Lost in the Woods


I was 15 when I started to suspect I might be black. I’d left my home in Belize after spending all of my childhood in seclusion. For 14 years the only people I knew were my immediate family. I was home schooled in the rainforest. All the stories and books I’d read, like Cinderella, Treasure Island, and Lord of the Rings featured only white people. I had no reason to believe that I was any different.

When I decided to leave my family and go to school in the USA, my mom’s best friend Cathy took me in. She was a warm, generous woman, and, like my mom, was white. She lived in a predominantly white suburb of Detroit. Back home in the jungle, we never talked about race in a meaningful way. I didn’t talk much about race with Cathy, either. She’d always say, “everyone is created equal” and leave it at that.

With so many other societal rules to learn, race was lost in the mix at first. I was exhausted just trying to learn vital social cues like small talk.

If someone said, “Your binder stickers are cool”, I’d say, “I know”. Let’s just say I wasn’t a social butterfly.

But little clues began to appear the more I settled in. Dots started becoming patterns and I started drawing the connecting lines. Kids would say things like, “ You’re black, but you’re classy”.

They were meant as compliments, and at the time I was eager to hear a kind word, but I couldn’t shake this feeling that whatever it meant to be “black” wasn’t good.

One day, my social studies teacher gave each of us a blank piece of paper and a box of crayons. His only instruction was to draw a human, no one specific.

Everyone instinctively used the “peach” crayon when it was time to color the skin.

I, too, automatically reached for the peach crayon, but something stopped me. It didn’t match my skin. Then again, if I used the brown crayon, it would be admitting that I was different, which no one else, including myself, seemed willing to do. I took a green crayon and drew a stick figure to avoid the issue altogether.

The teacher looked at everyone’s drawing. Then he took my drawing, held it up and said, “Everyone in here drew a white human except Minni. Can you see how our race shapes our viewpoint?

My stomach lurched and my mouth got dry. I felt naked in front of the class.

The class erupted in protest to the teacher’s words. “We just drew a human, you didn’t tell us to draw a black human,” one student said.

“In the 80s that same “peach” crayon you used was called ‘flesh’. They changed it.” The Teacher said. “Do you know why?” The Teacher was a white man in his 30s. Before him, no one in my life had addressed race so directly in that way. Or maybe they did and I wasn’t exposed enough to recognize it.

But in that moment I felt so uncomfortable. I felt an uncontrollable urge to hide. I didn’t want to hear the answer.

I dashed to grab the bathroom pass, and without asking permission, took refuge in a bathroom stall until the bell rang for lunch. On my way out of the bathroom, I looked in the mirror and was sickened to see that I was, in fact, not white. It was then that I felt the crushing weight of what that meant. Sub-human.

All my life I’d been socialized to see humans as white by default. Even as a young child secluded in the jungle, I was reading default kids stories like Goldie Locks and the Snow White. There were people, and then there were “other” kinds of people. I’d always put myself in the default “people” category until that day.

After realizing I was black, I did everything I could to disassociate myself from blackness. I was quick to tell people that my mom was white, that I liked folk music, that I wasn’t, technically, actually, black, because, see, my great grandmother was East Indian. TV, magazines, advertisements all propelled this black-loathing. I grew quiet, passive and depressed. I spent the next ten years lost in the dangerous woods of self-hatred. Abandoning my personal worth and boundaries in the name of being in the no-prefix “people” category.

I thought not talking about race and highlighting my whiteness would make racism magically go away. But it was always there, bubbling under the surface, choosing its victims.

Humans of Belize

I was awakened by wind and noise. When I looked out, I saw roofs blowing off the houses, zinc flying in the sky like leaves, whole trees flying like kites. It was loud. We couldn’t go anywhere. It was too dangerous.”

On October 31, 1961, category 5 hurricane “Hattie” made landfall on the central coast of Belize (then British Honduras), becoming the most deadly and devastating hurricane in the country’s recorded history. The storm and its aftermath would change the nation forever. There may be lessons to learn from hurricane Hattie survivors about endurance, resilience, and unity in the face of adversity.

Hurricane Survivor: Yola Robateau

Once you passed our house in Dangriga, there was nothing but bush and then the sea. Right before hurricane Hattie, a woman, Ms. VG, built a house in front of us and then that became the last house before the sea.

