These days, as one of my daughters learns to whistle and another learns to snap her fingers, while yet another learns to ride a bicycle, I am cast back to a day long ago, walking down a thin path through the thick Maine woods, when I learned how to spit. The sun gleamed off the lake just ahead, through the encroaching leaves of trees and ferns that impinged on the path and scratched the bare arms and legs of roaming boys let loose from our parents for whole days of idle fun, the kinds of activities that don’t leave an indelible sense of their occasions but that quickly melt into the vague sense of freedom and diversion we retain in our souls long after we’re no longer so free (or so diverse). This was me and the Smeraldos, at least Peter and Jeff, whose parents had lived across the street from my parents when I was born, who were older and more world-weary than I, at age six, let’s say, though who can know now, but we’ll call it August 4, 1977, on McWain Pond in Waterford, Maine, at 10:40 in the morning, the exact moment when the love of my life, my daughters’ and sons’ beautiful mother, was born far, far away . . .
Someone was whistling, perhaps, or maybe it was the birds flitting from branch to branch above our heads, and the sun filtered through the leaves high above to cast the forest in a greenish glow. The other kids were spitting along the side of the worn trail into the bushes, and I felt left out or I recognized the glamour in their insouciance, so I asked them how did they do that. Peter stopped and explained that you collect the spit in the front of your mouth, then you tighten your lips, clench your teeth, and push your tongue forward so the spit squeezes through the space between your front teeth. [End Page 153]
Armed with this glorious new knowledge, I tried what he told me and it worked. I spent the rest of the morning sprinkling the plants.
I eventually learned better ways to spit, not through my teeth (this method works only for thin saliva, pre-braces) but through pursed lips and open O-shaped mouth, the tongue providing the last hammer of propulsion behind pressurized air. I got to where I could spit pretty well, for accuracy and distance and quantity, and now I spit all the time, from morning until night, in the sink and toilet, the trashcan, alongside the path I’m walking into the bushes or the grass. Mostly I seek purging, though I guess there’s also a bit of the boyish joy of letting the phlegm fly.
Living, as I do, in a time and place that frowns upon public spitting, I try to be discreet, casting a backward glance before hocking a loogie, always aiming for an unused patch of ground where my offering will lie unnoticed, blended into its surroundings, or even appreciated by the bacteria below.
I don’t really know whether bacteria have any use for human sputum, whether they find it a pleasantry or a nuisance. Plants, surely, must profit from the water content of spit, no? And as much as I find the stuff repulsive, I know of lots of bugs that put mammalian feces to good use, so perhaps there are even visible invertebrates finding some advantage in spit?
Humans, it turns out, benefit from spit’s antiseptic properties, as the nitrite in saliva reacts with skin to create nitric oxide, a bona fide germ killer. Even more impressive, saliva’s histatin, a protein, has recently proven (in Dutch laboratory tests) an effective healing accelerant, and another component, called opiorphin, reduces pain more effectively than morphine. Thus licking one’s wounds, an automatic response in certain mammals (dogs, especially), seems to be not only emotionally soothing but physiologically curing as well. [End Page 154]
One day, as I was carrying Adriana into church, I turned my head to one side, aimed carefully at the grass, and spat to clear my system of...