Looking back, I can recount— although perhaps, at times, incompletely, and often, I admit, sensationally—— a brief episode between my four-year-old self and a close childhood friend: a young girl named Mary, similarly diminished in age and stature, a miniature co-star, with whom I shared an afternoon that I will always remember.
In pre-school, “Cooties” was a pestilence. Proliferating through playgrounds, lying dormant in dusty board games, hatching in cubbies— yes, I was exposed, but no, I did not contract this contagious aversion to the opposite sex. Like many good things in my childhood, this small miracle was the work of my mother. With the wisdom and wherewithal reserved for those who have lived past puberty, my mom scheduled play-dates for my friend Mary and I, through which I was to become gradually vaccinated as we became more thoroughly acquainted. This process, though disordered in my memory, had a bright spot that I remember rather clearly to this day: an afternoon that I long ago filed away, and now I choose to share— at least as fully as my memory and your patience will permit.
On this afternoon, in Mary’s living room, we are children, cocooned, and we are cozy. We are sprawled over the edge of her gray couch, upside-down, legs tucked into pillows, the blood rushing to our heads like the dot in an exclamation point. Her babysitter, whose name, I distinctly remember, was Irma, is on the phone in the next room, leaning against the doorway. She has an accent that I cannot pinpoint at age four. She uses phrases like “be all and end all,” and “other fish in the sea,” accenting her words with synchronous squats and gesticulated quote-unquotes like raptor claws— doing so requires her to cradle the receiver against her shoulder. Her hair-curlers rattle against the door frame. This whole picture is upside-down because we are, in fact, upside-down.
“My head is starting to feel like a vacuum cleaner,” I say.
Mary’s face is just blotches of primary colors— her skin is getting redder by the minute, and her yellow hair is splattered against the blue carpet. Yellow and blue, of course, make green, and I’m starting to feel sick. I wriggle off the couch and feel the blood rush back to my body. Using her head as a pivot, Mary twists sidewise and burrows deeper into the pillows as if to demonstrate just how comfortably she outlasted me.
“I won,” she says.
Mary somersaults off the couch and onto her knees. She plucks her glass of orange juice from the coffee table and takes a two-handed sip. With a goading glance in my direction, she shares it with her dog, a Wizard-of-Oz-ly Yorkie, whose name I have lost, like gym shorts, and never found.
“That’s gross!” I say.
“Dog’s mouths are cleaner than people,” she replies. Her dog laps from her outstretched cup.
“Well he doesn’t like it,” I retort.
Before Mary responds, I’ll have you know that, at age four, I am a sight to behold. I have red, round glasses, an unruly shrub of brown hair, and a thoroughly chewed shirt collar to boot. Mary is taller than me.
“Yes he does. Let’s go to my room,” she says.
We play a game. I don’t remember exactly how it begins, or how the stakes are raised, but it is to the following effect: I pull the blanket off Mary’s bed and drape it over both of us on her carpeted floor. Twisted up like pasta on a fork, we are ‘trapped’— getting out will not be as simple as just standing up. We decide that, in our game, there is only one means of escape. In order to escape from this blanket, we need to get married; in order to get married, we need to kiss. Mary and I assert that, yes, this is gross, yes, grosser than sharing orange juice with a dog, and we dramatically complain about the game that we are subjecting ourselves to. We invoke a rule about practice kisses— the first two times, we will just blow each other a kiss, and the third time, we will actually kiss on the lips. Despite constant pouting, we ready ourselves beneath the blanket. Hidden from the world, we can try and pretend it isn’t even happening. We lean toward one another. We blow each other a kiss. We blow each other a kiss. We—
“Wait!” I say.
“What about after?” I ask. “Don’t we need water to wash it off?”
Throwing off the blanket, we scurry to the bathroom down the hall. We pass through the periphery of Irma’s sight— her hair-curlers hiss as she turns her head— and we shut the bathroom door. We fill a giant stack of Dixie cups with water: we line the floor with them, row upon row. We’ll need as many cups of water as possible because the kiss, we maintain, will be almost unbearably gross. Our arcane reasoning is, in some form or another, just an iteration of the wise words, ‘better safe than sorry.’
“Is that enough?”
“I don’t know, but we’re out of cups.”
Back in Mary’s room, the door clapped shut, the blanket forgotten and abandoned, we face each other, hands at our sides. Our feet rub the ground like tongues.
“Should we practice again?” I wonder.
“Yes,” she says.
We blow each other a kiss.
We blow each other a kiss.
We lean, foot-friction, tippy-toes, we lean, our lips lean, our lips touch, we—“Marrrrrrrrrrry!” Her baby-sitter squeals like a deflating balloon, her voice all wet and blurting down the hall. “Mary! What are all these cups?!”
Wide-eyed, we slink to the bathroom, each of us hiding behind the other.
“What’re these for?” Irma asks, firebreathing. “What are all these cups for?”
“What are they all for?”
My brain belly-flops.
At this point, my memory clouds; I remember very little of the conversation that ensued. I do not remember anything else from that afternoon. I do not remember ever speaking to Mary about that afternoon. What I do remember is that Irma was angry and wanted answers. Mary answered her questions boldly and succinctly, her neck jutting forward, her hair whiplashing in concurrence with her words. The following is my best guess at the dialogue between Irma and Mary, reconstructed with the help of my wispy recollections and some speculation. This dialogue will conclude the story, but I don’t think that you should read into it any more deeply as a result. It’s just the last vague glimpse my mind collected before moving ahead.
“What are they all for?” Irma asks.
I look to Mary. Mary’s dog wanders in and starts lapping at the nearest cup.
“To drink,” she responds.
“Did you drink any?”
“Are you going to?”
Mary takes a moment, as if to weigh this question against all others she has previously received. “I’m not thirsty,” she replies.
Irma pulls her hair curlers out, methodically, places them next to the sink, and sidesteps the dog at her feet. “I will never understand children,” she says. “And please clean all this up.”