This is it, I thought. I am going to be blind for the rest of my life. And when people ask me how it happened, I'm going to have to tell them the sad, embarrassing truth: I was just trying to smell the hot sauces.
It was the end of a day that had felt interminable. Early that morning I'd rolled out of my bed in Winooski and into my car, driven to Middlebury for an appointment and then spent hours fielding calls and emails about the Daysies results.
Late in the afternoon, I could feel a sore throat coming on, so I took a 20-minute power nap in the backseat of my car before driving over the mountains to Plainfield. I reviewed Lark Upson's portrait exhibit at Blinking Light Gallery, then dashed to Montpelier to catch Lost Nation Theater's production of My Buddy Bill.
My heart sank when my husband, who had joined me for the play, informed me that there was no time for dinner. The show, which I had thought started at 8, actually began at 7.
I inhaled a cider donut in the City Hall Auditorium lobby and giggled woozily through the one-man show starring Ethan Bowen about Bill Clinton and his chocolate Lab, Buddy.
By 8:30, the show was over, and Daniel and I dashed to the Mad Taco, which shimmered like a promised land across the street.
We ordered the Colorado tacos, the yam tacos and a plate of rice and black beans, and grabbed a seat at the counter. While we waited, Daniel went to the bathroom and I made my way to the restaurant's infamous hot-sauce table.
I wanted something tangy, fruity, just right. A chalkboard above the table gives the names of the sauces and indicates their heat level, but doesn't say much about their flavor. So I did what any food-obsessed, smell-savvy fool would do: I picked up a few sauces, held them several inches below my nose and gave their plastic bottles a gentle squeeze.
It worked out nicely the first couple times. The spicy air shot up toward my nose like an olfactory telegram. One was smoky, another smelled oddly of bananas. Then I picked up a bottle labeled 778. I was attracted to its mustard-yellow hue. It was called "char-benero" and rated 9 on the heat scale.
I gave it a squeeze. And then I squeezed again, harder this time.
The sauce shot out like a volcano. It must have hit my nose and upper-lip region first, but all I could feel were my burning eyes. I am not exaggerating when I say it felt like my eyeballs were roiling in molten lava. I couldn't see, so I started to scream.
This might be a good time to mention that there were more than a dozen other customers enjoying tacos and Heady Toppers that night — and Daniel was still in the bathroom. I didn't want to cause a scene, but I was pretty sure that I was dying. Torn between my will to live and my sense of dignity, I forced myself to stop screaming and began a wounded warbling of the word "water," while stumbling around blindly, my hands outstretched.
An eternity of hellfire later, Daniel grabbed onto me, and the angel behind the counter (actually a Mad Taco employee) handed me a soaked kitchen towel and a tall plastic cup filled with milk. "Milk works better than water," he told me.
In the bathroom, Daniel held back my hair while I furiously rubbed milk into my eyes. "Am I going to go blind?" I asked Daniel, snot and tears and milk running down my face. Each time I pressed the soaked towel into my eyes, the pain subsided ever so slightly. But as soon as I took it away, the burning returned.
After about 10 minutes, the burning faded enough that I could open my eyes for longer than a few seconds. I could see! But what I saw in the mirror was not pretty. I looked like a "Got Milk?" ad gone terribly wrong — my eyes swollen and red, my face assaulted with a milk explosion.
Now I was laugh-crying. "What is wrong with me?" I asked my patient (and by now totally laughing at me) husband. "What kind of weirdo has to smell the hot sauces?"
When I finally emerged from the bathroom, the guy behind the counter smiled at me as if I'd just joined the club. It's happened to him, too, he told me. Well, different circumstances, but he's had habenero in his eyes. Said it felt just like getting maced in the face during training for the Marines.
"At least you didn't get the one with ghost chilis," he told me. Yeah, thank goodness for that.
Finally, I could sit down to eat my tacos — but something was missing. Even though I was embarassed to be seen cruising the hot-sauce table again, I couldn't help myself. This time I squirted the char-benero directly into a plastic cup, and poured it liberally over my Colorado.
And it was delicious.
Photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur.