Diary Of A Drooler
This is a story about disability. This is a story about the politics of drool. This is a lot of things, and maybe you should just read it.
So I want you to imagine being born a drooler.
We’re not talking just the adorable amounts of saliva an infant will naturally produce as their teeth come in. You grow up with that, sure, but then it never goes away. Some quirk of muscular development and oral-motor control leaves you with a constant stain of spittle around your lips and on your chin.
You grow up.
You have a small toddler friend or two, before anyone knows better. But you grow apart, and then one day in kindergarten you turn away from your playdough to answer someone’s “hello” and a string of drool lands on the tabletop.
Your cheerful “hi” is answered with a laugh, a stare, a jabbing, gesturing finger.
You remember your mother, always scraping at your chin with washclothes and whispering implored reminders to “swallow” and keep your mouth shut. You realize that no other kindergartener has sleeve cuffs which are crusty from reaching up to wipe their mouths every five minutes. The florescent lights above burn through your back, your playdough feels gritty in your fingers, and you’re sure that you’re about to melt under the table in a puddle of drool because you legs get this horrible shaking feeling as though they’re made of water. It spreads, and it’s like a wind or a shudder goes through your stomach and leaves your head empty and clear.
You don’t realize it at the time, but you are one of the lucky ones, in a way. You do learn to go through life with your lips clamped shut around each other. You learn to swallow so that your mouth is always perfectly dry. Your fingers constantly flutter to your chin just to make sure. You spend hours each day just concentrating on the muscles of your jaw and mouth, more intimately acquainted with them than any other part of you. In some ways, you stop being conscious of yourself as anything except a mouth. The rest of your body seems far-away and empty, everything caught up in your war against your own saliva.
It doesn’t sound it, but you are so incredibly lucky. If you just fake it well enough people don’t think of you as a drooler, just another distant and distracted and distrustful kid. It will be years before you are first called retard, and for a very, very long time you are sure you can get away with it, be just like everyone else with one tiny little secret.
You never go to sleepovers or let yourself fall asleep on the bus, because you can’t control it when you sleep and you know that drooling is just a disgusting crime, grosser than eating your boogers and punishable in all sorts of intricately painful ways. But it really does seem as though, so long as you take some reasonable precautions and devote three seconds out of every minute to monitoring your mouth, you’ll be just fine.
And then you’re in middle school and everyone is laughing at some joke and it happens again, in a rare moment of laxness, and then everyone is laughing at you or else pretending not to see—and you never thought that could actually be worse, but it is—and you realize that no, fuck it all, you’re never going to get away with or from this.
You don’t want to be a drooler. No one wants to, and no one wants them. If there is one thing every middle schooler needs, it is to be wanted, even as just a friend, by someone. To belong, to fit in, to have a place where you are welcome. Droolers get none of that. But you’ll be fine. You’ll just try harder and take what abuse you get (because you deserve it, you can’t even control your own secretions) and everything is going to be fine.
But your brain starts to shift a little.
You hear your voice on a recording for your answering machine for the first time and you spend the next five minutes wondering who punched you in the stomach. That voice. Is it really yours? It doesn’t sound anything at all like the one you hear in your head, and when you ask your mom mutters something about sound waves and bone conduction but all you can hear is that stupid, round, fishy, wet voice that you’ve apparently been using all your life. You had hoped you were a lot of things, fierce and funny and smart and competent and cool, but that, that is the voice of a drooler. People don’t even need to see your baby pictures, they don’t even need to see you compulsively swallowing to the point that your mom takes you to a doctor and asks about tics, because they can tell the instant you start talking.
You start to wonder if this is some great cosmic secret that everyone else got to know before you, and the thought makes you feel lost and sick and pathetic and you just know that you’d better be getting comfortable with that feeling because it’s going to get awfully familiar.
And you fight, you feel like a baby kitten but even they have claws so you scratch and fight and do everything you can to keep that feeling of utter uselessness from settling permanently in you. You sign up for all honors classes for next year and you try to dress like the most popular girls and you try out for soccer even though you are the best in the whole school at tripping over your own feet and you are so damn happy when Eric asks you to the eight-grade graduation dance that you let him kiss you afterward even though he tastes like pepperoni and smells like too much cologne.
