“After meat comes mustard; or, like money to a starving man at sea, when there are no victuals to be bought with it.” Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de La Mancha
“I don’t understand why you’re so upset. So I forgot that you said you didn’t want mustard. Just scrape it off, see?! What is your problem, anyway?”
My problem? No, it was not a problem so much as it was a trigger. But you were the problem in this instance, because fools speak before they think. Because fools think that half a solution that only takes away half of the problem makes things shiny and new and untainted. Because you condescended to me and implied that there was no difference, that I was crazy to think the smell of that putrid mass of yellow would not just disappear as you plowed the knife across the surface, that you didn’t just ruin my food and turn it into me being unreasonable. Because you fail to recognize your inability, maybe your unwillingness to listen. It’s only unreasonable to you, because you don’t know why. You’re only assuming I am malcontent, because to you it’s just mustard. But to this provocateur, this “anti condiment” zealot sitting in your chair and raising the hair on the back of your neck with my objection, it was a slap in the face to force me to relive something I wish I could forget.
It’s the acidic smell that rips me back to that motel room that was a temporary prison in a line of them that I was forced to share with him. I had been hanging the laundry I had to hand wash in the tiny sink on the shower rod in the bathroom when he came bursting back into the room, pulling the damp air in behind him. He was lively and animated, impatiently waiting to unload the story of his latest brush with trouble.
“You’ll never guess what happened!”
My breath caught in my chest. I could only imagine what it was, based on everything I had been forced to witness from the sidelines and the stories from him and his family. The kind of life he lives isn’t something anyone should talk so arrogantly prideful of, but it was just the kind of thing to get him excited, the recollection of everything he’s ever done to get over on someone or get back at them for some imagined transgression coming to life in his warped fantasy land. I knew from his excitement that I was guaranteed to hear about one or the other.
I tried my best to guard my tone and hold the eye roll at bay. “What did you do now?”
“I got pulled over.”
Yeah, because that’s so different from the time he was pulled over for running the stop sign and not having a license, or making a U-Turn and getting caught with lapsed insurance and not having a license, or the time he got pulled over for driving past the barracks and answering his cell phone while he was driving a car with a counterfeit inspection sticker he had made and…. yes, no license. That isn’t even the worst of it, but if you’re wondering how it never seems to catch up to him, I’ll let you in on a little secret. He works off everything as an informant. I knew for him to be this excited, he pulled one over again. Maybe on multiple people.
“Great, so the car is impounded, right? How’d you get back?”
“They gave me a ride back. Why, were you expecting somebody?”
Translation? He had to snitch his way out. Again. And they were pleased with his work and therefore brought him home to unleash the monster on me.
“You should have seen it!” he declared as his eyes glowed in fiery intoxication. “I was laying across the seat, and I was cuffed.”
“Wait, what? What did you do?”
“Just listen, I’m trying to talk!” He paused for a moment and threw me one of his glares before continuing. “I was laying on the seat, right? And I’m cuffed. I’ve got baggies in my mouth because I couldn’t throw them. I waited for the ….”
I confess, I stopped listening, so I don’t what he waited for, I don’t know how long he talked before I came back. For what seemed like an eternity, I stared blankly at him, his mouth moving in slow motion. I was sick to my stomach. When was this going to stop? How many stories and how much grit, filth, and dirt could he stuff into my head?
“…. And I swallowed them.”
“What did you swallow?”
“Listen, the bags. I swallowed three bags.”
“Yeah, do you think it’s going to hurt me? I mean what if they poison me?”
“Wait, you swallowed sealed bags of rock to avoid getting charged with possession? What about that was a good idea?”
“I need your help. I don’t want them the break open and kill me.”
“As much as you smoke it, I don’t think that will matter…”
“Just sit down and look something up. See what you can find. You’re good at that. Probably the only thing you’re good at.”
He started pacing back and forth – well, as much as one could pace in a small motel room, I suppose. I sat down at the computer searching for remedies for his dilemma according to what things we had readily available. My suggestion he go to the ER only agitated him.
