Spitting Image

October 18, 2013
Andrew Blissenbach

“That would have killed a man,” my dad would say, with such deadpan assurance that I actually believed him. Believed him only for a second, though. Even as a six-year-old riding in the backseat, I knew my dad’s spit couldn’t really kill a man. Pretty sure, anyway. But the propulsive force that he used to launch saliva while driving was like a boxer’s jab: lithe and easy but also succinct and aggressive, a strutting proclamation of proficiency and menace. He was my dad, he could spit far, and it seemed to require minimal effort. It was insouciant and gross, but he just didn’t give a fucking shit. And power and ease, coming from your dad, equates cool.

I spit every time I leave my house. If I’m getting in a car, I spit. Exiting a car, you bet your ass I’m spitting. Riding in a car, looking over a bridge, walking more than a block: spitting. I spit while I piss, especially when using a urinal or stadium trough, as I’ve found that it’s a great way to keep your focus down instead of to the side (although my pervy curiosity sometimes gets the best of me and I “sneak a peek” to the left or right). I spit at stop signs, as I feel it is rebellious to engage in such a socially frowned-upon action while an octagonal and red authority tries to force inaction upon me.

Spitting is an annoying habit, one that arises from the hybridized feeling of boredom and nerves (much like smoking, nail biting, or sighing), but I’ve become slightly more…adult about it as I’ve aged. I rarely spit in front of those I deem “young” (sixteen and under), as I feel it gives an impression of uncouth thoughtlessness (those older than sixteen can usually detect my uncouth thoughtlessness without any loogie flying from my mouth). I don’t spit in front of women I’m even remotely attracted to (which is pretty much all of my female friends), as they seem to be universally reviled by my spitting, no matter the level of masculine oral prowess I try to display. I don’t spit on the sidewalk or on a grassy area that I know children and/or pets will forage through or rest upon. I have empirical knowledge on the hallmark of spit upon a sidewalk and the damage it can do.

It was the winter of 1991. I was standing outside on my front-door steps with friends on a typically taint-numbing Minnesota January day. Walking from the house, I came upon a viscous pool of frozen matter on the sidewalk. Being twelve, I possessed a bad combination of preteen traits: boyish groupthink stupidity, an attraction to grossness, and the need to show off. “Hey! Look! Frozen spit!” I said to my four or five friends upon discovering the sizeable pool. So I bent down in my many layers, icicles in my lungs, and I touched the “frozen spit” with an ungloved pointer finger. It wasn’t frozen. Slime a-dangling from my digit, I was avalanched by frosty-breathed laughter. Horrified at the spit’s unfrozen composition, I recoiled, hand flailing, only to have the majority of the wad snap upward and stick to my finger. To make matters worse, a friend pushed me from behind toward the goo (my body was still slightly leaning forward). Sidewalks are an icy mess in Minnesota for nine months out of the year (especially in January), so I stumbled forward, my kicking boots rejected of a foothold by the obstinate and omnipresent ice. My knee landed in the pool (and it was not a kiddie pool; this was some adult-sized, Lake Superior shit [Dad?]). It soaked through my layers of sweatpants and my friends laughed even harder. For a slump-shouldered and eternal period of two weeks, I became “Spit Knee Andy.”

Why do so many men spit with such violent announcement and frequency? I’m going to take an assumptive leap here (lacking any salient data or studies on the subject of spitting) and propose the genesis lies with our fathers. In my case, spitting was just another way for my dad to display instantly recognizable masculine virtues when I was young: there was the precision with which he could throw a football; the steadied nerves and thumbs while he played Parsec, the old Atari videogame; the way he could get his friends to laugh, beer in hand, at a dirty joke that he knew I could hear, finishing with, “Don’t tell your mother.” And like playing football, videogames, or telling dirty jokes, spitting is something passed down, something you hone and revere, something you get better at with practice. Fathers play an important role in the practice; they are the master to your acolyte, sensei to your grasshopper. Like all teacher/student relationships, there is a tension, or, more accurately, a force that pulls in two highly distinct and divergent directions. In one sense, you want to best the teacher; on the other, you don’t want to win because your entire concept of the mastered technique is embodied in the finite limitations of your teacher. In Homer’s The Iliad, the Trojan hero Hector, prior to leaving for the battlefield, holds his son Astyanax toward Zeus and the heavens and says, “Someday let them say of him: he is better by far than his father.” Now I’m certain my father felt the same way, although he had a roundabout way of sharing Hector’s sentiment: by beating the ever-loving shit out of me whenever we competed, regardless of how benign the activity seemed. There are four contests that come to mind:

