So this week I decided to take a break from the short stories depicting various mental illnesses and video for my latest spoken word piece. This spoken word is meant to describe what it is like to navigate recovery from mental illness. I wrote it from personal experiences therefore it pertains most strongly to eating disorder recovery but can be applied to other areas of mental health as well. Watch. Enjoy. Connect.
Anxiety: Sweet Lava: an insider’s look at the power of panic attacks and how to accurately illustrate the struggle
There is this island in the Pacific called Binalope, but before you go google it you must realize it isn’t on any maps. It is so small and so remote that unless you were told about it, you would never even know it existed.
Binalope is only seven miles from the East Side to the West and four miles North to South and the nearest land is 30 miles away by boat. In the middle of Binalope is a huge volcano which leaves each side of the island at a large swooping incline and nearly uninhabitable. The beaches that make up the parameter of Binalope are laden with pink sand and dotted by yellow wild flowers. The winds are soft on the beaches, blowing the flowers ever so slightly and cooling whoever’s face is resting on the sandy shores, but as you walk in and up towards the central volcanic rim, the winds become gradually stronger so that by the time you get to its rim you have to get down on all fours so as not to be blown into the pit of lava and burned up.
There are only 200 people who live on Binalope and they are divided into four directional tribes. The north tribe lives off the north shores. The south tribe on the south, the east and west accordingly. Each tribe lives in separate locations and operates under different names but they rely on the same sustenance: the volcano. Because seated just inside of the volcano’s rim, smothered in the heat of the lava and the steam regurgitating into the air, grows the island’s most abundant food source and the sweetest of fruits. A velvety smooth yellow, pink sphere as large as a watermelon, but as light as a feather. The tribes call this fruit Sweet Lava.
There are four paths that lead up to the volcano, one in every direction leading from each of the tribe’s camps. Every morning it is a race between the tribes to prepare the carts, climb to the rim, and excavate the richest of the fruit’s supply to carry down as an offering in the evening. It is a dangerous task, one only the most skilled of climbers is able to complete. Therefore, to be designated as one of the tribe’s climber is a prestigious and honorable title.
Though you may think it is manning the upward climb every day that would be the most draining component of this job, that is not the case. Each climber rides up in the carts lead by mules so the mornings are rather peaceful because as they ascend the rising sun peaks over the horizon and illuminates the island’s hills in an orange glow. It is once they arrive at the rim and the winds are whipping and the lava is spewing that the true treachery of the job comes to light. The climbers must get down from the wagon with the intensity of the lava’s heat painting a thick layer of moisture across their backs to tether all four sides of their carts and the mules to stakes in the ground so as to prevent the winds from throwing either into the lava. After securing the carts and mules, the climbers then proceed to crawl on all fours towards the lava. There are close margins up there on the rim and with one slip of the foot into the lava you will fall. So with careful and steady movements the climbers lower themselves onto the thin ledge that surrounds the pit of lava because it is here that Sweet Lava grows.
Havana has blood orange hair that has a life all its own. It is thick and curly and sticks out in every which way. The woman of the tribe would whisper ever since he was a child that it was the mark of the lava, that he was destined to become the next climber, that surely the spirits had gifted him but the elders of the tribe had other thoughts on the matter. The role of a climber was almost always gifted to generations of climbers and Havana’s lineage consisted entirely of fisherman. Therefore, the fiery hair proved to be nothing more than a distraction towards gossip and beginning at the age of 4, Havana was taken before the elders to have his head shaved and painted black so as to reflect the rest of the tribe.
The christening of the next climber happens at the turn of the year only when the previous grows old and grey. The tribes believe the spirit of the ocean chooses the next and so they send out all the young men and women who are of age to the shores to await the calling.
This new year held the passing of the east tribe’s climber and Havana was sent out to the shores along with the 12 others who were of age to await the ocean’s calling. With each passing hour the men’s and women’s toes became evermore enmeshed in the pink sand, sinking deeper and deeper so all were becoming one with the beach until around the sixth hour one started to stand apart. Havana’s bald head started to shed the layer of black paint that had covered it for so many years and from the newly naked and exposed layers of skin grew his fiery hair. Wild and untamed. Sticking out in every direction. His blood orange curls were revitalized with such intensity one could argue it was nature’s call of revenge for the years the tribe had denied Havana’s true uniqueness. Once a complete head of hair blanketed his previously bald scalp a massive wave in the shape of a triangle came and penetrated Havana in the center of his chest. Wet, renewed, and chosen. Havana was christened the next climber of the east tribe.
Before the rising of the sun, when the waves crashing against the shore were the only sounds to be heard, Havana slipped out of bed to greet the morning air of his first day as the climber.
He tied the mule to the cart, swung his strong, sturdy frame into the back, and began the ascent to the volcanic rim. No one was to come with him. No one was to show him the ropes. The climber was a solitary job. Meaning, that whomever was destined for it must come to understand its trials alone. The sun spoke to Havana as it peaked over the horizon, whispering about his capability and strength, but Havana couldn’t help but find falsehood in her words.
“Who am I to have been chosen?” he asked the sun.
“Never underestimate the power of the unusual child, my dear,” the sun whispered, her voice rising and falling through the waves of the wind.
