BY AMY FELTMAN
After Les Miserables is over (finally, Rachel thinks), her roommate and best college friend Carraway is buzzing with post-musical-theater exuberance. The girls follow Carraway’s Aunt Sabrina, trudging through Times Square. Rachel’s stomach gurgles menacingly and she swallows back into her throat. Not now, Rachel thinks, pressing her upper and lower lips into a straight, disciplined line.
"Did you like the play?" Carraway mouths excitedly at Rachel. How could anyone like the play? Rachel wonders. Bedraggled Frenchmen in peach-colored rags, bemoaning their lives in singsong voices. Rachel had caught herself thinking of the word suffer and shook her head, remembering her recent resolution to keep things in perspective, to do right by God. Friday Night services, pressing into the palms of clammy-handed juniors while they said the Mi Scheberach. The renewal of body, the renewal of spirit, though something about praying in English seems slightly off, like having your shoes on the wrong feet.
"It wasn’t my favorite," Rachel says, "but it was a very nice evening."
"No need to be tactful on my account," Aunt Sabrina says, winking at Rachel.
"But how could you sit through it with dry eyes?" Carraway asks them. "I wept!"
"We heard, my little crumb," Aunt Sabrina says affectionately. "This way."
The restaurant is a white-chaired, New American eatery with a crowded bar. Small, flickering candles on each narrow table. Aunt Sabrina gracefully settles into the bench side of the seat, removing her hat, and she and Carraway hungrily examine their menus. Rachel takes a sip of ice water, trying to ignore the nausea lingering in the bottom of her throat.
She leaves the cool water glass against her lips for an extra moment, wanting to delay the need to move her body forward to put it back onto the table. She thinks about resting her cheek on the porcelain plate in front of her, the one that will be whisked away for the appetizer course. Just stay still, Rachel thinks. Eventually it will stop.
Rachel hurriedly scans the menu, trying not to think of what each word signifies in terms of smell, texture, taste. Risotto is just a word, she scolds herself, but the thick, globby wetness seems to lodge itself in her throat. Maybe the bread will help. The bread, soaking up the acid. She pictures a commercial for paper towels, a mom mopping up a spilled glass of cranberry juice with an incandescent smile. Rachel is relieved when Aunt Sabrina doesn’t order a glass of wine, opting instead for a peppermint tea and Meyer-lemon gnocchi. Carraway orders a tuna burger with extra wasabi aioli on the side.
"I recently got married," Aunt Sabrina tells Rachel, "to a conflict resolution expert with two Mockingbird-themed children. Scout and Jem."
"Congratulations," Rachel says, averting the menu.
"Thank you. Ben is a wonderful man. The thing is, I just have no idea how to speak to a five-year-old boy," Aunt Sabrina confides. "I can’t assemble a paper airplane. Honestly, I’m an award-winning gastroenterologist. I was a guest lecturer at Columbia. Can’t figure out what to say to this table-licking child."
"At the infant toddler center," Carraway says, "we sing a lot of songs. They love imitating the sound of buses."
"How did you get to be a gastroenterologist?" Rachel asks, then regrets it. Becoming a doctor isn’t like driving over a pothole, she thinks.
Both Carraway and Aunt Sabrina laugh. "Well," Aunt Sabrina says. "It was an unconventional path. I won’t bore you with all the details. But—I graduated from Smith, and afterwards, I lived on a kibbutz in Israel. But it was far away, and it was so warm, and the man I was with turned out to be something of a sociopath. Anyway," she continues. "I felt pressured to, quote, make something of myself. So, I decided to apply to medical school! When I got in off the wait list at Michigan, we went to a Bruce Springsteen concert and your mom and I danced all through the aisles."
Carraway imitates a dance move that looks a bit like fixing a broken bicycle wheel.
"Just like that. And then, when we had to pick our specializations, I wanted to get into a field that didn’t have many women. Female gastroenterologists are a rare breed. We’re all OBGYN’s and pediatricians, as though those are the only fields where women would want to speak to other women about their bodies."
"You’re not going to get into exciting new medications again, are you?" Carraway asks.
"Biological therapy is a fascinating treatment option for inflammatory—"
"Aunt Sabrina," Carraway says. "The word inflammatory isn’t super appetizing."
"Oh, you’re right," Aunt Sabrina says. "Forgive me, girls."
A few minutes later, the waiter places their entrees in front of each woman with care. Rachel’s chicken is golden and crispy, a boneless breast atop a bed of pearly couscous and slightly charred broccoli. The couscous slides down her esophagus hesitantly, wet and scratchy and tasting of broth and salt. Rachel takes a sip of water and re-evaluates: the bite was a success.
She takes her fork and knife and slices into the chicken breast, shredding its skin and meat into pieces, bite-sized, the silvery shining blade into her meal and then, miraculous, the fork delivering food into her mouth that is savory, delicious.
