Fasting and Furious
Moral self-doubt and clear lime Jell-O

“You’ve got a great-looking colon.”

A woman in her very very late forties can’t be picking and choosing when it comes to compliments from hot younger men. This couldn’t compare to the time, decades ago, when a Chicago squad car pulled me over and asked me if I had a license for my legs, but Dr. Goldberg was right -- I strained to see the ultrasound of my large bowel. It floated on his monitor like a curl of immaculate sausage casing, one clean digestive machine.

He instructed me to roll onto my stomach, then onto my back, to raise my left thigh, then my right. This was no easy task, hitched up as I was to a barium delivery system via a lump of plastic in my rectum, its attached tubing and an IV bag. But if he’d asked me to juggle watermelons, talk like a dog and dance the Macarena, I would have barked, bounced and jiggled. When the perky radiology tech chirped “Squeeze your butt cheeks tight, Sweetie. Gotta keep the air in there!” I squeezed. Tight.

I’d been the helpless victim of a few painful and embarrassing gastro-intestinal episodes in the previous month, and my internist had written me an order for a barium enema. The outlines of the colon are very difficult to read in a regular x-ray, but a bath in barium shows them crisp and clear. Barium (element 26 of the periodic table, discovered by Sir Humphrey Davy in 1808) is impenetrable to radiation, so it’s used to sharpen the image of the digestive tract. I’d never been on the receiving end of an enema in my life, but I was assured by folks who have had to drink the stuff before an <i>upper</i> GI series that I had won the lottery, been blessed by my Maker, and escaped a fate far worse than death. “That stuff is so nasty, I was actually crying when I tried to get it down. I’d gag, and it would come up on me. Then I had to drink more of it. I’d rather have a baby. Honest.”

Doctor Dreamboat removed his lead apron, telling me he was heading off to the White Sox game, and expressed continuing concern about Frank Thomas’s ankle. “Now, hang in there, Margaret. Krystal is going to take a few more X-rays and you’re outta here.” A few more X-rays? The last time I’d been as thoroughly captured on film I was wearing a veil, carrying a bouquet of gardenias and barely legal to drink. The wedding photographer had been intrusive, but he hadn’t 1) posed the shots as strictly as Krystal did, 2) instructed me to clench my derriere, or 3) call me “Sweetie.” And, bless him, he hadn’t stood between me and the hors d’oeuvres. But I was putty in Krystal’s hands as she clicked away: Dear God, she was the only thing standing between me and my first solid food in thirty-two hours.

“You did great, Sweetie! “ I felt her unhook me. “The bathroom’s through there.” I gathered my paper gown about me and hit the porcelain throne. The air I’d so faithfully trapped in my large intestine released in a series of tiny put-puts, I discharged some milky barium, washed up and took the hospital corridors at a race walk, ignoring the floor-to-ceiling aquarium, the pianist in the lobby, and the Zen Serenity Garden. In twenty minutes I’d be home, tearing into six slices of bacon, three pieces of toast and two eggs, sunny-side up. It seemed like an appropriate meal for someone breaking her fast, her very first fast.

I disapprove of fasting; I disapprove of it on principle. It’s morally frivolous to deliberately starve oneself, unless the food sacrificed makes its way directly into the stomach of someone who needs it. Yes, remember the starving children, and their parents, in Africa or Asia or across town. The world is teeming with people who live on a forced fast because they don’t know when they’ll eat again. These millions aren’t embarking on a kelp-tea diet for a couple of days in order to cleanse themselves of the toxins they’ve been brainwashed into thinking are poisoning their well-toned bodies. If the skeletal population of Sudan had a full stomach for a few days in a row, I guarantee that toxins would be the least of its worries. These people aren’t giving up food to mortify the flesh or to gain spiritual enlightenment. So I was torn with shame -- and the dread of missing the three meals a day and the assorted snacks and nibbles that have been fate’s gift to my unworthy self.

When I made the appointment for my test, the voice on the other end of the line asked me for a fax number because it was “too long to read over the phone.” She got that right: the fax spat out three tightly-typed pages, plump with advice, lists and downright scary admonitions: if my bowels weren’t empty enough for the photo shoot, I’d have to fast again, until my colon passed the white glove test. I’d have to get it right the first time -- a repeat was unthinkable.