Havana fell quiet and his shoulders were heavy as he contemplated her words. The son of the fisherman with fiery hair being chosen to hold the most honorable title of the east tribe. The unusual dominated every proponent of his life.
His cart was the first to the rim which should have been a relief, but it instead filled Havana with panic. Besides from stories passed through the tribe, Havana had no clue what was expected of him.
The winds were howling and Havana could hardly get off the cart to tether it down. He tied down the left side, then the right, and lastly he tethered down the rope around the mule. But that was all he could manage. The winds were too strong. His body was gradually plastered to the ground and he did not have the skill or the strength to get back up.
Only after Havana tethered down the car, did another tribe’s climber arrive. Havana peered across the rim with squinted eyes because it was difficult to open them in the harsh winds. He knew it was the west tribe’s climber that arrived because whomever they were stood directly across from Havana on other other side of the volcano’s rim. The climber was waving his arms which Havana took as a greeting. He felt a slight ease in the power of the wind over him and with a new found strength from kindness of the west tribe began, just as legend had instructed, to crawl towards the rim.
What Havana didn’t understand was that the west tribe’s climber was actually trying to tell him that he had forgotten to tether the front and back of the cart in addition to the two sides and because of it his cart was rocking violently back and forth against the powerful winds. All four sides always, always had to be secure. The winds in Binalope were not like other winds. They did not have a directional path. They blew from all four sides, in every which way, a tornado of invisible forces bound to overtake anyone in its path.
Havana dipped down onto the ledge and started evaluating the day’s Sweet Lava. A few minutes passed and the west tribe’s climber appeared on the ledge across the steaming pot of lava. He started calling to Havana, but Havana didn’t notice. Here on the ledge between the growling pit of fire and the whipping invisible army, the small calls of a climber were swallowed and digested. But then the south climber joined the west and they both started calling to Havana and combining both of their voices, it was enough for Havana to notice.
“Your cart!” the west and south tribe climbers called, “Your cart!”
Havana peered over at the blurry figures, but it was hard to make out anything through the steam from the lava’s burning temperatures.
“What!” Havana called back.
“Your cart isn’t secured!”
“Your cart-…” but their screams were lost as they both scrambled back over the edge and into the safety of the upper rim. Because they had a view of the danger churning above whereas Havana was directly beneath, blinded to the raging, rocking, dancing cart. And just as the south and west climbers finished retreating, Havana’s cart flew over the rim’s edge into the lava’s pit where its massive size caused a huge wave of fire to fly at Havana and scold him with its burning temperatures.
The lava swallowed the cart and disintegrated its wooden structure into the fiery midst. Havana laid there on the ledge in searing pain from the burns covering his skin and touched his scalp to find nothing but skin resting beneath his palm.
His fiery hair was gone, burned off in the wave of lava.
Honestly, “Sweet Lava” developed quite organically. Not only have I myself struggled with debilitating social anxiety, but I have watched the people I love be nearly crippled by anxious thoughts, worries, and fears. Therefore, writing about anxiety did not feel foreign for me. In fact, I had the opposite problem and struggled to narrow down the hundreds of directions I could take this story while attempting to illustrate the illness.
In the story there are multiple elements meant to symbolize different components of anxiety. Havana is obviously the struggler, or the person in which the anxiety lives. The lava is the mind, or the source of the anxious thoughts, feelings, and worries. The cart is life such as work schedules, social gatherings, school, hobbies, etc. The wind is life’s triggers. Things like traffic in the morning resulting in being late to work or school, not being able to control who is going to be at a party on the weekend, the delayed flight misplacing travel plans. Then the Sweet Lava is healthy coping mechanisms used to successfully manage the illness such as deep breathing, journaling, or music.
The series of events in the story are meant to reflect a hypothetical panic attack. But remember everyone’s anxiety looks different and each scenario resulting in an attack is unique. This is just one situation that I created from a collection of past experiences to use in the illustration.
Havana is given a new job. Life transition. Havana takes the cart up for the first time. Begins on a new path. The winds are howling. Unexpected triggers are being thrown your way. He forgets to tether down all four sides of the cart. Life is overwhelming, breathing is getting faster and shorter, the mind is racing, and the triggers keep flying your way. Havana goes to retrieve the Sweet Lava. Tries to search the mind for coping mechanisms to practice. The other climber’s call out to help. People around try to intervene. Havana’s cart flies over top of his head and into the lava. The mind blows life up to an unmanageable level. The lava singes off Havana’s hair. The attack takes over and leaves you physically impaired in some way- can’t move, can’t breathe, can’t think.
Remember, anxiety is real. Panic attacks happen. They infect the mind and debilitate people from living a full and meaningful life. This short story is meant to illustrate the power anxiety can have over people in hopes that those who struggle or those who know someone who struggles can connect.
Anorexia: Miniature Giants: an insider’s attempt to illustrate the complexity of anorexia and how insidious, intricate, and hidden the illness becomes.
The city was vast, expanding beyond what the eye could envision. Its buildings were elaborate covered in etched stone, turrets, glass mosaics, and pediments. The streets were laden with gold and the lights guiding these pathways were ten-foot-tall barrel torches whose diameter expanded nearly five feet. The torches became campfires illuminated above the heads of any passerby. The city was majestic and magical, having the appearance of a world built for a movie’s screen. This city was Guardia.
