From Radiance Spring 1998
The nurse hands me a hard brown bar of antiseptic soap. "Wash your belly good, all around. They'll shave you downstairs before you go in." I turn from her and fold my clothes into neat squares, which I place at the foot of my bed. Now I ask Michael, my fiance, to please leave. I know how worried he is, how much he wishes I weren't taking this step: a year before our wedding, I am having elective major surgery to get thin.
I stand in the tiny Army-green shower of one of the prep rooms in the surgical unit, circling my wet, silky stomach with my palms and the slippery soap, around and around-they will cut me here, they will cut me-moving down to feel the coarse hair that runs in a path from my navel down to my pubic area.
But it's all for the best. I will be thin.
I am two years old. I sit in my high chair during dinner, cramming canned beets into my mouth. I love the sweet purple crunch. My fist goes in when I run out of beets.
Everything possible goes in my mouth.
I also love string beans. I drape the French-cut ones over my face, on my forehead, on my upper lip like a green mustache, above my eyes like warm, wet frowning eyebrows. I laugh as I pull the pieces down off my face and eat them.
Everything possible goes in my mouth.
That same year, I put the curved handle of an umbrella in my mouth. The handle gouges out a hole in my bottom palate. The more I try to yank it out, the deeper it digs into the soft pink mass. I am scooped up, screaming and bleeding, and taken to the emergency room for stitches.
Ten years later, Mama Cass dies, they say, from choking on a ham sandwich. I feel so much shame for her. Even if she hadn't died from that, they'd say she did. I imagine that everyone I know is thinking that food will kill me, too.
This past year at Johnson's Farm, on our annual trip in the third week of October to get gourds, pumpkins, fresh apple cider, and homemade doughnuts, we buy small wooden bushels of apples for baking pies and making bubbly hot applesauce with cinnamon. We buy jars of marinades that are creamy orange with saffron and garlic. We pick out gourmet preserves and herbed mustards like tarragon, sage, and rosemary. We get in the doughnut line and watch the doughnuts as they come down the conveyor belt out of the rectangular vat of boiling fat and bounce onto a table covered in brown paper, which soaks up the grease. Then they get sprinkled with either powdered sugar or granulated sugar and cinnamon.
Michael and I sit outside in the eating area at a small wrought-iron table and watch the steam rise off the doughnuts in the chill air. Our feet feel the cold as it travels up from the ground and through the soles of our shoes. Winter rises from deep in the planet, speaking silently as it does.
Two tables over is a chubby boy and his parents. The boy is about eight or nine. He is gobbling a hot dog buried in ketchup, and the red stuff is smeared all over his face. His mother gets up for something. He is eating so fast that he's getting bites of the cardboard hot dog holder by mistake, and through his stuffed mouth he's asking his father where his mother's doughnut is. "We wrapped it up for home. Mommy didn't want it," says the father.
"Can I have it?"
"Why not? Why didn't she want it? Can I have Mommy's? Can I? Where is it? Where's Mommy's doughnut? Where is it? Can I have it? Can I have it, Daddy? Can I have Mommy's doughnut?"
"No. You're too fat. Doughnuts aren't good for you."
I look away. I have a feeling that I know this little boy, though we've never met. We don't look alike, but we're the same person. I know that now it's too late: a million doughnuts will never be enough for him. But one would have sufficed. If only they had let him have it.
I am waking up from surgery. My father is looking down at me, smiling. No one is allowed in the recovery room, but my father has snuck in.
Now I feel the pain in my stomach. It keeps me from taking a full breath. I groan.
The next day, I am feeling no less pain. When does it get better? Nurses take my temperature, frown at the thermometer, shoot the plastic probe cover into the garbage, and take the temperature again, telling me nothing. But I catch sight of the green numbers on the digital screen: 105.5. I am running a high fever.
Someone asks me where I am. I know where, but I'm barely able to say it, because I ache so much.
A nun enters my room and smiles down at me with love. Then she reads my chart and starts to hurry away. "Sorry, dear. Shall I get a rabbi?"
But I can't answer. I only reach my hand out to her, and she takes it.
The catheter fills and fills, my body pouring out liquid yellow toxins. My neighbor's meals come and go. Her TV jabbers its strange blue language to the walls and the curtain that separates us. The sun sets.
