I enter a lot of writing contests, some of which announce the winners months later, by which time I’ve largely forgotten both that I’ve entered and what I wrote about. Imagine my pleasant surprise when my friend Risa notified me that we’d both been recognized for “Entries of Note” in the annual essay contest by lit mag Tiny Lights. While this may in fact be the equivalent of the “Thanks for Entering! Award,” I’ll take my accolades wherever I can. Thanks Tiny Lights!
I have a surprising hidden talent for chewing tobacco. I discovered it one fall evening during my senior year in high school, and hoped it might be the thing to change my life.
When school started in September, my familiar nerdy-girl longing to be more popular was suddenly laced with a new feeling: hope. Over the summer I’d visited a few universities, and more college visits up and down the Eastern Seaboard were on the horizon. A year from now, I realized, I’ll be watching the leaves fall on a college campus instead of here. The sudden idea that an exit ramp was approaching, and fast, made me reckless. Who says I have to be the straight arrow everyone thinks I am?
The conventional wisdom is that teenage girls worry about their weight, but in my experience the boys in high school were much more hysterical about how they looked. But maybe that’s because I pined after wrestlers. Those boys were constantly stressed about their diets during the season, wearing two pairs of sweat suits to school to perspire excess pounds away and going on long punishing runs along icy streets to burn even more calories. They used “chaw” on weigh-in days as a last ditch effort to meet their weight class, spitting brown saliva into a Brighton Barons plastic cup throughout the day until they were human-colored raisins. After weigh-in, they’d head straight over to Don & Bob’s for burgers and shakes, then, like a Sea Monkey, expand to a more recognizable shape.
The tobacco smokers in our school in the early 1980s were shunned by Authority, consigned outside to a concrete slab and called Slabbies, a name which showcased our creative streak. But the tobacco chewers were held in high esteem by their peers, and teachers turned a blind eye to the plastic cups. They were dedicated athletes, after all, and most of them were good students too, the elusive and rare Scholar Athletes. It seemed, in fact, that the only difference between their scholarly achievements, regarded as acceptable, and mine, regarded as dweeby, was that chewing tobacco.
On a night during Homecoming Week my parents were out of town and left me home alone – the rules they set for their third child being far more lax than for the first – I threw a Homecoming Party. It went as high school parties do – too many people showed up, cheap beer was drunk, out was made. But at one point I found myself alone at the dining room table with the captain of the wrestling team. He of the piercing blue eyes, dimples, and luxuriant dark hair. He who had recently broken up with his girlfriend, a brunette cheerleader who looked and dressed like a Playboy Bunny. Oh Captain My Wrestling Captain, now directly across from me at the lace-covered dining room table, a flat silver tin of chaw between us.
In retrospect I see that the guy was probably just resting before going back to engage in more deeply homoerotic/homophobic wrestling in the den. But then, I felt my moment had come.
“Let me have some,” I said, prying the can open and reaching expertly for a pinch. I’d observed the ritual from a distance enough times to fake it. I put the bristly wedge of brown leaves into the corner of my lip, felt my mouth fill quickly with my own spit. It wasn’t nearly as unpleasant as I’d expected; it reminded me of being in kindergarten and sneaking a puff on an unlit wooden pipe while playing at a friend’s house.
Then I reached for The Captain’s spit cup, making sure to brush his hand with mine, and deposited a perfect blob into the center.
“Holy shit!” he said, the first time he’d ever looked me in the eyes.
My triumph lasted almost as long as the party. The Captain beckoned in a few boys so I could demonstrate my skills, to great fanfare and surprise, and in my naiveté I mistook that for popularity. It felt close enough, anyway. Then he and the rest of the boys turned their attention back to the girls in Fair Isle sweaters, whose breath smelled of mint and Bartles & Jaymes.
Mercifully, like the asymmetrical bob haircut and the safety pins worn as earrings, the tobacco chewing was a passing phase. I left high school behind and found clever new ways to attract the attention of the opposite sex, such as pretending to understand Jack Kerouac and jogging in Lycra shorts. Eventually I stopped acting, and that’s when things finally fell into place.
But over the years I’ve taken great comfort in knowing that if I were ever stranded on a desert island with a farmer, a wrestler, or a professional baseball player, we’d at least have an icebreaker.