Hot Cheetos. Stale Cheetos. Stale, hot Cheetos.
I was well known in the city as a food critic, but no one knew the intricacies of my daily routine. They didn’t know, for instance, that every evening I filled my sink with warm water, opened a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and set it at the edge of the sink basin to sit overnight. They didn’t know that every morning, after washing my face and making coffee, I poured those soggy red morsels into a small flower-printed bowl, plopped down at my desk, and savored them one by one. They never crunched under the weight of my bite but slowly curled around my teeth and the salt and oil within each piece wrung out onto my tongue. It was then that I knew the true meaning of bliss.
For ten years, this was my morning ritual and as a result, my left fingertips have become permanently red—a telltale tattoo exposing my once secret vice. That, and I have become paralyzed from the neck down. But what bothers me sometimes more than the paralysis is the way it happened. And still, wherever I go, no matter how many times I wash my hands, it looks as though I have just plowed through a bag of hot Cheetos. I mean, like, inhaled them.
The only reason I never got a telling red rim around my mouth is that I was (and still am) careful not to let the things touch my lips. I do this by placing each Cheeto on my tongue like a pill and then drawing it into my mouth.
Over time, the discoloration of my left hand became the cause for much social anxiety and, eventually, the accident. In public, I found myself frantically reaching for a drink to hold, or a pocket to jab my hand into—anything to draw attention away from my glaring fingers. If I were a construction worker or a surgeon, I might have had the small luxury of wearing gloves to work without scrutiny. But given that I was a freelance journalist and often had to meet with clients and conduct interviews, the Cheeto-red fingers left me in an unenviable position.
The beginning of the end was a writer’s networking event. I forgot to hide my left hand in my pocket when introducing myself to a potential client. He was the editor of a glossy publication known in the city for its grandiloquent features and culinary reviews. His suit fit so well that it seemed to be a second skin, moving exactly how he did. He was disarming with his bright smile and dark skin and whenever he moved, it was with intention. I had pitched stories to him over e-mail before but had yet to get a story in his magazine.
When he got a glimpse of my left hand I actually saw him flinch. He politely strode out of arms reach despite the apparent cleanness of my other hand.
“You’ll have to excuse me,” he said, and with a perfectly timed glance at his smartphone and a warm nod, he retreated one step before turning and gliding back into the crowd.
I stood still for some seconds afterwards, my head reeling. His reaction was worse than rude. It was polite. It was my rock bottom: My Cheeto-stained fingers had joined the ranks of disfigurements and political land mines that people ignore in the name of comfort.
The encounter set into motion a near tragic series of events. I still blame that editor for my globular condition. Here is how it happened:
I left the mixer shortly after in a sudden panic. Something had to change. I was weighing my options. Would skin bleaching cream work? I had already tried Clorox and it only left me with wrinkled, scaly fingers that for two days looked diseased.
Keep in mind that the stain on my fingers, now bright red, was a gradual disfigurement. It took almost seven years before I realized what was happening. It started with a slight discoloration that I chalked up to the need for more exfoliation. With my hectic unpredictable schedule, I put off taking pumice to my fingers.
About a year after I first noticed the yellowing of my left index finger, I was at a restaurant with white linens and I noticed my left fingers had an orange hue in contrast with the bright whiteness of the cloth. The first thing that came to mind, again, was that I needed a manicure. Again, I shrugged it off, placing my left hand out of sight whenever possible. Again, my schedule crumpled my manicure plans. A year later, when I signed a contract for a big project, my eyes fell on my hands against the white paper and I was aghast. My fingertips had the thick red color of one who had just groped through a family-sized bag of Cheetos and neglected to wash their hands.
I left the office and went directly to the nail salon. The manicurist there stung me with a disapproving look, but didn’t say anything. She immediately plunged my left hand in a bowl of warm, soapy water. What followed was the second worst moment of my life. The manicurist scrubbed and scrubbed, getting more violent with each pass of the pumice. And with each swipe, she wrinkled her forehead at the stubborn unfading redness that had become the white side of my fingers and spread all the way into the dark skin on top of my hand. She continued like this for four whole minutes—I counted them off on the digital clock on the wall. By the end she was rough and careless with my hand, treating it with the same regard as a gritty potato being prepped for a pot. It was then that the full gravity of the situation clenched me at my core.
My heart started beating like I’d just climbed a flight of stairs, and a seedy prickle washed over my skin. Sweat beaded on my forehead so that I felt a chill on my face when the fan passed me in its rotation. My lips felt dry and my tongue was thick and out of place between the roof and floor of my mouth. To quell panic I made a point of noticing small details about the place—the sky-blue color of the walls, the way strips of paint curled from a darkened spot on the ceiling, the whirr of the fans blowing the odor of acetone into circles in the enclosed salon. A sick ache started in my stomach and radiated out. I swallowed and a rush of thin saliva poured from under my tongue, the kind that pre-empts vomit.
In the distance I heard a voice. “It won’t come off.” The manicurist was breathing heavily from her efforts and looking on in what could only be described as disgust. I looked down at my limp hand, irritated to a new level of redness and covered with patches of white suds. I could hardly hear anything but it was as though my vision improved. Everything seemed still and clear; bright and sterile—like a gleaming incision instrument made of surgical steel.
“Ma’am?” The raised voice of the manicurist came to me as a jolt that rocked me from my trance. Immediately I was back in myself, all senses restored.
“It’s a stain?” I asked with the tone of one asking about the weather. But the feeling of horror persisted.
