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I Swallowed A Fly

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When I was around 11 years old, I swallowed a fly.

I didn’t mean to swallow the fly, it (and I) just both happened to be in the right place at the wrong time, and the ‘incident’ as I called it for many years after, quite literally went down.

So how did I happen to swallow a big, fat, lazy housefly when I was 11 years old?

It was summertime. We had just adopted a half-beagle, half-lab puppy named June. And as puppies do, she cried at night. My parents had already warned my sisters and brother and I that “they were not going to get up with that damned dog” so on this particular night, when the puppy witching hour rolled around and she started crying…I got up. 

Upon reflection, I don’t exactly remember why I got up over one of my siblings. Perhaps because secretly, in my 11-year old girl’s heart, I wanted June to love me the most, but whatever the reason, I crept as quietly as I could out from the double bed I shared with my older sister, turned the handle on our bedroom door, and glided down the hall towards the kitchen where we kept her crated up at night.

Now at this time in the world, fancy dog training crates were not a thing. Dogs and puppies just had to make do with what people had on-hand. In our case, June’s puppy training lair was an enormous cardboard box that my father had saved after finally buying a new fridge. With the top part of the box cut off, we created a pretty decent puppy condo, complete with a soft blanket (courtesy of my brother’s old sleeping bag), multiple toys and chewie things, and a travel alarm clock, the ticking sound of which was supposed to soothe the puppy at night.

Apparently my dog was having none of it because as you know, on this particular night she was whining. And as you know, I got up. So, there I am, creeping down the hallway, avoiding all the noisy parts of the floor that I know will creak and groan (I guess I thought my family was actually sleeping through the racket the dog was making?) before slipping into our tiny maroon and yellow kitchen.

Normally we left the light on over the stove for the dog but for whatever reason, that night the light was off and the kitchen was pitch black. And even though the room wasn't big at all, and I could've easily turned on the main overhead light, I decided instead to try and find the stove light. In the dark. So there I was, waving my hands through the dark as people do when they can’t see in front of themselves, searching for the edge of stove...

When IT happened.

Out of the pitch black darkness, a fly literally flew into my mouth as I was breathing in. Just like that! You might ask, "Why, Martha, were you breathing through your mouth?", and that would be a very good question that I’d like to answer but all these years later? Yeah, no chance. I have no idea why I was breathing through my mouth but breathing through my mouth I was, and into my mouth the fly flew.

It. Was. JUST. as awful as you might imagine. First, I felt the fly hit the back of my throat, and just... stay there. You know how when you take a bite of something that is maybe just a tad dry, and you bite off just a shade too much of whatever this dry stuff is, and when you go to swallow it sort-of…lodges in the back of your throat? Yeah. That’s basically how it feels to swallow a fly.

Forgetting the reason I had come into the kitchen in the first place, forgetting the dark, forgetting the damn whining—and by now yelping, jumping, insane puppy who thinks it’s time to get up because she sees a human—I rushed to the sink and stuck my face under the faucet, slurping down as much water as I could to get rid of that terrible, awful feeling of the fly in the back of my throat.

But the feeling? That stuck feeling? It wouldn’t go away. So I ate a spoonful of ice cream and then a piece of cheddar cheese. I forced down a handful of Keebler Honey Graham Crackers. I drank a glass of milk and more water. And even once I knew I had long since swallowed the fly away and nothing was in my throat...that fly? I could still feel it lodged there like a phantom limb. 

Finally, finally…after drinking and eating as much as I could, finally the phantom limb phenomenon abated, and I began to feel if not better, at least normal-ish. It wasn’t until much later, after I’d finally calmed down June and gone back to bed that the reality of having swallowed the fly really hit me and my mind took over where the phantom limb had given in.

I tossed and turned as nausea rolled over me, trying to get comfortable and forget about the ‘incident’. My sister, who shared the bed with me, snapped out in the dark, “Stop wiggling. What is wrong with you?”

“I swallowed a fly.” I whispered.

“What?”

“I.Swallowed.A.Fly.” I repeated, gritting my teeth against the queasiness.

At this point I had her full attention. “You swallowed a fly?!” she hooted, sitting up in a flurry of bed sheets and covers. “What did it taste like?”

“I didn’t taste it!” I shout-whispered, “It just flew into my mouth in the dark and now I can still feel it in the back of my throat and I don’t want to talk about it!” I finished, flouncing towards the wall and pulling the blankets up around my ears. 

Thankfully, sleep was more appealing to her than talking about the fly and she turned over and went back to sleep, but it was a short lived victory. Come morning, my entire family knew all the gory details and neither she—nor any of my siblings—were soon to let me forget that I had swallowed that fly. For years my younger brother would to sing that abhorrent nursery rhyme to me when he wanted to get under my skin, “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly. I don’t know why she swallowed a fly. Perhaps she’ll die.”

I still don’t like to think about swallowing that fly but sometimes, I find myself reflecting on the incident when I’m working. And the similarities between swallowing an actual fly, and swallowing work tasks that I’d rather not do…that stick in the back of my throat…well, they seem obvious.    

If I were a betting woman (which I’m not), I’d bet that most of us are faced with ‘swallowing a fly’ on a regular basis in our jobs. But unlike what happened to me as a kid: a fly unexpectedly and very unwelcomingly buzzing into my mouth—at work, we can pick and choose how we deal with these flies. We can swallow them first or we can swallow them last; we can swallow them quickly or we can draaaag it out, making the task far worse than it needs to be. For me, and after having swallowed an actual, living fly (ugh, still so gross) I’m all about just getting it over with and moving onto the feast of ice cream and graham crackers to wash away the taste.

Only in my life now, that feast would more likely be some kind of break, a ginormous glass of white wine (because hell yeah I’ve earned it) and maybe a few cherries. Oh, and the ice cream. I’d keep that. Which is all to say, yes; swallowing a fly is gross. But perhaps in our working lives, getting it over with to move onto better things has some merit? 

Now you know how I came to swallow a fly one summer’s night, tell me what flies you’ve swallowed. They can be houseflies or otherwise…I’m not picky.