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You have no idea it’s deadly, that it could lead to a kindly, white-haired colon/rectal surgeon sticking gloved fingers into your guts, fingering the distal segment of your bowel, trying to yank your ileum back into place.
So you think about black licorice wheels, thin flat strands of jet-black confection wound in slick spirals. You think about black licorice Scotty dogs, Good & Plenty, and the less-available Snaps, pastel-colored candy-coated licorice treats in square foil bags. You consider the assortment at Fiona’s, a tiny storefront off of Union Square, where clerks in white lab coats mount step ladders to retrieve thick glass canisters from the shelves, one at a time, and scoop and weigh black licorice cats, hats, diamonds, coins, and gummiest of all, Pontefract cakes. You imagine the salted sharpness of farmhouse licorice, the feel of Australian Kookaburra twists against your tongue.
In your years of sobriety, you’ve heard people say in meetings their drug of choice was more. That was yours, too. Enough remains elusive. One is too many, a thousand never enough, a trite saying were it not true. You have been struck by Mara’s arrows.
In Buddhist scripture, Mara is the personification of evil. He is the Tempter who fulfills desire and lures people from the path to enlightenment. Mara’s arrows can bring ecstasy or craving. His arrows can stupefy or emaciate. They can bring death. When Mara tries to tempt Buddha from spiritual enlightenment and offers to turn the Himalayans into gold, Buddha replies that one person’s desire is so insatiable that even two gold mountains would not satisfy. Buddha is able to resist the temptations Mara laid before him. But this is all myth.
On your fiftieth birthday, while returning overdue library books to the West Portal neighborhood branch, you glanced into an ice-cream shop you’d never noticed before and beheld rows of glass containers filled to the brim with black. You walked into the empty shop, the pink-and-white striped wallpaper a reminder of a bygone era, and ordered a two-pound assortment of everything. “It’s my birthday,” you justified to the salesperson. You were short $1.75. The clerk told you to consider it a present. You devoured every piece on the walk to your car.
Even without years of recovery, it would be obvious. You are attempting to fill an emotional emptiness. Craving enough. Being enough. But self-knowledge does not save. Mara obscures “the knowledge of truth.”
One of the few enduring memories of your father. Tagging after him on a Saturday trip to the hardware store, stealing time alone with him, without your siblings or mother. His reward – Don’t tell – your own family-size bag of candy that you didn’t have to share. Maybe it was only once, but it was the prize of prizes, a memory you replay. You were seven or eight then, shortly before he died. Now, you can afford all the candy you want, and pride yourself on your restraint.
You disdain the low-quality tastes and textures of your boys’ Halloween candy; even so, the semi-melted, squished Hershey’s Kisses and mini Three Musketeers beckon each time you pass the stockpile in the shoebox in the kitchen (organized separately from the Skittles, Nerds, and Starbursts). Your sons forget about them. You’ll have to eat them yourself or throw them out, as Christmas treats start pouring in from neighbors, friends and relatives with good intentions. You don’t even have to buy the stuff; it stalks you.
Unless you’re expecting company, or expecting to expect company. You throw a Panettone, the traditional Italian Christmas cake, into the shopping cart, or a box of chocolate-covered Bavarian pretzels, in case guests stop by. (Not unlike buying quarts of vodka or six-packs of beer for company that never came. This is also what alcoholics recount at meetings, laughing in retrospect at the transparent attempts to fool uninterested cashiers, explaining away frequent purchases of booze by fabricating guests and parties during trips to the liquor store first thing in the morning and last thing before closing.)
But food is not booze, cocaine, or pot. You can’t give it up completely. You must handle and consume the thing you can’t control. You wake up, and after showering and brewing tea, start lunches and breakfasts. You peel mangoes, clean and trim strawberries, and for every slice you prepare for someone else, you reward yourself. The ends of cucumbers go in your mouth, as do the less perfect parts of the seeded baguette, and cheddar tomato cheese – anything and everything you touch before wrapping and putting it into a lunch bag. And then it’s time for eggs, or pancakes or crepes. It wouldn’t be as troublesome if your younger kid preferred cereal every morning like his older siblings. This one wants hot breakfasts only, and as he’s only in third grade, you feel it your duty to nourish him before sending him off to school. The leftover egg bits, toast, crepes and waffles cannot go to waste. People somewhere are starving. Here are the mountains of gold.
Then you hear about it.
The Master Cleansing Diet, the secret of Santa Cruz hippies, health enthusiasts, and weight-loss fanatics since the mid-1940s. “Oh, that’s been around for years. Everyone was doing it in the ’80s.” It’s had a resurgence – morning deejays, gym acquaintances, and parents at the kids’ school talk about it. The lemon juice-maple syrup-cayenne pepper drink that you live on for a minimum of ten days (and up to forty) that will detoxify you, body and soul, while delivering every needed nutrient and vitamin imaginable. Personal testimonies from suddenly slimmed-down acquaintances. I have never felt so great. It promises to bring you places you’ve never been.
