Bar Rot – Felicia Rosemary Urso
January 29, 2021
I drove my mom’s car to Stop n Shop to buy laxatives and peppermint whipped cream. At a red light on the way back, I sprayed a spiral into my mouth, swaying along to “Careless Whisper” on the radio. The roads through the woods were empty. I spritzed another burst of cream to choke down the laxatives, then drained the canister’s nitrous into my lungs.
It was early May, and in two weeks I was going to leave for New York to break up with Diego. I should have done it months earlier, like when we had that big fight in the train station on our way to Cinque Terre. He didn’t believe I knew how to read a map.
Back at my mother’s, I looked over my stomach at the digital scale for the third time that day. I didn’t allow myself one of my own. 159.1lbs. I took off my boots and my clothes and the scale went down to 157.8lbs. I figured I’d wait for the laxatives to kick in and try again after that. I didn’t know how I was going to leave Diego, but I knew how I was going to get skinny again.
I’d eat only vegetables. I’d eat one meal a day. I’d drink kombucha or tea when I was hungry. I’d lose five pounds for my return to Brooklyn, though I wasn’t sure when that would be.
I had nothing to do but drive. I went to get a salad from a restaurant a few towns over. I was really into a SiriusXM radio station that only played early 2000’s pop hits. Shit like Everclear, Eminem, and Evanescence was all I could digest. On my way, I passed a Sicilian pizza place I loved as a child. All the best birthday parties had pizza from there. It had a crunchy greasy bottom but a cushiony white top. Parmesan was baked into the dough and it was finished with a sweet, thin red sauce. I promised myself nothing but greens tomorrow. I waited twenty-five minutes for one to bake and finished it off in the car in ten.
In eighth grade, I’d bring a can of whole-berry cranberry sauce and a can opener to school as my lunch. Freshman year, I’d eat a pack of powdered donuts and throw them up side by side with my friend Lily. I would see how long I could go without eating and when I failed, I’d slice long lines into my legs and bikini line as retribution, a process of checks and balances. I judged my peers who cut themselves on their arms, so obvious, amateur. Instead, I longed for someone who’d look close enough to notice what I hid.
Sophomore year, I was under ninety-five pounds and unable to gain weight. My size small work uniform billowed around me. A doctor did a number of tests which led to a colonoscopy. They suspected polyps, potentially cancerous; colon cancer runs in my family. The tests provided no answers and I offered none in return. I wasn’t safe in my body, so why would I care what happened to it? The doctor advised me to get more sunlight, exercise and eat salad.
It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I gained weight. It was from drinking. It was evident in my face, puffed out and bloated, like my father’s when he drank. It settled in my middle; my stomach and breasts ballooned out. I went from a B cup to an E within months. I’d consider exercising while researching plastic surgery. I wanted Juvaderm in my lips, cheek and jawline fillers, Botox of course, Lipo for my stomach, and Sculptra® in my ass. I obsessed over before and after pictures of CoolSculpting®. That’s where they freeze the fat you want gone until your skin is bruised and hard. Afterwards, you poop out the frostbitten fat cells and they’re gone forever, they can’t grow back.
I couldn’t stop drinking, so I tried eyelash extensions, fake tans and acrylic nails. I dyed my short blonde hair dark and began to grow it out as long as possible. The bathroom overflowed with nighttime retinol oil, collagen serum, rose water toner, and dry shampoo. My bedside table, once stacked with books, was all bottles – Advil, charcoal pills, probiotics, 5-HTP supplements, vitamin b12. If I was lucky, I had Xanax for the shameovers and Adderall as a chaser, to wake me up. Between bartending and splitting rent with Diego, I had more money than ever. I spent it on frequent extravagant dinners, Sephora binges and slightly different tiny black tank-tops for the forgiving red light of the bar. My boobs were the most valuable thing I possessed. My body became luxury home I didn’t want to spend time inside of.
I suspected the heavier I got, the more Diego liked me. The more weight I gained, the less likely I was to stray, more easily kept under this thumb. In February, I took the five-by-five gold framed mirror out of our bedroom and faced it to the wall. I tried to take a yoga class but all I could hear was my father’s voice in the young woman’s, telling me what positions to do. In her silences I heard the jokes he’d make. When she tried to adjust me I felt his hands on my body. Afterwards, I told Diego about it and he laughed. I’ve never met two people more alike. I didn’t go back.