“I’m not doing that. Are you trying to get me in trouble?”
“You’re doing a bang-up job on your own. You don’t need any help.”
I paused for a moment after reading a concoction he’d be able to make.
“Yes, mix this up and supposedly it will make you…” I trailed off for a second. “You’ll bring everything up that you care about in the world.”
“I knew you’d find something.”
“You aren’t doing that in here, are you?”
“Yeah, give me the mustard.”
I handed him the bottle, walked across the room where I flopped on the bed and turned on the TV in disgust. After drinking the mixture, he ran into the bathroom and saved his blessed crack from being forever lost. The air reeked of mustard as he calmly walked out and thanked me for my help.
“Turn that down.”
“Oh, come on, are you seriously going to do that crap now? I’m so sick of this. Like I want to spend my day off watching you blazing your face off and watching porn. You’re disgusting. I wish you’d just disappear.”
“Why you gotta talk back? Just do what I tell you!”
“What did you do, bring them up in the sink?”
“No, but I had to wash them off.”
“There were clothes soaking in there.”
“Guess you are going to have to wash them again, aren’t you?”
He threw another glare at me. I turned the TV up louder in protest.
“You think you’re funny, don’t you, you fat b****?”
He ripped the remote out of my hand and muted the TV. The stench in the air of the mustard, musty hotel carpet, and pungent vapor twisted my stomach in knots. I jumped up off the bed and threw all the windows open and switched on the giant floor fan. His eyes bulged at me as he tried and failed to tell me to be quiet. The drugs had control of him, and I violently pulled the door open, allowing it to slam against the wall next to the TV.
“Stop” was all he managed to get out for several minutes. After a while, “Listen, I wanna tell you something!” followed by minutes’ worth of silence before he would tell me to stop again.
“Stop what? This?” I threw the remote across the floor. The battery door flipped off sending the batteries clattering across the floor to his feet. I stomped over to pick them up, deliberately bumping into things as I made my way over. As I stood up to reassemble them, I was met with a glare. He grabbed my wrist and held it for a moment before letting it loose. His attention had been stolen from my by his one remaining rock, glowing like a lighthouse beacon across the blackened sky.
“Yeah, don’t want to forget about that rock, do you? Door’s wide open and everything.”
He went and stood in the door, inspecting the parking lot and trying to figure out whether or not the hallucinations were real. When his supply ran out, his temper came back. He was angry at the world that he couldn’t buy any more rock, because not only was the money gone, he had also gotten the car impounded. When all his calls to his friends went unanswered, he turned back to me and took everything out on his punching bag. I was punished for not listening to him, for insulting him, for talking back. Just how bad, I will not say, it was sufficiently brutal.
And this is where my problem is. It isn’t the mustard that is the issue. It’s the punishment and violence that was forced on me that day as the smell of rank mustard hung violently in the air. It’s the memories of the fear and the pain that was forced on me as the bitter acid engulfed me and infiltrated my lungs against my will. Even now, three and a half years later, if I so much as say the word mustard, this day immediately comes flooding back and the phantom stench comes with it, mingled with crack vapor and mildew. The images play in my mind, and the pain comes again. It isn’t the mustard, no. It’s the association. The memories. Ghosts in my past that haunt me wherever I go. Phantoms that re-visit me whenever I smell that foul, acrid, nauseating stench in my nostrils.
I have to confess, I am only able to bring this up now because I have gained control over at least one part of my trigger. As long as I know the mustard is there, as long as I use it willingly, I don’t have the panic attack anymore, although I still see flashes of that day in my mind. I still can’t quite get over being blind-sided by it, though. While I don’t get thrown into a blind panic anymore, I still get palpitations and the fear that rears up at me in protest. I battle through it and voice my displeasure, which those present generally interpret as being unreasonable. I may always have to battle through it. After all, the smell of mustard will always be inextricably linked to that day. Just one more memory that can’t hurt me yet still does.
And just like the proverb at the beginning, for those who refuse to heed a simple request then badger me about it, thanks for nothing. You have become my new mustard.