Saturday, March 12, 2011

Chicken and Rice

I did not even need to use my finger anymore. That is what I would have told anyone if they ever found out. If I could tell them what I really did when I disappeared for almost a full hour at work. Deep down I craved someone to talk to about it. Someone in whom I could confide. But that someone never came. Instead, I slowly sunk deeper into the morass of my own self loathing, and disappeared more and more often.

My knees came down harder on the tile of the bathroom floor than I had intended. Bracing my arms against the seat of the porcelein bowl, I caught sight of my reflection in the rippling water. And looked away. I did not want to see myself. Normally it would not matter. Normally I would not be kneeling in front of the toilet. But tonight, with most of the employees gone for the long Memorial Day weekend, I thought it would be safe enough for me to let the inward shame express itself with this outward submission. Here I am, bowing down to you O mighty porcelein lord.

When I say I did not even need to use my finger anymore I should be more clear, I have never been able to use my finger. When I had first gone through the teenage period where I woke up every morning and hated being me, I had tried to induce with my finger so many times that I lost my voice from all the strain I placed on my throat. But all I ever got was gagging and choking and coughing. And then I would be sick to my stomach. But then I had found that just by straining, tightening my stomach muscles and constricting my throat, I could force up whatever I had eaten, bit by bit, like waves on the ocean. One after another.

So there I was, straining in front of the toilet, trying not to think of all the hairy behinds that had sat on this seat I was now leaning on (but which I had wiped down of course). Somehow, it took away from the nobility of the act. Not that there was much to begin with. First I had to get past the plug. The plug was the hardest part. Clear, sticky mucous, I liked to think that it acted as a plug to keep my stomach acid in. Once it came out, the rest would be a piece of cake. But the last thing I wanted was to think about cake. As I leaned over the water, straining, fighting against my body which was fighting back, my mind began to wander.

I was back in my childhood home, black brick with jasmine climbing up to the flat tin roof that had been made into a garden where red and orange nasturtiums fell down in between showers of their circular green leaves. When it rained on that tin roof, the musical pitter patter could put even me to sleep. As apposed to the other sleepless nights when I would lie wide awake in my bed, listening to the chorus of crickets outside my window, the smell of the jasmine creeping in with the night breeze.

On nights like those, I would let my eyes run across the walls of my room. My mother had painted them with heroes and fairytale creatures. On one wall, Humpty-Dumpty swayed precariously on his wall. On another, a life size Hercules stood grinning defiantly against any comers, while a magic carriage made of a pumpkin took off behind him to sail across the night sky painted on the roof, where a lone cow was mid-leap over the moon. As my eyes scanned all the pictures, they were drawn back to the same placed on the wall. On Hercule’s calve, three small lines could be seen where my fingers had smeared through the paint. Next to Humpty Dumpty, where the Fork and Spoon were running away from the Cat with the Fiddle, a blotch of green paint was the only evidence of when I had grabbed the paintbrush while my mother’s back was turned, and added my own touch. And then always there was the floor, that always drew my attention back to it. The black spot.

The memory of that is what finally threw me over the edge, my mouth gaping open as the plug finally came up and plopped down into the bowl of the toilet, while viscous threads of glasslike fluid hung from the corners of my mouth. The system would now be put in motion and rhythmic pulses would begin in waves. But that first wave, the plug and its viscosity, the memory came back sharp and clear.

When I would lie awake and look about the room, I would not just see marks and paint splatters. I saw shame and guilt. Unthinkable that these are the thoughts that keep a six-year old awake at night, but they were. The finger lines for the paint; I had been yelled at for them. The splatter next to Humpty Dumpty; my hand had been swatted till it was red. The glitter glue smeared on the chair by the toy chest when I had nowhere else to wipe my hands, and which was yet to be discovered. All of them weighed on me with guilt. And all that guilt ran and pooled together on that one large, black stain on the carpet, where I had squeezed the whole tube of paint out. I had been spanked for that one. It had had the same viscosity, the same plopping sound. The same shame.

