You are curiously aware of your stomach, the way when you were in college, a hit of acid made you curiously aware of your skin. At a gallery party, you fought shyness with too-much Chablis on an empty stomach, and a few days later, your stomach foams. Pain zips the length of your abdomen. This builds for a week, until the night of your third anniversary, when a glass of champagne curdles in your stomach and gets churned back. You sit on the couch, arms cradling your stomach, and moan. Tom dismembers and eats both lobsters. His face shines with butter and worry.
Tom makes a doctor’s appointment two days later.
“I’m fine,” you say. Your family insists every cold is pneumonia, every headache is a brain tumor, and every bout of food poisoning is cancer. You share these tendencies, yet are deeply ashamed of them, and over-compensate by avoiding doctors at all cost.
He says, “You’re going if I have to drag you.”
In the waiting room, you gnaw on your lower lip and wince at the stinging in your gut. Tom holds your hand, partly for comfort, mostly to prevent your escape.
Everything in the exam room is stainless steel. A nurse takes your blood pressure. You shift on the hard table. Paper crinkles. You list things they might discover: Tape worms. A knot in your intestines. Colon cancer. Embolisms. You think, it’s better not to know.
The nurse leaves. Tom paces. You make a mental draft of your will, though you have nothing of consequence to leave, and Tom is the logical choice to leave it to.
The doctor wears his hair in a bowl cut and squints; you distrust him on sight. “Your gut bothers you, huh?” He jabs two fingers into your abdomen, below and to the right of your navel. You don’t flinch. He says, “It’s not your appendix, so that’s good.”
“See? I’m fine,” you tell Tom.
The doctor scribbles on a chart. “When was your last meal?”
Tom says, “She hasn’t kept anything down for 48 hours.”
The doctor hands you a paper cup of water and a pill. “Take this.” You do, thinking it’s an antibiotic. He hands you a vest with a hard, square bulge on one side. “Put this on. We’ll get some snaps of your gut.”
It wasn’t an antibiotic. You were right about the doctor. Will you have to retrieve the camera? Will toxic chemicals leak from the capsule? Will it discover you’re incubating a fatal disease? You start to cry. Tom hands you a tissue and rubs your shoulders.
The waiting room has Muzak and dog-eared copies of People. You want coffee, your iPod, and a fat novel, something slow and calming with a happy resolution. You want Tom, who promised to return at three, when the doctor will re-examine you. The camera spins like a satellite inside your gastro-intestinal tract, pinging data to the transmitter. It’s as exotic and unlikely as jet-packs and functional robots, but has the potential to run amok in your intestines: You foresee videos on YouTube of a tumor with the face of Jesus.
A liver-spotted man across the room stares. You flip through magazines and worry: About the insurance; that the spotty old man is psychic and knows what’s wrong; about turning into your grandmother, who’s eighty-two and has called weekly to say, “Well, I think it’s Alzheimer’s/an enlarged heart/I’m having a stroke” since you got your first apartment fifteen years ago. Your stomach burns.
“Ulcers. Absolutely no coffee, alcohol or soda.” The doctor holds up three photos of ugly red sores on a field of glistening pink ridges. Your stomach resembles a cartoon lunar landscape. You touch a photo with your index finger, expecting it to be wet. There is an answering twinge under your left ribs, and another above your navel, and a third just under your breastbone.
You rely on two cups of coffee, black, no sugar, to get you out the door in the morning, and all you can think about is how miserable your 8:00 comp classes are going to be.
The doctor sends you home with the pictures, a pamphlet, and a prescription. Tom lines the photos at eye level on the fridge door so you won’t be tempted to sneak a beer. They are the only photos on the matte aluminum. He laughs. “Moe, Larry and Curly.”
“I hate The Three Stooges.”
He adjusts the magnets. “Okay, Peter, Paul and Mary, then.”
“I named them Gerry, Ed and Claire on the drive home.”
“After my most inept students.”
Tom chuckles and makes a cup of mint tea, no sugar; you take small sips and wish it was coffee with a slug of bourbon. You are sullen and nauseous, but Tom remains cheerful: He settles you on the couch, tucks the afghan around your feet, puts a movie in the DVD player and sets a jar of Tums on the coffee table. This is what you love about Tom: He’s tied a red ribbon around it. He kisses you and leaves for his studio.
You let the tea grow cold. When you go to the kitchen for juice, the photos of Gerry, Ed and Claire remind you of married couples’ fridges, dotted with baby pictures and sonograms, or your single friends’ fridges, covered in strips from photo booths in bars. You don’t long to be married, do not understand the concept of the dream wedding or the dream house, and hope Tom doesn’t ask to move in. You slink back to the sofa without the juice, convinced you are a freak of nature.
