by Kent Kosack
I quit chewing gum in eighth grade. It was spring and we were all nervous and excited for graduation and summer and high school and somehow that energy gave me the courage to approach Joey Talbot on his perch at the top of the bleachers as he watched the cheerleaders practice on the soccer field still damp from the morning rain. He’d broken up with Sara, our grade’s It girl, and I swear I’d seen him checking me out in the hallways. I could feel his eyes on me in social studies in third period while Mr. Jackson rambled on about the Great Depression. Only I wasn’t depressed. I was ecstatic, at first. Greatly. Until a month passed and he still hadn’t asked me out and the ecstasy turned into a dull thrum of anxiety and doubt and expectation. When would he ask me out? Where? How? Finally, I spotted him on the bleachers, alone, and I just went for it. I shoved three sticks of Winterfresh in my mouth and kept repeating the name like a mantra, Winterfresh, Winterfresh, trying to feel as cool and crisp as the gum as I creaked up the bleachers.
Joey looked like the lord of the middle school up there, surveying his lands. He nodded at me and I took that as an invitation and sat beside him. He smelled like Cool Water cologne and I immediately felt cooler beside him, chomping my Winterfresh and playing with my ponytail.
“Watching the practice, huh?” I said.
He nodded and stuck the strong legs that made him our soccer team’s star forward across the row below us. We watched my more popular peers flip and cartwheel and cheer. They struggled to form a human pyramid then collapsed in a pile of limbs and curses and grass-stained skirts.
He looked at me. Turned his big blue eyes on only me. Our eyes met for the first time. My molars ravaged the gum with renewed gusto.
“What’s with the gum?”
“It’s Winterfresh. My favorite. Want a piece?”
“Sure,” he said, taking the last from the pack and bending it in half between his bright white teeth.
We sat like that for a while, chewing and listening to the half-synced cheers. He looked at me again. Those blue eyes, again. This was it.
He said, “you chew kind of loud, don’t you?”
“Yeah. You chew like a Jew.” He spat the last word like a slur and turned those blue eyes back to the girls on the field.
My whole body reddened. I swallowed my gum, all three sticks, but tried to keep smiling. It seemed important. To smile.
Somehow, after a minute or ten, I descended the bleachers and made it home. The rest of the afternoon is a blur. But I remember the aftermath. Trying to figure out exactly how Jews chewed and why Joey wouldn’t like it. I couldn’t ask my parents, secular Jews who knew more about Christmas trees than the Torah. I spent hours in the library with encyclopedias, sifting through the torturous annals of Jewish history, the pogroms and genocides, but found no entries on gum or the unique mechanics of how a Jew was supposed to chew.
With time, I almost forgot about Joey. High school, college out of state, a career, marriage, two daughters, one now a sullen teen and the other about to become one. But sometimes, when a coworker jokes about Jewing a car salesman down to get a deal or one of my daughters asks me what a kike is, that stupid, shameful smile starts creeping across my face again and I feel it, that wad of Winterfresh stuck like a blue pit in one of my intestines, an indigestible, everlasting lump. The last gum I ever chewed.
Kent Kosack is a writer, editor, and educator based in Pittsburgh, PA. His work has been published in Tin House (Flash Fidelity), the Cincinnati Review, the Normal School, 3:AM Magazine, and elsewhere. See more at: www.kentkosack.com
Image source: Hunter Newton/Unsplash