But as with any beautiful thing, there were some not so attractive aspects of Guardia. Like the fact that Guardia seemed to be suspended in this perpetual silence. A silence so deafening it was loud. A silence so encapsulating it was suffocating. It left any passerby with a crushing sensation on his or her chest because the air held tangible, solid, heavy weight that with each step fell down with more intensity on his or her shoulders. The silence stemmed from the lack of activity. More so than silence, the city was frozen in the moments it was built patiently awaiting the day when breath would enter the buildings’ halls or the golden streets. But nothing had come. Silent, frozen abyss of beauty with no one around to experience it.
No one is an overstatement because there are three persons who reside in Guardia. Daisy the designer, Bambi the builder, and Mikey the maintainer. As one could have guessed, Daisy designs the next additions for Guardia, Bambi builds them, and Mikey maintains their perfection. The process takes years, but Daisy, Bambi, and Mikey’s lack of additional commitments leaves them without any time constraints. Every day, every moment, every breath of theirs supports their role in the construction of Guardia. A never ending project with a never ending list of goals to achieve.
Daisy, Bambi, and Mikey live in the far east corner of Guardia in three small townhomes lined up next to one another. Mikey thought it best to live on the outskirts, in the hills, in the dark streets where torches have yet to be laid so as to not interfere with the perfection of Guardia. And so the townhomes are dry and boring with no pediments or mosaics, just three brick boxes lined up next to one another so that when the day comes that Guardia has expanded to these east hills there would be no problems tearing down the townhomes to make room for the next addition of Guardia’s majestic streets.
Where the resources for Guardia come from is a mystery whose answers lie nestled in the center of the golden streets in a building called Central Station. Except it isn’t a station at all, but rather a massive silver tube where the endless mounds of supplies come pouring out. Marble slabs for building facades and colored glass for mosaics, gold leaf for the streets and chisels to etch the stone, all flood from the massive silver tube in the center of a dome in the center of Central Station in the center of Guardia. The mystery of this lies both in the Giver and their location. Because this massive silver tube that spits the resources to keep the city ever expanding and suspended has no starting point. Meaning, when Daisy or Bambi or Mikey walk outside of Central Station and look up into the sky the tube does not expand upwards, but instead cuts off at the roof. The only thing understood about this tube is its destination and the continuous mystery of contents being poured into Daisy, Bambi, and Mikey’s work.
As time went on, the resources purged from the tube exponentially grew. More and more times throughout the day it emptied into Central Station. At first, Daisy, Bambi, and Mikey were flattered by the tube’s increased activity, taking it as a compliment from the Giver saying “you are doing such wonderful work. I think you can handle even larger tasks”. But as the tube continued to empty and the contents continued to grow, Daisy, Bambi, and Mikey became more and more aware of their inability to keep up. They didn’t have enough hours in the day, enough energy in their bodies, or enough hands to use up all of the tube’s resources each day. And so, Daisy designed a dump next to their townhomes in the east hills on the outskirts of the city. The dump was a place to store, discard, and set aside excess resources at the end of the day. It seemed a brilliant plan and a simple solution to the tube problem.
Except, the tube’s purging continued to increase and so the dump continued to grow. Larger and larger became the mound next to the townhouses until it not only swallowed up Daisy, Bambi, and Mikey’s homes, but began leaking down the hills into the frozen abyss of Guardia. For the first time, the silent seal surrounding Guardia was broken and a stench buzzing with the noise of overproduction echoed through the golden streets. Time started moving again as the excess glass and marble and gold leaf interacted with the ageless illusion of Guardia’s buildings. Quickly, the dump overtook the entire city and even when the tube in Central Station dropped off the resources for the day, neither Daisy, nor Bambi, nor Mikey could reach them, blocked off by the piles and piles of garbage filling the once pristinely golden streets.
There was nothing left for the three of them to do, but also there was no where for them to go. They had forgotten what life looked like before Guardia, before the endless cycle of designing, building, and maintaining. None of them could remember if there were other cities out there and, if so, how would they manage to find them? Guardia expanded in every direction to every horizon. As far as they knew, this was it. Guardia, the tube, their jobs, and now the dump. And so, Daisy, Bambi, and Mikey wandered each in separate directions deep into Guardia’s streets only to become buried between the piles of garbage and the mystery of otherness.
Eliza was young and beautiful. Her soul leaked from her eyes and ears a bluish green color onto every person that she came in contact with, the color of peace, healing, and tranquility. A “radiant spirit” her fiancé called it and “that is why I fell in love with you”. Eliza’s hair was long and golden and when she would run through the field behind her and her fiancé’s home towards the lake, it would bounce up and down in stunning ringlets that made even the most cynical heart skip. Eliza was always laughing with her students when she was teaching the second grade, always singing the loudest when she was participating in the church choir on the weekends, always running up and down the stairs into her craft room to grab ribbons to tie in her hair. She was a real life princess who created for herself a persona of peace and ease. She was self made, self taught, and everyone knew it. Because, an energy like Eliza’s was unnaturally alluring. Not a cloud existed in her world and, for that reason, everyone seemed to want to be a part of it.
The students in Eliza’s class would brag in the halls to the other second graders of their fortune and on teacher appreciation day Eliza was showered with chocolates, flowers, and gift cards while the other teachers were only given a card or an apple.