I do not change positions. I do not speak.
There is a John Travolta look-alike on a panel of the talk show that my neighbor watches. He wears his hair in a sleek black pompadour, looks and sounds like an odd bird, native to the Bronx. Some of the audience members jeer at him, but many stand up and support his contention that fat people are slobs, are lazy, have no self-control, and should be forced to lose weight, even if it means locking them up in a room for a year and slipping celery and carrots under the door.
His hatred is as familiar to me as the voice in my own head. We don't look alike, but we're the same person.
It's late on Saturday night, about thirty-six hours after the surgery. I hear my name echoing down to me as if I lie wounded at the bottom of a well. Has someone come to rescue me? I wake to find I'm being helped into a wheelchair by a young man in white. He pins the catheter container to my blue hospital gown. I do not care that the gown is open in back and that he can see my bare bottom. I do not care that I have begun menstruating and that he can see a blood streak on the wrinkled bed pad.
He speaks so soothingly to me. I will go anywhere with him, do anything, if he will stop this pain.
But downstairs, in the desolate basement where the CAT scans are done, no matter how I try, I cannot manage to swallow the white fluffy stuff they give me to drink. The orderly who delivered me to the CAT room tries to help the technician calm me down. I can fit the straw in past my naso-gastric tube, but every sip of the thick, liquid chalk does a U-turn and spills out of my mouth and runs down my chin onto my gown.
The technician, in her early twenties, is, it seems, anxious to get out of there. Maybe she has a date. She looks ready to turn me over her knee, like my father did when I was five years old and refused to swallow the baby aspirin he had brought me for my fever.
Finally, she gives up. I am labeled "noncompliant," but laid out on the CAT scan table nevertheless. She cannot understand why I need help getting up onto the table, why it's almost too painful to breathe.
Please help me. I am going to die.
I am on a gurney in the hallway outside the CAT scan room. They've pushed me into an alcove and left me there. I scream at passersby to help me. No one will stop because everyone knows I'm someone else's responsibility. Please? No one will stop.
Two hours later, I'm back in my room. My mother is there, smiling that "Go get 'em!" smile. Now a team of six nurses comes in. The nurses raise my bed up high, they each take a piece of my bedsheet, and they lift me over onto a gurney. I am going down to surgery again because I am bleeding internally.
They're speeding me down to the operating room. I hear my surgeon's name over the PA system. Someone is holding out a form for me to sign. I must have a proxy in case I am unable to decide my own fate later on.
I am vaguely aware of being hoisted onto a metal table. I am naked. They spread out my arms and legs, and strap them down.
As the anesthesiologist puts the mask over my face, I catch sight of a huge wooden crucifix on the door. I am being buried in a Christian grave! I scream at them through the mask to take the cross down: "There must be some mistake: I'm Jewish!"
Slowly, I wake to beeping sounds and the menacing whir of machines. All around me are contraptions of lights and wheels and pipes and pumps beeping and sucking and whirring and snapping. I am in the Intensive Care Unit. There are windows on all sides of the room.
I scream for a drink, but all that comes out is a hoarse whisper. The nurses outside will give me nothing. They merely lift their heads and look over at me, like cats interrupted in the middle of grooming themselves, and then go back to what they were doing. Am I already dead? One nurse with tile-blue staring eyes swabs at my lips from a tiny white accordion cup of cold water. I try to suck the spongy tip of the pink swab, but she pulls it away.
I realize that I am hooked up to all the machines in the room. An alarm goes off somewhere. It's in my room. A nurse comes running. "You're not breathing! You're not breathing! What did I tell you about not breathing? If you don't breathe, we'll have to stick a tube down your throat. Is that what you want?"
Michael comes in. A petite nurse in street clothes follows him in, pats him on the arm, and gently pulls him away. I want him to stay. I want him to go.
Next, my father arrives. He squeezes my large, bare arm. I realize I am naked under the covers. "This is the worst place anyone can spend a night," he says. "Get better and get the hell out of here."
Ten days later, I'm taking my first postsurgery shower. Little things mean so much: being able to brush my teeth, breathe without the aid of an oxygen mask, and swallow without feeling a tube down my throat.
