I’m folding laundry in the kitchen, which is also my laundry room, which is also my purgatory, when a flash of three tiny bodies careens past me and through the doorway to the hallway. I hear bodies hit the floor with the kind of force which, for an adult, would result in weeks of physical therapy. For my triplet five-year-old girls, such violence is routine and fortifying, unless of course it’s not.
I pause to listen. There is squealing. There is struggling. No screams of pain.
I continue folding, unconcerned, until…
“Boo-Boo is licking us again.” I look up from a twist of towels I’m wrestling from the dryer. Pumpkin Face is standing in the doorway to the kitchen, naked for some reason. She likes being naked.
I hear Cherub Cheeks plead, “Noooo!!! Stop it Boo-Boo!”
I hear bodies hit the wall… no crying, just the sound of desperate struggle.
I look at Pumpkin Face quizzically. “Okay…”
“Mommy, tell her to stop!” Pumpkin Face twists her toe into the carpet.
“You tell her to stop,” I say as I flick a towel into a quick quartering. “She’s not hurting you.”
“It’s gross!” Pumpkin Face insists.
So I stick my head into the hallway, where Boo-Boo is astride the smaller, struggling Cherub Cheeks. “Uh,” I say quietly, which is the best way to get their attention, even in the middle of an assault, “Boo-Boo, stop licking people.”
She turns to look at me, tongue relaxed and wet, sticking out comically from between her lips. I laugh.
Why did I laugh?
She takes this as tacit permission to continue licking her sister, so I do what any parent of five-year-old triplets would do in this situation.
I lose interest.
And the licking continues.
For weeks, drunk with power, Boo-Boo careens through the house, tongue hanging slug-like from between wet baby lips, running in her cute bouncy way after her screaming sisters. When they come to me crying, I dismiss their concerns as maudlin. I have a foundering writing career to fit in between loads of laundry. I can’t worry about such trivialities. And they need to learn to stand up for themselves.
Besides, it’s kind of hilarious.
Then early one morning, Boo Boo crawls into my bed and pins my arms with her fat baby legs. My eyes flutter open as I emerge from a dream about drowning in a giant causeway filled with millions of gallons of water, and the first thing I see is a fuschia, glistening tongue slowly descending toward my face. “Boo, get off,” I slur. “Mommy has to pee.”
“Unh uh,” she says, shaking her head no. Delicate droplets of saliva catch the morning light in their trajectory toward my eyelids.
“No, honey, stop.” I say groggily. “Mommy’s got to get up.” I close my eyes again, or rather, they close themselves, weighed down by twin singularities with their own gravitational fields pulling me backward into a wormhole of sleepiness. In a supreme act of will, I open my eyes again to see her still hovering over me, her eyes on mine with disturbing seriousness. “Boo Boo Doll,” I say, but this time, there’s a faint whiff of fear in my voice.
Fear only makes her stronger.
“Honey, Mommy has to pee,” I say again, trying to wriggle out from under her.
“Mommy festoo pee,” my husband repeats, his face mashed into his pillow, body as limp and ineffectual as an earthworm. He immediately resumes snoring.
Despite this forceful display of male dominance, Boo is unmoved. Slowly she descends, never breaking eye contact, relishing my growing apprehension as I squirm, groaning with dread. “Hey!” I say, forcing a modicum of authority into my voice.
She laughs, but her eyes are cold, calculating.
I try to throw her off me toward the middle of the bed where she will be cushioned by her father’s inert form, but she clings to my bucking body like a lemur, holding my arms down, the both of us perched on the edge of the mattress. She knows I won’t risk injuring her, and therein lies her power.
“Boo, I mean it!” I snap.
The urgency in my voice finally rouses my husband who, smacking his lips, looks at us through one eye. “That’s not funny, Boo,” he says, but he’s smirking.
She laughs, and more spit falls onto the bridge of my nose.
“Help!” I finally shout, and my husband inserts his hands into her armpits and pulls her off me. She flies through the air like a giddy Elphaba and into her father’s arms, cackling with maniacal glee.
I run to the bathroom, looking back at the two of them as they roll around laughing on the big king bed. I lean my palms on the counter to catch my breath, staring at myself in the mirror. You’re only getting what you deserve, my reflection says with narrowed eyes. Pumpkin Face tried to tell you. You mocked her terror while Cherub Cheeks lay helpless beneath The Tongue.
I turn on the shower and step into the warm spray, shuddering with relief as I rinse the spit off my face. Once I emerge to towel off, I put one foot on the edge of the bathtub to apply my lotion and feel a soft tongue on my calf.
Mopsy, my adorable black and white shih-tzu, is right on time for her morning ritual of licking off my organic vegetable-based body lotion as quickly as I can apply it. “Did we have a good sleep, Mops?” I murmur to her, and give her a pat on the head. She blinks in my general direction and galumphs onto the floor, inserting her tongue in the space between my toes. It tickles rather pleasantly.
The irony in this should, but does not, strike me immediately.
I can tolerate my shih-tzu licking my feet for extended periods of time. Mopsy is small and squishy, and very fluffy, with a cute little face sporting outsized round eyes that, when they stare into yours, seem to whisper, “I loooooooooooove you.” She is my spirit-animal, my familiar, my soul-mate from a previous life, and I’m pretty sure she feels the same way about me.
Mopsy can sit at my feet for a full hour and lick my toes. Sometimes I’ll look down to discover my dog in the middle of a prolonged toe bath, and realize I can’t remember when the licking commenced. I have tried, over the years, to discourage this behavior, but Mopsy is difficult to train.