It does. Subsisting on the Master Cleansing Diet, you sleep more soundly than you have in your life. You stop taking the Prozac you started after your youngest was born and postpartum depression set in. You wake each morning remarkably alert and clear, unable to explain the sensation, as if you had to describe an aroma to someone who had no sense of smell, a color to a person born blind. Your sinuses are bionic, operating at full capacity. You never knew breathing could be so fulfilling. Before even opening your eyes, you are aware of each inhale flowing fully and deeply into your lungs. Your mind is as clear as your gut. But the most remarkable thing: you stop having the anxiety nightmares you’ve had since childhood. You sleep peacefully, with the pure conscience of an unborn baby, and wake to a feeling of well-being.
Maybe I’m just too weak to feel anything, you joke when you mention going off the antidepressants without slipping back into an existential melancholy. The first days of the fast, you experienced headaches and weakness, but since then, you’ve felt even-tempered, impervious to both giddy emotional highs and abysmal bouts of despair. You are in the moment. I’m too weak to feel, you joke again, but consider this newfound freedom from what you long ago coined “functional depression” that has defined your existence.
You squeeze lemons, measure out the organic grade B maple syrup now $23 a bottle, and calculate a tenth of a teaspoon by meting out slightly less than a half a quarter teaspoon. You invest in a new lemon squeezer as overuse has caused the cheap metal one to pop a critical screw. You purchase a two-tablespoon measuring cup with a spout because you’ve lost too much lemon juice and syrup to spillages while concocting the Master Cleanse potion. Your hands are raw from lemon acid and because the price of lemons has skyrocketed, you ask friends with trees if you can take some lemons off their hands, as much of it is left to rot on the tree, or picked over by fruit rats who nibble the skins, leaving the denuded fruit hanging immodestly from the branches.
When you gave up cigarettes, you marveled at the free time that quitting availed you, surprised smoking had used up minutes, hours. But buying cigarettes, unwrapping the cellophane, searching for a lighter or matches, locating a comfortable place to situate yourself, and finally smoking, took up enough time so that when you no longer smoked, you looked for ways to fill the gaps cigarettes had occupied. Not to mention you avoided pool halls and your friend Amy’s apartment, places that all but required smoking.
And so it is while fasting. Before you went places for the food, now you avoid them. A friend who plots tirelessly to shed the twenty extra pounds she gained after having twins acknowledges the perils of venturing into venues with free food. It’s the worst; I don’t bother going to work parties; and bar mitzvahs kill me. Anywhere with a free spread, I’m a goner. Now, on the Cleanse, you find yourself in the kitchen to where you mindlessly gravitate while working from home. What to do if not eat?
And the money you’re saving in grocery bills, and from not buying chips or candy bars from gas-station food marts. You will reward the skinny you with a new shirt or jeans, and not from a discount chain either. You won’t have to camouflage your belly rolls and muffin top; your thighs won’t be bursting against the seams of your jeans. You feel freer than you have for years, and hungrier. But in a powerful way. You have battled Mara and won.
Then ten days are up. You head back to the land of the eating. The fast is broken by consuming fruit juice for two days, and then, on the night of the second day, with a small bowl of broth and a few cooked vegetables to stimulate the gastronomical system. Before you know it, you’re back where you were. You are acutely aware of having not eaten solid food for almost twelve days. You are so thrillingly thin you deserve whatever you want. You walk into a bakery and buy an oven-warmed pastry with an entire apple surrounded by buttery dough. It begins. Eating with impunity, because you have proven that you can go without.
Not unlike the alcoholic who stays dry for one year, or ten, and then drinks herself into a coma the first days off the wagon, or the eighteen-year old junkie who comes back to meetings wearing a colostomy bag because he blew out his insides during a weekend bender after months clean and sober.
It’s almost Christmas. You send your husband a link to the website you found: Internationallicorice.com. You highlight choice selections, include the subject line – It’s never too early to start shopping for the holidays.
Christmas morning and you hear the kids stirring in the living room, investigating what Santa (an entity they, wink-wink, pretend to believe in for their parents’ sake) has left under the tree. You and your husband barely shuffle into the living room after putting on the kettle when your youngest runs to the pile of presents and pulls out a large, wrapped box. “Open this first, Mommy.” And so you do. It is not one, not two, not even three, but seven bags of assorted licorices from Belgium, France, Germany, and the USA. Your sons and husband are practically high-fiving smiles. You are speechless at the quantity; one or two types would have been enough. How happy and proud your family looks at this gift-giving success. You set aside the bounty for now, kissing your husband and sons, thanking them for the best gift ever.
Finally, it’s over – the presents, the cooking, the cleaning, the entertaining, the anticipation and visiting. On the 26th, the day after the fanfare, you return to your obligations. You sequester yourself in the office and finish grading before the semester deadline. Toiling so, less than twenty-four hours after Christmas, you reward your hard work with a dip into the licorice bounty so lovingly procured by your husband, one gift you won’t return for a different size or color.