Eliza’s fiancé had fallen in love with her over her fascination with water. She would run along the trail surrounding the lake and one day locked herself out of her car. She didn’t have her phone and asked him to borrow his. And, he felt he was the luckiest man in the world to have had a reason to start a conversation with her.
They were going to be married in the fall and bought the little bungalow on the lake last month to celebrate. The sounds of the water splashing against the rocky shore were especially pronounced during the night when everything fell silent and Eliza and her fiancé sat on their porch staring into the darkness. It was in these hours of reflection that the mystery of Eliza came into question. Her fiancé would stare at her profile from the corner of his eye and attempt to conceptualize what she was thinking about, but no matter how much he excavated his imaginative mind he could not come up with an answer. The issue lied in this humble truth. Eliza’s life was simple, but she was vastly complex beyond what anyone knew.
As the years passed, Eliza began aging and shedding. Her white, perfect skin started to peel from her arms, legs, and face. Her, now, husband started finding these skins in the trash or clogging the bathroom drain and became increasingly concerned. The Eliza that he knew was not the Eliza running around the lake or sitting next to him on the porch at night. Her golden hair faded to a mousy brown and her blue eyes dulled to a pale grey. Eliza no longer wore ribbons in her hair or sung in the choir. She still taught but getting to school every day was a chore and a bother. There was no laughter in the classroom and the students had started wishing they had been placed with the other second grade teacher.
“Eliza, tell me what is wrong?” her fiancé begged one evening as they sat together on the couch.
Eliza’s head was resting on his lap as she peered up at him with her grey eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out.
“Eliza, please” her fiancé whispered.
“There is something wrong. I just don’t know what.”
The next morning, Eliza’s fiancé drove her from their small little bungalow on the lake downtown to see a doctor. Silence filled the car ride and annoyance pledged the space between their chairs in the waiting room. The ticking of the clock on the stark white wall marked the unraveling of both their sanities. How had they come to this place, both their minds recounted with each tick of the clock’s hand?
The doctor came into the room where Eliza was perched atop the paper on the table and her fiancé was seated in the corner.
“What is it, doctor? What is wrong with her?” the fiancé begged, staring into his clenched fists believing that looking into Eliza’s grey eyes one more time would suck out what little life either of them had left.
The doctor walked over and stood directly in front of Eliza, peering intensely into her eyes. Eliza breathed deeply and with the exhale heard the doctor say with conviction.
“There is a city being built in your gut, Eliza.”
I have decided to add at the end of the short stories a brief explanation of how the story relates to the mental illness it was written to portray. For those of you who enjoy figuring out for yourself the metaphor I have created and connected with the characters/plot in a more personal way, this commentary is not for you and should be disregarded. But for those of you who are a little confused or simply curious about my thoughts surrounding the creation of the stories this section will be beneficial.
In writing “Anorexia: Miniature Giants”, I was thinking about the complexity of the disease and how insidious, intricate, and hidden the illness becomes. So much so, that unless you or someone extremely close to you has personally struggled with the illness, it is nearly impossible to understand. I took my own personal experience and tried to envision a metaphor that would accurately depict what the struggle felt like. That is where I landed on the idea of a city being built inside a gut.
The story begins with a picture of a fictional, majestic, otherworldly city called Guardia. This space works to symbolize the control and perfectionism that aid in the development of anorexia. The illness doesn’t start off insidiously, but instead presents itself as a wonderful lifestyle choice, acceptable by society and complimented by friends and family. “You look so good.” “You have so much self-control.” “Have you lost weight? You look great. What is your secret.” All were comments that would fly my way each time that the illness began to take hold. The praise I received from my behaviors symbolically refers to the etching of the stones and laying of the golden streets of Guardia. The illness felt like I was building a city. There was a formula for it, a science, and always room for expansion.
The silver tube in the center of Guardia is meant to represent the illness itself. It is that tube that is anorexia, the gene, the brain chemistry, and neurological pathways that cannot be turned off. The tube is just there, spitting out all of the supplies needed to build the anorexic a city. So what else was I suppose to do with marble and gold and chisels my mind was giving me, but sit down and start building? The thing is I didn’t think to question the tube in the same way that Daisy, Bambi, and Mikey never tried to figure out who the Giver of the supplies were. It was just always there, demanding that I continue to use up its supplies.
At the point where the tube starts to exponentially grow in its contents is the point in my anorexia journey that I started to loose control. It was the point where the restricting of my food and the hours at the gym and the layers upon layers of clothes were not a result of the careful intention of planning the beautiful Guardia. This was the point when of excess garbage being piled around the illusion of perfection was the result of the tube, or anorexia, being more powerful than I was.
In the story there was only three residents meant to discharge all of the resources the tube purged. But when, by the end of the story, they needed nothing short of an army to organize and use all the tube was throwing out at them. Anorexia is the same. It starts as a methodical beautiful city frozen in an illusion of perfection and then it all becomes buried in garbage as the illness becomes greedy, sending too many demands your way. “Loose more, run more, do more,” it says.
It is no wonder the character Eliza started to fall apart because Eliza is the one holding this city inside of her. The city is unable to be seen by her husband or her class, but it has been in the making for years and years. Eliza was even unaware of the residents Daisy, Bambi, and Mikey living inside of her. Who, by the way, are meant to represent different anorexia behaviors such as restriction, over exercising, and diet pills abuse. It wasn’t until the city was piled in garbage that she and everyone else started to question that something was wrong, which was a theme in my journey as it is with so many others. The illness goes undetected because it is unable to be seen.