I settled down with my fax, a cigarette and a bag of Cheetos, and read for comprehension. Forty-eight hours before my appointment, I was to embark on a low-residue diet. That I could handle: it’s the food pyramid turned topsy-turvy: white bread, meat, Special K. No whole grains, no raw vegetables, no raw fruits, no legumes. Sure, cocktail hour would be sere: no cheese, popcorn, garlic or olives, but this was hardly starvation.

Cut off at the gut on day two: no anything. Clear juice, coffee, tea, Jell-O, bouillon. Popsicles. I tried to bury my guilt about the babies in Niger, to whom a cup of bouillon or a glass of apple juice might be their first nourishment in three weeks. I couldn’t bury it, because atheist that I am, I still float a prayer into the void every night: “Please feed the hungry.” But, you must be kidding, really. Jell-O?

On day one, I decided the regime was Atkins perfected: meat and all the white bread I could eat. I forgot about the proscription against bacon and cheese, and ordered a McDonald’s Bacon Egg and Cheese Biscuit at the drive-thru. I figured that I’d abandon myself to the low-residue qualities of fast food and risk a little roll above the waistband -- because tomorrow, I would starve.

The McDonald’s biscuit isn’t bad. In fact, it’s good, and I’ve skipped lunch on occasion when I’d succumbed to its dollar ninety-nine charms on the drive to work. A McDonald’s biscuit a day in sub-Saharan Africa would save millions of pagan babies.

And because I’d decided that I would be a slut for meat and white bread, I ordered a double cheeseburger at Burger King for lunch. No fries, no pop, but mild anxiety about the cheese. What the hell. That slimy orange sheet of American should slip straight through.

We roasted a chicken for dinner, and I checked to make sure that mashed potatoes were permitted. Cool. Likewise “well-cooked vegetables,” so I threw some so-called baby carrots around the chicken, stirred up a stellar pan gravy and savored the high-meat/high-carb, low-roughage meal of my dreams. My tummy and taste buds tickled, my greasy breakfast and lunch clinging to my hips, I prayed for the hungry everywhere, and slipped into medication-aided, Merlot-managed sleep.

I woke up low as a tub of tapioca pudding. Good lord, no Cheerios? No bagel and cream cheese? Just a glass of cranberry juice and my meds? At least: lots of coffee. I brought up my e-mail at work and saw a directive from my boss: “Maggie can’t eat today. Please be thoughtful and don’t bring any food into our cubicles.” My boss is a Goddess.

By eleven o’clock, I was raging hungry. I wailed. “Why didn’t I make some Jell-O last night?" I’d gone off the stuff when Mother decided that lime Jell-O, tartened with a little white vinegar and brightened with slices of red cabbage and radishes was just the thing for a refreshing summer lunch. Back then, I quite liked the suspended fruit cocktail version, but my siblings and I drew the line at radishes.

The department admin looked at me as if I’d just regretted climbing into my hoop skirt. “You can buy little containers of Jell-O in the case near the Pillsbury biscuits and the chocolate pudding. Hey, I thought you knew about food!” I realized during my lunch-hour raid on the grocery store that I’d been blind to an eight-foot chunk of the dairy case smack-dab between the butter and the orange juice for at least twenty-five years. Raspberry Swirl Pudding -- who knew? Two-fifty for a six-pack of tiny plastic cups of jewel-toned, artificially colored, artificially flavored jiggly water: commercial genius! I tore the lid from the cup of “lime” and scarfed it. Yes, once again, Mummy was right: oh for the crunch of some cabbage, a sliver of something its natural color, something raw! Maybe even a radish. (Can I eat radishes today? Nope, bad move.)

There’s a reason why Jell-O is a feature of invalid diets: only the weak and wobbly would eat it. But that was me. I decided that I liked the orange better than the strawberry and washed them down with a Diet Pepsi. It scared me that the low-cal cola tasted like real food.