My mother drove to Brooklyn for the day to help me pack, a week after I’d told Diego I was leaving. I found a new apartment perched above two bars. A fat chance at a fresh start. I’d have to get a third bar job to afford it. It never occurred to me to leave the neighborhood. I’d lived in New York for eight years and moved often, sometimes more than once a year. My mom had never offered to help me move before, and I’d never asked.
She wasn’t feeling well. We went out for ramen, and she couldn’t finish her noodles. Back at the apartment, she couldn’t stand up without bending.
“Mom, I think you have appendicitis. This is exactly how I felt when I had it, remember? And you thought I was just hungover? If that’s what it is, we need to go now. You don’t want to wait as long as I did.” (Everyone else had thought I was just hungover too, so I chased Pepto Bismal with Fernet to get through my shift. Throwing up foamy black at home afterwards, while Diego watched a documentary on Scientology, we finally walked to the hospital at 7am.)
“No, no, I’ll be fine. I just need to lay down for a little bit and then I’ll leave. Just give me a second.” She curled onto the couch with her hands around her waist and closed her eyes.
“Come on, it’s not that big of a deal. We’ll just go and check it out, and if it’s nothing you can leave. I had a great time when I went.” Because of the painkillers, not the doctors, but whatever. I helped her off the couch, put her in the passenger seat of her car and drove up the street to the ER.
I explained her symptoms to the intake nurse while she downplayed them behind me, the opposite of a good hype-man. Wincing in pain, in a hospital gown and hooked up to an IV, she continued to tell me how she would be home by morning.
We waited in the emergency room and I thought about all the other shit I should be doing. As she worsened, my irritation loosened as fear wriggled into its place. She was in a lot more pain than I had been. I looked down and there was a penny facing heads up under her hospital bed. I put it in my pocket.
“Just let me leave and if I still feel bad in the morning, I’ll go to a doctor, I promise.” she bargained as I wheeled her down the hallway to get a CAT scan.
“How are you going to drive when you can’t even walk? You aren’t fucking leaving tonight. Stop.” She stopped talking and looked at her feet. I could see what she must have looked like when she was a young girl. I wanted to hug her. But it was easier to be short than honest.
The CAT scan showed that part of her bowel had twisted on itself and was cutting off blood flow to her intestines. A doctor informed us she would need to have emergency surgery and a surgical team would come by to brief us.
Within minutes, five young doctors crowded around her bed, inside the privacy curtain with us, in navy blue scrubs with matching hats already tied on. It was a tight squeeze and I felt very short, like I was sitting in a chair looking up, instead of standing at the foot of the bed.
“How bad is it? Is this a big deal? Or is it pretty routine?”
“There’s no way of knowing until we open her up. It depends on how long it’s been twisted.”
“Oh, she’s twisted, alright.” The doctors’ faces didn’t budge. If one of them would just crack a smile, it would be enough to keep me sealed in.
“Are you guys the ones doing the surgery? No offense but you all look like you could be my son’s age.” She laughed while I squeezed her foot and bugged my eyes out at her.
The handsome Buddy Holly doctor restrained a smirk. “Yes ma’am, we’ll be performing the surgery, but I can assure you we are all more than qualified to do so.”
“Okay, so it’s going to be fine, right?”
“Like we said, there’s no way of knowing. We just need to get in there and see how far it’s progressed. If it’s advanced, there is the possibility your mom may need a catheter or colostomy bag after this, depending on how much intestine we need to remove. Also, we’re dealing with blocked bowels here, so there’s a big risk of infection post-surgery.”
They pulled out a bunch of consent papers that I signed because she couldn’t hold the pen. I needed another witness. I needed my brother.
While they prepared the operating room, I stepped into the waiting room to call Luke in Rhode Island. “Are you home? Something’s wrong with mom, it’s bad. You gotta drive down now. She’s going into surgery soon, you need to be here. I’m fine, but hurry.” I couldn’t tell if I was being over-dramatic or responsible. I called my mom’s best friend to let an adult, somewhere, know what was going on. She offered to come down, but what could she do? I texted my job’s group chat to tell them I couldn’t come in that night. No one could cover me and I didn’t have the energy to push the issue. If this wasn’t an emergency, then what was? It was only a few blocks from the hospital. I was going to have to at least swing by.
I prepared to run from the operating room to the bar. I looked at my reflection in a window. My shoulders were scrunched high and my skin hard and grey like concrete, holding my breath. I dragged a matte brown lipstick across my cracked lips and pinpricks of blood popped to the surface.
