I, for one, have never been one to wait on a good thing.
I am self-indulgent by way of my mother, either by training or breeding or both. A thing you should know: the woman loves her food spicy. And when I say loves her food, I mean all her food: her chips, her steak, her salad, her ice-cream. I would tell you it's a disgusting habit, but that undersells the sheer pathology of it. I've known her to pepper the dessert at a Michelin star restaurant with tabasco she'd snuck in with her purse, and to paint her fingers with the seeds from jalapeños, so she could thoughtfully suck at her nails while maxing out cards and sweet-talking shop clerks and grocers (another speciality of hers).
When I was four, and more or less oblivious to this obscure and unsettling illness, my mother arrived home one day with a large grocery bag filled with peppers, and a line about "bargain wholesalers." She produced a pairing knife from a drawer, and made quick business of the habaneros, seeding and mincing them, and then, just as quickly, wrapping up her handy work in brown butcher paper and string. When she was done, there was only one pepper left to the cutting boards – la chanchita – a plump, mandarin red chili, which she rinsed down, and toweled dry, and placed delicately in a glass jar. She looked at me and smiled, turning the jar over in her hands. "Come look, mija. This is the most dangerous pepper money can buy you in this city." American grocers would not allow for such delicacies, she explained, so she had spent an afternoon in the colorless heat, hunting amidst the Mexican stalls and stands that dotted the eastern borders of our city. "Even the luchadores would cry if they tasted her," she said solemnly. (I was only later to learn that my gringa mother knew absolutely nothing whatever about Mexican wrestlers, or of the importing history of her peppers, but was then – and is now – an able and convincing fabulist, who peppers her speech with bad Spanish, and the occasional, incomprehensible German)
She kissed my head, setting the jar on the kitchen table. "I'll be right back," she said. And then hesitating, she nodded toward la chanchita – "Don't touch. After dinner, there will be sugar snaps and strawberries for good little girls." Then she wiped her hands on her apron, turned, and headed toward the steps.
Memory of that age – and of this incident – is obscure. Did I wait one minute or two? Or did I reach for it as soon as her back was turned, and her heels had click-clacked against the landing?
The way my mother tells it, no sooner had she walked a pace, then I had plucked the pepper from its jar and crammed as much of it into my mouth as possible, biting through the slippery skin and the soapy underbelly, and straight into the seeds. There was a moment, perhaps, of thoughtful chewing, and then a moment more of silence and surprise. And then the screaming.
I cannot remember the exact sensations (how does one quantify pain?): only that it reminds me, now, of being sucked under water, in the belly of some monstrous wave. I could not breathe. My face and lips turned a bright and vivid red. I sobbed and choked, and rubbed my eyes, and stamped against the floor, as I had learned that naughty children do.
When my mother reappeared at the door, she snorted, then laughed, and covered her mouth with her hands.
"My little monster!"
And then, in what shall long be remembered in the annals of child abuse, my mother fed me spritzer and water instead of milk and cream, and held wetted paper towels against my cheeks and eyes. "There, there, mija" she said, and then, as if she had read it in a book, "This is what happens to little girls who don't listen to their mothers."
She would use this line again shortly thereafter, when I took a bit of bad temper from the neighbors – having flooded their kitchen with tap water and tomato juice, in an ill-starred reenactment of Moses parting the Red Sea – and then, again, and again, with increasing fervor and frequency in the years to come. This is what happens to little girls who dance in socks on hardwood floors; this is what happens to little girls who play barber with their little friends; this is what happens to little girls who lick oleander leaves and run their fingers through electrical sockets; and so on, and so forth.
Two decades later, I'm not sure whether these childhood antics are better characterized by my inability to delay gratification, or my inability to delay masochism (–which perhaps points to a problem of an entirely different sort).
Still, I've always felt a certain kinship with the children who, eyeing the cookie on the table, square their shoulders and instinctively bite down. Hell, I fell for a pepper.