In case you didn’t know, puking sucks.

Friday night, my boyfriend Alex and I picked up some food from our favorite Vietnamese place to settle in for a nerdy evening of Fringe and website designing. We feasted happily on our five-spice chicken, kebabs, rice with meat sauce, and imperial rolls.

I took a bite of a roll and knew immediately something was off. The meat was well, sort of pinkish, and the roll wasn’t as delectable as other times. But I dismissed my gut (so to speak) and ate it all, thinking, Even if it’s a little off, my stomach can take it.

Wrong.  Oh so very wrong.

Like Jerry Seinfeld, I’ve had a long non-vomit streak. Nine years ago was the last time, when I caught a nasty stomach bug that had me retching till I burst a capillary in my eye. Since then, somehow, I’ve avoided blowing chunks, even after feasting on raw beef, questionable goulash, and cod sperm sacs (of course not all in one sitting).

Sure, there’ve been close calls. Some bad stop-and-go taxi rides. Some stomach-dropping airplane turbulence. All that spinning in Black Swan. But nothing to actually induce the spew.

For Jerry it was the black-and-white cookie. For me: an undercooked imperial roll.

We finished eating around nine, and I went to bed at midnight. I was tired but didn’t sleep well. Weird thoughts whirled through my head. I kept thinking about my website. In my mind parts of it grew and shrank, like when I was a kid and took too much cough medicine and hallucinated that my curtains were one moment gigantic, and the next, far away, as looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

Finally, at about three AM, I woke up. Something is very wrong, I thought, but wasn’t sure what. I had the chills and my belly was distended and felt VERY full, like when I had that stomach bug. It had been six hours since I’d eaten. By then I should have been hungry and fantasizing about breakfast (yes, I fantasize about breakfast).

Lying in the dark, I felt more and more wrong. I began to feel nauseous. Please don’t let it be that, I thought. Anything but that. My period maybe. Or maybe I’m knocked up. But I knew. I remembered my dinner and felt even worse. Maybe I can suck it up. C’mon stomach, just digest it. Digest, damn you, digest!

My stomach did not digest. I ran to the bathroom, and that was that. The beginning of the end.

Why is puke found on the sidewalk Sunday mornings always pink? Or else orange. Is it all those margaritas on an empty stomach?

Puke in movies seems to always be white (unless of course you’re possessed), with the consistency of clam chowder.  In reality, throw-up looks pretty much like a watery version your last meal.

Mine, however, looked exactly like my meal. Whole chunks first of meat sauce, then meat sauce and rice, and along the way, bits of the cursed imperial roll. It also tasted exactly like my meal, only, you know, disgusting.

The one time I was sick in China (don’t eat the shellfish), I disgorged a vertiable rainbow of the food I had eaten that day, in backwards order: bright yellow cornmeal, red cherry tomatoes, pink shrimp, and finally, the culprit, gray mussels.

This weekend my barf was far less pretty.

At four AM, Alex, the night owl, came to bed.

“I barfed,” I told him. “I think it’s food poisoning.”

He felt my forehead for fever. “Are you sure?” he asked. “We ate the same thing, and I feel okay.”

“Maybe it was the meat sauce.” He had skipped the meat sauce.

“Maybe.” He rose to get me some water.

Three hours later, he was running to the bathroom.

I’ve yet to mention the flip side of food poisoning. The other end, so to speak.

The runs. The trots. The Aztec two-step. Yes, diarrhea.

In China I had it coming out both ends. I had to choose: which was worse? There was no right answer.

There is never a right answer.

This time I was lucky enough to have to deal with just the mouth end. Poor Alex, on the other hand, had to contend with both, though, luckily for the both of us, not simultaneously.

When you’re nauseous, you don’t want to puke but you do. You know that afterward you’ll feel tremendous, albeit temporary, relief. While it’s happening, it seems it will never end. You will always be heaving, you will always be gagging.  You will always feel this insufferably bad.

Maybe after this wave, it’ll be over. Maybe after this one. Or this one.

Then when it’s over, you feel, finally, unbelievably good. You’re sweating. You’re shaking. But you’re no longer nauseous.

Till the next time.

For the entire day, we lay unmoving in our bad-pork-induced semi-comas, rising only to toss our cookies, or, in Alex’s case, crap his brains out, or, in my case, dry heave when I had nothing left to hoark.