I was nine years old and my brother Joel was maybe 8 months old. Our parents were out of town and we had a nanny with us, Mrs. Coleman. We knew the hurricane was out there but it was headed away from us on that night before Halloween, so we went to sleep.

I remember Ms. Coleman asked Ms. VG across the yard, “If the hurricane turns around could you wake us up so we can go to the shelter?” And Ms. VG said she would. That’s the last we heard before we went to sleep.

I was awakened by wind and noise. When I looked out, I saw roofs blowing off the houses, zinc flying in the sky like leaves, whole trees flying like kites. It was loud. Everyone woke up. We couldn’t go anywhere. It was too dangerous.

Our roof started creaking and lifting just before the wind stopped. It was lifting and I thought it would blow off, too. But my father was a builder and he built our house with all posts in concrete and a solid foundation with reinforced roof.

Soon, some of the nearby houses started blowing apart. People began knocking on our doors and we started letting in our neighbors. We took in a lot of people, it was too hard to close the door on people in need.

The last time I looked out, I saw this big wave coming and coming, higher and closer and it broke on Ms. VG’s house—the one closest to the sea. And then it took the whole house! I saw the entire house floating out. I don’t know if she was in it but it was breaking up as it flowed in the current down to the jetty.

The wind stopped eventually, but the water wouldn’t recede for days. We couldn’t even go out. Chickens and ducks, all animals were drowned. It took two weeks for the water to go down. We continued to shelter people whose homes were blown away until they could find a safe place. That’s when new communities formed like Silk Grass and Hattieville. It was for survivors of hurricane Hattie with no place to go.

When the water receded just enough, I went out to look for food. I was on one of those streets going to Bluefield. There was a house on the corner there where there used to be a parrot that always talked. Before the storm I had a friend there so I went there first. I hadn’t got that close before I saw the body of a young girl, her eyes were all white in her head. I ran back home so fast, I did not go out looking for food again.

We shared food and ate drowned chicken and drowned ducks until the Red Cross come in and supplied food for us by the clinic right by the sea. I don’t remember being hungry.

When I was in line for breakfast at the Red Cross clinic, from there I could see men throwing bodies in big holes they dug. These trucks drove around and collected dead bodies and dumped them into two or three pits.

After a while, I stopped remembering things. Your mind just blocks certain things. But what I will always remember is that the people came together. There was no pushing, no shoving in the food lines, people shared. The family that stayed with us, they cooked and kept things together. We became closer.

Right now, as Belize faces times that could become hard again, people must remember our history and strength. We should come together instead of attacking each other. We depended on each other to survive then, in those days after the hurricane, just as we will now as we face a different kind of storm. Belizeans have seen other hard times and always find a way to recover and thrive. I survived Hattie; I know what Belizeans are capable of.

Hotboys

“You know you hot when you gotta dodge pussy.” He leaned back in the Monte Carlo until the leather seat was so low it was more like a lounge chair. A woman walked by. Slowly, he adjusted his seat back up but only halfway.

He wore baggy Enyce pants tucked loosely into untied Tims and an oversized Ecko T-shirt that concealed his gun. He had three cell phones: the Motorola Razor (it had just come out), and two little Nokias that stayed vibrating and lighting up.

His cars always changed. This time it was a Monte Carlo. Last week it was a Chrysler Sebring convertible and two weeks ago it was something else. When I asked him about all the cars he just shrugged and said, “I hit up the auction.”

He was tall, sturdy, and unbothered, almost bored at any given moment. He only smiled when he looked at me and even then it was faint, like a fleeting reminder of something that once gave him joy. His eyes were large and clear like pools, his eyelashes were long, and his beard was so thick that you could almost see it growing from the last shave. He was beautiful on the outside and even though I never got to see too far in, I could feel that his understanding of the world was captivatingly tragic: a barren landscape of survival.

One day he picked me up and I could tell he wasn’t ok. He talked even less than usual and instead of his usual intent listening,  his mind was far away. When I asked what was wrong at first he said nothing. And so we sat in the car and smoked a blunt in silence until finally, he said, “This muthafuckin’ kid tried to break up in my spot. I shot ‘im.”