You should have recognized the signs of a relapse in the making. Twenty-three years of hearing people talk about slipping, about finding themselves drunk again, it’s always the same – isolation, feeling sorry for yourself. And you did throw yourself a pity party. You had to work the day after Christmas. “Boohoo,” you cried inside while marking papers with a game face on.
Afterwards, alone in the kitchen, you grab a bag of black licorice drops, the sugarless variety from Licorice America, conveniently molded into bite-sized (a relative term for the likes of you) drops, soft enough to swallow after only a few chews. You tell yourself you will enjoy only a few, even as you recognize your own lie. You eat one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight… One is too many, a thousand never enough. But this is licorice, not booze. You do not feel full because you are not in your body; you are having a meta-experience, enjoying the physical pleasure without being there. You finish three bags in less than twenty minutes.
The next evening, you are in the emergency room with extreme abdominal cramps. Labor pains were more tolerable, even without an epidural. You are a brave soldier. Though writhing in pain, screaming expletives, and unable to breathe during gut-wrenching spasms, you toughed it out at home for hours. The nurse friend you called for advice observed, “Hmmm, the bottom right quadrant of your abdomen.” “Yes,” she told you over the phone, “go to the hospital.” The ER nurse classifies you as triage, tries to talk you into morphine, and after repeatedly declining and explaining your clean-and-sober status, you relent. As quickly as the syringe goes into the vein, the twisting and turning of you intestines seems to subside. You can almost lay flat.
The doctor orders a CAT scan to rule out appendicitis. You explain that it’s the licorice. “Licorice doesn’t do this,” he assures you. He is barely thirty-nine, handsome and confident. So handsome, you opine to the weeping new mother in the next bed whose pneumonia is keeping her away from her three-day old infant, that his good looks are distracting. The doctor with a surfer’s glow and Ivy League elocution enters the room just as the young mother tells you through the curtain separating your beds that she noticed a wedding ring on his finger. He has the results of the CAT scan.
“It’s the licorice, isn’t it?” you tell more than ask him.
“We don’t know what it is, but it isn’t licorice. And you aren’t going anywhere tonight. You have a telescoping of the intestines, intussusception; it’s more common in small children, rare in adults. The scan shows a lesion on your colon. We’d like to operate in the morning. A puncturing of the intestinal wall is serious.”
“Are you telling me it’s not the licorice?” This is the most important part of his message. They don’t know what it is, but it’s not the licorice. You cannot wait to tell your husband waiting in the lobby. “It isn’t the licorice.” But instead, you text him that you’ll be staying overnight. Can he be there when you get out of surgery the next morning?
Coming out of the operating room, you are groggy but overhear the post-op nurse talking to another nurse. From the corner of your eye, you see her nod in your direction. She says something about the doctor finding a “mass,” in a loud stage whisper, as if you aren’t there, within earshot. You want to report her for lack of professionalism, and try to embarrass her by saying “I can hear you,” but the anesthesia drowns you out.
You wake hours later, and the surgeon comes to tell you that the procedure went well, that they removed the telescoped portion of the small intestine and part of the colon. He confirms what you thought you heard; they found a mass, a possible tumor. In his slight Eastern-European accent, he explains they’ve sent it to histopathology to determine if it’s benign or cancerous. He says this as if reporting a 50% chance of rain, his lack of emotion comforting. They will know more when the pathology report comes back.
You lie in bed with a feeding tube, being poked and monitored, and watching all the CSI reruns you ever wanted to watch, but only in snippets because the morphine drip makes you sleepy. You suck on ice and let the nurses baby you, though you are older than most of them and not afraid to insist on taking a shower once the feeding tube is out.
On the third day, the report comes back. They found an unknown substance, determined not to be cancerous. A mass, the report says, of “black tattoo-type pigmentation.” It had to be the licorice. But the highly-esteemed, Hungarian-born surgeon guffaws at your insistence. It’s not licorice, he maintains.
“But it’s black. Black-black. Like licorice.” How can you make him see? “What else could it be?”
“Licorice is black?” The experienced internist sounds surprised. “I thought it was red.”
He does not eat candy, or at least licorice, or at least black licorice. He is a renowned colon/rectal surgeon, one of the best, according to your father-in-law, a retired cardiologist. But apparently he doesn’t know much about licorice.
By day five in the hospital, you are the thinnest you have been since having kids. People visit you, massage your feet, bring you flowers and concern. Your eldest son lays on the bed with you, the most intimate display of physical affection he has shown since late puberty. Your husband is handling the home and the boys’ schedules. You are not be permitted to do even light housework for a month. They cut you open, took stuff out, and gave you pain meds that your sponsor and the program deem appropriate, and that you take only as prescribed. Friends you didn’t realize you had organize meals to bring to your family. Your sister-in-law brings you two camisoles to wear with lounge pants in the hospital and you can’t believe how slender you look in them. You want for nothing, desire nothing other than this, where you are right now. How relaxed you are. This is enough. You have enough. Are enough.