It was the mustard that evoked the memory. I was digging through the garbage in the parking lot at Mohonk Preserve, looking for the membership cards that I’d accidently thrown out with the trash and trying not to touch anything too disgusting. One card had landed on the edge and was easy to nab, but the other took some work to find. I picked through leftovers from an Asian mart, empty chip bags, and assorted candy bar wrappers, and finally found it beneath what had been a deli sandwich that had been generously slathered with mustard.
It was the same plain yellow mustard that every burger joint in America uses on their burgers. The same mustard I’d had to dig through in a busy Whataburger, mortified at being the center of attention, in search of the retainer I’d tossed out with my garbage. I’d just gotten it and wasn’t used to wearing it, wasn’t used to having to keep track of it. And I’d taken it out because food would get under it and – well, that’s just gross, and wrapped it in a napkin because it’s also gross to have a retainer sitting on the table. (I’d already lost its little container.) I was ready to ditch it but my parents and I had a conversation about how much retainers cost and how many weeks it would take me to pay for it with my allowance. By my calculations, I could have been wearing dentures by the time I got the retainer paid off, so I opted pick through the garbage.
I found my retainer, but after that experience, I switched to hiding it in my glass of tea (which to my adult brain also sounds really gross). This didn’t work so well either because I never got good at keeping track of it. This meant that I had to dig through the garbage to look through empty cups, or at higher class establishments, ask the wait staff to look through the empty glasses for my retainer.
By the time I got to college, I’d been wearing my retainer for years and was at least used to keeping track of it. Still, I managed to toss it out on occasion. Usually, I just had to got back to the dish washing area, and there it would be, sitting in a glass waiting for me. I wasn’t so lucky the last time I tossed. The dishwasher was down so we were using disposable dishes. I’d dumped it into the trash with the rest of my tray. By the time I noticed that it was missing, the cafeteria staff had already tossed out the trash so I had to dig through the great big commercial dumpster to find it. To say that it was disgusting is an understatement. I don’t know if it was the humiliation of having to ask my roommate and dorm mates to help me or the sickening smell of milk that was already beginning to sour, but I had a change of consciousness digging through that dumpster. I never wanted to do that again. I reasoned that my ability to keep track of my retainer if I wore it out was not likely to get better, so if I didn’t want to lose it, I should stop wearing it out of my dorm room. I’d pop it in when I went to bed, slide it out in the morning before I went down for breakfast, and leave it in a little box all day. I never lost it again.
Who says you can’t learn from digging through the garbage?