By three o’clock, my stomach was calling an audible, and I felt as floppy as the fronds of three-week-old cilantro disintegrating in my vegetable drawer. At four o’clock, my knees buckled: someone had bought a package of Act One popcorn from the junk machine and nuked it. I must have turned pale, because Jayne asked “Maggie, you OK?” I said: “Get me a plastic garbage bag and a long twist tie.” I work with nice people, and Jayne held my hand and told me not to jump. “I won’t,” I assured her. “But please tell Catherine to stick that popcorn in an airtight bag, or I’m going to bitch-slap her, eat her popcorn, and flunk my test.”

By five o’clock, I was really, truly faint with hunger and ravaged with guilt. Kids in Darfur -- their tiny guts clean as a whistle -- wouldn’t eat tomorrow, but I would. On the way home, I swung by Walgreen’s to pick up my prescribed purgatives: Dulcolax and a bottle of magnesium citrate, which comes in fizzy flavors like cherry and lemon-lime. I was rapt and horrified, checking out the laxative aisle -- like the Jell-O section at the supermarket, this was terra incognita for me. It made me crave green leafy vegetables. My instruction sheet told me to drink the purgative pop at five o’clock, so I did: it tasted like schoolroom chalk dissolved in original Fresca. I didn’t dare open my refrigerator.

There’s nothing like two Pom Manhattans on the patio to cheer a girl up -- not only clear liquid, but the pomegranate anti-oxidants made them count as a health drink. Then I saw hours stretching empty before me: the hours I use to plan dinner; to play fridge hide-and-seek with the one indispensable ingredient hiding behind the hoisin sauce; to cook and plate and eat and talk. A Hummer had driven through the nicest part of my day. And God, my mouth tasted bad: cigarette tar and metallic traces of citric acid. I craved a poached egg on toast, roasted rutabagas, corn pudding, Rocky Mountain oysters, haggis -- anything with substance to it. But the list from the doctor’s office had planned the daily special for me: beef bouillon.

I didn’t have those frozen cubes of homemade demi-glace all baggied up in my freezer, and haven’t faithfully since Meatloaf topped the charts. I was too hungry to even consider starting a pot; I feared I might lose all control and eat the mirepoix two-fisted, or slip in some onion confit, croutons and gruyere -- fatally gunking up my guts. I side-stepped a daydream featuring the classic French garnishes: a l’ecossaise, with barley, carrots and leeks. Aux oeufs poches. Aux quenelles. Aux tasty bits.

I heated up the contents of the red and white can, and tried a sip. How can a soup whose first ingredient is beef stock and second is tomato paste taste like warm tap water? In my weakened state I almost burst into tears, cursing my household ban on MSG. But a hungry woman is inventive: I slopped a half-cup of vermouth and a couple of tablespoons of sherry into the pot. I tasted. Not bad, but not there. I turned to the racks in my fridge door and grabbed three bottles: oyster soy, Worcestershire and Tabasco. The fragrance, in a pas-de-deux with starvation, almost made me swoon. I poured dinner into a teapot and pulled out two of my grandmother’s shell-thin teacups. Madame est servie. Madame poured and sipped and savored her umami.

Then I downed my Dulcolax, pulled <i>The Pursuit of Love</i> from the bookshelf and wallowed in a bubble bath. I sat on the bathmat, waiting for nature to take its course, and it did. I brushed and flossed, and spread my face with something expensive that promised to restore it to the color and texture of a baby’s rump. I went to bed. Hungry.

The descent into dreamland is easy if one’s consumed more calories from alcohol than from food. I pushed two comatose cats off my pillow, slipped between the sheets and planned tomorrow’s dinner menu. The only obstacle between me and a full belly was a good night’s sleep and an hour on a stainless steel table. I didn’t even feel hungry anymore -- I felt as if I had faced the worst and won. I felt small and spoiled and cheap.

And I prayed, for Mummy and Daddy and daughter and husband. For one friend’s son-in-law, wounded in Iraq. For another friend’s pain and loss and confusion. For strength. For everyone in the world who can’t count on a good meal tomorrow, or even once before they die. For my shallow empty self.

October 10, 2005