I can’t remember parts of this story because the events happened when I was young, during one of those formative years that imprints itself deeper than memory or decision. Those imprints can make dogs forever afraid of wheels or obese women with umbrellas, or they can shape a man’s posture into something hunched and nervous, or they can give a woman a startlingly affinity for feet. Or, in my case, those formative imprints can make me particular about condiments. Although rationally, I know egg yolk mixed with oil is not brimstone, my un-rational self can only taste the devil’s handiwork in that combination.
I have traced the origins of this peculiarity to the following story. To return to my disclaimer, I can only assume, like so many others who possess fickle and self-protective brains, that I’ve probably created false memories around this experience. But in pursuit of emotional, if not historic, truth, I will lean into those false memories, exaggerate here and there, and round everything out with a few bald-faced lies.
This story happened on a hunting trip. My dad and brother and the Eberle family and I had all crammed into the cab of my dad’s truck, with dogs and guns and hunting vests in the bed. The hills we planned to hunt still lay dark and distant, passing like memories outside the truck windows. A twelve-hour day of hunting feels ominous that early in the morning, when my still-sleeping legs balk at the walk to the bathroom, and when it seems no quantity of eggs and sausages and English muffins could ever fortify me for a day of wandering cross-country, stomping through sagebrush, and clambering up ravines.
Dad had made sandwiches for all of us the night before, and because I don’t believe in the arbitrary, caste-like segregation of breakfast-foods and non-breakfast-foods, I turned to this sandwich for further caloric encouragement. I opened the ziplock bag. A sliver of lettuce poked out between two pieces of wheat bread. A slice of ham showed itself on the opposite side. I assumed cheese was in there somewhere, too, rounding out that bottom-shelf cocktail of the sandwich world. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I thought then that any sandwich prepared for me was a fine sandwich. And I was hungry. I was tired. The sandwich wanted to be eaten.
Minute rodent nibbles don’t make sense in a crowded truck where elbow space is a zero-sum game, so I took a ravenous, giant bite. It tasted almost exclusively of bread. Other flavors probably crouched in there somewhere, but regardless of gratitude, this sandwich was heavy on the bread. Even distribution had clearly not been a priority of Dad’s one-man sandwich assembly line. But this was a hunting trip, after all. A delicate palate doesn’t belong in a day when I’ll sweat through my already salt-stained hunter-orange baseball cap, with thorns and bits of shrubs lodged in my socks and my jeans and my vest, and, hopefully, a dead bird or two stinking up the game pouch at my lower back. I didn’t complain about the sandwich’s shoddy craftsmanship. I strategized.
Like every child who ladles up all the unlucky charms first and saves the milk-bloated marshmallows for one final, explosive mouthful, I decided to get all those bready bites out of the way. I ate in a circle, preserving the bulging, fully-loaded core. Like an archaeologist hacking through a gluten jungle, I exposed the margins of the triple layers. Cheese, ham, lettuce. Each a thin layer, but this was only the edge of the pyramid. Between the undergrowth of wheat bread, I knew what I held in my hands. Everything missing from the rest of my sandwich was consolidated here, in one massive bite of breakfast treasure.
I took the bite.
It turned out Dad hadn’t limited his paltry toppings to the crusts. That Oliver Twist-y supply of meat and cheese and lettuce maintained their same thin layers throughout the entire sandwich. What wasn’t the same—what had been plopped straight into the middle as one wet, viscous dollop—was mayonnaise. Four tablespoons, give or take, of pure, undiluted mayonnaise.
I’ve never been waterboarded. I don’t remember the time I almost drowned in a swimming pool while playing marco polo. But I do remember trying to breathe through a suffocating mouthful of mayo, trapped in the truck that early September morning. Mayonnaise isn’t a liquid. A liquid runs, moves. A liquid has decency, humanity, and mercy. This mayonnaise only stayed. A Wall Street Occupier who never got the memo. I wanted to open my window and expel that vile mess onto the road, but the road was passing at sixty miles per hour, and I was stuck immobile between a door and a hunting partner. I could only push a TSA-compliant quantity of mayonnaise around in my mouth and pray for an airway. A modern Moses trying to part a terrible White Sea to bring his people to freedom.
I worked at that foul mouthful for minutes, my misery unnoticed by the rest of the truck. I couldn’t speak, and the day was too early for tears. While the world slept outside, the sky just beginning to lighten into a red, bloody dawn, I struggled with half a cup of purulent, egg-based choking hazard. The shreds of bread and those thin toppings dissolved, but mayonnaise is the cockroach of the sandwich. It can’t be killed. It can only be swallowed, plop by plop. At last, five ounces later, I breathed.