My heart raced but I didn’t react. “Is he dead?”

“I heard someone tryna break in so I just posted by the door and when he came through, blam! I shot. Man, I ain’t know know it was a kid tho. Still blood on the floor an shit.”

He shook his head, staring blankly out the windshield. “He must’ve been watching the place, he ain’t seen my boy drop me back this morning an’ take the car.”

“Survivors kill,” I said, trying to calmly absorb his words into the place in my mind that understood the steely laws of the natural world. Growing up in the bush, I was exposed to this coldness from an early age. Watch a snake eat a songbird whole and alive you will understand.

“Fuck nah,” He snapped out of his mist for a moment and turned to face me, his eyes were bright and deep. He put his hand gently on the side of my face and looked me in the eyes, speaking slowly and firmly. “Don’t say shit like that. This ain’t shit. This shit ain’t even the least of it, a’ight?”

But we both knew it was true: That survival of the species depends on that hot fierceness. It’s why the shiny roosters stay sitting at the top rung in the chicken coops; it’s why the hot boys stay leaning back in their Monte Carlos tryna dodge pussy.

We never had sex. We never even kissed. I was a virgin back then and I knew he was way too hot for me. He knew it, too. He didn’t even try. It was an unspoken understanding. But I was drawn around him like a moth to a flame and we spent afternoons in his hot cars driving around talking lone shit.  I could tell by the way he looked at me that he cared, but I wasn’t sure why. Maybe I was a place he could go to cool off for a little; a place to escape all the heat, just for a moment. He’d pick me up by my school’s dining hall and we’d drive around with no destination or we’d walk through the nature trails way at the back of campus and talk about life.

One time we were walking in the woods behind campus and we passed a pond. There were ducks in it, swimming around.

“You ever seen ducks when you feed ’em bread?” He asked me. “They just smash that shit, like ’til they can’t even swallow it; they just stand there struggling and choking and still tryna get at the next piece.”

“Okay, your point?”

“That how these niggas be out here. Always tryna get some shit from you, and when you do break ‘em off they come with they greedy ass an’ take more than they can even handle.”

“You can learn a lot about human behavior by watching nature,” I said.

“It’s like that song,” he said. “What’s that one talkin’ ‘bout, ‘We ain’t nothin’ but mammals?’”

I knew the song and I giggled. “I was trying to be deep and here you come with that.”

“So was I,” he said. “But I ain’t neva been to no college so I can’t talk smart like you. I’m straight hood.”

It was quiet for a while and then we looked at each other and laughed. I’d never seen him laugh before.

One evening, I called him and tried really hard to convince him to come up to my dorm room. He didn’t. Instead, he threw a fit.

“This ain’t how it go,” he said, raising his voice. “You can’t just have me over an’ shit, don’t you know that? Look, you catchin’ feelings an’ fuck, I jus’ gotta tell you straight: You and me? We’ nothin’,  a’ight? And stop callin’ my fuckin’ phone ‘cause from me, you ain’t gone’ hear shit else!”

And he hung up.

It was mean. It was cold. It was over. And I never did hear shit else from him. I don’t know why the sudden turn, but I have my theories. Either way,  looking back, it was obviously for the best. But in the moments after he hung up, I felt the sting. I lay on the floor and listened to Evanescence, stunned. I drank some straight Mohawk vodka that I kept in my desk for impromptu campus parties. Hours later, my roommate came home and found me there with the bottle on the floor in the dark. She turned on the lights and shouted, “WHAT THE FUCK?”

I got up and told her what happened and she laughed and eventually, she got me to. From then on we referred to him as, “Shit Else.” We played some Ludacris and jumped around the room and the shadow passed. It was my first brushing with a hotboy and I was dazzled.

Back then I didn’t know how deep it got, how that shadow can creep in and curl around the edges of your life and grip down. It was a warning. A warning that I did not heed. Years later, I was neck deep with a hotboy from the West side, selling dope and who knows what else and traveling around the continent spending money. I flew right into the flame. Only just in time did I drag myself out,  and barely. I lived with the shadow for two years afterwards wondering, thinking, and sifting through the rubble.

