Mint is a perennial, sprouting up year after year, and the plant is hard to kill. Mint loves water, but it can survive a drought. Mint loves light, but it can survive the darkness. Mint prefers well-drained soil, but it can survive in clay. I once left a pot of mint unattended while I was on vacation; a month later, the terracotta planter held a brown plant cadaver. But then it rained. The next day, the carcass sprouted a leaf.

Mint is invasive. You must plant it within a container to control its domain. However, its stolons can still jump a pot and once in the open soil, it thrives and spreads with aggressive vigor and chokes the life out of other plants. Mint is unstoppable.

Mint transforms others within proximity. If you plant mint straight into the ground, you must keep it separate from other herbs. It will make its surrounding neighbors taste like mint, too.

Mint is the smell of the oil my yoga teacher rubs on my temples as I collapse in corpse pose at the end of class. Anointed, I lay breathing and emulating the dead, try to approach the brink of a dark sleep. I attempt to wipe my mind clean, but the mint invades all thoughts, keeps me awake. The mint smells like rape.

Each morning, I brush my teeth with mint toothpaste. For years, I didn’t know why the taste bothered me. Only that it did. It made me tense. The toothbrush in my mouth, forcing the mint upon my tongue, nauseated me, made me gag. But I had to brush my teeth, so I endured. In those days, mint flavored toothpaste was all there was.

When there is a sprig of mint in my lemonade, I pick it out.

I was at my friend’s birthday party last spring. His black and white dog likes to lie in the green mint patch, the stems standing up around him like miniature pine trees. The dog rolls, and as we sip wine, we smell the crushed mint. When the dog springs up, so does the crushed mint.

Would you like a mint, he asks. He leans in, the smell of hot mint and steak dinner gusting out of his mouth. No thank you, I say. No thank you.

Mint is often used in aromatherapy. Ingested, it helps digestion. It is an antiseptic. It relieves sore throats. When I am sick with a sore throat, I buy cherry lozenges. They say mint is soothing for the throat. But it is not soothing for mine.

It relieves stress. It feels cool, but it can also burn. Mint is deceptive.

I put mint in my baby’s food, pureed peaches with flecks of mint. I don’t want her to be afraid of mint. I want to expand her palate. I want her to be resilient like mint.

He was popular. A ladies man. He introduced me to so much. To too much. I was twenty years old. We went to bars—he charmed the doormen at exclusive clubs into letting me enter. Even charmed old Bruno at the Persian Aub Zam Zam into making me a drink, a gin martini—the only kind he made, without ID. Bruno leaned into him and said loud enough so I could hear, “You’re lucky she looks so young.”

The peppermint soap, the only soap he has in his shower, burns my crotch, the part of my body that splits in two, as I wash him off of me. From inside of me. I know that the parts that burn, are the parts that bleed, the parts that were touched and torn.

There are only a few ways to kill mint. Rust, for one, can kill mint. But aside from chemical weed killers, you can douse it with a concoction of salt, soap, and vinegar. Or you can pour boiled water over it. But you must do this over and over again. To kill its leaves, and stems, and its rhizomes, which when you dig them up, are a thick mat of knots. There is so much beneath the soil.

I can never forget. I cannot forget the night I drink five single malt scotches with five beer backs, and we fall into a tangled mess onto the bed, like in a movie. A movie has actors, people who play characters other than themselves. And that night, we are ourselves but something shifts, we are becoming something other than ourselves. He has become something monstrous, a machine that will not stop. He gropes me and rapes me. With force, without humanity, with effort, without compassion, relentless. The pain turns the night into a white light, and I say no. We have never had sex this way before. No. I whisper it. I hiss it. I plead it. I scream. No. No. No. He says it will be over soon. To stay still. But it is not over. I say No. No. No. And it is never ever over after that.

And then I am no longer in the bed. I am no longer the person being raped. I am on the ceiling looking down. That night I become an actress. I am in the corner looking away. I am the air in the room. I am the mint in the planter in the corner of the room. I am holding my breath. I do not need to breathe. I am numb. I am the girl I was in high school who cut herself to feel, even if the thing I felt was pain. Because she was numb in every other way. Because I had locked up every feeling, because I was taught that vulnerability and sadness and helplessness were unacceptable and I would catch those feelings in a net every night and tamp them down, so that I became the expert fisherman of my emotions. But like mint, they never died.

Mint can become leggy and unattractive. The more you cut your mint, the thicker it will become.

He offers me a cup of peppermint tea, green leaves floating in hot water in the morning, after I have showered so that my privates feel singed with mint. “I’m sorry,” he says, “I don’t know what came over me last night.” He says it with tenderness absent the night before.

I say nothing. I stare at him. Wonder who he is. Who he was. Wonder what happened. Confused. I am still numb. I am parched. I am in the dark. My feet feel stuck in clay. I don’t say anything. I don’t say anything as he drives me back over the Bay Bridge to my dorm room. The morning fog is cold and fresh and stings my face, not unlike mint, as I hold on to his leather jacket on the motorcycle.

When we break up, because we don’t break up right away, because I can’t believe what has happened, that I said no, and he still kept going, because he was my boyfriend, because I felt I was a willing participant, because I had yet to learn to stand up for myself, yet to become angry, he says we should try to be friends. That maybe we could keep seeing each other while seeing other people, to ease the transition. And then I finally have the words. I tell him I don’t want to be friends. That he can have me or not at all. That he had me, and now he cannot.

Twenty years later, he still calls me. He says, “I have been diagnosed with mania.”

A light shines down on that dark room twenty years ago. “That makes sense,” I say.

“It does?”

“It makes sense.” I try hard not to hang up. “It explains what happened that night.”

“What night?”

“The night after which you said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me.’”

“Oh, that night.” He sighs. “Yeah. Probably.”

“Well,” I say, “thanks for the closure. It helps.” And I hang up.

I tell my husband the man called. I light up a menthol cigarette.

“Honey,” he says over the phone, “He raped you because he wanted to rape you.”

I want to forget.

“Honey,” he continues. “There is no excuse.”

“And you cheated on me because you wanted to cheat on me.”

My husband pauses. “If you want to lump me with him, yes.”

I want to forget.

Out of my mouth, a cloud of mint smoke.


Image credits: feature photo creditsecond photo credit.

Christine Hyung-Oak Lee is the author of the memoir Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember, which was featured in the New York Times, Self Magazine, TIME Magazine, and NPR’s Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in the New York Times, ZYZZYVA, Guernica, The Rumpus, and BuzzFeed, among other publications. She has a column called Backyard Politics at Catapult, and her novel is forthcoming from Ecco/Harper Collins. More from this author →