At noon, we thought about getting up. “I’m going to try,” Alex said. He stumbled into the kitchen to get some water, and immediately returned, collapsing beside me. “Fuck that shit.”

The whole time, even as I fitfully slept, I couldn’t turn off my brain. I kept imagining the food I had eaten the night before, making myself sick again. I kept remembering all the other times I’ve been sick, in chronological order (when I was four and after having just finished a bath, turning to the side and neatly throwing up in the toilet; when I was 13 and got sick off a bad Italian sub; all the countless times I’ve had the flu and lay on the couch feeling queasy; and of course my bout with deadly Chinese shellfish).

I kept thinking about Mischa Barton’s dead-by-Pine-Sol ghost in The Sixth Sense covered in chunder and saying, “I’m feeling much better now.”

And that scene in the movie version of Flowers in the Attic when little Cory Dollanganger, unknowingly being slowly poisoned to death by his wacko mom, says to his big sister, “Cathy, I have to throw up.” (And by the way, have you seen this movie? It’s awful. I mean, really really bad. Yes, sure, take OUT the incest in the movie version of a trashy incest book! That’s why we read it!)

As well as that scene in Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade when Jenny slumps on the bathroom floor sweating after having blown her chicken dinner, and her mother comes in saying (guiltily because they’ve just had a fight), “Oh, honey, you’re sick!” and then her mother takes care of her till she collapses from exhaustion, and I kept thinking, I want my mom too.

Because with both Alex and me lying moaning in bed (and not in a good way), we had no one to take care of us.

No one to run out and get us Pepto-Bismol.

No one to mash up aspirin and put it in a spoonful of orange juice.

No one to refill our glasses of ginger ale.

Of course I haven’t lived with my mother in quite in some time, but I used to live in New York, just an hour’s train ride from my parents’ house in New Jersey, and now I live in San Francisco, three thousand miles away.

Normally, Alex and I are good at taking care of each other, but now we were both incapacitated.

“I’ll get you ginger ale,” he mumbled before passing out again.

Only worse than yacking, is doing so in public. I’ve only done so once (an ill-fated New Year’s Eve when I downed an amaretto sour after sangria), and threatened to do so once, on my first day at a boring internship with a literary agency, when my period was really bad, and the agent’s assistant said, “I hope it’s not because of this job” (it’s not all about you, dude!), and I thought it would be perfectly acceptable to lie down for five minutes in the middle of Broadway (I didn’t), and groaned unabashedly on the entirely too long subway ride from 23rd Street back up to 116th.

When I think about puking in public (as I often do), I think of Christopher Olson, the poor fat kid in my kindergarten class, whom we all made fun of, like the time my best friend Kristin and I pressed ourselves against the wall as we passed him, to stay as far away from him as possible, and our teacher Mrs. Gardner scolded us afterward, and she seemed really mad, and I didn’t understand why.

One thing Chris liked to do was lift his eyebrows up and down, Groucho Marx style. He did it often, especially at the girls, and once he did so at me during music class. He did his eyebrow thing, I turned away, and when I turned back, he had ralphed all over the carpet (it was white by the way, the ralphing, not the carpet).

From then on, I connected eyebrow lifting with ralphing, the way I connected my friend Kristin’s hairy arms with her being Catholic.

I also think of the second grade and my best friend Kari. One moment she was standing there perfectly fine, and the next she was red-faced beside a vomitous orange pool that smelled of Doritoes.

Why is it that as children, we can go from perfectly fine one moment to hurling processed cheese snacks the next? Are we simply not as aware of our bodies? Do we lack the experience to know, the way I did at three o’clock Saturday morning, Houston, we have a problem?

Finally, 15 hours later, we knew it was over. We had puked our last puke, had shat our last shit. We had convulsed our last dry heave.

We could string together coherent sentences. We could sit up and not feel as though we were going to die. We could take some aspirin for our dehydration headaches and down Gatorade and ginger ale. We were even, dare we say, hungry.

Though not for imperial rolls. Never again.

The next morning I called my mother to wish her a happy mother’s day but also, I admit, for some sympathy.

“We were so sick last night!” I said.  “We ate some bad food.”

“Oh no!” she cried.  “That’s too terrible.”