I’m 31 now, grown as fuck and a boss in my own right. In an act of swearing off hotboys, I thought I found one who was reformed. In theory, it was the perfect scenario–you get all the hotness and the swag without the messy lessons. But I was wrong. It took a couple years before I learned first hand that true hotboys never fully reform. If they do, it’s because they are broken; It’s because the game broke them and they’ve spontaneously combusted in the heat; It’s because their soul, blown to dust, is floating around in the air looking for somewhere to land.

I’d like to say I know better than to be chasing these hotboys. I’d like to say I’ll never again fly too close to the flames. I’d like to say that I’ve learned how to harness the shadows. But after all these years, all I can say is that the biggest wars we’ll ever wage will be between what we know and what we feel.

 

 

The Fall

Kidpix

When I was eight years old, I fell out of a tree and my face smashed into the rosewood beams that lay beneath it. I still wonder how I’m alive today, or at least not incredibly deformed.

It was a dry day, and I was taking a break between math problems. Way was talking to a visitor halfway down the hill, and, overcome with a sudden curiosity, I climbed a tree to see who it was. Perched at my usual branch about four feet off the ground, I couldn’t see far enough down the hillside.

I climbed higher and higher, grabbing into unfamiliar branches, checking to see if I could get a better view at each branch. I was at least 12 feet up when I got a glimpse of the visitor in the driveway. It was a thin man with dreadlocks who I didn’t recognize.

I reached up and shifted all my weight to a branch above me and hung there, letting my feet unwrap from the trunk as I peered down the hillside. Suddenly, there was a crack and a spray of rotted wood dust hit my face. Before I could grab another branch, I felt myself falling. The bottom fell out of my stomach, and everything was blurred. My heart raced and the warm summer air felt cold. Everything was a frantic swirl: a life-flashing past, and then evaporating. I flailed my arms in blind search for a branch to grab onto on the way down. The skin on my right arm was torn by something sharp, and then I saw it: the pile of rosewood logs that I was to hit in seconds. My muscles wrapped tight around my bones as I braced for impact. There were no more branches to grasp at. It was over.

My face hit the logs first and the rest of my body came crashing after it. It felt like the time I accidentally inhaled water at the river—a sharp sting high up in my nose from liquid in my sinuses and then a burning in my throat. But it came and went in a flash. Soon I didn’t feel anything but a warmth in my fingers and toes, everything else was numb. I didn’t move right away. It felt like I was standing outside of my body looking at myself, a calming warmth radiating through me. There was no pain. I didn’t move, I felt like I was falling asleep. I was brought back by the sound of Jah’s voice breaking into a long bawl. I sat up to see what was the matter. He was staring at me and screaming and I felt confused. I stood up and felt a wash of warm liquid run down my face and the front of my flowered rag dress, I my head felt so light on my shoulders, I almost fell over. I looked down and thought the red liquid looked pretty as it soaked into the fabric leaving behind the thick clumps of tissue that didn’t soak through the cloth.

The warm feeling spread from my fingers and toes to all of my skin. A dull metallic taste filled my mouth. I felt like laying back down and continuing my nap but I thought I should at least walk to the bed in the house.

Jah’s cries had alerted Na and she was standing at the end of the path by the house looking down the driveway that was the entrance to our hilltop home. When she saw me her fists clenched. Her face got red and she looked angry and terrorized at the same time. A warm trickle still flowed from my face, the blood soaked fabric of my dress stuck to my stomach and it felt like a warm blanket. I saw red dots of blood start to drip on my feet. I walked right up to her, looked up, and I smiled.

“I’m fine,” I said. “It doesn’t even hurt.”

Na grabbed at a nearby water drum to catch her balance. Her face went from red to pale. I felt a sweeping calm, like I did after eating a large hot meal. Sleep seemed so close, now. The ground looked soft, like a bed.
“Can I take a nap?” I asked.

Na let out a primal scream. The world got blurry. I felt her grab my arm. “I’m so angry with you. I’ll never forgive you.” She said lowered herself to my level and looked me in the eyes. “I will never forgive you for this.”

Moments later, I felt cold water hit my face and it disrupted my euphoric feeling. I felt a deep, distant throb inside my skull. I felt Na’s hands on the back of my neck and a cold cloth dabbing my face. I heard voices. At my core, I just wanted everyone to know I was all right. I tried a smile but my muscles slackened. I just needed a nap. Everything would be fine. Why didn’t everyone know?