As the first few waves died down, I leaned away from the toilet and wiped the corner of my mouth with the toilet paper. Glancing down, I was thankful that Indian food retains its color so well. Saffron yellow whether in or out. It was a nice change from the usual off pink, off brown, or off green. The few stray peas and chips of carrots lent it aesthetically pleasing contrast. I grinned dryly as I realized I was treating vomit like art. Then I felt the tightening in my chest as the next wave began.

But this was not like any other. It hurt as it came up, a stabbing at the base of my esophagus that climbed with protruding elbows and knees that pushed against the walls of my windpipe. My face began to turn red as I strained against the porcelein. I let go of the toilet and wrapped my arms around my stomach, pushing hard to lend force to the muscles that strained and pushed. With one final grunt it plopped down in the bowl. A small piece of chicken, that had cause so much pain.

Looking down at my hands on my stomach I was reminded about another day back at that childhood house. I spent the hot days swimming in the pool, always trying to launch myself out of the water like a dolphin. As I fell back into the blue tinted water, droplets showering around me, I heard my voice called. Looking up I saw my grandmother walking towards me. I sank until my only half my head was sticking up in the water as I slowly moved towards her and the stranger who was with her. Before he said it I knew the words that were gonna come out of his mouth.

“Hey there, you must be the boy. You’re grandma has told me so much about you.” he smiled until I could see the one silver and one gold filling in the back of his mouth.

“This is your new grandpa. Come out of the water and say hello to him.” My grandmother spoke with the authority that left no room for arguement.

I walked out of the water, forcing a smile as I recalled the words my mother had spoken to me so many times before. I should not get attached. He will be gone soon enough. Don’t get my hopes up. But don’t be rude either.

“Hello sir,” I said as I shook his hand.

“Well now, your grandma tells me you can sing.” he said as if all the singing competitions I had won by the age of seven were less glamorous and more of a sickness.

“Yes,” she answered for me, “He has won many awards. And is very popular with the ladies.”

The last bit was added as if it somehow made it okay for me to sing. He looked at me and seemed to show a sign of mixed pitty and relief spreading over his features. From his Stetson to his boots, he did not seem like the type who would last long. That was just my opinion anyway. But either way, I’d have to smile as I received all kinds of unwanted gifts from new grandpa, go to the obligatory movie with him, and stand there and take his annoying comments. But what he said next was something I was not ready for.

“Hehehe, well, he better watch out, because no matter how good his singing is, if his little belly gets any rounder he’s not gonna have a single girlfriend.” he said, slapping me softly on my tummy, before adding, “And whats wrong with his back?”

Later I went into the bathroom and locked the door. Standing on my tip toes I could just barely get my waist over the edge of the counter. I looked at my reflection in the mirror. And I realized, he was right. My belly was really round. Was it too round? And my back was arching out really far. I guess I had never noticed this before. Was there something wrong with me?

After that I started to noticed all my friends. They were leaner. Straighter. Flatter. Here I was with my bowing back and round tummy. I started sucking it in, hoping no one would notice. I tried slouching to get my back to be straight too. Even later when I learned that people’s bodies were just shaped differently, and told myself that I accepted it. Even when I would declare that I only cared about being healthy, not what I looked like. Still I would walk into that bathroom and look into that mirror and I would see the stomach, the back, the thighs, the hands, the feet, the face, the person. The person I wished I hadn’t been.

As I strained to get the next wave out, my hands gripping my shirt, I felt the coiling muscles underneath. No more. The fruit of days and years of sit ups and push ups had all worked to slowly change the shape I abhored so much. It wasn’t even the puking that did it. That came afterward. That came from something else. Readying for the next, I looked at the yellow curry and thought to myself.


“Shut up. I know what I’m doing.”

“Thats money being flushed down the drain. You could have eaten that tomorrow.”

“Whats your point.”

“You should have stopped.”

“I should have.”

“Yeah, but its never enough.”

“Shut up. That’s not even it.”

“Why do you feel like you have to do this?”

“I don’t have to.”

“Then why don’t you stop?”

“I just wasn’t thinking.”

“Yes you were.”

“Yes I was.”


