I recently cut up some hot peppers. When I say hot, I mean the kind that drives diced onions to run for cover, and produces a choking, blistering sensation in your throat that impels you to gulp down a cold drink in the desperate hope that you might soon resume breathing. I’ve done this before. In fact, I slice and cook hot peppers at least once a month. But memory is faulty and short, and you just don’t realize how many times it is, in the course of a day, that you stick your finger into your own eye.
It’s hard for me to think of an argument that would demonstrate any real necessity to touch my eye, but I do it anyway. Usually it’s because an eyelash has settled there, or a fine strand of cat fur, or a grain of windblown sand. Sometimes there seems to be something there, however I can’t find it, and hours later I’m still probing and plucking, to no avail. But whatever this irritant is, and no matter how much discomfort it may be causing, it’s nothing compared to the invisible fire that lingers on my fingertips, waiting to scorch the sensitive surface of my cornea. For me, the truly remarkable part is that after I’ve flushed out my eye with water and the pain has begun to subside enough for me to stop screaming, I find myself repeating the process, like a goldfish circling its bowl and marveling over and over at the wonders of the living room furniture. Though it’s been mere minutes since the last such event, I once again get that flash of surprise that arrives right after the latest eye-burn, and right before the recollection of the previous one. It’s only then that I remember: “Oh, yeah. Hot peppers.”
People say you should wear rubber gloves when you handle spicy foods. That might be a good idea. The problem is, I hate rubber gloves, or latex gloves, or any kind of gloves that cause me to relive unpleasant experiences I may have had while cleaning an oven, or visiting the doctor. Also, I tend to not wear protective garments when I’m cooking, unless I’m preparing something with ingredients that are either poisonous or radioactive.
Whenever I use a table saw or any power tool that’s ejecting sawdust at the speed of sound, the same thought always passes through my mind: “This is exactly why they sell safety goggles. I should probably pick up a pair.” And it isn’t as though I haven’t already learned this lesson the hard way. I was once using a hacksaw to cut a metal pipe, and an iron filing flew up and lodged itself in my left eye. Why I needed to cut a metal pipe, or even why I own a hacksaw, I couldn’t tell you. But I remember that incident with the iron filing like it was two hours ago. Even now, I have an unnatural fear of Wooly Willy, a toy consisting of the hairless face of a man, and some metallic dust that you could drag around to form a beard and eyebrows. It was the kind of play-thing that fascinates kids just long enough to get their parents to pay for it, and then seems to become pointless within forty seconds. One day I had nothing better to do, so I tore off the clear plastic cover and poured the gray powder into my hand, and sneezed. I was flushing my eyes with water for about a week and a half after that. The original Wooly Willy package advised: Not for children under 3 years. A later version warned: For ages 5 thru adult. I was at least fourteen when, for no discernible reason, I chose to jeopardize my ability to see.
Not long after that, we learned about magnetic fields in school, and our teacher made us do an experiment. We’d sprinkle iron filings onto a sheet of paper, then hold a bar magnet under it to watch the metal slivers magically rearrange themselves. I don’t know why, but I found it a little creepy, these inanimate specks blindly obeying an invisible force. It confused me, too. Where did all these iron filings come from? Was someone carving up metal pipes just so they could sweep the shavings into a big bag and sell them to high school science teachers? Could there be a factory someplace where they were taking finished products and grinding them down to supply facial hair for Wooly Willy?
Most of all, why was I so prone to getting things in my eye?
I’ve had similar troubles with spray cans, especially the ones that require you to turn the nozzle until the opening lines up with a dot on the rim. Somehow, and more frequently than I would expect, I end up with the thing pointed straight back at me. Over the years, I’ve sprayed myself in the eye with paint, glue, vegetable oil, and mosquito repellant.
Swimming in a pool was a hazardous practice, because there was always someone who thought it amusing to splash people in the face. I’m not talking about an open-hand, looping splash, but rather a palm-down, surface-skimming surgical strike that sent a pane of chlorinated water edge-on, directly into an eye. I don’t know if it was the water or the chlorine that caused the sting, but it felt like a swarm of razor blades piercing my eyeballs.
Years later, I would sit in a chair while an optometrist opened a small white box containing my first pair of contact lenses. These were hard lenses. I believe they were called hard lenses because they were formed from the same rigid plastic that’s still used today to make wall anchors and windshield scrapers, and possibly even the cheese graters you can find at the dollar store.
“It may take a while for you to get used to them,” he said. Meanwhile, I was using both fists to push my eyes back into my skull in an attempt to do whatever nerve damage was needed to disable the local pain center of my brain. The contact lenses felt like broken light bulbs, and I was sure I would never get used to wearing them. At that moment, it was impossible to imagine anything more agonizing.
Then again, I hadn’t yet acquired a hacksaw. Or a taste for hot peppers.