And the kiss is horribly wet and sloppy and you are now known as the worst kisser in your whole year and you just want to die.
High school is unremittingly terrible, even though you aren’t caught drooling once. But you make tiny mistakes in every algebra problem that create bigger mistakes and big, ugly red ‘F’s even though you are good at math and you love it. But your teachers talk so fast and you can never make rhyme or reason of what they say and so you spend your classes wondering how you can be so smart and yet so dumb and if you ever were smart at all and how are you going to past this test, and when that gets boring you draw passive-aggressive comics about your “friends” and their stupid boyfriends eating poisoned chocolates and getting stabbed with lightsabers. Everyone else bitches about long hours spent studying and you wonder if you should tell them that you are up until two every night just staring at your textbooks and worksheets and googling frantically and unable to make sense of any of it, somehow managing to string enough figures and terms together to create a passable bullshitting act that keeps you in the honors track with them. But you don’t tell, of course you don’t, because then people would find out and you can’t be found out again, you’re pretty sure they would kick you out of your classes and being able to scam your way into that elite little group of scholars is the only thing that makes you think that maybe you don’t deserve to die.
But one ever tries to kiss you again, or even invites you to a single party for four years, and every time you remember this all you can see in a spot of drool swallowing up the latest 68 handed back to you in geometry.
It doesn’t make much sense, but you come to see every little imperfection as a crack breaking across the surface of your act, ripping apart your pretensions of normality, of superiority, and it fills you with hate and fear and makes your nose ache with the smell of rubbing alcohol and your palms punch into your thighs until they bruise.
It just steadily keeps on mounting up, and every morning you wake up with a sticky chin and damp pillow and it gets harder and harder to climb out of bed. You know you’re failing on every level, but you’re terrified of what will happen if you stop. So you get up, day after day, and emerge every day from high school battered and empty, and that awful feeling of watery legs and a shivering stomach becomes your default setting.
You realize that you’ve never really left kindergarten.
The admissions officer asks you, sounding bored, who you are, what makes you tick. And you just sort of stare blankly back, because you’ve been trying not to think about that since you were five and somehow, explaining that you’ve spent your whole life just pretending, and passing, getting by and trying to blend in and not let anyone see how empty you actually are, just filled with drool…that doesn’t seem like the sort of answer expected.
You realize that you can’t answer the question, you don’t know how to even begin to think about the answer, because sometimes you are so focused on swallowing and sealing your lips that you forget the rest of your body and just sort of bounce along the lockers as you navigate from class to class. You want to tell them that your earliest memory is of a washcloth against your face, that your first nickname was “Droolia”, and that this one special ed boy absolutely terrifies you because he has to wear a kerchief around his neck to catch his drool and what if someone connects you two? You want to ask if they’ve ever been sitting in English, doodling in the margins of a vocabulary worksheet, and then suddenly felt like they’ve been running for miles, so out of breath with their heart hammering in their heads, legs watery, shivering and shaking. You want to tell them that your least favorite thing to do ever is to go to the dentist, because your mouth is open and you can’t swallow for half an hour. You want to point out that you never smile for the camera, that you actively run away whenever a camera comes out because the area around your mouth is so slack and rubbery and you just cannot control it.
You smile and say something about liking to draw comics and observe people for new material.
You fall asleep on a pile of your comics at RISD, and when you wake up they are wet and sticky and ruined.
They’re due tomorrow. Or today, actually, since it’s three in the morning. You can’t ask for an extension—what are you supposed to say, sorry I never learned to control my saliva, can I have an extra day to redraw them because I drooled all over them?
You drop out instead.
You drop out of everything.
And the boy who pointed at you in kindergarten? Eric, who kissed and told? Your friends, who never bothered to ask why you wouldn’t come over to their sleepovers? Everyone who ever let you know, subtly and quietly, that you were fake and damaged and disgusting, who may have only said that out loud once or even never but who always gave you a million little reminders?
The ones who broke you apart because a few of your muscles developed a little more slowly?
They are just fine.