On lust and chewing gum
For a long time I did not know why my stomach swelled after I ate as if I had swallowed balloons that popped one by one over the course of hours. I knew to eat breakfast before getting dressed so my belly could expand without the pressure of a waistband; to eat long before drinking on a night out, so if a balloon carried my food back up I could spit it out into my own bathroom sink. I knew to eat after sex, not before. I knew to lie on my left side or my stomach if I made the mistake of eating before bed. For a long time I did not know that this was not digestion as everyone experienced it, not the uncomfortable but necessary aftermath of having one’s hunger fulfilled.
A life of postprandial discomfort gives one a different relationship to hunger, or maybe illuminates what is already true about it. Insofar as hunger is a species of desire, all sweetness lies in anticipation. I know that my craving for food will be ruined by its consumption, that the ten minutes before lunch break will always contain more pleasure than the ten minutes after. I approach the project of feeding myself daily with the inverse of Dorothy Parker’s summation—I hate writing but love having written. I love eating but hate having eaten.
Across the table from where I write, a woman is sucking on a cough drop. Waxy yellow wrappers litter the space around her laptop. I want one. I don’t know how to classify this craving except that it has less to do with the taste of the cough drop and more to do with a generalized longing, changeable in scale but not in content, for a little more from the moment. As sometimes / I want the light on / When it is on. As one longs for spring in the winter and summer in the spring and then a summer inside the summer. Milk / Beyond milk. World beyond / This one. A cough drop would not satisfy this, of course; that is not their point. I love lozenges for the length of time they occupy.
Artists are always talking about desire, but no one has captured what I want to say about it better than Marilynne Robinson, whose Housekeeping gives us the glowing window at night as an image for the one-way vision of loneliness. She understood that there is pleasure in the wanting itself, that desire is more presence than lack. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it?
I write best in the late morning, before lunch.
An old classmate published a book about a man who attempts to catalog in writing his beloved’s every move and mood, a tragic obsession type of thing. I hated the narrator but liked the author’s observation as she positions him slumped over his notebook: Writers have a natural terror of the afternoon. Yes, I thought, slumped likewise. Don’t they? This terror is least defined in the morning, with the body limp and emptied. This classmate, I remembered, had IBS; she couldn’t eat legumes.
I once read an interview with a writer who observed that writers, namely herself, need to occupy their mouths while they’re writing. “I always have hard candy in my desk drawer,” she confesses. In my mind it is Joan Didion speaking, though I cannot find a record of her ever saying this.
I remember sitting between my sisters in the backseat on a trip from New York to Maryland. Our mother was driving, our brother next to her. I was maybe nine, he nineteen. We had stopped for lunch somewhere on the New Jersey turnpike, but as the memory of my sandwich faded I found myself wanting a little something more. Snacks long depleted, Juicy Fruit pack empty, I asked my brother to check the glove compartment for anything edible. He obliged, and at last a near-empty roll of LifeSavers flew into my lap. “For your oral fixation,” he said. I didn’t know what a fixation was, but it sounded like a thing without a cure.
My sister, a high school English teacher, talks about gum like cigarettes. “I went through seven packs this week,” she’ll say in January as her students prepare for the Regents. She doesn’t mind if the kids chew, too; she even hands out silver-wrapped sticks. In a shortage she’ll bum it off them. At the end of the semester, there is a communal scraping of desks.
My sister says if her principal ever objects to her gummy classroom she will show him all the studies linking gum chewing to improved concentration. There may be a physiological basis for this, the grinding of the teeth an outlet for restless energy. The same probably holds for the writer and her household stash of candy. But I think it has more to do with desire, kept in the fore but never fulfilled.
I almost had a relationship (too young, too temporary) in South Africa with a guy named Meyo who believed in the power of fasting. If you can fast, you can do anything, he decided or heard somewhere. He said he once fasted for a week and felt like he was levitating, so light, released from the wheel of digestion. He thought it was something we might do together.
Glands in the lining of the stomach release acid in anticipation of a meal. This is triggered by the act of chewing, so that by the time the bolus of food has traveled through the esophagus and into the stomach, there is a pool of acid waiting to dissolve it. I imagine the liquid swirling like the hyenas in The Lion King gathered in their cave, awaiting Scar’s instruction. Be prepared, he bellow-sings. Acid is a sign of readiness.
It was a tradition among students in Cape Town to hike Lion’s Head peak under the full moon. In October I climbed with a group of classmates, discovering upon our return to sea level that I had left my phone on the peak. The next morning, Find My iPhone showed it as a blue dot in a cluster of dormitories. I solicited Meyo’s help, and we started up the road to campus. Meyo walked barefoot, as always. He encouraged me to do the same, but the ground was hot and my feet bottoms were soft, and I did not have his patience.