When my face was wiped off, Na led me to the hammock in the kitchen. I sat in it and laid back. The warm stream down my face had been replaced with the cool dampness of a cloth. My nostrils were full of something thick and wet. I had to breath out of my mouth.

“We need a doctor,” I heard Na say. Then I heard Way and saw his face appear over me. He returned to his discussion with Na. “We can do it ourself!” He said. Then  they lowered their voices but I heard snippets of the conversation all ending in “her nose.”

I reached up to feel my face and Na slapped my hand. “Don’t touch it! We have to tape it on. We’ll just tape it in place. That’s what we’ll do.” She was talking fast and frantic and pacing. Jah was staring at me with red, watery eyes and quivering.

An idea was floating around in my head. Something bad happened. Something very bad happened to my face. My nose. Where was it? I couldn’t feel a thing, or at least no pain; just a cool breeze on my skin.

“I’m fine.” I repeated, and I was surprised at the gurgled, nasal sound that was my voice.

“Don’t talk!” Na shouted at me. “Just be quiet!”

She ran into the wooden house. Way turned to me and bent over the hammock, examining my face closely. “Yeah, Min,” he said smiling,“You bus’ up your face, but don’t worry. We a fix it, okay? Just relax.”

Na returned with a roll of duct tape, some cotton balls we used to wrap around sticks and use as Q-tips, and a pair of scissors. She set them on the kitchen table and she and Way discussed antibiotic cream, namely that we didn’t have any.

Way went into the garden near the kitchen and came back with four fat aloe vera leaves. He slit one open with a knife and dug its inner clear jelly into a bowl. Na mashed the cotton in it until it was wet and sticky. She then took the cotton and wiped my face with long gentle strokes in one direction. It felt slimy and cold, faintly itchy. Globs of it dripped down into the creases of my lips and an intense bitterness invaded my mouth. Na tore off pieces of duct tape, one after another, and stuck them over the aloe soaked cotton onto my face. It didn’t hurt. It felt like my face was not mine at all, like my being had shrunk inside of my body making it a shell.

When she was done, she asked if I could open my mouth. I could, but only halfway. She said it was fine. “Just enough to get a spoon in.” I breathed through my mouth, shut my eyes. The world went quiet.

Almost instantly, Na shook me. “You can’t sleep right away, you’ve had a concussion.” She said. “Jah, find her a book, I don’t want her to go into a coma.”

I opened my eyes and three pairs of eyes blinked back at me. Na had pulled up stools around the hammock for her and Jah and she held Chaka in her lap.

“She’s alive!” Jah jumped off the stool, a wild look on his face. “Now can I ask her which books?”

I wasn’t sure if he was happier that I was alive or that it meant that Na would read us story.

“Get the one with the story about the man who pulls the thread.” I gurgled.

 

Jah jumped as if he had heard a ghost. He looked at me for a second and then ran to the wooden house to find the book of Russian fairy tales that was my favorite.

The first story I requested was the one about a man who was going through a hard time. He encountered a witch in the forest who gave him a magical ball of thread. He could pull on the thread and time would fast forward, a perfect tool to skip over life’s worst moments. The man ended up pulling through all the hard parts of his life and so he aged and died fast–something like a matter of days.

“If you had that thread would you pull it ’til your face was fixed?” Jah asked.

I tried to open my mouth to answer but the duct tape pinched me. I would, I thought to myself. I’d pull the thread.

As Na read, Jah was tasked with keeping me awake. It was a duty he cherished, poking and pinching me whenever my eyes lowered. We sat there listening to stories until the evening birds could be heard in the surrounding jungle and Na had to boil the beans to preserve them for the next day. Jah helped me out of the hammock to the wooden house. By nightfall my face had swollen so far that my eyes were reduced to slits that I could barely see out of. Na had held her hand in front of my face at different points during the day to make sure I could see, and I could until my face swelled shut which set her at ease knowing that I had’t gone blind. Now, I saw slivers of light in front of me but the swelling made it hard to see far enough to walk.

