I’ve Had Better Ideas
There’s no other word for it. I’d like to say that I’m asking for critical details, that I’m trying to paint a complete picture, that I’m hoping to dig into the man’s soul to understand his motivations. But really, I’m just stalling.
In my defense, the reason I’m stalling is that the man is a security consultant who, in about ten seconds, is going to hit me square in the eyes with tactical-strength pepper spray. I’ve asked him to do this, which does not say impressive things about my intelligence. But I want to know what it’s like.
Why, you ask? Can’t we all just presume that it sucks? That it hurts, a lot? That taking two million Scoville units in the retinas—two hundred times hotter than a jalapeno—is not the way sane people choose to spend a Thursday afternoon?
Well…yes. But also no.
One thing I’ve learned writing fiction is that it’s the little details that make a world real. The smell of a squad car, Pleather and fast food and a whiff of sweat and a tiny hint of vomit. The particular hopeless echo inside a solitary confinement cell. The electric thrill of holding a pistol, the way it seems to complete your hand, a rather horrifying but true fact.
Let’s make it personal. Think about your, say…your bedroom. Picture your bedroom.
Are you calculating the measurements and placing the furniture? Or are you remembering the view of the nightstand when your head is on the pillow, the way light spills amber across the sheets late at night, the warm sleepy smell of the person beside you as you hit the snooze button for the third time?
Those little details are what let you understand something. They’re how you get inside a moment. I believe that being pepper sprayed sucks. I believe that it hurts. But I don’t know how exactly.
Not for another five seconds.
The reason I want to understand this is to understand a larger story. In 1968, during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, police and protesters went head-to-head—and frequently nightstick-to-head—in a bloody riot that symbolized the culture clash tearing the nation apart. The demonstrators say that they were peaceful, that all they wanted was to speak out against the war. The police say that many of the protestors were essentially domestic terrorists, similar to those that had burned down great whacks of the city the previous years. And so they defended their city, using the weapons they were trained in.
Like pepper spray. The security consultant is shaking the can up, and I’m desperately trying to think of another question. Every time I distract him, I buy myself a few more seconds.
Hey, just cause I want to do this doesn’t mean I, you know, want to do it. I know. I’ll ask—
With grace and precision he blasts me right across the face. Right across both open eyes.
So much for stalling. My thoughts, in order:
1. Oh shit.
2. Huh. That’s not too bad.
3. Man, I hope the cameras are rolling.
4. Wow, I’m really pretty tough. I can totally handle—
5. Oh shit!
The heat is a living thing, growing and coiling. It starts soft, not unlike a steaming washcloth laid across my eyes. But as the capsaicin—that’s the chemical that makes peppers peppers—sinks in, as it makes itself at home in the soft tissue, as it leaks into my tear ducts, the heat builds.
My eyes were wide open when he hit me, but I’ve got them locked shut now. I have a sneaking suspicion that when I open them, the air is going to make it worse. The security consultant and his team are leading me inside. I can hear them talking, the scuff of shoes on concrete. But it’s all very far away.
In the darkness behind my closed eyes, I’m alone with my thoughts and the heat. And as the heat grows, it’s pushing the thoughts out.
Hotter and hotter and worse and worse and they’re telling me to open my eyes and I do and the outside world blooms like an explosion and I shut them again but not before I’ve let in a whole lot more heat and man oh man was this a stupid idea and the panic is rising but I can’t let it take control and I try to breathe and picture the snowbank outside and imagine burrowing into it face first and just laying there in the cold but that would make it worse too and they’re dabbing my face with dish soap on paper towels to break up the oil and telling me to open my eyes and I do and that just makes it worse…
And so on.
It’s about thirty minutes before I can open my eyes, before the world returns to normal. And then, almost suddenly, I can see. The effects have faded. I take a breath, and blow my nose, and I can see the crew around me, the expression on my wife’s face, and things are okay again.
When I look in the mirror, it looks like I have a wicked sunburn. My eyes are red and bright. I don’t dare touch my face, and I’m forbidden to shower that night, because it will reactivate the capsaicin.
Still, I learned a lot. The pain was bad, but worse was the sense of helplessness, the claustrophobia. I didn’t want to move or be touched. And in that dark space, panic’s ragged edge was so close. It sucked and pulled at me. It teased and tempted. I knew it would only make things worse, but that didn’t lessen panic’s gravitational pull.
And now that I’m okay, and that I know a beer is in my very near future, I have to admit that I’m glad I did this. Was it fun? Not so much. But I’m closer to the story than I could have gotten just by knowing pepper spray hurts.
I know the panic is worse than the pain. I also know that it fades, that if you ride it out, there’s no harm done. And so I understand why police would use it freely if they felt threatened.
They’re small things. Details. But it’s the details that make a story real.