That was a shaggy dog story of a day, the way we moved and went nowhere at once. Meyo seemed to know every face we passed. Each time he introduced me and I tried not to speak of the object I was missing, though the blue dot danced and beckoned in my palm. Meyo could tell, and he said it was good, he said maybe I would learn to last without.
This was our difference: he wanted to stop wanting things. I wanted to find them.
That night one of our neighbors had a braai in his backyard: people came with their beers and raw meats to be grilled, boerewors and chicken thighs and ostrich steaks, and corn. We sat in plastic lawn chairs and someone played Black Coffee through a tinny speaker. Meyo abandoned his daylong fast. I ate until I felt swollen, untouchable, until food leapt back up my throat.
At home for Thanksgiving last year, I mentioned my dread of large meals to my dad as we prepared dinner. He is a doctor, though not an expert on digestion. By this point I had seen a gastroenterologist on my own, in a fit of initiative, but that appointment had gone nowhere. The only people with more GI issues than the Irish are Ashkenazi Jews, I remember him saying, and little else. Now my dad took my medical history across the kitchen counter, a bowl of peeled root vegetables between us. When did it start? What makes it worse? What have you tried? His tone was not alarmed but low and serious in a way that made me feel spotlighted, emotional. Mine is a Healthy Family. He spun the bowl of vegetables as he contemplated my answers—four years ago, coffee and alcohol, nothing. Even as we talked I fought the urge to sample a slice of raw potato, knowing it would not taste sweet like raw jicama despite the resemblance. My dad suggested I try an over-the-counter acid suppressant. He said it was typically prescribed for gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. Strangely, in the following weeks, he began experiencing the same symptoms.
A hypersecretor is a person who produces more acid than is needed for digestion. While a lowered pH in the stomach indicates a body well prepared, below a certain threshold acid becomes corrosive. It’s probably anxiety, my father said. Some people get headaches, some people can’t sleep, you eat away at your gastric lining.
It turns out it is possible to be too ready. To crave so deeply, prepare so thoroughly, that satisfaction becomes impossible. The anticipation, not the food, induces reflux. Upon consideration, nothing could be more obvious.
I spent the rest of the long Thanksgiving weekend checking my phone for a text from a guy named David, whom I had met on Tinder and with whom I’d been on five dates, spaced weeks enough apart that to each I was starving on arrival. I knew that this—the prolonged periods of waiting, the space and time in which to conjure imaginary versions of him—contributed to the intensity of my desire more than any specific trait, but intellectual understanding rarely serves as the check it ought to. I could have sped things along, demanded response and affirmation, but in fact I relished the uncertainty. I could not be disappointed by what I did not have. I let my hunger build.
By the following week, it had soured into anger, as it will for any novice faster. I asked David what was going on. He said he was heartbroken over his last girlfriend, unmotivated to begin anew. I asked why we were dating then. He said I’m lonely. Why is anyone on Tinder?
This was, at least, a relief to have acknowledged—the vast sadness beneath the game, the abyss on the edge of the playing field. The way it incites and stunts desire at once: we salivate warily over pictures and texts, knowing how drool ruins a shared meal, knowing how everything is dry and tasteless otherwise.
At my day job I am tasked with writing back cover copy for a book called Candy Bites. Inside I find a list of candies lined up along a pH scale, courtesy of The Minnesota Dental Association. The lower the number, the more acidic, the sourer the candy. Water, the caption notes, has a pH of 7. Clustered in the far right, at pH 3.0, are Spree, SweeTarts, and X-treme Airheads. At pH 2.5 are Sour Punch Straws, Skittles, Laffy Taffy, and Baby Bottle Pop, the last of which triggers a jingle in my head. Leftmost on the scale is WarHeads Sour Spray, at pH 1.6, only slightly less acidic than battery fluid. The Willy Wonka colors scream off the page. My mouth waters. Next to me, a coworker snaps a pretzel rod between her teeth.
The Friday nights of my adolescence were spent in a lime-green bedroom, Allie’s. Her parents let her pick the paint color. We subsisted on Sour Punch Straws and the softcore porn of the American Pie movies, both acquired at Blockbuster on the way home from school. This bed is on fire with passionate love, we screeched along to the opening credits, thrilled by their sleaze. The neighbors complain about the noises above! We rewound and replayed scenes with the polo-clad actor Ross Thomas. Allie was someone whom, in retrospect, I really, really wanted.
One year for her birthday Allie received a science experiment kit from an aunt. Among the vials and droppers and colored dyes was a bag of citric acid, as if someone had scrubbed a gang of Sour Patch Kids smooth and collected their coats. When no one was looking we took turns tipping the bag onto our tongues, letting the powder dissolve until our taste buds were bumpy and raw.
I wonder if I brought this upon myself.
At first I thought I could cure myself by avoiding acidic foods—coffee, red wine, chocolate, lemon curd, grapes, tomato sauce, balsamic salad dressing. But that’s everything I love.