1. Trivial Pursuit: While playing Genus II (or Genus “Soviet Union and Nixon,” as I called it, because about half the cards featured an answer of one or the other), my dad would throttle me, amassing a slew of colored wedges, trophies that signified his superior grasp of useless knowledge. But then Genus IV came along (or Genus “For Illiterate Assholes,” as dad called it, because there was a dearth of literary inclusion, much to his chagrin). This was long after the Arts and Literature category was axed in favor of Arts and Entertainment and the absurdist guess-fest known as Wild Card. So playing a game designed “For Illiterate Assholes,” I finally beat him at the wizened age of 23 (my dad, being a sore loser with a tendency for pouting, didn’t talk to me for the rest of the night after my victory, which made me feel all kinds of that uncomfortable “tension/force” I alluded to earlier).

2. Sock fights: Sock fights involved stuffing one large athletic sock into another and striking someone else with the improvised weapon, much like a medieval knight would use a flail to rupture the skull of his opponent. And as a medieval knight would give his battlefield opponent no quarter, my younger brother and I were shown no mercy by a man four to five times our size. There was no real goal or endgame; it was just fun to clobber the piss out of one another and finality usually occurred when tears or blood were shed. My dad would spin the weapon above his head in a blurred arc that could reach any corner of the house, no matter the security or distance of a hiding spot. Chandeliers and lighting fixtures were sheared from their housings in a fantastic display of crystalline pyrotechnics; vases and candelabras were sent from their dusty confines and into acrobatic revolutions that ended in destruction once their stunts were interrupted by the hardwood floor. There was only a slight and cursory pause for cleanup before the action continued. And my brother and I were far less valuable than the electrical encasements and knickknacks my mother acquired. The sock weapon would hit arms, shoulders, and torsos with a concussive “THWAP!!!” that could sting worse than a hard slap. Slight bruising and pinkish welts were common occurrences. At such superficial wounds, my brother and I would laugh, which would cause our father’s countenance to transform into a hardened mask of wide-eyed, maniacal glee. We would flee with the smiling chatter of playful hounds, knowing that a headshot would be in the near future. The headshot, or “decapitizer,” hit with all the force of a schoolyard bully, producing the concentrated noise of a tennis ball being absolutely crushed by a wooden bat. If my dad connected and all the variables were correct, noses could be bloodied, eyes could be blackened, and bells could be rung. As with everything else, in sock fighting, there was no fucking around.

3. Arm wrestling: Toward the end of high school, using a combination of decent genetics, hard work, and callused toughness, I became the strongest dude in my grade. Whether it was bench pressing or bloody knuckles, locker punching or wrestling, deadlifting or keg hauling, there were few of my peers who could equal my solid, size-power ratio. I was also fond of arm wrestling. Using skills gleaned from Sylvester Stallone’s Over the Top, I even managed to beat all my senior classmates in Father Bob’s religion class to claim a bag of hard-won Tootsie Rolls. But no matter who I managed to best, I could never beat my dad. We had epic matches during high school, during college, even during grad school, but I could never last long enough to pin him. At the age of 27, in a bar following a football game, I spit and swore and twisted my way to a win (both right- and left-handed) that left me with significant strains in my shoulders, biceps, and forearms. My dad did not go quietly. I excused myself to a bathroom, pretended my contacts were bothering me, and tried to wash away the slobbering emotional combo of triumph, physical pain, and the destruction of a heroic standard-bearer. Turns out I tore my dad’s rotator cuff.