Then, halfway through her rapid-fire chewing and swallowing and consumption, the familiar, cloying nausea returns, a twinge that hits Rachel all at once like a gymnast toppling from a balance beam. The chicken transforms from tender to a sickly, vinegarish paste that coats the insides of her throat. Concentrate, Rachel thinks, demanding that the food stay safely contained in her body. I will not. I will not. In through the nose, out through the mouth.
Carraway eyes her from across the table. Rachel sucks on an ice cube, wanting to disappear. Wanting to be alone, anywhere. Where is the bathroom? She doesn’t have a hair tie. She certainly can’t ask Carraway. The last thing she wants to do is have another conversation with Carraway about eating, however well-intentioned.
Last week, when Carraway whispered a series of words that Rachel could only partially hear over the wind rushing through the gray November day: purge, vomit, red eyes. Weight. Loss. Bulimic, Carraway said finally: she wasn’t one to shy away. The word made Rachel immediately start to shake her head. She reassured Carraway, no, that wasn’t what it was. But somewhere, a small part of Rachel wished it were. Wouldn’t it be easier than trying to explain?
"I’m sorry you’re sick," Carraway had said, so kindly that Rachel had to look away.
"I’ll be okay soon," she muttered, which came easily. She’d been telling herself for months. She needed to do a better job concealing it from her roommate.
I’ll be okay, she reminds herself now, as Carraway excuses herself to the bathroom. Dammit, Rachel thinks, watching Carraway travel across the restaurant. Now she won’t be able to leave for another few minutes, at least, and will have to make conversation with Aunt Sabrina, when she can barely concentrate on anything besides squelching the sickness. Rachel feels like a hot cup full of liquid that she needs to steady.
"Rachel?" Aunt Sabrina says. "You look a bit feverish. Forgive me, I don’t mean to Doctor you, but—how is your stomach feeling? Are you having trouble eating?" Aunt Sabrina’s gray hair looks metallic in the low light, and her expression is patient and open.
"What did she tell you?" Rachel asks.
"She was worried about you," Aunt Sabrina says. "She thinks I can help."
Rachel nods, averting her eyes. Aunt Sabrina reaches into her leather purse for a business card, scribbling on the back with a black ballpoint pen. "Why don’t you come in tomorrow for a checkup? I can fit you in. We’ll get you fixed up in no time," she says reassuringly, and Rachel bites the inside of her cheek to keep her face impassive.
This is it, Rachel thinks. Time to tell the truth.
She describes the visit to the hospital, the one where they didn’t know what was wrong and told her she should be fine. Should be. Her mother, who thought she just needed more exercise, less trans-fats. The way stress unleashed a heavy plank of nausea across her and wouldn’t stop. Waking up in pain, unable to find a position to assuage it. The dizziness that wrapped around her throat like a noose. Too nauseated to eat, too hungry not to. But at other times, not hungry at all; impervious to hunger, feeling only heaviness, fatigue like a winter parka at the apex of summer. Fever, brimming in the background, but she doesn’t know what her body’s trying to fight off.
"Before we go any further, Rachel," Aunt Sabrina says, "I just want you to know I believe you."
At their appointment, Aunt Sabrina asks the questions she has been afraid to answer. Aunt Sabrina orders tests; they all sound like different conjugations of the same verb in a language that she doesn’t know. Endoscopy, colonoscopy, small capsule endoscopy. She drinks a jug of barium juice that smells like perfume; an x-ray technician sets her alight. She makes appointments, pivots between Poughkeepsie and New York on the Metro North. She learns the name of the phlebotomist who always mentions the sea. Rachel learns the vein that yields most easily, learns which arm to present. Squeeze your fist, the phlebotomist orders, and slips the needle in.
Each week, Aunt Sabrina assures her, they are closer to an answer.
"You have to know what you’re up against," Aunt Sabrina says, "before you can fight."
Rachel will listen to the sound of her blood, rushing fast into small plastic tubes, like the whirring of cicadas in the summer. She will mumble answers to questions and feel ashamed. The things that her body does without her consent. The test results will come back. Your insides are covered in blisters, Aunt Sabrina will say, circling the places on the film where Rachel’s body is attacking itself in a red marker. Crohn’s disease, Aunt Sabrina will say: Don’t Google it. First a short round of steroids. Rachel’s cheeks balloon. Her muscles crinkle, snap. Every staircase is interminable. All night, awake. Awake. She wakes up dreaming of salt. Pours tiny crystals into her palm and sucks them down.
Then: blue pills, the color of Neptune in science textbooks, eight times a day. Fireworks of pain crackling, then dispersed into the dark. It will take time to settle; time to determine what she can eat safely. It will take time to figure out how to tell her mother, who will not know what to say but will quietly, effortfully, rest her finger on Rachel’s wrist. Aunt Sabrina says, things fracture; then heal. I’ll see you next month, Aunt Sabrina says, and the month after that, and the month after that.
Amy Feltman earned her M.F.A. from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in The Millions, The Toast, The Sonder Review, Limestone, Two Serious Ladies, Gigantic, The Believer logger, and elsewhere. She has pieces forthcoming from End Pain, Slice Magazine, and Cosmonauts Avenue, and is writing a novel.