during snack time.
Soon, I began to mimic him. My walk turned a little stiffer, arms thrust in boy confidence. And I picked up a new habit: spitting to the ground, just like him. His frequent spitting impressed me; I never knew anyone who did that. It added to his uniqueness. I’d collect saliva in my mouth for a few seconds, suck the bubbly fluid onto my tongue, and hurl it into the ground with intention, observing the dark dent my spit left in the dirt with deep satisfaction.
Summer ended, school restarted, and now I’d search for Dudie in the schoolyard during recess. He wasn’t hard to find; I easily spotted his light-brown curls among the other heads. And his lingering by the back gate of the school, a mischievous flicker in his eyes as soon as he saw me, helped with the finding. Our eyes would meet-not-meet, kindling that curious warmth in my chest.
He’d peel himself off the gate and amble around, making sure I wasn’t too far from the edge of his vision. And every so often, he’d stop, bend his head down and send a juicy splash of saliva into the dusty ground. I followed suit from a few steps away.
A few weeks into the school year, Principal Hannah wanted to see me. I was no stranger to the inside of her office, but this time I had no clue as to my possible offense. It must be a mistake, I supposed as I skipped down the steps from my classroom on the second floor to her office near the school entrance.
The door was open. She looked up from her cluttered desk and motioned me to enter. I walked in and sat in the chair across from her.
“I didn’t get in trouble with Ilana this year,” I declared in automatic self-defense.
Hannah leaned back in her chair. “Bringing a stray dog into the classroom was a bad idea,” she said, and I could swear she was hiding a smile.
“I rescued a lost puppy I found in the hallway on my way to the bathroom,” I reiterated last year’s reasoning. “And everyone loved him.”
“English lesson isn’t the time to play with animals,” she said, also repeating her last year’s logic, and the hidden smile snuck into her face, stretching her upper lip over the large front teeth.
I rested my case with a small shrug. “But am I in trouble now?”
“Well, no,” she said, and a smiley crowning a halo formed above my head and nodded at me in approval.
“However,” she added, leaning slightly forward in her chair, the grey in her green eyes solidifying, “some teachers reported seeing you spit on the ground during break.”
Wait, what?
My hovering smiley looked down at me with a lifted eyebrow.
“You know better than that,” Hannah continued, face firming into her familiar admonishing expression. “It’s a disgusting habit.”
“Oh …” I mumbled.
My smiley shook its head in displeasure and dissolved like vapor.
The office air felt stuffy now although the door was still open.
“Moreover,” Hannah said, and her raised tone indicated she was about to lay down her closing argument, “girls don’t spit!”
I stumbled out of the office, crossed the red-tiled courtyard of the fortress-like building, and staggered into the empty schoolyard, tipsy with thoughts. All I could think about was the circulating rumor that Hannah was about to get married. I tried to imagine her future husband; what sort of man would marry a tall and large-shouldered woman, with a strong barky voice and ginormous teeth? Was he tall and robust like her, or short and timid, letting her be boss? And how would he handle kissing such a mouth? Can she draw her incisors inward the way one can suck in a belly?
But the question that troubled me most was this: why would she want to marry at all? She had surely passed the age of having children, whatever that age was. She was smart, self-sufficient, independent. Very different from Biblical Hannah, who was obsessed with having a baby boy, probably for fear of losing her husband’s love if she didn’t fulfill this wifely duty. But my Hannah didn’t need anything like that. She was an educated school principal, not some biblical wife.
I’ll never marry, I decided. Ever.
I spat to the ground for the last time and watched my spittle vanish into the packed dirt, creating a glob of muck. This really is a disgusting habit, I thought; why on earth did I find it mimic-worthy? See what liking a boy does to a girl, I wanted to tell Hannah. And I wondered if boys are allowed to do as they please because they might die in war someday.
The school bell sounded its harsh and jolting ring, sending swarms of kids into the yard, and I soon spotted Dudie by the gate, smiling at me with his warm eyes, his curls gleaming in the sun.
I wrinkled my face at him. “Spitter,” I muttered under my breath, turned around, and strode away.