I smiled to myself.  Just what I wanted.  Then she went on.

“You know, you really shouldn’t eat out so much. You should really learn how to cook.”

Thanks, Mom.  I’m feeling much better now.

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A long-time New Yorker, ANGELA TUNG is a writer in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in CNN Living, The Frisky, Dark Sky Magazine, Matador Life, The New York Press and elsewhere. Her Young Adult novel, Song of the Stranger, was published by Roxbury Park Books.

Her latest book, Black Fish: Memoir of a Bad Luck Girl, chronicles the failed marriage between a Chinese woman and Korean man, both American-born but still bound by old world traditions. Black Fish was short-listed for Graywolf Press' 2010 Nonfiction Prize.

In addition, she's a writer/editor at Wordnik.com, an online word source, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. Visit her at angelatung.com.

25 responses to “The Curse of the Imperial Roll”

  1. This post reminds me of the Lardass scene from Stand by Me. I always hate the hurl because I’m dramatic enough that, for that moment, the world really feels like it’s ending.

    Hope you have your appetite back.

  2. angela says:

    nate, how could i forget the Lardass scene! Stand By Me is one of my favorite movies and novellas.

    it does indeed feel like the world is ending at that moment, that it will always be that bad (which seems so trivial to say with all the shit going on in the world but there you have it).

    i do have my appetite back, though i’m sticking with soups and bread products for now.

  3. Oh Angela! I DO NOT do puke, but yet I read this. For you. Bleck, Groucho Chris — school puking’s the worst! Because it gets the sawdust treatment, and there’s just no worse smell than puke and sawdust.

  4. Don Mitchell says:

    Very evocative, Angela.

    Here’s a tip — it’s a counterintuitive tip, but a serious one.

    A couple of years ago, in Hilo, Ruth and I had a bad flu. The puking and shitting was awful, so awful that we decided to go down to the ER, which was very close. The ER doc popped an IV in Ruth and judged me not that dehydrated, and said, “Do you know about using fiber for this?”

    What? No way. But we listened. She said, “Go down to the drugstore and get any kind of fiber, brand doesn’t matter, and take the standard adult dose.”

    We both looked at her. No way. Fiber’s for when you can’t crap, not when you have the runs.

    She said, “The fiber will swell up in your lower intestine, soak up all the water that your system’s dumping in there, and form a mass that won’t be very different from what ought to be there.”

    She was right. It was amazing. It did nothing for the puking, but the diarrhea never returned.

    • angela says:

      yay, i can comment!

      that tip is actually really helpful, Don. i will definitely keep it in mind for next time – though i hope to god there is no next time.

      i guess there is really nothing you can do for nausea. Alex took some Pepto-Bismol and while that stopped him from puking, it didn’t stop him from *feeling* like he had to puke. let’s just say he took matters into his own hands.

  5. “In China I had it coming out both ends.”

    That’s pretty much the national slogan these days. “Beautiful mountains, friendly people, shitting and puking not guaranteed.”

    I only usually puke when I’ve been drinking, which is a lot, but still, my stomach – I thought – could also take bad meat and other nasties. Back at university I lived in filth and never puked once from food. Even in Korea I handled the filth… but in China it has been relentless. I can’t stop vomiting, and neither can anyone I know. When do you get used to the rancid meat? Or do you just get used to puking and shitting? It’s been six months and I’m closer to accepting the consequences than the cause.

    • angela says:

      oh, david, that’s awful! i’d say, “Become a vegetarian,” but i know that in China often the fruits and vegetables aren’t even safe.

  6. Zara Potts says:

    I just about puked today when I saw the guy behind me in my rear vision mirror pick his nose and eat it.
    I physically dry heaved.

    Usually, I don’t mind throwing up. I would much rather that, than a sore throat.

    I’m glad you’re feeling better. Ugh!

    • angela says:

      oh zara, that is so nasty! why oh why do people do that?

      i *think* i know what you mean when you say you don’t mind throwing up. i do hate that “in-between” sickness – sort of coldy but not a full-fledged cold kind of thing. i’d much rather be knocked flat on my ass.

  7. Oh dear. I’m glad you’re feeling better. Throwing up is the worst thing ever. Actually, puke purgatory is the worst; that phase spent nauseously, eternally (at least it feels like eternity) waiting to barf. At least when you puke, as you mention, you get to experience the glorious reprieve from the nausea for a little while.

