I knew recovery would be long and challenging, but the littlest changes took me by surprise.
As my teeth puncture the skin, my senses assault me, wreaking havoc on my nervous system. The flesh scours teeth and gums, scraping them raw. The juice, freed from its confines, erupts, its acidity burning my lips. The clamor of the crunch invades my entire being, striking at every fiber, every cell, flaying them to shreds.
I jerk the apple away from my mouth and stare at the teeth marks. What just happened? Frowning, I shake my head and lick my lips – and pucker and suck air in with a hiss, cringing at the flavor. The tartness burns, and the sweetness is cloying.
But this is a Honey Crisp. I love Honey Crisp apples; they’re my absolute favorites. I love them for the crunch, for the sweetness and the tartness. I love the ceremony of choosing the apple, washing it, then drying it, rubbing it with a tea towel until it shines. I always look forward to sinking my teeth into it, anticipating the burst of flavor.
I shake my head and berate myself. This is ridiculous. I raise the apple to my mouth once more. I bare my teeth and touch them to the apple. I apply pressure to break the skin. But as soon as the surface is about to give, I recoil. I can’t do it.
As a child, I didn’t like eating apples because of the texture; biting through them set my teeth on edge. I only ate them when Mum cornered me and wouldn’t take no for an answer, nagging, “You don’t eat enough fruit. Have an apple.”
She always had a pile of them sitting in a basket on the enclosed porch off the kitchen. She’d grow impatient with me when I’d take my time rummaging through the mound of Jonathans, searching for the smallest. “They’re all the same. Just pick one.”
After washing the chosen one, I’d rub it dry with a tea towel, polishing it until it shone and then some. Finally, unable to postpone the inevitable any longer, I’d bring it to my mouth, brace myself, and bite down. How I dreaded that first bite, and the second, and the next, and the next.
By my early 20s, I grew out of my aversion to apples and learned to enjoy the celebration of senses. I slurped as I ate, attempting to contain every drop of juice each time my teeth sank into the white flesh.
But now, instead of eager anticipation, the thought of setting my teeth to the apple makes me shudder. Is this yet another symptom, another trick from my bloody brain?
I am a brain injury survivor. I have a vascular disorder; scattered throughout my brain are tangles of malformed blood vessels. Two of them bled, causing brain damage and a variety of symptoms. I underwent multiple surgeries to prevent future bleeds. The surgeries themselves caused damage, too. Years later, my symptoms range from vertigo and loss of balance to poor short term memory and trouble with sequential thinking. I am also hypersensitive to sensory input. Sometimes new manifestations of my deficits sneak up on me and catch me unawares, at times leaving me frustrated or upset, often amused, and occasionally, like now, bewildered.
At the mention of the word “apple,” I used to picture one, green with a few streaks of red, shiny, its stem intact. Now, I imagine my teeth bared, about to take a bite, I can almost hear that crunch – and I shrink into myself, my shoulders hunch up, and I shiver.
After I recover from the onslaught on my nervous system, I muster up my courage. I am not going to surrender to the capriciousness of my damaged brain.
But when I move to pick up the apple, those teeth marks leer at me.
No. I just can’t do it.
This isn’t the first time my brain injury has affected my culinary experiences. For weeks after one of the pre-surgery brain bleeds, everything I ate was flavorless, no matter how much salt or sugar it contained. Even extremely spicy food made no impression on my palate.
After more than a month of dreading mealtimes, out of the blue, my taste buds lifted their ban. Expecting yet another blah meal, I speared several Pad Thai noodles with my fork, and with an inner sigh, lifted it to my mouth. The unexpected explosion of flavor caused a mental jolt.
Afraid to trust my senses, I chewed slowly, cautiously analyzing the flavors. The noodles had soaked up the seasoning around them: the saltiness with a hint of spice and a residual sweetness.
Ready to celebrate, I now loaded my fork, snagging a couple of glistening bean sprouts with the pink tinted noodles. The soft al dente noodles and the crisp bean sprouts, coated with a thin layer of the surrounding seasoning, topped with crunchy peanut crumbs… mmmm… the texture… the spices… They were all deliciously there again.
Now, I’m dealing with the opposite problem. I eye the teeth marks on the shiny apple and turn away. I’ll give in, for now. But I will be back. After all, until recently, I couldn’t even name the fruit without shuddering. Now, not only can I say the word, but I can write an account of the whole experience, even though I frequently pause to shudder.
In the meantime, I continue to enjoy eating other fruit – cherries, pomegranates, mangos, kiwis. I especially love pears. My favorites are Bartletts that are just on the brink of ripeness, juicy without being too grainy. I anticipate that first bite into a pear as I reach for it, looking forward to the burst of sweetness as my teeth pierce the skin and release the juices.