Allie would grow up to be beautiful in all the boring blue-eyed ways, but it was her comedy that drew us to her then: the strange, low, British-accented voice she’d drop into, inspired by Family Guy’s Stewie; the havoc her clumsiness wreaked, reducing the careful arrangement of students to a pile of bodies before our class picture. She would leave me hanging upside-down at recess, my legs caught in the chains of the tire swing, too beside herself with laughter to lend a hand. She inflicted pain I did not register as pain until I noticed bruises on my thighs. Her impression of Buffalo Bill telling Clarice to “put the lotion in the basket” made me laugh out loud in class; we’d spend detention playing M.A.S.H. with the names of boys I have since forgotten.
My friend went first into that predicted future and reported back—Brazilian waxes hurt worse than recess, and sex was a letdown.
One indicator of GERD is something called early satiety: the sensation of fullness before you are full, the illusion of enough. It has taken years but I now can tell the difference between early and real satiety. The former resides in the uppermost part of the digestive system, pressing against the sphincter between the stomach and the esophagus, calling attention to itself like a buzzing in the pocket. What you have eaten lurches with every movement, as if wanting to escape. And when the initial discomfort passes, you are hungry again, because you did not have enough to begin with; what you mistook for fullness was merely air. (Bloated is a word—like float or boast—whose vowel sound betrays its hollowness, its inevitable deflation upon puncture.) The latter is a settled feeling in the lower gut, so right it goes unnoticed.
On the subway home from work, a head of dark curls buries into a shoulder and lets out a moan. I watch as the shoulder’s owner looks down at his baby, who is no longer following the cardboard book in his hands but sleepily rubbing her scalp against her father’s sweater. One of her arms squishes against his torso, the other hangs pudgily from a cap sleeve. A plush tiger falls from her limp fist to the train floor. I immediately bend to grab it, realizing too late that only someone who had been staring as hungrily as I had been could have reacted in so little time.
Not well explained but apparently common, cute aggression describes our urge to squeeze, bite, and otherwise manhandle babies of all species. Evolutionary anthropologists are sympathetic: The urge to nibble cute creatures may be a case of getting one’s wires crossed. I appreciate the out, but I don’t find the urge confusing. I know craving to have violence within it. If any wires are getting crossed, they are my longing to hold this sleeping baby on my lap and the brief throb of desire I feel for her father. But evolutionary science can only take us so far. So gently does he close his hand around the tiger’s body.
What I did not tell my dad, because it makes no kind of medical sense other than psychosomatic, is that my symptoms seem worse after meals I eat alone. I have a few theories about this: I tend to graze standing up in the kitchen instead of sitting down with a plate; I certainly eat faster, gulp more air. And when I’m finished eating, nothing commands my attention so fully as to keep me from going inward.
As I scan the shelves at CVS for the brand he recommended, another drug comes to mind, one known for its rush of indiscriminate warmth towards other people. This flood of goodwill through the bloodstream, paired with a heightened sensitivity to touch, results in a lot of hugging. It is lucky that I am not white-powder prone because the first time I took molly I loved it. I pushed my way into the middle of a dense, sweating crowd. So this was desire without the hard edge of desperation, affection with no aim but its own expression. This was satisfaction not endlessly receding. But the best part of rolling is something people rarely mention: MDMA shuts down the digestive system. You can go hours without thinking of food, without hunger, without any awareness of your last meal’s passage through your gut. The only downside is a clenching of the jaw, but for this, of course, there’s chewing gum.
The medication my dad prescribed comes in two varieties. One is a proton-pump inhibitor, which means it keeps acid from leaving the cells in the stomach lining. The other is an H2 blocker, which means it blocks the receptor on the surface of stomach cells from receiving the signal to produce acid in the first place. When the first one didn’t work, the second did.
There is satisfaction too, I suppose, in this, the diagnosis. The fitting together of pieces across a hole that has always felt bottomless. I wonder if I were a doctor if I would take pleasure in the shorthand solution, or if I would continue writing until words spilled off the chart.
What does it mean that a suppressant is the cure?
Chemistry offers another way out: acids, famously generous with hydrogen atoms, pair with bases, famously needful. In a feat of cooperation they neutralize each other and make table salt. There was a time when I dreamt in such terms, after evenings in the library. The good ones found me nestled in a benzene ring. In others I watched as an ionic bond broke between myself and someone else, and they floated away, and left me charged.
Later tonight I will shower, drag a razor across my skin, rub moisturizer into my cheeks, twist strands of wet hair around my fingers until they curl. I will put on jeans that hug me tight. Before I leave the house to meet another stranger, I will shake a small red pill from the bottle on my dresser and wash it down with a glass of wine, trigger and antidote in a single gulp.
Despite my best efforts I will arrive early.
Grace Kearney is a Baltimore-bred writer currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the City College of New York. Her prose has appeared in Promethean, Leland Quarterly, Journal of Palliative Medicine and Huffington Post. She lives in Brooklyn.