I walked back to my mom and wheeled her to the OR’s waiting room. I put on scrubs and a shower cap and held her hand. I was vibrating the way I do when focusing and not eating gets me all wired. We took a selfie. I thought about all the times I was mean to her and she didn’t deserve it. How could anyone be mean to someone so small? How many times I had felt like this before, like the mom? I was tired of taking care of her but should have done a better job.
I thought about how fucked up it would be if she died and the last thing we did together was take a selfie. Maybe I would never look at the photo again or maybe it would mock me forever. Was taking a picture and giving the thumbs up all I was capable of? Was I going to make even this into a joke? I wanted to tell her that I needed her and had been needing her. But we couldn’t both be scared. She told me if anything were to happen, she didn’t want to be left on life support, and that it was my job to unplug her if it came to that, and I said Okay.
She went into surgery, and I ran to the bar. My coworker assured me she’d be fine alone and told me to leave. I was hesitant. I’d been so flakey with this job and couldn’t lose it. I felt bad but didn’t have time to linger in it. I gave her a fast hug and ran out to the sidewalk. My brother was calling me.
“Luke, where are you? When will you be here? Are you hungry?”
“I’ll be there in like 30 minutes. I could eat.”
“Alright, I’ll grab us something and meet you in the waiting room at the hospital.” I ducked into the health food store on the corner and bought some cold vegan pesto noodles I knew I didn’t like, a few unsweetened green iced teas, beef jerky and two pieces of string cheese.
He arrived around midnight. My mom had been in surgery for a little over an hour. We spread out on the waxy waiting room couches. Luke tried to do homework and I picked at the noodles. I had forgotten he was a vegan now. I hadn’t eaten since lunch but had no appetite. I was excited that I had gone that long without thinking about food. I wondered if I’d maybe even lose a few pounds from stress.
Three hours later, the head surgeon bounced into the waiting room with a grin, scrolling through the camera roll on his phone.
“Do you want to see a picture of what we took out of your mom?” We did. He pulled up a picture of a white circular balloon covered in blood in a stainless steel bowl.
“It’s a part of her large intestine.” What should have been the size of a golf ball had swelled to the size of a honeydew melon.
The worst was over, but I was still scared and struggling to swallow it. I hadn’t seen her yet. There was the chance of infection as she recovered. I was afraid to allow even a little relief. If I cut my tension, I’d surely split in half.
“We had to just take the whole thing out. You’re lucky you brought her in here when you did. If you had waited even a few more hours, she would’ve had a colostomy bag for the rest of her life. If you waited until morning she would have died.” I sucked on my bleeding gums. My teeth felt loose. I imagined pulling them out one by one with pliers. I wasn’t breathing again.
My mother recovered. She went home after a week, and I moved into a one bedroom on Broadway, five blocks from Diego’s. I sat on the hardwood floor in the empty apartment, unable to eat. Nothing appealed to me since my mom’s surgery, or was it since the break-up? I’d been at Diego’s the past two years and never lived alone before. Without food, I was at a loss as to how to soothe myself. I’d gotten my wish — no one was watching me. Wasn’t being alone what I had wanted?
I needed to leave for work. I got up and went into the kitchen. My legs were littered with mushy purple, yellow and blue geodes. I never felt the sharp edges or impacts that caused them so I’d poke at them too make up for it. I ripped off a piece of sourdough from a stale loaf. I used my fingers to roll it into a ball, put it in my mouth, and then took a sip of water to soften it and help me swallow. I repeated until I was satisfied there was enough of a buffer between my stomach lining and the alcohol about to come.
Three months after the break-up and my mom’s hospitalization, I was back in Rhode Island. I stood on the scale, naked, again. 117lbs. I was giddy.
“Mom, I lost forty fucking pounds. Almost forty-five.” It was working. I was disappearing.
“That’s great, sweetie! I’ve lost twenty since my surgery!”
I was skinny but I couldn’t even enjoy it, because now I was dying. I had to be. I hadn’t taken a solid shit once all summer. I didn’t even need laxatives anymore. I was losing something important, but I couldn’t remember what. Where did it go? I imagined tissue turning from bright pink to white inside of me, flaking off the walls of my bowels and falling out of me like soot.
I spent countless hours convincing my therapist I had kidney or liver failure, then begging for reassurance I wasn’t.
“I just know something is wrong. My spleen hurts? Or maybe it’s my gallbladder? I think that’s what’s so sore, is that a thing?”
“If you’re so sure something is wrong, how about you go see a doctor and have them run some tests? That way you can get some answers and some peace of mind.” She didn’t know how hard it was for me to make an appointment, let alone make it to one. It was a miracle I showed up to our weekly afternoon sessions on a semi-regular basis. And that was because of still-drunk-from-the-night-before energy. I’d gone back on my meds when she threatened to stop seeing me because I wouldn’t go to meetings or an inpatient program. I felt like that was more than enough.
Then I got Bar Rot on my fingers and didn’t get the bacterial infection treated until my right pinky doubled in size. The red, hard-shelled boil had to be lanced, drained of its pus, and wrapped. I loved taking antibiotics, imagining my insides being sterilized, like a prescription cleanse. I imagined the pills Lysoling every organ’s nook and cranny. I made it three days into the course before deciding tequila would kill whatever remained.
I went to see a woman in Chinatown to have my back cupped, because I heard it could help with back pain.
“Your liver is swollen, I can feel it.”
She straddled me and punched at my back while I cried. Then she put the cups on my shoulders. My skin turned black as it tightened under the glass.
“Oh, that’s not good. You drink a lot?”
She told me to go home and take a Epsom salt bath and drink nothing but hot water with lemon for the rest of the night. I went to a diner, slurped down a mug of lukewarm water with a lemon wedge in it, then went to meet my friend for pizza and beer. It’d have been rude to cancel.
But I could feel my liver, too. And my kidneys and my intestines, and they were all failing or rotting or infecting each other. I didn’t know how to deviate from routine. I didn’t know how to do anything but bartend. I didn’t know how to work and not drink. I’d wake up at 5pm in a panic, massaging my lower back, where I vaguely believed kidneys to be, drag myself out of bed, slap some makeup on my corpse and run to work to do it all over again.
Two days after the death of a close friend who sold coke, I went to the doctor. That summer the neighborhood saw a slew of overdoses from cocaine and dope laced with fentanyl. Every week there was another memorial service, at another bar to attend. It felt weird to mourn at a bar. Worse when the services were followed with long nights of doing blow, though the weirdness never stopped me. My friends were dying and I mourned with what killed them.
The doctor’s office was in a building behind the hospital my mother had been in. Once we were alone in the room I started crying. Shaking and apologizing, I tried to explain.
“I’m a bartender, I drink a lot, no, like a lot, like way more than anyone should. It’s an occupational hazard, right? That’s what my boss says his doctor tells him. But I’m pretty sure my organs are shutting down. I can’t keep any food in. I haven’t gone to the bathroom normally in months. If I’m not having diarrhea, I’m constipated and using laxatives. I never see the sunlight because I work all night and can’t wake up before the sun goes down. My mom just got out of the hospital and I moved into a new apartment and I’m scared of everything all the time.” I start laughing. So does the doctor.
“Okay, calm down, I’m sure it’s not nearly as bad as you think. How old are you?”
“Baby girl, you’re way too young to be this anxious.” She was generous with her warmth and kind of a MILF. She ordered blood work, a sonogram and for me to see a gastroenterologist.
After rescheduling twice, I returned a month later to discuss the results. I almost didn’t show. My bender hadn’t slowed down. It occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t a bender and maybe it was just my life.
She looked over my chart and chuckled. “I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but your liver is perfect. Everything is perfect.”
“What? Even my kidneys? Are you sure?” I was shocked. And a little disappointed. Was I ever going to stop getting away with this?
“Everything is perfect. Liver, kidneys, no protein in your urine, STD free, even your vitamin D levels aren’t that bad for a little vampire. You’re all good. Just eat a salad and exercise every once in a while, okay? And try to see the sun more.”
She wrote me a script for a month’s worth of Xanax. Something to celebrate.
I’d bought myself a few more years, shadowed by a constant nagging sense I was forgetting something. If I kept drinking on cocaine and Wellbutrin, maybe I’d have a seizure like my doctor warned, and then I’d stop. Maybe my therapist and mom would somehow team up to put me in rehab. Maybe I’d be the next one to overdose. I wanted someone to tell me what I knew. Maybe not today, this year or the next, but one day, there were going to be consequences I wouldn’t be able to fix with a simple test, reassurance or pill. Consequences different than any I’d hoped or prepared for.
Until then, I paid the $75 copay, filled the prescription and skipped the three blocks past the hospital to the bar.