She let my hand flop onto the rolled out towel and without reply started on my other hand with much less force.
I rolled my left hand over the towel to remove the suds and soaked in the full details of the damage. The once white pads of my first two fingers and thumb were discolored the unmistakable red of hot Cheetos. My index finger was the reddest, as if I had pressed it into a swab drenched in red ink. But the pads of my fingertips were not what triggered the disgust. Had that redness been the only mark it may have been passable as some form of artistry or at least neat rounds of misplaced ink—a clean alternative to the greasy, cheap truth. But the red fingertips bled out into a messy, botched pattern that faded into a skanky yellow orange. The color condensed in the natural creases of the joints near my fingertips, and it looked like a satellite image of a yellowing watershed.
I left the salon after opting out of any nail color; just a clear, inconspicuous coating of polish.
I went home and finished an interview I had scheduled. Afterwards, I met a friend for drinks at happy hour. I quietly worried. That night I poured bleach on a dish sponge and scrubbed until my fingers were raw and, consequently, even more red and angry than before.
Some may be surprised to hear that despite my angst, I did not alter my morning routine. I bought a box of latex gloves with the intention of using them while enjoying my stale, hot Cheetos. And one morning I did try. But the smell of the latex so near my nose offset the delicious rapture of the spicy, cheesy goodness of the snack. I had only eaten two pieces before I took off the glove and never tried using one it again.
On the mornings after the manicure I continued my regular ritual, at this point involuntary, all the while abrading myself with a slow, grating reproach.
But it wasn’t for another four months, when I was snubbed by the editor, that I felt the full shame of my condition.
I left the mixer and drove directly to my house where I made a dash to the Cheeto cupboard and pulled the contents onto the counter below with broad sweeps of my arm. I then got a garbage bag and threw the packs into it by the handful. I moved fast and with intention. I watched each pouch fall into the dark mouth of the garbage bag and hit the thin plastic with a delicious crunch that only chip bags can make. The sound ignited something in my tongue and I fought the urge to eat a final, ceremonial bag—or ten. I took the crunching garbage bag outside and walked it down the street to my neighbor’s trashcan four houses down. It was dark out and no one saw.
When I got back the house I almost walked to the cupboard for a bag. I almost filled the sink with hot water. But instead I busied myself with a new task—packing. I would drive away to Bluestone State Park and spend a night camping in the Appalachians before visiting a cousin in Washington DC. I spent all night packing and re-packing various belongings. I left well before sunrise fearing the Cheeto-less morning that approached.
By the time the sun came up I was well outside of the city with blue mountains unfurling around me on all sides. At first I felt a surge of energy, bright and buoyant. The world seemed washed clean and I along with it. The sun shone bright by 8am and I could see miles into the distance. It wasn’t until 11 that I started thinking about food. By then I had entered the park and was ascending the peak to my campsite. It seemed that it had rained the night before and the dirt road was slick. The tires of my SUV reacted to the wet clay mud like flash frozen ice. While my vehicle may have been ready to take on the situation, I was not. And so this happened:
The road wound around the mountain in sharp, narrow maneuvers. The car fishtailed despite my creeping speed. I steered carefully, both hands gripping the wheel, my whole body tense. Then, the car hit a hole in the road and heaved forward with a thud. I became stiff as a board. To my right was a green wall of ferns, on the other side, sky. The sudden movement sent loose objects in the front to the car sliding back. Then, I heard it: the musical crunch of a Cheetos bag.
To an untrained ear, the sound may have gone unnoticed, especially given the treacherous circumstances, but it hooked my attention from the road. I looked over in the direction of the sound and there it was: on the floor of the passengers side near the mat was a crushed and wrinkled Cheetos bag. The deflated way it folded into itself signaled the likelihood of its emptiness. I glanced back up at the road and saw a sharp turn coming up where the road disappeared completely around the mountainside. A short metal rail was all that stood between me and the gaping chasm between the mountains.
I slowed until I was merely rolling forward with the weight of the car, coasting to buy time before the turn. Then, I leaned as far right as I could while keeping the windshield view in sight. I stretched my right arm down and felt for the bag. When I didn’t feel it I glanced quickly down to see the exact spot and saw that my hand was just inches out of reach of its current position. I divided my attention between the road and the bag in frantic up and down glances. I saw the road, rocking in the windshield from the sway of the car, then the still, orange-red constellation that was the Cheetos bag. On my last glance at the road I saw another hole just ahead and braced myself for the backlash as I took another look down at the bag, this time leaning all the way down to pinch the bag between my fingers. The car hit the hole with a dull thud that threw my body back towards the seat. I nearly bit my tongue with the jolt. Again, gravity rearranged loose items in the car. I opened my eyes and saw one single Cheeto had escaped from the wrinkled bag. Then, I lost all control. I abandoned the steering wheel and so chose to abandon my life for one single and stale hot Cheeto.
Before I felt any indication of the fall, I used my right hand to place the single Cheeto, which was not much better than a kernel of corn, onto my tongue and then into my mouth and then between my teeth where I bit down and tasted the oily salt and cheese power seasoning. The Cheeto was so stale that instead of breaking, it wedged itself into the contours of my teeth like a dental mold.
I shut my eyes and experienced the falling sensation, then the violent way gravity smashed my body against the seat belt. There was a ringing in my ears after the first impact. I felt warm and opened and shut my mouth while breathing in, taking in every last flavor of that one stale, hot Cheeto.