4. Playing Catch: Then there was the time in fourth grade when my dad and I were playing catch on the baseball fields of Cretin-Derham Hall (high school of Joe Mauer, Paul Molitor, Chris Weinke, etc.), and I surprised him by unloading an absolute pea from about 40 feet away. I was just starting to realize that I was a pretty good athlete, and I was thoroughly convinced that I possessed a laser-rocket arm. There was a pronounced and leathered “pop” as the ball hit my dad’s Rawlings mitt (it had Brooks Robinson’s autograph on the palm). He smirked and gave me the look that every neophyte jock has received, the look that says, “Solid attempt, but…”, the look that precedes the revelation of true mastery. “Back up,” he said. My dad, six feet tall with 220 pounds of broad shoulders and thick bones in accompaniment, gave the universal sign of “keep going” by waving his glove in that outward flapping motion. I stopped and, possessed of the youthful invulnerability inherent in all budding athletes, had the temerity to say, “This is far enough!” at about 130 feet away. My dad’s head cocked to the side like his mother had been insulted. His face then curled into a clench, a visage of purpose bereft of strain. My smile traveled to the same void as my heart, and it felt like everything corporeal left my body and all I had left was a shaking glove and its odor of linseed oil. There was a smear of motion, of limbs in perfect alignment, of a body about to teach a lesson that radiated more than a touch of cruelty. And a white orb, a featureless, heavenly body in the mold of some distant star, came at me with such force that it ceased being an object altogether and transformed into a twelve-gauge crack immediately followed by the red-sear of pain in my glove hand. My body returned, and I was in the throes of embarrassment and astonishment, a twin feeling that pushed my nine-year-old eyes to the verge of tears. Words were unnecessary on my dad’s part. His throw presented this prickled fact: “That’s how you fucking do it, boy.”

I’m on a noontime walk with my two-year-old daughter, Ingrid. The heat of summer’s end is like the last drink of cola in a bottle, motionless and thick upon our shoulders and brows. We’re in Minneapolis, going around Lake Nokomis, and I inhale wisps of jet fuel and the rot of stagnant water. The taste is so stillborn and oiled, and I want it out. So I spit. A good one, too; the gelatinous wad has been accumulating at the back of my throat since after breakfast. Well over twenty feet, I figure. I’m positive it’s better than my dad could ever do. Impressed with myself, I look down and see my daughter’s features contract into a round and soft-hued wonderment. She has  my eyes, my father’s eyes; the kind that squint and almost disappear in the sun, the kind that turn down at the edges and seem almost sad and world-weary, the kind that act as an addendum, a bittersweet footnote, declaring all mirth as fleeting and finite. The gears turn in her little mind, and her face flattens. She smiles.

“You want to try?” I say.

She keeps smiling that smile of hers, of mine, of my dad’s, the one that is thin and close-lipped and sly, the one that doesn’t show any teeth at first, but if you’re lucky, you might get some vampire-sharp canines. She blows a sharp burst of air, punctuated by a youthful “PTUI!” and a tongue sticking out. The fact that no spit is generated quickly overrides any toddler cuteness.

“No,” I say, preparing another fusillade. “Like this.”

Another loogie long-jumps off my tongue, landing far shorter than the previous effort.

“Just need some Coke or juice.” I spit again, and it disintegrates midflight. It is only then that I realize joggers and bikers might be slowing to catch my peculiar display. “You want to try again?”

“No-ooooo!” Ingrid says, turning away mid-whine.

Yeah, she’s just being a petulant toddler, but her mannerisms call to mind all the flaws I’ve inherited from my dad, the shadowed flipside of a coin that is usually loud and ferocious and competitive and inclusive and boisterous. Fathers have a unique way of projecting the inappropriate and poisonous parts of their aura onto their offspring. There’s the impatience that mushroom-clouds into rage over the most petty ordeals: traffic, home repairs, those fucking rabbit ears behind the television that refuse to capture a coherent digital signal. There’s the sense of entitlement spawned from years of getting appeased and generally succeeding at preferred tasks, to the point where I become an insufferable dickhead if my desires aren’t met or if I lose at Scrabble or dice or wrestling matches conducted in oversized sumo suits at a bachelor party (which leads to the throwing of bottles or stomping into an adjoining room or going into a shame spiral while assuring everyone in the Twin Cities that “I suck at everything” or screaming, “FUCK!!!” eight to nine times or pouting crossed-arm while grunting, “I’m fine,” etc.). Also (quickly, off the top of my head): the giving of the middle finger to slow left-hand-lane drivers and the casual foul mouth and the application of “you know?” at the end of bold proclamations. All of this ignoble baggage can be traced to my dad. Guess there’s the spitting, too.

“Try again,” I say, firm but smiling, to Ingrid.

Ingrid’s nose wrinkles; the sun comes out from behind a cloud’s lacing and shows her puff-cheeked and willful. She goes with the “PTUI!”/stuck-out-tongue thing again. A clear tendril of saliva (drool, really) rappels from her tongue, to her chin, (slight pause) to the pavement. A whopping distance of almost two inches from her pink sandals.

“That was…okay,” I say, “but you’ll never beat me.”

And I’m so sure of this. Sure as my dad must have been.