The last element of the story that I feel as though needs to be explained is the part where Eliza’s skin starts shedding. Though it borders on self explanatory, I do think there is something to be said about the fact that it is her actual skin that is peeling off. This isn’t me saying that Eliza was wearing a costume and faking her happiness and free-spirited energy to her husband and class. This is me saying that as Guardia fell apart inside of her gut, her own self started to fall away with it. Anorexia took me far far away, swallowing my entire identity. I, like Eliza, lost every layer of my authentic skin.
Depression: Cacti Spikes and Sunburnt Skin: an insider’s attempt to depict the headspace of those whose minds are slowly slipping into the dry and painful desert of depression.
Where do you start when there isn’t much to begin with? Max is a kid, only 16 turning 17 in two months, but he believes himself to be much older constantly nagging on his mother, Jeannie, if she “is certain that he was born September 21st, 1999”. Jeannie always assures him. She even went so far to get his birth certificate out of the safe to show Max that, yes, he is in fact 16 years old. Max was still unsatisfied, feeling as though he was aged well beyond that of his peers. He was just an “old soul” Jeannie would tell him and he would stomp away and lock himself in his room. It was more than that, but he couldn’t articulate his feelings of alienation when he walked down the halls at school or through the mall on the weekends. There was something terribly abstract and unusual about Max. He felt it deep in his lower intestines as they twisted and knotted and screamed to be set free. What was it that felt so trapped? He didn’t know. That was precisely why Max spent so much time in his room, seated on the floor with his back against the left side of his bedframe, and his eyes intensely focused on the set of Cards Against Humanities his older sister had gotten him for Christmas this past year.
“It is what everyone in my dorm plays while they get drunk on the weekends,” Allison, his sister, explained to him.
So he stared and analyzed and tried to find a common thread between the cards that would explain the humor that he could not see. He didn’t get it. He didn’t get anyone. And part of him wondered if it was him or his mind or a little bit of both. And if he were to just will himself out of the cynical mindset he possessed that he would then find humor in the Cards Against Humanities. And then he would unlock the key to people and what makes them all so alike.
Jeannie was worried about him because it had been three days and Max had hardly moved from the position on his bedroom floor. It was summer now so Max didn’t have the obligation of school to get him out of the house, nor did he find any interest in working at the supermarket or gas station like his peers.
Jeannie called her daughter Allison for some advice.
“I don’t know what to do with your brother,” Jeannie confessed to Allison who was away in Spain studying abroad for the summer, “You were always so simple. You made sense. Max… he just…”
“Send him away,” Allison answered, slightly distracted and very annoyed with the conversation.
“I don’t know. Think of something. Aren’t there like school trips and stuff like that he could go on.”
Turns out Allison was right. The science department at Max’s school was taking a trip in July to Colorado to study botany at varying altitudes. Without any hesitation, Jeannie signed him up. Three more weeks and he would be on a bus with 14 other students heading across the plains into the mountains. It would be good for him and, for once, Jeannie felt as though she was doing something right.
The bus ride was 14 hours long and Max sat in a row by himself. He recognized one or two kids from his science class last semester but didn’t bother saying hello. He felt introductions after you already knew someone were dumb. If he felt it was necessary to speak to them later, like if he needs to know where the bathroom is or how much longer until the next gas station, then Max will interact, but right now between his Beats and stack of licorice Max was good in his silent solitude.
The bus left at 8pm so that they would drive through the night. The teachers leading the trip were Mr. Fish and Mr. Cat, whose real names Max couldn’t remember. He just assigned those names in his mind because Mr. Fish had strangely large eyes like a goldfish Max owned when he was younger and Mr. Cat had pointy ears and a disorganized display of whiskers on his chin. The teachers had instructed everyone to sleep because they had a long day ahead of them tomorrow. Max didn’t hear them underneath his blaring music and sugar coated tongue, but Max also wasn’t stupid. He knew why the bus would leave at 8pm. He just didn’t care. He liked watching the passing street lamps in the dark. It was rhythmic, hypnotic in a way, and seemed to lull everyone but Max to sleep. Instead, the pattern of lights kept him wide awake thinking about what it would be like if daytime didn’t exist. Would our entire existence become like these lights, bookmarks between moments of darkness? Is that not what our existences are already comprised of? He took out another rope of licorice and with that thought changed his playlist to something more poetic.
All fourteen hours and Max never had to talk to anyone. A couple of times he came close to a forced interaction, but after the approaching kid saw he had his Beats on he or she would shuffle back to their seat. Magic and peace that was the gift of headphones. Max would sign up for a bus ride across four states any day.
They got there around 10 or 11am. “There” meant Boulder which was the city they would be staying in for the next 7 nights. From Boulder the class would go on various hikes during the day in search of different plants and such. Max was interested and not at the same time. Partially because it was simpler to not be interested and partially because Max had honestly never thought about botany before. Plants were just there.
The fourteen students, Max, Mr. Fish and Mr. Cat all went out for lunch at a diner next to the hotel where over burgers, fries, and crappy de-carbonated sodas Mr. Fish read off the list of partners for the trip.