We all packed onto our sponge mattress as usual. Na and Chaka at the bottom and Jah and I laying diagonally so out feet didn’t touch her.  I got Jah’s pillow and mine to prop my head up on to help me breathe. Na said I could fall asleep, since I seemed pretty alert and out of the the woods for a possible coma. No sooner than I laid down, I fell asleep.

When I woke up I was alarmed that my eyes had sealed shut with a crusty dried fluid and I couldn’t open them. It stayed like that for about a week. Na changed the duct tape and cotton balls on my face every morning and evening and put more aloe on. A few days in, after I got my sense of smell back, I started to hate the smell of aloe. I laid in the hammock during the day and Na would check on my when she had time between chores. Most of the time my only company was Jah circling the hammock and telling me how horrible my face looked. “You look like a lizard,” He said one day, then he hesitated. “Well, a lizard who got beat up a pulp.”

I threw the cup I was holding in the direction of his voice.

“You look like a garrobo,” He said at length. “But without the tail I guess.”

I sat up. “Go get me a wet rag.”‘

“Why?”

“Just get me one, okay!”

He went to the kitchen and returned with a wet dish cloth. It smelled like rancid cooking grease. Still, I used it to rub my eyes until the dried mucus let go of my eyelashes and lids and I forced my eyes open, even to slits. The first thing I saw was Jah running to tell Na what I was doing.

I put the rag down and laid back in the hammock like nothing happened.

Na came from in from the kitchen and I felt her grip my arm and examine my face. “Do you want to go blind?”

“I want to see how bad it is.” I said.

She asked if I was sure. I nodded. She went to the house and got the one mirror and handed it to me. I held it close to my face so I could see. My heart jumped when I saw my face. It felt like little splinters fell in my stomach and my tongue got dry. It didn’t look like me at all. I was overcome by a terrifying feeling that it was how I would look for the rest of my life. I didn’t say anything, just handed the mirror back and tried to fight back tears.

“Maybe you don’t look like a garrobo so much,” Jah said once he saw my condition, and in a strange show of consolation, he  poked me in the shoulder with a stick.

The swelling went down gradually, and after a couple weeks I was moving around and doing chores again.

The first chore i did was collect firewood. Jah and I took our machetes into the ravine on the outskirts of the bush to collect firewood. I was chopping dried branches and Jah was stacking them. My sight was fine now, and I could see everything that moved in the bush. I stopped chopping and sat down next to the pile of branches.

“What is it?” Jah asked.

“I’m so happy I can still see.” I said. I was looking at the leaves flickering in the canopy above. There were birds up there feeding on the luciana seeds. I finished all my chores that day like they were not chores at all. I decided that my biggest fear was going blind.

For weeks I avoided the mirror. I was still a sight with duct tape stretched over the middle of my face and the whites of my eyes blood red. I wondered if they would ever go back to normal. Na said not to worry, that it was “just broken blood vessels”.

I don’t remember the day it went away. I was a slow healing and one day Na didn’t put the duct tape back on, she just slathered the scar under my nose with Vaseline. My nose started itching and it took everything in me not to scratch it. And one day, I don’t remember the exact moment, but one day it was gone. My face was back to normal except for a raised scar right under my nose where the flesh had healed back.  The fall became a bizarre memory.

The first tree I climbed after the fall was the guava tree. Guava season was just coming in and I wanted to get one before the piam piams pecked into them or before they were crawling with fruit worms. Jah went up the the tree first and I, after. It was like normal. I wasn’t afraid, instead I felt security in my new practice of checking the end of each branch to make sure there were green leaves on it. Na and Way saw me go up the tree in quiet approval. Looking back, they must have known I had suffered the best lesson of all, better then any scolding could carry.

In college, to my peer’s astonishment, I would scale the crab apple tree on campus on my way to class, eat as many as the tart fruit I could take, and then descend like a cat back onto the sidewalk with twigs lodged in my curls.

Over the years I’ve learned the  art of climbing: examine the tree, know the durability of the wood type, know your limits, be flexible, always check the end of the branch before leaning your weight into to, and never put all your weight on a branch without making sure there is another within reach that can hold your weight. These are the principles of climbing.

 

Stale, Hot Cheetos

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 seasoninHot cheeto fingersg. 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.