The chief trouble is that she possesses physical properties unknown anywhere else in the Newtonian universe, occupying a state somewhere between liquid and solid. When you try to push her off you, she goes boneless, absorbing any energy you expend, and using that energy to redouble the pace of her licking.
Now wrapped in my flannel robe, I exit the bathroom, trailing Mopsy, to find Boo astride her father who is helplessly struggling against her superior will and reflexes. I register the shock in his eyes and raise an eyebrow. “Bet you’re sorry you smirked,” I say.
“Get her off me!” he cries, craning his neck away from her.
With the speed of a cobra, her body descends in a poetic, Euclidian arc, and her tongue alights on his cheekbone, lingers, then leaves a visible trail of glistening slime that terminates inside his ear.
“Aargh!” he cries as he frantically wipes it away with his palm. “Stop!”
“Boo,” I say, my voice resonant with affronted authority. “No more licking.”
She looks at me, laughing around her tongue. Her long brown hair is a wild nimbus, her legs are adorably chubby, and she is surrounded by a line of white sunlight that makes her glow like a heavenly messenger from the Empyrean. Then her eyes trail down to my feet, where Mopsy has settled into a comfortable rhythm clearing my ankle of impurities – all impurities, that is, except her bacterially fecund dog spit.
“New household rule,” I say, though by the tremor in my voice anyone could see my conviction faltering as the obvious contradictions sink in. “No more licking,” I say weakly.
Mopsy shifts her lingual devotion to my heel.
Boo’s eyes trail back up to mine. “Okay, Mommy,” she says as her father, using his last bit of strength, lifts her off his chest. He takes her hand and leads her to her bedroom to get her dressed, but there is a hesitance in her step.
Boo is thinking now. As am I.
Throughout the day I ask myself questions I never thought I would entertain about the social parameters of saliva. Why is pet spit acceptable when human spit is so revolting? It’s true, Mopsy and Boo have very different styles. Mopsy keeps the licking quite dry, and the strokes of her tongue are swift and business-like.
Boo, on the other hand, seems to prioritize maximum delivery of her payload, and strikes with a single, defeating tsunami of spit. Mopsy’s licking is more of a loving pastime, whereas Boo’s attacks assert dominance in a way that is carefully designed to exploit loopholes in the household rules. She isn’t hitting. She’s not biting. Nonetheless, this licking does constitute a violation of human rights and must be stopped in some way that is both accepting and loving. But how?
That very evening, as I’m reading one of Dr. Suess’s crushingly long compositions, I feel Boo’s weight shift, and from the corner of my eye I see something pink and glistening.
“Honey, no,” I say.
Her sisters watch from their father’s lap, one on each leg, as he labors through “Fox in Socks.”
Boo draws nearer, her eyes laughing, and I lean away from her.
“I said no.”
She pulls back, head tilted, and then she looks down at my feet.
At this point I become aware of Mopsy dispensing more of her spittle onto my twitching toes. How long has she been there? I have no idea.
“But…” Boo says, and I am horrified to see her chin wrinkle up with hurt.
“I know this seems contradictory,” I begin.
My husband snorts.
I open my mouth to continue, but my mind is a blank. Several possible arguments occur to me, but they all amount to explaining that Boo’s adorable five-year-old tongue is somehow grosser than Mopsy’s bacteria-laden cesspool of a mouth.
“Nevermind,” I say, and open the book to continue reading.
I can feel a death ray of betrayal radiating from the eyes of her be-licked and beleaguered sisters.
After a night of intense introspection, I make a resolution that is put to the test immediately upon waking. Boo has climbed onto my bed and is leaning on her elbows, peering into my face over the golf-ball sized protuberance of her tongue. Her enthusiasm for the game is visibly reduced, but she’s come this far. By the resolute steel in her hazel eyes I see that she is committed to seeing this contest of wills to its bitter conclusion, come what may.
“No,” I say weakly, to give her the satisfaction. I know when I’ve been beaten.
“Yeth,” she says around her tongue. She crawls on top of me and, without pause, licks from my neck all the way up to my eyeball. She leans away from me to study my reaction.
Never have I tried so hard to hide my disgust. The licked skin cools as Boo’s spittle transforms into a stiffening sealant. To prove my love, I freeze myself in position, enduring, even though my dearest wish in all the Heavens is to wipe the spit off my face. Boo studies every twitch of my nose and roll of my eyes. I return her gaze and smile, trying to communicate that I have accepted her gesture of playful affection without reservation, just as I do with the family dog.
But I fail. I can’t stand it any longer, and I raise my hand to rub away her spit, which has started to itch.
She blinks in confusion.
I know she is wondering why it is gross for her to lick me but perfectly fine for Mopsy. What kind of motherly love is that?
There is one option left, one last gesture that can cement the strength of my devotion to this precious child while still offering loving guidance about respecting boundaries. I’d hoped it would never come to this.
Without warning, I dart at her and lick, blindly, with abandon, and feigned gusto. I get pretty decent coverage from the corner of her mouth up to her temple. Her cheek is firm and supple under my tongue, and she tastes like last night’s goulash, only, you know. Old.
“DE-licious!” I tell her.
“Gross,” she says, and glares at me reproachfully, her palm pressed against the desecration, cheek squished adorably.
“I never lick Mopsy,” I point out to her.
She blinks at me with grumpy disapproval, and slides off my bed and walks off, into the bathroom, grumbling. I hear the sink turn on, and see her reflection in the mirror as she cleans her cheek.
Desired outcome achieved.