Everyone I spoke to about the obesity surgery said I'd be home in three days. I am one of the exceptions. There are others, but the surgeon didn't give me any of their names when I was asking around about having this thing done. All I heard was Wonderful, wonderful, Never been thin before this, You've got to try it, You won't regret it, He's a miracle worker, He saved my life, I'll always be grateful, He made my dreams come true, How can I repay him? My stomach is supposed to hold only two ounces of food at a time now and eight ounces in a month or so, which will be its permanent size: down from the fifty-two ounces I'm used to holding. So far, I can take only a tablespoon of chicken broth and one of Jell-O for my meals. I hear the gurgling as each sip goes down.
But I'm not yet letting myself feel the anguish of my loss of food: my favorite thing, my joy, my hobby, my passion.
I sit on a chair in the shower room and look down at my stomach. They opened this. They opened it twice.
The suture line is red. The metal staples make little red holes on either side of the line, where they punctured the skin to hold the whole thing closed. The red crisscrosses remind me of my own handiwork on the stuffed animals who lived on top of one another in the darkness of all my childhood closets.
Home is no different than the hospital. I can't escape the pain. The fever won't go. I assume that this is the way it's supposed to be, that this is postsurgery. I can eat a tablespoon of mashed potatoes and a teaspoon of liverwurst, if I mush it. I can drink about one-quarter cup of anything clear, but ice cream goes down well and feels right. This worries me. I wasn't supposed to be able to metabolize sugar after the operation. It was supposed to make me feel sick.
Twelve days after I have come home, the dizziness starts. I believe I'm dizzy from lack of food, but after eating, the dizziness doesn't go away. We try vertigo medicine. Nothing works. My fever is up to 104.5.
Day thirteen. I am in so much pain that I cannot stand, sit, or walk. I cannot live. I cannot defecate or urinate. I call my surgeon. He wants me to drive the two hours to his hospital. Michael refuses. We both know I would never survive the trip.
Instead, Michael takes me to the emergency room of a nearby hospital, where they keep me for four hours. They cannot figure out what's wrong. I throw up anything they try to give me, even the stuff for nausea. They're convinced I have a urinary tract infection, so they check me in.
Four days later. I am not getting better. I am retching almost all the time. They give me suppositories for the nausea and morphine for the pain; the latter makes me hallucinate that horns are protruding from my body, that I have become a monster, and that I'm running after myself. Every time I fall asleep, I jerk awake in a sweat, thirty seconds later. My back perspires and aches from the hospital bed.
People come to see me. I ask them to leave because I cannot bear to have anyone else in the room. Even the dent in my air space made by another breathing person causes me pain.
An ultrasound locates a mass in my abdominal cavity. They will have to operate to remove it. I have forgotten that I promised myself never to have another operation. I care about nothing, least of all a promise I've made to myself.
I am in the recovery room. One of my friends walks in, waving a stuffed animal. A cat? She tucks it under the covers with me, next to my heart.
The surgeon, whom I'll call Dr. Tiny, is a small man with a pointed beard and mustache. He reminds me of Lucifer. He tells me I was so covered with abdominal adhesions from the hemorrhage of the first surgery that my reproductive organs were barely visible. The scar tissue must have come from the blood of the hemorrhage a few weeks ago, he says, and "blood makes things stick together."
He had to culture one of my fallopian tubes, he says, because he found pus in it. He didn't want to take any chances, he says, so he closed off the tube. The other one was so badly scarred that there is no hope for it. "You probably won't be able to get pregnant," he says, "but you can always adopt." He pats my arm.
"Doctor," I ask, clutching the fluffy stuffed cat, shocked about that last thing he said, but pretending I didn't hear it, "what about the scar?"
"Well, we had to lengthen the first one. You'll probably keloid. It'll spread. But no big deal. What's a scar? At least we were able to fix the problem, right?"
He chucks me under the chin and leaves.
Now I have to face Michael. He is here with me, stroking the hair out of my eyes. Dr. Tiny has already told him we're most likely not going to be able to have children of our own.
I place my fingers over my love's mouth. I don't want to hear his reaction. He speaks through my fingers. He will make me hear him.
"But I'm not marrying you for children. It's you that I want."