    I made scones for my son yesterday using some expired Greek yogurt in place of the sour cream the recipe required. I thought I was being frugal. I thought that cooking the old yogurt would negate the expiry. I was wrong. We have both been horribly sick in the GI department all day long. My husband doesn’t like bread or baked goods, so he didn’t eat any of them, and his stomach is fine. I threw the rest of the stupid scones in the trash a few hours ago after we figured this out.

    Your mom’s comment at the end made me smile. You were so close to getting that mom sympathy all sick people crave. So close. (:

    • angela says:

      puke purgatory! awesome!

      oh no, so sorry about the scones! i was talking to my mom yesterday, and mentioned the time she made potstickers which made everyone sick, including my brother (i was, luckily enough, not there). he said she had let the meat cool, then cooked it again, so it had been sitting around for too long.

      *she* claims it was because my brother, who had just come back from a visit in NYC, helped make the postickers, and infected them with the bird flu that was going around at the time.

      SURE, Mom, that makes total sense!

  8. jmblaine says:

    I cannot ever recall
    an entire post devoted
    to throwing up
    on TNB.

    Pal of mine had the same bug
    a month or so ago
    & said after the first hour
    she had a friend bring phenergan
    & vicodin, let them dissolve under her tongue
    & slept for 16 hours.

    just passing that on.

  9. James D. Irwin says:

    I’ve been paranoid about food poisoning ever since I heard about my dad’s story of getting it from an undercooked chicken. Apparently he had a barbecus in the dark with a friend whilst drinking and they ‘forgot’ to check it.

    He spent the next few weeks in a bathtub growing a beard.

    I thought I’d got it from a market in London earlier in the year. The meat looked a touch too pink for my liking. I’m overly cautious with chicken.

    On puke: if you eat nothing but noodles and then drink a bottle of red wine in less than an hour you get a lovely, smooth mauve coloured vomit. I learnt from experience. Additionally, on that subject, it’s as pleasant as vomitting can be.

    • angela says:

      “He spent the next few weeks in a bathtub growing a beard.”

      hilarious but awful. awful but hilarious.

      i will keep in mind the red wine/noodles combo if ever i want a pleasant puking experience. 😉

  10. Ha! Aztec Two-Step. I’ve never heard that phrase before. Only Montezuma’s Revenge.

    You have my total and complete sympathy, Angela. I hate throwing up. I haven’t done it for a very long time now; I’ve also never had food poisoning.

    Christ, I hope I haven’t jinxed myself.

    • angela says:

      haha, found “Aztec Two-Step” in an online thesaurus. could very well me made-up.

      avoid all black and white cookies and imperial rolls.

  11. […] in case you were wondering, I’ve fully recovered from my terrible bout of food poisoning last weekend.  The short version: MB and I had bad imperial rolls and spent part of Friday night and all of […]

  12. Irene Zion says:


    I think the last time I was poisoned at a restaurant was at an Arab Restaurant in Israel. It was at least 15 years ago but I can remember every minute of the days-long siege. Victor and I needed a two toilet hotel room, but there were none available. That’s all I’m saying.

  13. gloria says:

    1. I can’t believe I clicked on the The Exorcist link. Up until now, I’d avoided seeing that scene. Creepy. (I’m NO fan of horror movies.)

    2. I did not click on the diarrhea link.

    3. I remember Flowers in the Attic being a great movie. But then, I didn’t read the book until years later.

    4. That scene in The Sixth Sense is absolutely freak-tastic.

    This was just a fantastically written horror story of shitting and yacking. Nicely done. 🙂

    • angela says:

      thanks gloria!

      1) the diarrhea link is far less harmful than the Exorcist link.

      2) maybe if i hadn’t read the books (obsessively), the Flowers in the Attic movie would have been all right.

      3) something i didn’t include in the essay but maybe should have was the time i went on a car trip with my friend and her two-year old, who promptly got carsick, and spent the next two hours continually barfing, and looked just like Mischa Barton in The Sixth Sense.

  14. […] updated my website and published my memoir, woot! I wrote about the curse of the imperial roll. These cute little dictionaries I edited last year were […]

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