You study the Caring for Your Ulcer pamphlet. It has photos of forty-something men in red ties, probably mid-level managers with underwater mortgages and crumbling marriages. You teach, part-time, and dabble, full-time. Half the bullet points don’t apply:
You cross these out and write:
You dislike the chalky antacids with their weak yet too-sweet fruit flavors, but eat them like candy, praying for appeasement. Grit cakes in your teeth and you brush and floss with renewed vigor. You remain aware of your stomach, and aware of everything you eat, the way parents are obsessively aware of everything their children eat. You take notes:
Pad Thai makes Gerry, Ed and Claire happy.
Cream cheese makes ulcers unhappy. Next time, try hummus on bagel.
Coffee makes Gerry, Ed and Claire very, very angry.
Pastrami on rye with horseradish and a dill pickle: Epic fail.
The ulcers are your personal volcano gods, and in the evenings, Tom shows up with white paper bags, offerings from the best of Chicago’s take-out menus. You sacrifice tamales, pierogies, masala dosas and dim sum, all with mixed results. You form a theory for the care and feeding of ulcers: Give them starch, not a lot of protein, not a lot of fat, a fair amount of vegetables, but no broccoli or cauliflower. Drink water, maybe a little flat ginger ale, diet only. Nothing sugary, and absolutely no coffee, no matter how gritty your eyes, no matter how lethargic you are. Coffee causes tantrums and very bad behavior.
The plus side: You’ve lost seven pounds.
The down side: Your entire social life exists in bars. You go out one night and nurse tonic water. You keep turning down shots. “Doctors orders,” you say.
“What? Oh-my-god, lucky you, you’re pregnant,” your friends squeal, but their voices have a pitying ring.
“No, just ulcers,” you say, repeatedly, because the fact that you aren’t allowed to drink keeps eluding them. They drink many beers, and many shots, until they’re glassy-eyed and paired off with hipsters, leaning toward each other, casually touching. You wish you were with Tom. You ache with boredom. Only Jenny is left at the table. She says, “My landlord’s got to have his toes amputated. Are you sure you’re having a good time? You don’t look like you’re having a good time. It’s just too awful: Imagine life without toes.” Jenny bursts into tears and slumps against the scarred paneling.
You rub your stomach. “I’ve got to get Gerry, Ed and Claire home. They’re a little crabby.” You hate the whole evening.
When Jenny calls the next day she sounds brittle, like her hangover could crack her into pieces. “I’m so sorry about last night. Come out again; I never get to see you anymore.”
“I can’t,” you say. “It’s not like I can leave the triplets with a sitter.”
“What the hell are you talking about? You don’t have any kids.”
You hang up on her, wondering why you never noticed Jenny’s self-absorption. Maybe it was all the beer?
Each time you consider the pictures lined up on your fridge, each time you consider the care lavished on your ulcers, you pat your stomach. You talk to them, asking “Would you like samosas for lunch? No? Maybe some soup?” and, when they’re fussy, “Just calm down. There’s nothing to be upset about.” Days when your stomach remains calm, you praise them. “What good little ulcers. I’m so proud of you. Keep it up and I’ll buy you a pumpkin cupcake.” Nights, you watch movies while spooning with Tom on the couch, or read fat novels, or attempt to solve Sudokus.
Three months into the care and feeding of your ulcers, Tom says, “You’re so strong. I didn’t think you’d be able to give up coffee and drinking.” He’s fixed pot roast, little carrots, mashed potatoes and gravy, none of which bothers Gerry, Ed and Claire.
“It’s like being pregnant.” Tom pauses, fork halfway to his open mouth. Your face flashes red. You cough. You want to take it back. “I mean giving things up and the weird nausea.”
“Do you want to have a kid?”
You shrug. “Sure.” But the thought of pregnancy, of complications, of another creature battening off you as it expands and grows, has always revolted and terrified you. “Do you?”
Tom drops his fork and pulls you to the bedroom. Sex with a mission, sex without a diaphragm, makes you self-conscious. You lie back on the bed. Tom rests his hand below your navel and says, “Make room for baby.” His face above yours is meltingly happy, eyes open and liquid. His mouth sags with pleasure. You hope he won’t cry, that you won’t cry, that you won’t regret this.
When Tom comes, you picture cartoon sperm rushing across a glistening lunar landscape.
Vengeance in your gut wakes you at three a.m.: Gerry, Ed and Claire know they’ve lost your single-minded focus. Sibling rivalry, you think. Tom snores, his right hand on your stomach, directly over Claire. You catch a whiff of raw onions and unwashed dishes. Mortality, you think. You want a pill camera, twirling and snapping pictures deep within, so you’d know what was happening.
BIO: Melanie Datz likes hiking trails and dive bars equally. Her work has appeared in Night Train, Knee-Jerk, Monkeybicycle Online, and Fiction-at-Work, among other places.