He has always wanted me more than I have wanted myself, has loved me more than I have loved myself. I may have always known this, but quietly, the way a deaf person might know things, and more often than not I have turned my head so I couldn't read the lips of this truth.
After I'm home for a month, my pain is not gone, only more muted. Like a runner before the big race, it's saving its strength for later. It's going to win again.
Now I throw up everything I eat. In south Florida, where Michael and I have retreated for some rest, we visit the drive-through safari park, and I take snapshots of a skinny-necked ostrich staring at me through the rain-freckled car window. I squeal at the chimpanzees and watch, amazed, as the giraffe scratches his long neck on the very top of the wire fence that was erected to keep him from leaving.
By the time we get to the snack area, I am almost reeling with visions of the French fries we used to get at the Bronx Zoo, in their little red-and-white-checked paper boats. When we get to the snack shop, I can smell the fries. I order them. They give us a large paper cup, brown, with French fries painted all around the base of it. The fries are almost lacy with a fatty crispness. The ketchup is red, pungent, and tangy.
Now I am in the bathroom on my knees in a putty-colored stall, throwing up the French fry that I ate. The one and only. The tiles dig into my knees. I feel the tiny squares, the cold lines of mortar holding them side by side. There is ancient vomit splattered on the wall behind the toilet. I turn to see the feet of an impatient woman waiting to use my stall. The feet tap the floor, cross over each other. I take toilet paper and rub at my forearms where they were thrown against the toilet rim in the anguish of retching. I wipe my face where the toilet water splashed up into it as I bent over to vomit into the bowl.
I sense a long future in bathrooms on my knees. I sense a long future on my knees.
We go to a brunch buffet at a hoity-toity place by the sea wall on Sunday. I have never seen a smorgasbord like this. I feel as if I have stepped through the Looking Glass.
Without even tasting it, I can taste it all. The waffles are three inches thick, but despite this, they are as fluffy as buttery checkerboard clouds. The sausage snaps to the teeth, and juice runs warmly into the corners of the mouth. Crepes on the steam trays bulge like fat brown tummies, ooze with hot cherries and their thick wine-colored juice. Mounds of whipped cream, bowls of strawberries so ripe. Omelets with tiny pieces of fresh vegetables are shaken in small cast-iron skillets, while melted cheese of every breed drips from their creases, their fat-folds glossy with butter. Cool and delicate shreds of pink crabmeat salad are heaped on the bottom halves of flaky popovers. Next to these is a crystal bowl of watermelon cubes; the pieces of watermelon sparkle like giant crimson sugar diamonds.
It is the most sorrowful brunch of my life: I take small pieces of everything and lovingly arrange them on my plate. But I'm full after one bite of an egg over easy and a crunch of bacon. Only one more bite will make me sick. Only one more bite will have me on my knees. Who is all this for if not for me? It isn't for me now, and it never was. When and why did I decide that I deserved to have nothing? I leave Michael at the table and go for a walk along the sea wall, which is lined with a yellow plastic police department ribbon, warning us not to get too close. The wall is crumbling and halfway gone from a recent hurricane.
I cross the line, sit on a bench, close my eyes, and tip my face toward the sun. So what if the wall gives way under me? Nothing matters anymore.
The day after the brunch, we drive to Orlando. The highway is brutally long and straight. The thousands of acres of orange and grapefruit groves are haunting, with their tiny dark green trees and irrigation trucks. There are no people.
Off to the left and right of us there are piney woods-with pointy tops-and marshes-rough moss fingers reaching down as if to grab you by the collar. There are gray puddles of an unidentifiable liquid, shining up with the reflection of the winter disk of sun in its own fiery pool.
I'm not happy about the day-long trip. I don't see a reason to go anywhere. Why bother? I can't eat.
But in Orlando, my faith in the loveliness of life is renewed: I am able to eat a full bowl of soup. And there are chunks of turkey meat in it! Tough and stringy! And carrots, celery, and potato! A bowl of steaming, peppery soup with dark gray chewy meat. I eat the whole thing without throwing up. Am I getting better? A month later, back up north, the scar comes. What I hoped would remain a thin red line down the middle of my belly is widening by the day. "Keloiding," as Dr. Tiny said. "It happens a lot to blacks, and also to Jews, like you."