“Everyone must remain with their partner during the daytime hikes. Make sure that your partner is accounted for at all times. Stay within the line of sight of your partner, etc. Does everyone understand?” Mr. Fish announced and the fourteen students nodded, “Max, do you understand?”
“What? Huh? Yeah, I got it,” Max struggled to say through a mouthful of fries.
“Now we have an odd number of students so there will be a group of three. Karla and Lynn, Hanna and Gretchen, Bernie and Sanders, James and Dean, Harry and Potter, Angie and Jolie, and lastly, Joan, Brian, and Max. Everyone’s name called? Great! Let’s get a move on.”
Max was forced to sit adjacent to his group members on the bus ride to the start of the first hike. Joan smelled too strongly like vanilla and Brian kept humming to himself while feeling his bicep. Max cringed for the both of them and put his Beats back on, but Mr. Cat came up and tapped Max on the shoulder.
“What?” Max jumped, startled by the sudden human touch.
“Can you put those away? We need to make sure everyone is able to hear instructions throughout the day.”
Reluctantly, Max slipped his Beats into his backpack and slightly wrote himself off as dead.
The start of the first hike was at some wooden cabin with a sign reading “Boulder Conservationists”. Max found this comical, for what he wasn’t sure, but no one else laughed so he didn’t either. Joan and Brian stood to his left, but Max preferred people to stand on his right so he shifted his position and as Max was doing so Mr. Fish started giving instructions. Max zoned out for his lengthy monologue, too intrigued with the way the sun’s light was reflecting off the pond next to the wooden cabin.
Before long, Joan and Brian started moving and Max was snapped back into the present. He let the fourteen kids lead, even though he knew he was supposed to stay with Joan and Brian. It was crowded in the thick of the pack and Max wanted to enjoy the scenery as he walked along. Mr. Fish lead and Mr. Cat took up the rear, but even the rear was ahead of Max.
Every once in a while Mr. Cat would turn back to make sure Max was still there.
“Better hurry up man, don’t want to get left behind,” Mr. Cat would continually call over his shoulder.
So, after the third time this reminder lost its weight. Max was confident in his ability to be alone, but not too alone. He knew the amount of space to leave between himself and everyone else. There was strict science behind it that he had mastered over the past couple of years, but it was too complicated to explain to a high school science teacher. So instead, Max would just nod, jog a little closer to Mr. Cat, and then proceed to fall behind once more.
The path gradually got steeper, twisting and turning deep into the thick of the trees. The air got thinner and the sun got brighter. Everything was so intense that Max felt sensually suffocated. A few more turns and suddenly Max found he couldn’t see Mr. Cat or anyone else from his class. He jogged a little, thinking he couldn’t be too far behind, but still nothing. Another turn and another turn, still nothing. But it didn’t make any sense because just a few minutes ago Mr. Cat was no more than a few yards ahead of him. Did he make a wrong turn? Did the entire class fall off the side of the mountain? Did an eagle swoop down and snatch them all away? Max felt dizzy and sat down on a rock next to the path. He closed his eyes took three elongated breaths.
When Max opened his eyes he was smack in the middle of a desert with nothing but orange sand expanding to the horizon in every direction. Max closed his eyes again, took three deep breaths, thought of the mountain trail he had been hiking on just moments before, and opened his eyes. Still all around him was an endless desert. Max’s intestines started screaming like they did when he was certain something was wrong. They screamed and screamed, but Max didn’t know what to tell them.
“We are lost,” he whispered to his gut, “Somehow we got ourselves lost in a desert.”
What was once a steep and twisting mountain trail was now just a vast nothingness. No trail, no trees, no people, just the sun, the sand, and Max who was now hysterically laughing. Because what else do you do in a situation like this? Panic? Write yourself off as insane? Close your eyes a million more times and try to transport your mind back onto the mountain? Call out for Mr. Fish or Mr. Cat? Max was instead overcome by the absurdity of it all.
“I guess we should start walking,” Max whispered, once again, to his gut, the seemingly only other active party around.
Max’s legs felt strong and sturdy as he stood up from the rock he had been perched on. The sun was directly in front of him and Max, having a thick fascination with light, walked towards it. As he moved, he became struck by his smallness.
“There is just so much,” he whispered and his gut responded by leaping into his throat, “so so much.”
And so it was true, in every direction as far as the eye could see was endless sand. A flat plain of an engulfing blank slate, a suffocating realization of solitude, a setting sun with the impending dangers of night, a deafening silence that created noise in places where sound shouldn’t exist-like Max’s intestines and kidneys and gallbladder. All of the parts of him were screaming and somehow it made sense. Because here, while walking aimlessly in a realm of nothing, everything unseen became seen. The little parasites that were once just Max’s upset anxious stomach were now identified as intestines, kidneys, gallbladder and so on. Each was a separate entity seemingly battling each other where previously they worked in harmony.
There was a weight to Max’s body that he didn’t realize when he was on the mountain trailing behind his class. His legs were suddenly bulky and hard to maneuver. His arms were too long and kept tripping him. His hair was scratching his neck. His spine was stabbing his ribs. The sensations were so much that Max was certain little soldiers had taken up residency in his veins only to swim around and randomly fire weapons at his organs.
