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.

A bead of sweat pools on the tip of my nose. I want to wipe it, but I can’t move. Light pinwheels around my eyes like a kaleidoscope at a carnival. I hear my breath quickening, but I don’t know why. Other sounds morph into a distant drone punctuated by organ interludes.

Am I in church?


Through pinholes in my delirium, I can see Father Tassio talking behind the pulpit, his hands working the sermon like a potter would clay on a wheel. Behind him, I can see the cross where Jesus bleeds, the holes in his hands pulsing dark tunnels to another dimension. I look away so I’m not sucked into them.

Amanda Wingo draws in her bible. Her pencil scratches into the onion thin paper. I want to be that paper. Want to feel that important to someone.

The organ explodes and my head reels.

Everything fast forwards. The ironwork on the ceiling spins like the inner workings of a Swiss clock racing to get away from time. The stained glass windows shoot daggers of colors that ricochet off pews that are lined up like dominoes. I want to knock them over and watch them tumble, but my hands are too heavy.

I can’t lift my head, either. I am stone – just another Parian figure in the church, albeit one with penny loafers and a navy jumper.

Father Tassio’s words turn to tongues, a belligerent rant that pummels my head like shrapnel. “Shut up,” my mind screams over and over as each word bullet zings me. “Shut up! Shut up!”

Will I go to Hell for my blasphemy? It has to be a pretty big sin to scream shut up at your priest. I don’t care, though. And I wonder what is wrong with me that I don’t care.

Perhaps this is demonic possession. Shelly Meyers, a sixth grader with hair that reminds me of Christmas tinsel, missed three weeks of school one time when she was possessed. I overheard her telling the Barrow sisters all about it in the cafeteria during lunch, though I didn’t understand why the devil would want to make you do things with boys.

I recall a scene from The Exorcist, a movie I’ve watched on cable far too many times. Not the best choice for a second grader, but television is never monitored at either of my homes. Maybe Captain Howdy needs a new little girl and has come for me.

Oh, please, oh, please, don’t let my head spin around like that.

I look over at Jesus. His holes expand and unfold into a blanket of space that covers me.

I knew he’d get me eventually.

I hear a thud,

then black.

I have no consciousness.

No awareness.

Am I dead?


Not yet. That would come later.

For now, I am simply nothing.

When I begin to come back, I hear water running. Then I feel something warm and wet on my cheek. A washrag. Steaming terrycloth.

“Are you all right, dear?” she asks with a voice soft as baby powder.

I can’t talk. There’s a boulder in my throat. But I can hear and I can see, though the light of the room makes me squint and washes everything out like an overexposed photograph.

“Breathe,” she says, and I do as I’m told. But my chest expands too quickly. It won’t stop, and I can feel an earthquake somewhere at my core. A chill skitters up my legs to my stomach somehow setting flame to something that erupts.

I vomit on her, but she doesn’t seem to mind. “Don’t you worry about that one bit,” she says, cleaning her skirt.

Mrs. Tassio. I see her clearly now. I’ve thrown up on the priest’s wife.

“Are you all right?” she asks again.

I sit up too fast and almost hurl another, but somehow I will the tsunami in my stomach to recede. Mrs. Tassio puts a cup of water to my mouth and I drink. “Your mother’s on her way,” she informs me. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

She curls a strand of my hair behind my ear and I feel better, but then the weight of what I’ve done drags me back under. I’ve desecrated the priest’s wife. I don’t know where that ranks in the hierarchy of sins, but I’m sure it must be a doozey. Maybe even worse than telling a priest to shut up, even if I did only say it in my mind.

I start to cry.

“Father Tassio,” I whimper. “I need Father Tassio.”

Mrs. Tassio motions to a girl behind her. The girl approaches and I can see the burn scar that runs along her jaw. I want to touch it; I want to know what the puffy skin feels like. There’s something beautiful about the way it coils from her ear to her chin like a rivulet of secrets. I catch her eyes, and I can tell she misunderstands what I’m thinking because her mouth tightens into an asterisk of anger.

Mrs. Tassio dunks the washrag in a basin of steaming water. “Go get Father Tassio. If he’s not in the church, look in his office. 

The girl obeys, throwing me a look on her way out, a look I’d come to know too well over the forthcoming years.

Moments later, Father Tassio returns without the girl. I can’t decide if I’m more relieved that he’s here or that she isn’t. My stomach moans and I roll over on my side. He kneels next to me

“You sent for me?” he whispers, taking my hand. His skin is too soft, it reminds me of someone, and I almost recoil, but then I remember. Father Tassio. My priest.

I squeeze his hand. “I need to confess my sins,” I say.

“What sins could you possibly have, little one?” he asks.

I run down the list, admitting all my indecencies: the time I said shit when I stubbed my toe on the refrigerator, the time I blamed our dog Jenny for breaking my mom’s porcelain vase, the time I gave Milton Hewitt the finger when he splashed me on purpose with his bike.

By the time I get to today’s transgressions, about how I told him to shut up with my mind and how I vomited all over his wife, I hear funny sounds coming from Father Tassio. He sounds like the squeaky gate to the playground. At first I think he’s crying, ever so disappointed in me, but then I notice he’s holding his stomach.

Is possession contagious? Have I contaminated my own priest on top of everything else?

Father Tassio snorts, taking such deep breaths that his nostrils flutter like an accordion.

Mrs. Tassio steps over with a thermometer, but I wave her off.

“My penance. I need my penance.”

Father Tassio can’t talk. He turns completely around in his chair. His belly heaves like a bellow, and he wheezes like my Uncle Ernie’s mule. I look at the ceiling to see if there are any long spears that might fall from the sky, but I only see a brown water ring.

God, if his head spins around, I swear I’ll throw up again.

“Five Our Father’s and five Hail Mary’s,” he finally gets out.

Mrs. Tassio sticks the thermometer in my mouth. “And how many for the priest?” she asks, then thumps him on his head.