J.C. Schildbach, LMHC
It was a hot day in late spring when Tim (probably not his real name) came jogging up behind me, slowed his pace to match my walk, and invited himself over to my house.
Tim’s request was unusual for plenty of reasons. For one thing, I didn’t really know him at all. He was in a different fifth-grade class than me and we’d barely spoken to each other outside of, maybe, a game or two of four-square or wall-ball at recess.
His family had arrived in town sometime after the start of the school year, and would be gone before the next school year was out.
He offered no explanation for his sudden interest in my companionship. I had no particular plans, nothing I had to do until dinnertime, or after, depending on which job was mine that night—setting or clearing the table, or washing the dishes. Still, I didn’t know how my mom would react to me brining home a classmate I had never spoken of, without having gone through the usual dance of informal invitations and phone calls between parents—the kind of parental back and forth that would eventually drop off either by dint of establishing an ongoing familiarity with the friend, or by the friendship falling away completely.
So, by way of trying to avoid any awkwardness at home, I asked Tim if maybe he should go home first and ask his mom. He answered only that it was fine with his mom, implying that it should be just fine with my mom, as well. He provided no tangible clues as to his home life. Had he already asked his mother before he left home in the morning? Was his mother out working? Did she just let him roam free? Was he avoiding someone or some situation at home—or wherever it was that he was actually supposed to be?
Tim’s self-invitation felt like an imposition. And yet, I didn’t want to be rude or leave a classmate hanging if he really was in need.
But I was in uncharted waters. I had never just brought someone home before, unannounced, without asking permission.
My mom’s reaction was one of curiosity more than anything. ‘Why are you bringing home some kid I’ve never heard of?’ may have been the direct question she wanted to put to me. But after the introductions, she took a similar approach to mine: “Does your mother know you’re here?” and “Do you need to call your parents and let them know where you are?”
Tim denied any such need, and the notion that his mother might be at all concerned.
There may have been further pressing, or boundaries set, like my mom asking for Tim’s home phone number so she could make a call, or insisting that he call home, or maybe saying we had an hour to play before x, y, and/or z needed to happen, necessitating Tim’s exit.
Whatever the case, and whether or not there was ever any go-ahead from Tim’s parents, he was sticking around for at least a little while.
I went forward with my just-home-from-school routine—turning on the TV for some cartoons, and heading to the kitchen for a snack. The default snack for years was two Graham crackers and a Daffy Duck glass full of chocolate milk—made with Hershey’s Instant chocolate powder. Sometimes, I’d really mix things up and add peanut butter to the crackers, but usually I would just dunk the bare Graham crackers in the chocolate milk.
Tim accepted when I offered him the same.
But then, with crackers and glasses in hand, we crossed the kitchen to the silverware drawer. I set my glass down, slid open the drawer, and…
There they were…to the side of the silverware tray…the straws.
Now, the entire time I was growing up, I don’t think my mother ever paid for a package of drinking straws. It was just a wasteful expense as far as she was concerned. After all, straws are basically unnecessary for drinking, except in some very limited circumstances—like being ill and having difficulty sitting up to take a drink. Besides, restaurants give them away for free.
These were not ideas I ever remember my mother speaking. I have a vague sense that she told us if we really wanted drinking straws, we could keep the straws we got from restaurants, and wash and reuse them. That’s what we did, afterall. It seemed reasonable enough to me. After all, this was the era of the original Krazy Straw—people washed and re-used those all the time.
Saving and re-using straws was a more daunting task than one might think, though. We very rarely went out to restaurants—only for some birthdays and other special occasions, or when Grandpa decided to treat us all to Friday Night Fish at the Chuckwagon buffet. And aside from a cross-country car trip in the summer of 1977, fast food was mostly kept out of our diet. So, no steady supply of straws was to be had.
On the day that Tim invited himself over, the supply of straws had become quite decrepit. And, well, a big part of that is because I tended to chew on them as I drank my chocolate milk and watched my cartoons. Still, until they were cracked and unusable, we would wash them and send them back to the drawer.
Covering up my crimes of mastication would take some quick thinking. So I did what anybody would do in that situation—I blamed my little brother for the chewed straws–‘Some of the straws are messed up. My little brother chews on them sometimes.’
Crisis averted. Or so I thought.
But as I sought out two reasonably functional straws, Tim shrieked, “You share straws?!?”
I can still clearly picture the look of terror and disgust on Tim’s face. If you can imagine what Leave-it-to-Beaver-era Jerry Mathers would look like if I’d just handed him a straw and a live guinea pig, picked up my own straw and guinea pig and said, “Here, this is really good—just go like this” and then jammed the straw through the guinea pig’s eye socket and started sucking out the contents of its skull as it squealed, writhed, and died—that’s roughly what Tim looked like in that moment—eyes bulging in fright, ample, freckled cheeks twitching around a scowling mouth.
I can’t remember anything that took place beyond that. I’m sure there was a moment or two of profound awkwardness. And then I’m guessing we went to the living room where Tim drank his chocolate milk without a straw. I probably passed on the straw, too, since I’d just learned it how monstrously disturbing it was to drink through a previously-used straw.
Tim and I probably eventually went up to the room I shared with two brothers, and picked over the toys. We may have gone out to shoot baskets in the driveway, or sat at the game table in the living room drawing pictures. Whatever the case, Tim’s sharp reaction to the straws numbed me to any other occurrences for the rest of his time there.
My mom’s only comment on Tim’s shock at the used straws was a deadpan, “They’ve been washed.” But, again, I don’t remember if this happened in the moment of Tim’s freak-out, or if it happened later, as I was describing his reaction to her (and undoubtedly questioning if there was something terribly wrong with us).
At school the next day, Tim tried to call me out for reusing straws, as I passed him and a few of his friends on recess. Tim’s attempted insult—roughly, ‘Hey, I went to his house, and you know what? He shares straws with his brothers’–failed to land. The other kids did not react. Perhaps Tim just didn’t paint a particularly effective picture of the insanity involved. Or perhaps they were all so dumbfounded, they couldn’t think of a proper response to demonstrate their disgust. I walked on.
I suppose I should have held on to the non-reaction of the other kids as the takeaway in all this. But memories have a way of forming around the moment of impact and maximum anxiety, not the moment when that anxiety should have evaporated. Although, at the time, given the extreme nature of Tim’s reaction, I was convinced that the lack of reaction from the others was a silent acknowledgment that, yes, I was a damnable freak.
And perhaps I am a damnable freak—but certainly not because of anything I’ve ever done with a straw…or at least not for anything I ever did with a straw while I was in elementary school.