“I couldn’t stop... because I am not allowed to.”

“Who told you that?”

“Who told me that?”

Who had told me that? The thoughts and voices fell away to the memories washing over me, taking me back to the house with the black bricks, the creeping jasmine, the falling nasturtiums. There is a table. It is cut like a hexagon. My mother’s design. My father’s execution. Around it sit six chairs, each ready for a diner, each empty. Except for one.

I sit in the seat and look down at the plate. After reading a Saturday morning comic with a Viking who ate large hunks of chicken and lamb legs, I had decided to get a chicken leg from the bowl of KFC. Now I had to pay. Looking down at the plate, I saw half a mound of eaten mashed potatoes. Next to it was some scattered corn. A pile of slimy coleslaw slowly seeped its sickly sweet sauce into the mashed potatoes and the skin of the half eaten chicken leg.

“I said, eat it!” he yelled as he slammed the table.

I started, looked up at him with tears forming at the corners of my eyes. I did not want to eat it. I did not want to. I was full. But he was not going to take that as an answer. I had already learned that when his face turned red like that, when his nostrels flared like that, that if I wasn’t careful, if I didn’t make him happy, I was sure to get a spanking for one thing or another.

I picked up the chicken bone, where the middle section of meat had been eaten as I heard him say, “Now finish it!”

I placed it in my mouth and began to eat away all the parts on the bone, nibbling at the remnants of the food as he said, “The tops too!”

I looked at the top, the collection of fat, cartilage, and ligament, and swallowed before turning to him and saying, “But I don’t want–”

“I said you better eat that food or I’ll spank you till you bleed little boy!” he roared as my eyes began to tear again.

I placed the food in my mouth and forced myself to begin chewing on the top of the chicken bone. It was crunchy and slimy and chewy. I began to gag on it when the hand descended on the table again.

“If you throw up. So help me. I’ll kill you!” he said beginning to take his belt off.

I forced myself to swallow the food. I forced myself not to throw up. I tried my best not to cry. I did not want him to give me “a reason to cry about”. As I sat there, swallowing the last bite, he leaned back, crossed his arms, and smirked, saying, “Thats a good boy. Now, finish it. Eat it all.”

“But what if I am full?” I asked, wiping my face with the back of my sleeve.

“You. Will. Not. Stop. Eating. Until I say. You can stop!” he yelled, raising his hand.

“I will not stop eating” I said to myself in the abandoned bathroom.

“You could stop.” answered my logic, my mind.

“I can’t. I can’t eat half way. I have to finish.” I said before leaning over and retching more vomit into the bowl.

As I thought the wave was finished, I suddenly felt a sharp jab in the back of my throat. It was a kernel of rice. This happened sometimes. It was trying to go back down the wrong tube. The single kernel of rice was trying to smother me. To kill me.

I forced myself to stay calm. I would not let the icy fingers of panic reaching up my spine affect my mind. I made a gagging, coughing sound, as I tried to dislodge it. I began to hum, hoping the vibration would let it get out of dangerous place. Finally, as I hummed and tried to clear my throat, I coughed and it flew out, sticking to the wall of the bathroom. Three grains of rice. That was all it took.

As I stood, wiping my nose, my mouth, my eyes– I heard the echoing, ethereal voice ask, “Hey, are you okay man?”

Someone was in the bathroom!

I began to panic. Quickly glancing to the side, I checked his shoes. Too nice. He wasn’t from our floor. Upper bathroom must have been closed for cleaning forcing his kind to descend to our level. But that was good. It meant he would not know me.

“Oh, er, yeah. Asthma was just acting up and I dropped my stupid inhaler.” I said, thinking quick on my feet.

“You really should eat something. I heard that can help.” he gave his unsolicited advice.

“I’ll just do that.” I answered sourly.

“You sure you’re gonna be okay?” he asked, genuinely concerned.

“Yeah. I’ll be fine.”

Those words were forced out, like a small lump of chicken, a grain of rice, that was trying so hard to get out. Sometimes there are things which may not look that big, but just try to bring them up, force them out in the open, and you’ll realize they aren’t so small after all.

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