The desert came to embody everything Max had been strategically avoiding the past few years, a hyper-intensive analysis of Max’s discomfort within himself. With nothing around but sand and the blazing sun, it was as if a microscope was illuminating every aspect of Max.
Max kept walking. He walked and walked and walked until he couldn’t anymore. His tongue was glued to the roof of his mouth and his body ached with fatigue. His mind was begging his intestines, kidneys, gallbladder, and every other part of him to please go to sleep. Just stop. Turn off. Be done for the night like the sun is done for the day. Max curled into a small ball in the middle of the vast desert, feeling painfully exposed and, for this first time since being transported from the mountain, slightly afraid. But just as he was about to close his blood shot, sandy eyes, he spotted a silhouette on the horizon. And the faintest call from Mr. Cat’s mouth, “Max, Max, Max!” It was all muffled and hard to make sense of, a mirage of illusion and tangibility.
“Which way is up?” Max tried to ask his legs as he attempted to stand, stumbling and collapsing back to the desert ground.
“Max, Max, Max,” Mr. Cat’s call continued to reverberate in the distance.
And, Max started crawling towards the silhouette outlined on the dark horizon.
Bulimia: Fluffy Puppies Leak Poisonous Gas: an insider’s metaphorical depiction of the struggle of this menacing disease.
It came up to her, sniffing the purple tennis shoes and lightly panting. For that reason, she saw herself in the ball of fur because she too felt a shortness in her lungs. Having had just run a significant distance, her skin was coated with a film of saltwater and a speckled pattern of red dots. She knew her legs would turn stiff if she were to remain stopped for much longer, but it didn’t leave and so she didn’t move. She couldn’t explain why, but her mind transformed the ball of fur into a towel sure to relieve her of the moisture covering her body. So she knelt down, took the puppy in her arms, and let its foul mouth lick off the outer layer of her face.
Even though she was out in the forest preserve with no one around, she half expected someone to run up and object to her holding a stranger’s puppy in this way. But the puppy had no collar and no one came running. She thoughts about putting the puppy down and continuing to run while it wanders around the forest alone, but the loneliness of that scenario upset her too much. Therefore, she held the puppy tighter and turned to head back towards the car.
Her apartment isn’t much of anything. She lives alone so feels little need to straighten or declutter. Her mother had been the last person to walk through the creaky front door, only to be disgusted by the stacks of magazines and rows of used candles.
“Looks like a hoarder lives here,” her mother had said.
“I am saving them,” she explained.
“I don’t know, for something.”
That something tonight turned out to be a protective blanket of old magazine pages covering her beat up wood floors. The act was preventative in case the puppy had an accident overnight, but as she filled a bowl of water she realized the floors don’t matter really because the puppy was on her bed anyway.
The sun was already nearly gone, so she decided that it wasn’t worth her time to make posters tonight. She would wait until tomorrow before getting the word out that she had found a male golden retriever puppy, who is probably no more than a month old.
“I am going to call you Fluff,” she told him.
He just looked up at her, yawned, then rested his head on her pillow, and the two fell asleep to the synchronization of their breath.
The hours of the night darkened and progressed with a daunting heaviness. Each minute passing on the clock seemed to be injected beneath the skin of Fluff as the small little ball of fur exponentially began to grow. She didn’t notice, deep in a dreamless sleep, until about the fifth hour when Fluff’s body had grown so large his mass had spilled across the pillow and began leaking onto her face. Darkness impaired her understanding of exactly what was happening. As her birdlike limb reached across the bed in attempt to turn on the lamp, she felt something, something huge, something strange blocking her reach. A few hours ago when Fluff and her had settled into bed, he was no more than a few pounds, a small little creature able to nestle into the crevice behind her ear. So what then was this large mass, scratchy and breathing deeply, that now covered almost half of the bed?
She rolled off the bed in the other direction and stumbled across the bedroom, knocking into her dresser. She had stubbed her toe and called out in pain. When she finally reached the light switch, she found her hand to be trembling. Anxiety stirred. One. Two. Three. And the switch was flipped. Light poured across the room illuminating not a puppy but some distorted creature lying across the bedframe. She yelped quietly, swallowing most of the noise out of fear that she might wake Fluff, or him, or it, whatever the beast may now be. She leaned in closer and came to notice that it resembled a cross between a bear and a wolf, a hybrid of black and brown straggly fur and an uneven placement of weight. Quietly she crept to the doorway where she sat cross-legged, waiting for Fluff to wake. And just as it had been occurring through the hours of the night, each minute that passed Fluff was injected with more mass, more size, more weight, resulting in a significant transformation.
Dawn came around 5:30 with an orange and menacing glow. Her heart began to leap up and down in her chest, jumping in and out of her esophagus, and making breath a difficult thing to come by. Fluff stirred. She was certain he had heard the thumping and tried to quieten her fear, but it was no use. Fluff yawned and stretched and slowly blinked his eyes awake. She braced herself, for what she wasn’t sure. An attack? Maybe. She didn’t know. She didn’t know anything right now. Awake or asleep. Dreaming or lucid. The mystery was suffocating and her mind was disintegrating.
