I heard the key click in the door. The bags crackled as Russ nudged it open with the toe of his sneaker. The door swung wide and he rushed past, toppling back and forth like an apple tree, limbs heavy with fruit. The door slammed back into its jamb. He was covered in grocery bags. The handles pulled at the skin between his fingers, bundling them like kindling. More bags hung from his wrists, all the way down to his elbows, striping his forearms pink with ridges. He stopped in the kitchen, gingerly lying the bags on the counter, one by one. He wrinkled his nose.
Oh boy, here it comes, I thought.
He looked at me over the sea of bags.
Oh my God! What-is-that-smell?
I heard him, but I didn’t look back. I didn’t have to. I knew where this was going.
I sat quietly for a minute, on the couch, deciding how to respond. Either way, this wasn’t going to end well. Russ had already made up his mind about whatever this was. I could either acquiesce, winding myself up to his level of irritation, or, or, I could play dumb, diffusing any hostility.
I called this strategy “slowing your roll.”
For several years, I watched Cracker manage us this way: listen, blink a couple of times, yawn, lay down on his side, and close his eyes with all four legs straight-out like a fainting goat. It worked. We always settled right down.
In a marriage, this tactic operates like a golf cart, and is useful for sublimating those inconsequential bumps we never see coming, like the annoying and harmless zits that appear on our faces, and aren’t ready to pop for days. (Yes, I still get those.)
Putting my foot on the accelerator generally guarantees a single outcome—more of everything—irritation, frustration, decibels, hyperbole, arm flinging, harsh metaphors, and unfair comparisons. Less accelerator is a better bet when resolution is the goal, but toggling carefully between the two maintains the liveliest “engagement,” which I define as the mid-point between shitting-the-bed and shutting-down during any altercation (or argument).
This is the goal anyway.
I closed my eyes and yawned.
Foot off the accelerator.
Russ puffed up more.
“THAT SMELL?? Oh my God, what is that smell?!”
He cracked the windows open, one after the other, covering his nose as he went. Done, he stopped short in the middle of the living room.
This is when things took a hard turn.
“OH MY GOD,” he said. “IT’S YOU!!!! WHAT-DID-YOU-DO??”
My knees were pulled up to my chest and I hugged them loosely on the couch.
Not one to waste an opportunity, I sighed long and slowly, stretching it out.
Foot off accelerator.
“It’s peppermint oil,” I said.
Foot back on accelerator.
Why, why, why?!
You’re killing me, Smalls.
You smell like every elf in Santa’s workshop, drunk on peppermint ice-cream lattes, doused with peppermint schnapps, and swirled with sticks of candy cane…that they burped-up simultaneously, like an a capella choir at Santa’s holiday party! You’ve stunk up the whole joint!”
I had to smile at this.
“I woke up this morning and my neck and shoulder were sore. As in really sore. Like a pinched nerve.”
Russ looked down at me, over his lifted brows.
“So naturally, you thought peppermint oil??”
But I’ve used a heating pad all day, took 1000 mg of ibuprofen, and it’s still kickin’ hard…
So I found some peppermint oil in the cabinets….
and you know what?”
Russ fans his wrinkled nose, his olfactory epithelium clearly not past the assault.
“It feels awesome.
The burn distracts from the pain….
for the most part anyway.”
Russ rolled his eyes and exhaled all the air he had been holding hostage.
“How about I go to the store and get you some tiger balm?”
…if you want.”
Foot off the accelerator.
“I can’t stand the smell. I’m going.”
I already knew he would anyway.
Untwisting the top off the glass bottle, I ran my fingernail along the edges like a spackle, peeling the greasy balm from the surface. It rolled into a little ball on my nail, surfing along. Pulling my hair to the side, I reached back. Before finding the skin on my neck, the globule of grease plunged onto my shirt. More attempts left It tangled in my hair, smeared on my collars, and spread under my nails like Crisco, before ever making contact with the pain.
I was reminded of my very first three day event thirty years ago, when my horse was embossed with Crisco from ear-tip to tail before heading out to begin the cross-country phase of the competition. I frantically wiped down my reins, before mounting to go, only to land in the saddle and see a finger of Crisco smeared across his forelock. It waved like a flag in my face for the next ten minutes while negotiating the biggest challenge of my career that day.
And just like when a naughty horse misbehaves, and is subsequently moved to the stall furthest away in the barn, the Tiger Balm went to live where the Peppermint oil used to—in the very back of the cabinets.
Using the peppermint oil helped, but it didn’t solve my problem. After four days, I booked a massage. It”s desperate times when I consider this high-contact therapy during a pandemic. (I haven’t had a professional hair cut yet this year. ) The massage made me sore, but it improved the pain.
Like taking the foot off the accelerator.