Growing up




AFTER one of his teeth became loose, his father began to warn the boy in a chiding tone, “Now don’t prod it with your tongue, or your teeth will become crooked. Then later you’ll have a problem finding a girlfriend.”


The boy then furtively nudged the shaky tooth with his tongue and asked, perplexed, “How can the tongue tilt the tooth? The tooth is hard, but the tongue is so soft. How can a soft thing bend a hard thing?”


The father shot him an angry glare and replied, “Of course, it can. Throughout your life, you grow teeth twice. But when you get old, you lose all of them. Have you seen anyone lose their tongue with age?”


His Ma also kept reminding him, “Remember, a lost lower tooth should be thrown on to the roof, while a loosened upper tooth should be tossed under the bed. You can’t do the opposite, or the new tooth will be either a bucktooth or an under-bite. Very ugly.” The boy was chilled by these words. Both bucktooth and under-bite he had seen in movies. With such looks, an actor could only play a buffoon. That would be terrible! He decided to remember this, despite its intricacy.


However, the boy’s elder brother did not want a loosened upper tooth under the bed, and scared him with the words, “If you throw it under the bed, the tooth might root there and grow. How would you deal with that? It might be safer to bury the tooth beneath a tree.” With this new idea in mind, the boy felt happy, totally oblivious of his brother doubling over with laughter behind him.


Throwing the lower tooth on to the roof turned out to be pretty challenging. Without any grass on the tiled roof, the tooth rolled down to the ground again. When that happened, the boy’s gums seemed to ache as well. After several tries, he finally did it. But, who knew whether the tooth had with luck lodged in a tile, or rolled down to the grass cluster in the backyard.


The gap where the loose tooth once was felt so strange. It was soft, and empty. Days later, that little hole sprouted a bud-like new tooth. This was amazing.


Unable to resist the impulse, he licked it, to see how it would respond, and then again. The new tooth seemed to be budding. Unconsciously he licked it many times. Oh, damn! The most disgusting bucktooth emerged. Then with one quiver, the boy woke up.


During those teeth-changing days, dreams also became regular visitors. Fortunately nightmares were in the minority. The most frequently recurring dream was about stealing a fat greasy grilled chicken from a deli, and just taking one bite of it, before he was spotted; then a crowd of people would chase him with sticks and knives. Despite his haste, he found he just could not speed up. Crap! A wall would appear in front of him. Where was his qinggong (a form of gongfu for flying and jumping high)? His terror then woke him from the dream, and he found his legs had curled up while sleeping, which was why he could not run fast or fly in the dream.


Stretching out in bed, he then slipped back into his dream. Light as a swallow, he flew over walls and trees and lightly landed on the branch of an old tree. Slowly enjoying the tasty chicken, while looking into the blue skies and white clouds, and green grasses afar, he felt, even if it was only a dream, it had to be the sweetest dream in the world...


Bang! A finger tapped loudly on his forehead. How could his math teacher suddenly appear in front of him with a mocking smile? Then laughter rocked the classroom. Who were those strange girls, laughing while blushing? Dazed and ashamed, he lowered his head to find his drooling had made a huge wet patch on his clothes.


Gradually, his dreams faded away. But then a new scenario unfolded one midnight, when he awoke to the pain of a cramp in his leg, which made him cry out. Both his Dad and Ma were awakened, and came to soothe him with smiles, “Don’t worry. Those are just growing pains. You need some bone soup to supplement your calcium.”


With no way out, he had to just endure the pain. After all, it was a good thing to grow taller. It meant he would soon be able to score easily at basketball and go to middle school. And one practical benefit was he would be able to replace the old ugly pair of pants handed down from his brother. His Ma had never mentioned buying a new pair for him.


Finally the day came. One morning, he was dressing with half-shut eyes, when he suddenly found his pants were too short, the bottoms above his ankles. A surge of elation swept through him. Then he shouted: “Ma, Ma, my pants have got too short!”


Upon seeing this, his Ma smiled. While trying to adjust the pants, she exclaimed, “You really are growing up.” After saying this, she smiled again.


Exhilarated, he went back to bed, wondering, maybe his Ma had already got him a new pair of pants, just waiting for this day. How many pockets would it have? Of course, the more, the better. For his cards, slingshot, small change, and marbles, at least four pockets would be needed.


After waiting a long while, his Ma finally returned, and said smiling, “Come here with your pants. I’ll unfold the hems. Just to make do. I’ll sew new pants for you next year.”


Upon seeing the distinctive color of the hem, the boy’s earlier delight immediately evaporated.


GONG GAOFENG is a columnist.