I stared at the small yellow stain on the Q-tip before discarding it. Strange that someone once thought to wrap cotton tightly around a little stick. What did we do before the cotton swab was invented?


If only I had learned how to use Q-tips correctly…


When I was in elementary school, the nurses would line us up for public check-ups. They mostly checked our hair for lice and lectured us on grooming. They beat it into our heads that we had to clean our ears with cotton swabs. They would spend a lot of time showing us how to stick it into our ears–but not too far into our ears. They would pull it in and out a few times and then throw it in the little garbage bin by the chair. I would smile up at them even though I didn’t understand what was happening. 


Blood stains in my white cotton underwear: I thought I was dying.


Our geography teacher–a dirty hippy, I guess some people would call him: long hair, long beard, a little B.O.–was very impassioned about going against those nurses’ lessons. He would tell us weekly how bad it was to put anything into our ears. We would be pushing the wax into the ear, he would explain, and new wax would just build up faster! Ears were self-cleaning, why didn’t people understand that! Instead, he would council, we should use tissue on our pinky fingers! Pinky fingers were not small enough to go inside where damage could be done! They were just the right size to clean the outside of your ear! So, he would say, you should clean it with your pinky and a tissue! He would demonstrate each week by rolling the tissue around his pinky and rubbing his finger in exaggerated circles in his ear–which seemed absurd, of course. The students laughed at him, but he fascinated me. He hinted at a way out. There was a place in the world where nurses were not to be obeyed without thought, where, maybe, it seemed to me, I might be intelligible.


Our geography teacher never taught us to read a map.


One day, I got home from school. My mother had just returned from the hospital. I had no idea why. My parents did not believe in sharing any information with their children. A nurse came to our house, went to her room at the end of the long hall and closed the door. I tiptoed down the hall and opened the door just a crack. The nurse was holding a huge Q-tip in her hand and talking to my mother. She took the Q-tip and sunk it down into my mother’s belly button. I felt it in my own stomach and almost vomited. Then the nurse started to lift the Q-tip in and out of her belly button and I could see the red blood stains on it. I ran to my room at the other end of the hall.


I wasn’t sure which was more horrifying: that she might be dying, or that she might be alien.


A few years later, my cousin was teaching my friend and me  how to apply make-up. My friend slipped as she applied her lipstick and said, “I fucked it up.” My young cousin became exasperated and said, “What do you think Q-tips were made for?!” What, I thought, were Q-tips made for? We laughed at our inexperience, and at the thought that Q-tips were made for lipstick smudges, and that my cousin didn’t understand what we were laughing at.


She had just lost her father.


My first boyfriend taught me how to take care of my body. One day, we had spent the day sanding and painting our new apartment. Our noses were full of plaster and dust and dirt. We bathed, but it didn’t help it at all. When I stepped out of the tub, he turned me to face him and handed me a Q-tip. He held one up and said, “This is how you do it. You stick it in and then turn it in circles as you move it, so it can gather all the dust. See?” He took his out and it was full of plaster and dirt. Then he turned his face up to show me his clean nostril next to his dirty nostril. I tried it, but I didn’t do it right. “No,” he said. He took the Q-tip and stuck it in my nose and turned it as he moved it around and then pulled it out to show how well a job it had done. I was very impressed with his smarts and his abilities and his know-how.


I was never able to master his circular method.


My next boyfriend had a morning routine: shower, clean his ears, shave, brush and floss his teeth, and put on his rings. One morning he told me angrily that I used too much toothpaste. He used only a sliver. I didn’t need any more than a sliver, he said. I was just wasting it! And I should floss! He tried to show me his flossing method, also using only the minimal amount of string–but I couldn’t manage it. Then he got angry that I used two Q-tips to clean my ears. “You only need one,” he said. He proceeded to show me how it was done with only one side of the Q-tip for each ear. Efficient.


Like sex, with him.


He dumped me, and I craved circular motion after so much hostile efficiency. I spiraled into an unhealthy hedonistic dynamic with someone new. We went from city to city, hotel to hotel, room to room. One day, exhausted, I sat in the hotel bathroom so I could have a minute to myself. I looked at the counter and saw a neat little bag with four Q-tips in it. I picked it up and there was a satisfying crinkling sound. I opened it up and cleaned my ears with two of them. I looked down at the remaining two. I wasn’t sure what to do with them. It seemed silly to throw out two perfectly good Q-tips, so I repeated the procedure again. I was happy to repeat the pleasurable ritual even though it wasn’t necessary. When I had the last swab in my ear, he walked into the bathroom and asked me to give him one. “It’s the last one,” I said. He grabbed my hand and looked at the used ones and said in an irritated tone, “You used all four?!” It seemed like a stupid question  given the circumstances, but I answered in the affirmative nonetheless. He shook his head in disbelief and huffed as he left the bathroom. I sat there for as long as I could in the silence.


Normal people, it seems, have strong feelings and occasional outbursts about Q-tips.

SOPHIE AFRIAT has a degree in philosophy from Concordia University in Montreal. Maybe not unconnected, she spends a lot of time wandering aimlessly at home and abroad. Her travel writing can be found online at More Than Food Magazine. “Cotton Swabs” is her first literary publication.