Fluff moved with grace and timidness. It was as if he was completely unaware of the transformation that had transpired throughout the dark hours of the night. He panted, licked his lips, and wagged his now stubby and unattractive tail. In these few movements, she felt more at ease, sighing with the energy of comfort and friendliness Fluff was exerting. He leapt from the bed, his weight shaking the whole room, and ran towards her, but she felt no fear. He was smiling, tongue hanging out, and ears perked. She gently rubbed his head. His fur was scratchier than it had been yesterday, but never the less resourceful. For, like yesterday she saw it as a reliever, a layer of reassurance that, yes, Fluff was still a puppy, a friend, a comfort.
She made coffee. The smell filled the apartment and drowned out the staunch of Fluff’s newly vulgar breath. She hummed and Fluff yelped. The two danced around each other to the rising of the ball of yellow in the sky. Around the kitchen and throughout the morning, though the creature was confusingly large, the two grew ever more enmeshed. There was something oddly satisfying about Fluff’s newfound largeness. He presented himself now as more of a shield where yesterday she had been the protector of his frail and little body.
She left Fluff at home while she put up posters around the streets. Though she felt bad because the posters were now terribly misleading. “Male golden retriever puppy found. Please call…” But she didn’t know what else to say. “Puppy yesterday. Half bear, half wolf today. Growing with each passing hour.” That would confuse people too much. After all, someone lost Fluff when he was a puppy therefore that someone would be searching for a puppy.
When she returned to the apartment, the sun was high in the sky. Her cheeks were flushed and her stomach was growling. With a turn of the old rusted key and a creak of the front door, she entered a space that felt quite different than the one she had left. Expecting to find Fluff large and misplaced somewhere in the middle of the small studio, she saw nothing. She walked in quietly. Nothing was out of place. Nothing was different. Just this strange suspension of time where the dust seemed to linger more vividly in the air and a deafening silence overwhelmed her.
“Fluff!” she called.
And a little puppy stirred in the corner of the couch, no larger than the pillow next to it. Her eyebrows furrowed as she tried to understand the transformation. Just a couple hours ago Fluff was a massive creature, now he was no more than a few pounds? She couldn’t even if she tried to explain the situation, so she relinquished hold on trying to understand and took the puppy outside.
The day’s afternoon fell away and Fluff remained small and precious, but as the night began to creep back over the apartment the events of the night previous repeated. Each minute that passed was injected into Fluff until he was massive in size. He grew large and ugly again, but this time so much so that she was crushed beneath Fluff’s weight as she laid next to him. The bed was no longer big enough to hold the both of them and she was forced onto the floor because Fluff being too massive to rearrange.
And so it happened again. The sun came up. Fluff awoke. This time with a temper that was not present the morning before. She didn’t let that overwhelm her though and moved away from the uneasiness she felt with Fluff’s newly aggravated behavior. She made the coffee. She hummed, but Fluff didn’t yelp in response like the morning previous but growled, deep and rough. And so, the dance of the rising sun was awkward and forced because a new fear not present yesterday morning was now taking up residency in her chest.
She left for the day. She had things to do and places to be. She wasn’t always so alone, cooped up in her studio apartment taking in stray puppies. She checked her phone while at work. No one had called about Fluff. She turned her phone off and told herself not to worry, that surely someone would take the mystery off of her plate. When she came back to the apartment late in the afternoon, Fluff was a puppy again. She felt a sigh of relief, but also an anticipation of doom in her chest. The sun was setting which was now associated with fear, change, and uncertainty. She tried sleeping on the couch and putting Fluff on her bed, but Fluff objected and curled up next to her on the couch. And so the night repeated in the same fashion as the two previous. Grow. Transform. Crush the woman next to Fluff.
This cycle repeated every day this week and each morning Fluff grew increasingly more aggressive, more irritable, scarier. She checked her phone incessantly and put up more posters hoping and praying that someone would call and inquire about missing Fluff, but no responses came.
On Friday, a week from the day Fluff was found in the forest and taken in, she awoke to Fluff climbing up the walls and snarling down at her from the ceiling. She screamed and he jumped down on top of her. She fought to get Fluff off and Fluff bit her hand. A crystal stream of blood leaked from her palm. She fell limp with the awareness that the fight was not fair. She could not win. She was too small. And the blood covered the sheets, dying the morning red.
Fluff turned back into a puppy around four on Friday. She was home to see it happen this time and because of that the transformation wasn’t as seductive. His skin shed while he was foaming at the mouth and he secreted this strange fluid from his eyes and tail. It was repulsive to watch and her stomach revolted at the sight. Even when a puppy once more, all she could see was the pile of skins and disgusting liquid covering the floor. Fluff whined and begged her to rub his belly, but she instead grabbed her keys and a cardboard box.
The sun was setting sending a purple, pink glow across the horizon. The radio was playing some somber and therapeutic song as she drove across town with Fluff in the cardboard box in the seat next to her.
It took 20 minutes before she arrived at the forest preserve. She opened the passenger door, reached in, and took Fluff in her arms. He licked her face. She smiled down at him and caressed his head.
“You were good at times,” she whispered in his little puppy ear as she knelt down and placed him under a tree.
Fluff looked up at her with two big brown watery eyes.
“Where are you going?” He seemed to ask.
“Away,” she told him.
“Why?” Fluff whined.
“I have to.”
“Don’t leave me here alone.”
Despite his whimpering objections, she turned her back on the little puppy, got in the car, and started driving towards her apartment in the dark. As she did so, she felt a hollowness fill her gut where previously it had been tangled in knots.