The scar comes, puckering up and down my middle, red and pearlescent, wide as my thumb and spreading wider, capillaries in a suspended swirl in the thick raised line, warning that it has a life of its own.
Unlike Hester Prynne, I will not be made to wear this scarlet sign to remind others of my sins against them. I will wear it and be reminded of my sins against myself, but silently-like the kind of teacher who draws a red line through your work and does not say why.
I will have to wear this red line forever, this line like a correction of something wrong, of me. A mistake. This line that divides me in half. I say to Michael, "You know, the scar is widening."
My eyes burn. I look away.
He shrugs. "We all have scars," he says.
It is six months later. I am able to eat a lot more now. Too much, in fact. But the doctor doesn't think there's anything wrong.
Each day, I can eat more. Is this the eight-ounce stomach they promised me? It seems to be growing by the day.
My lower left side has been speaking to me lately in a slow, dull ache. I take antacids. I take laxatives. I take nonaspirin pain relievers. I gain a lot of weight.
The ache gets louder and more articulate, moves around to my back, wakes me from sleep, and makes me angry and hopeless. I take herbs, I take hot drinks, I take a heating pad and sleep with it, and I take painkillers. I take a dangerous ulcer medication that costs sixty bucks a week.
Soon the ache is talking to me in a steady voice, repeating itself over and over, chanting, Don't ignore me.
But I do. I start to take three kinds of painkillers, fall asleep at my desk at work at 2 o'clock every day, and fall asleep while driving to and from work.
I see a gastroenterologist. He believes the surgery is coming undone. I will not be able to leave it like this. It will have to be fixed. If not, the acid dripping into my duodenum through the opened-up portion of the staple line will burn ulcers all over the inside of my abdomen.
When I close my eyes, I see my insides like a sheet full of holes hanging on a clothesline. The wind whistles in and out.
The day before my wedding, I see the gastroenterologist on an emergency basis. He prescribes a powerful painkiller and an antiulcer medication. Still, on my wedding day, I am running a fever. I soak in a scalding hot bath before I put on my gown, hoping that the heat will burn away the droning ache in my side. Like the seams of a pair of too-tight pants, my insides are coming apart.
Red-faced with fever, I stand in front of the rabbi with Michael.
The next day, I hold my side as we drive to Montreal for a honeymoon. I will be sick the whole week.
Two years later, I am still in pain and still popping painkillers. I have gained back almost all my presurgery weight. My surgeon wants to redo the procedure. I feel a clang! in my brain when he says that.
So I see a new surgeon, a short Korean man everyone says is a genius. I'll call him Dr. Smart. He does not agree with surgeon number one. He does not believe in such surgery to begin with. He wants to reverse the whole thing. He warns that I may continue gaining weight, but the advantage is that the two chambers of my stomach will become one again and that I can stop taking the vicious ulcer medication.
"You can stay big like you are, Missy." He smiles and pats my shoulder as I lie on the examination table. "Lots of women are big. Eat more vegetables, like a Korean." He points to himself. "I am small and healthy. You will be healthy, big and healthy, okay? Don't die."
I agree to the reversal of the surgery.
But my husband does not. He is afraid of losing me. He reminds me of the night in the Intensive Care Unit, reminds me that the first surgery was a mistake-why wouldn't this also be? Why can't I leave well enough alone? What was wrong with me the way I was to begin with? But I decide to do it. I want to be able to go through the day without painkillers. I want to be able to eat and not feel the food backing up in my throat.
There's another plus to all of this: before I even have a chance to ask, Dr. Smart gently draws his finger down my scar as if he's blind and reading a message in Braille. "I will also take this away," he says of the scar. "I will take it away, and we can forget the mistake, Missy, maybe erase it?"
"The doctor's mistake?" I ask.
"Ha!" he says with a twinkle in his eye. "Everybody sues in America. You can sue, too. But really, it was you." He takes my hand and looks deep into my eyes. "You, Missy. You are the one who made the mistake." �
B. SHANEWOOD is an English teacher and writer who lives in Connecticut and is working on her M.F.A. in writing from Goddard College. Her life is abundant and so is she. With no apologies.
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