Maggie Wolff Peterson: Peristalsis

marathonlitreview —  June 13, 2013 — Leave a comment

When the reunion announcement came in the mail, Linda didn’t hesitate. Fifteen years was enough time. Enough was different. Enough had changed.

She wasn’t the girl she had been. They used expressions like “big-boned” for girls like her, the ones who stood taller than the boys and were heavier, too. Linda’s clothes had come from the missy section, where the styles are cut generously and offer the relaxation of elastic. Her mother assured her she’d grow into herself. Linda had no clue what that meant.

Now Linda’s skin fell over the bones of her face, revealing a fine structure that had been obscured under the soft fleshiness of her youth. A lifetime of avoiding bathing- suit events had brought about the unplanned and happy side effect of a body unblemished by age spots and a face undamaged by sun. She was stylishly thin in clothing that emphasized the strong shoulders that at one time, she had thought humpish and huge. In a dress with butterfly sleeves and a handkerchief hem, Linda appeared ethereal.

The reunion was a cocktail function at a downtown hotel. The organizing committee had aimed for elegance. Linda found the ballroom just off a vast, carpeted lobby, where guests enjoyed seating groups arranged around low tables under chandeliers dimmed for intimacy.

It wasn’t hard for her to avoid the tables set with canapés, where her former classmates hung in clots, making a meal of the cheese toasts, shrimp sate skewers and tiny, fruited chicken salad sandwiches that the organizing committee had ordered after painstaking consideration. Linda could hardly swallow a bite. Only if she assembled a plate, then sat with it for hours and picked it into tiny bits would she be able to get anything down. She made a mission of walking slowly across the room toward the bar. Without food in her stomach, at her dissipated weight, she knew not to drink alcohol. But the bar gave her a destination and a glass in her hand would give her something to hold onto.

The irony of the situation was Linda’s to savor privately. She could wear anything now and look good. Those long bones that once categorized her as a big girl were now a scaffolding over which clothing easily draped. With the flesh dissolved from her limbs, she was now statuesque. She knew the concavity beneath her ribs as undernourishment. The world saw a stylishly flat stomach.

Before they concurred on a diagnosis, a phalanx of doctors found an engaging diagnostic puzzle in the achalasia that constricted Linda’s throat. “The reason for the neurological response isn’t fully understood,” the internist told her. The psychologist wanted to her to talk about her insecurities, and the psychiatrist wrote a prescription for Xanax with limitless refills. They gave her barium to drink and tested the efficacy of her autonomous response. They threaded tubes down her throat. They had her undress and lie flat.

All Linda knew was the panic of choking, always choking.

“Linda? My God, you look amazing!” Missy Harrington. Linda was surprised that Bindi even knew who she was. But of course. Missy was on the organizing committee. She’d know exactly who to expect to see.

“You’re gorgeous! Are you working out?” Missy asked.

Every eight months, doctors injected Linda’s esophagus with botulin toxin to disable the nerves and allow the barest motility. Surgery was an option, too. Linda had already endured the isolation inside a banging MRI tube, the dehumanization of countless latex-enrobed fingers pushing against her throat as voices directed that she, “swallow, swallow.” She was caught in the exhausting pursuit of labyrinthine referrals and consultations, from doctor to doctor to doctor. None had a cure as her body relentlessly declined.

Worked out; worked over. What’s the difference, Linda thought.

“You look great, too,” Linda offered.

“Did you get some food?” Missy gushed. “We have all kinds of goodies over there. The little quiches are fantastic. Make sure you get some.”

“Oh, I’m fine,” Linda said. Missy moved on.

There was a time when Linda would been able to taste anything on that table, but that wouldn’t have nearly nourished her. Alone later, she would have treated herself to the pleasures of food. Alone, she would feed herself. The ritual would begin in a fluorescently bright convenience store. She’d buy everything the contents of her wallet would allow.

She’d stain her fingers orange with cheese curls, then eat a party bag of M&Ms. She’d carve slices from a stick of Cracker Barrel cheddar, and pair them with pepperoni. From the freezer would come Ben and Jerry’s in pints. Linda would alternate, salty, then sweet. Her feast wouldn’t end until she could feel the food pushing the limit of her stomach, backing up into her throat. She’d taste the salt and the chocolate soured by the acid bath of their digestion. And then she’d purge it all, vomit until there was nothing left to heave and her release almost exceeded her compulsion.

And now she looked marvelous. She was starving.

Linda cruised the room, repeated the same conversation. She looked great. Better than she ever had. She took what victory there was from it. Metamorphosis ought to be a miracle. This was to be her redemption. Her old classmates believed the years had been good to her. She looked like a million bucks.

Three hours of mingling. Three hours of presenting her new self to those old faces. They never knew her private life and they never would. Linda’s secret had changed, but it was still hers. She drove home and changed into sweatpants.

The fridge was stocked with yogurt. Dozens of cups in a variety of flavors, that leant a version of variety to Linda’s meals. Soft, creamy yogurt, so much easier to swallow than textured foods that need chewing. It was this or a bottle of chalkily flavored chocolate nutrition drink. Or God forbid, parenteral feeding through a tube. That option hung at the edge of Linda’s future. Linda took a cup of vanilla yogurt and a spoon.

She peeled the cover from the cup to expose the gelatinous surface, so perfectly smooth. With the tip of her teaspoon, Linda pierced it slightly to capture a tiny bit. A quarter-teaspoon of textureless, semi-solid food. Linda pushed the spoon all the way into the cup, until it stood as erect as a sentinel.

At the back of the cabinet was a tin of peanuts. Linda hadn’t been near these in awhile. They were probably stale. She remembered when she could plow through a tin of crunchy, salty nuts, as a prelude to a package of Oreos or a bag of fun-size Baby Ruths. She opened the tin and inhaled.

She took the tin to the table and sat it next to the peeled and penetrated cup of yogurt. From the tin, she extracted a single nut, and rolled it against her lips. She tasted the salt and salivated.

Linda separated the single nut into its two halves. In between lay the tiny, curled nib, the plant’s embryonic food source had it not been picked and processed, but instead pushed into the earth and left to grow. With her thumbnail, Linda excised the nib from its secret, shallow spot.

She put half a peanut between her front teeth and bit. A tiny portion rolled onto her tongue. Linda could feel its angular edges and anticipated its oily crunch. It might take her fifteen minutes to masticate this tiny piece. She was nearly certain that no matter how long she chewed it, the paste would get stuck in her throat. Choking meant gasping; it meant that some of the nut could be aspirated into her lungs. Pneumonia was always a risk. Or worse.

What the hell. Linda had made her entrance, had toured the room and showed them all the beauty they’d never seen in her. What difference had it really made? They hadn’t known Linda then, and still didn’t. In another time, she’d be halfway through a pint of ice cream by now. She’d have rewarded herself and thensome.

Her phone was at hand. She knew how long it took for an ambulance to arrive.

Linda stuffed her mouth with peanuts and began to chew.


Maggie Wolff Peterson spent 30 years in journalism, in which she saw her pieces published nationally and acclaimed with prizes, before she began developing her voice in fiction a year ago.

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