What a Neat Trick
As printed in Proteus, the Journal of the Delaware Valley Mensa  (Sep 2010)


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           There is a scene in the ‘80s movie classic, The Breakfast Club, where five high school students brought together by circumstance begin discussing what interesting or unusual abilities they have. I lived a similar scene with a bunch of fellow freshmen during the first week of college. It was probably two o’clock in the morning, and around ten of us were in a big circle on the floor of someone’s room, talking about everything and nothing, bonding over our new lives together away from home.

            With constant interruptions of laughter and snide commentary, we took turns announcing skills from the drool-worthy (“I can make spaghetti sauce from scratch”) to the practical (“I can write with both hands”) to the useless (“I can eat Cheetos while standing on my head”). Mine definitely fell into the latter category. “I can tie a cherry stem in a knot inside my mouth.”

            The room fell silent, and two of the male students’ faces swung towards me. The sudden neck twisting action actually made the “WHOOSH” sound I knew from old cartoons.

            I blinked. “What?”

~ ~ ~

            When I was maybe eight years old, my mother and a few of her college friends were over to celebrate New Year’s Eve and watch the ball drop. My older brother wanted nothing to do with this living room full of estrogen, so he was upstairs playing Atari. I, on the other hand, was honored to remain among the company of the grown up ladies. Of course, there was champagne. I wasn’t allowed to have any, but among the goodies were fresh cherries. I could have as many of those as I liked.

            Someone said, “Let’s see who can tie the stem in a knot in her mouth!” There was a lot of giggling. I giggled, too. At eight, I thought this sounded like a pretty neat trick. “Can I try?” I asked. The giggling became slightly more animated. Smiling, they glanced at each other and said, “Sure, let’s see if Nicole can do it.” I approached the task with my usual determination, and after several tries, showed them the results of my first successful effort. The ladies were quite impressed, and laughed with great enthusiasm. It felt nice to be so supported. And now I had a new trick! Cool.

            I really hadn’t thought about it much since then. At age eight.

~ ~ ~

            The two men in the dorm room looked at one another, then back at me. One asked, “You can tie a cherry stem in a knot with your tongue?”

            “No, no,” I said, in a tone I might have used to explain how to knit, or where to find the nearest gas station. “You have to use your teeth a little.”

            Silence.

            “What??!” I asked. Sheesh.

            I shrugged and dismissed the odd reaction while a female friend, with her eyes on me, mercifully changed the subject. An hour or two later as the festivities died down, that friend and I called it a night (morning?) and headed down the hall for our own rooms. She put her arm around me, and we walked in silence for about ten seconds while she opened and closed her free hand as if to say, “Ta-dah!” over and over. She appeared to be struggling to find the right words to tell me something.

            “There are certain…,” she began, pausing, opening and closing the hand, then settling on, “… connotations to being able to tie a cherry stem in a knot inside your mouth.”

            Confused, I turned at her and said, “What are you… [GASP]!”

            I stopped walking as, all at once, the intervening years caught up with me. I saw the scene from start to finish no longer through the eyes of an eight-year-old telling the other kids about a neat trick, but through the eyes of a college freshman in mixed company during the first week of school. Oh. My. Gawd.

            The genuinely mortified, pitiful look on my face told my friend that the message had finally gotten through. “Yeah,” she said, nodding, patting my back. “Yeah.”

            I stood frozen and speechless as she sighed on my behalf, then walked the remaining few doors down to her room. “Goodnight,” she said. Her voice, the jingle of keys, and my abject horror echoed together throughout the corridor. “Uh, yeah,” I squeaked, hoping desperately that one day this might be funny. “Goodnight.”