Carl set the food on the table. From left to right: a plate on which he had arranged seven colorful donuts, either sprinkled with jimmies, or frosted, glazed, or twisted; a bowl of cereal, which depending on his impulse that evening could have been crunchy chocolate spheres, soggy little waffle squares, flakes scattered with nuts and bits of fruit, cubes of shredded whole grains filled with berry preserves, or sugar-encrusted oat loops; a pint of dense, rich ice cream, which would soon be replaced with a second and even a third; and, finally, a broad-rimmed glass of milk with two muffins beside it: sugar-sprinkled apple-spice, and banana walnut. In the kitchen was more milk, and more cereal.
He watched CNN while he ate.
After he finished, he would enter the bathroom, close the window, turn on the tub faucet, set the bathmat in front of the toilet, remove his glasses, kneel down, and then vomit. Sometimes it took more than twenty minutes. Although he had been practising bulimia for two years, he had not quite mastered it. It was not as easy -- physically or psychologically -- as people seemed to assume.
But then he didn't speak with other bulimics; he assumed their experiences were similar, but perhaps he was a freakish exception even among others habitually engaged in freakish behavior. His technique was slightly unusual: instead of sticking his finger into the back of his throat he used a soft-bristled toothbrush, which he removed reflexively before the liquidy food splashed out of him. Occasionally the bristles would come out stained with blood.
He selected his binge-food partly by how easy it was to vomit. Softer foods were relatively easy to throw up, and were often sweeter as well.
After he practised bulimia for a while, the stomach acid washing through his mouth began to erode his teeth. As a result some of his teeth had jagged edges, and he cut his tongue on these edges, both accidentally and, at times, on purpose. Often when he conversed with people he found the tip of his tongue wandering to the sharp edges on his teeth and stroking them. This could happen when he was bored, or when he was nervous, but either way it made his face contort slightly.
He kept a soft blue towel beside the toilet for when he threw up, because not only did his eyes water copiously when he vomitted, but also his nasal passages clogged up with soft, transparent mucous, making it necessary for him to blow his nose. Occasionally when he vomitted, heavy clumps of food would fall into the toilet, and what he had vomitted earlier would splash back onto his cheeks and forehead. The towel was a multi-purpose friend.
Sometimes he wondered if his neighbors could hear him throwing up over the sound of the faucet. He noticed his gagging sometimes became wildly loud and animalistic. He sometimes could not recognize his own voice in the sounds. Should he play music to drown out the gagging even more? What sort of music would make good accompaniment to his vomitting?
The fluids in his stomach became imbalanced; his guts became strongly acidic, requiring him to consume huge amounts of antacids.
He began noticing a pain in the upper right side of his chest. He felt it most strongly when he inhaled deeply, and thought at first that it must be related to his smoking. So he stopped smoking. But the pain endured, and quitting smoking made him eat even more gluttonously, which led to more purging. And so the pain in his upper chest grew more severe, and eventually he began to feel it constantly -- even when he was not inhaling deeply.
Finally Carl went to a doctor's office. He had been totally up front with the receptionist on the phone: "I've been doing binge-and-purge eating for a couple of years, and it's starting to have some pretty harsh side-effects. I need to meet with the doctor to describe my symptoms and to get help stopping this horrible habit."
While Carl sat in the waiting room, the only other person there -- a man sitting across the table from him who was dressed in fetid, dirty clothing, seemingly a wino who had soiled his own pants -- asked him, "So, you're here for a sex change?"
"Excuse me?" Carl responded.
"You're here to get your weenie wacked off with an umbrella?"
Carl stared in disbelief, then thought, This guy's crazy; he doesn't know what he's talking about; he's obviously in his own world. Then Carl decided to be as unabashedly warped as the stranger.
"No, I'm here to be treated for bulimia."
The foul man stared at Carl -- and for a brief moment, Carl felt warmth and sympathy in the man's gaze.
"Please, it's Carl."
"Carl, you're making a big mistake."
"Bulimia is a marvelous talent, Carl. Society abhors waste, for it is scarce in certain resources -- including, at times, food. But that is the only reason why bulimia should be viewed negatively; for the physical effects of it are minor trivialities when one realizes that bulimia conditions the spirit and the mind in many fantastic ways."
The man, who introduced himself as the Asp, pointed out to Carl that by purging, he was expelling from his body some pretty wretched, harmful substances -- but by allowing them temporarily into his body, he was experiencing first-hand the poisons that large corporations were working on the human race and upon nature. So he was, in effect, innoculating himself against a deleterious popular culture; he was submitting to the agonies long enough to understand them, but not letting them conquer his body.
Moreover, he was disciplining himself in an astoundingly brave fashion, while simultaneously acting in a wonderfully hedonistic way. He was indeed uniting the contrary goals of human life -- self-mastery and indulgence -- in a stylishly modern way.
He was suffering from the American disease par excellence; what more noble form of martyrdom? If only he could store his vomit in flight cases, and send it to random starving villagers in North Korea.
He was behaving like the wasp, which devours bark and wood then regurgitates it in the form of grey paper, which it builds into the cells of wasp nests, in which eggs are laid and then hatched. Only in Carl's case, the vomit was travelling out into the ocean through the sewer pipes.
"But there, Carl, your vomit is collecting with the vomit of other bulimics at the bottom of the ocean floor, forming glorious architecture, an even more spectacular contemporary Atlantis -- with sweeping arches, towers, dwelling halls -- to which only bulimics will be invited.
"And your body is performing a miraculous alchemical stunt: the few healthy ingredients in the food you eat are rapidly processed before you purge, while only what is nutritionally useless or injurious is expelled. The trace elements left behind in your stomach are then distilled by various undiscovered organs which evolve in the innards of bulimic men, and are then stored in the lower intestines. There, the substances slowly grow into microscopic blue crystals which emit waves of power that spread out from your body and adjust the mental energies of other living beings around you to make them more subservient to your wishes. But you must keep practising bulimia in order for the results of this process to become more pronounced and more helpful to you; you must keep feeding the blue crystals, Carl. You must keep feeding the blue crystals."
When the receptionist appeared at the doorway and spoke his name, Carl rose to his feet, stared at her briefly, then walked out of the office.
Carl set the food on the table. Ten donuts: chocolate cake with jimmies, crushed peanuts, blue frosting. A bowl of multi-colored animal-shaped crunches, drowning in whole milk. A bowl of clam chowder. A plastic carton of German-style potato salad, sprinkled with crisp fried onions, shattered in his fingers. And ice cream: bitter chocolate shards and cherries mixed in a dense, hard vanilla. Speckles of real vanilla bean.
Carl devoured the food. He stuffed himself violently, thinking about blue crystals, underwater palaces, and subjugating strangers to his will. As his stomach filled up, he felt the pain in his chest intensify. A ripping, burning pain that seemed to spread into his shoulder now.