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To say I live in an unruly body presupposes that the body and the mind are separate things: I inhabit this place, rather than I am this place. This separation is something I’m working to dismantle for and in myself, though that separation served me very, very well for as long as my body allowed.
So why dismantle it? Because it is the challenge I repeatedly haven’t faced. Because I have proven almost everything else to myself, and now it’s time to do the really hard work. Because other women have come forward and said aloud what happened to them, and they’ve been finally and vehemently believed, so why not me too?
Also, because I have a vomit problem. One that, up until Americans made a sexual predator of our president, I was able to write off as only mildly inconvenient. I’d even given it a cute name: The Crucet Curse. All the women in my family experience our stress in our digestive tracts, though for everyone else, the trouble (when it comes) is at the other end. My system may have it backwards, but it’s still there, the curse: something so part of who I’ve become that throwing up when something nerve-wracking approaches is — to those who know and love me — just that weird thing Jennine does.
I should say that I’ve been told my work is sometimes too gross, too visceral. But when vomit comes up — pun intended — in something I’ve written, I know I’m writing from the honest center of myself. The squeamish might want to stop reading here.
My vomit problem began late in high school, during a date that went very badly. Me-Now thinks back to this night — the dimly lit booth, the spiral-bound menus splayed open on the table, the cloud of cologne wafting across the table — and wants to grab Me-Then by her too-bony shoulder and say, Let’s get the fuck out of here. This is going to get much worse.
I know that girl wouldn’t move. I know Me-Then would think Me-Now is very weird, living far from the ocean and convinced she must wear tights under every dress to feel safe. Me-Then would be shocked that Me-Now has yet to produce any children. Me-Then would have harsh things to say about the state of Me-Now’s hair.
Since that night and the traumas for which it paved the way, my body has responded to certain anxieties with a reaction almost comically predictable: I barf. I walk to a restroom, registering the whole way there how genuinely calm my mind feels, and then, just as calmly, with what feels like a kind of control, I vomit like my life depends on it. It used to just be things that made sense: I barfed before every exam in college, before every show in which I performed as a comedian. But I also barf before I have to administer an exam, sympathy barfing on behalf of my students. I barf when tax documents show up in the mail. I barf when I’m forced to make phone calls. I always know when it needs to happen, and I always, always feel better after.
Between hurls, I usually say, without thinking about it, I hate this, or, I hate myself. And sometimes, it’s I hate you.
When I was a little girl, my mother and grandmother often sat me on a kitchen counter and made me drink Malta soda with condensed milk stirred into it—high-calorie stuff meant to fatten my skinny ass up. Engórdate, they commanded. It didn’t work: I drank and drank, developed a love for the stuff, but once inside, the stuff never took. I couldn’t make my body do what they wanted. As a girl on that date years later, the guy who brought me to the Cheesecake Factory — the nice one in Coconut Grove with the jacked-up prices — let me order that fucking strawberry lemonade and whatever I wanted for dinner. As the waitress went away with our dessert orders, the guy leaned over our table and gave me those words — I let you order that fucking strawberry lemonade and whatever you wanted for dinner — and then he laughed. He said, Don’t worry, it’ll cost you later.
I did and didn’t know what he meant. I was 16. Maybe he was kidding. He was 19. I excused myself and went to the bathroom, looked at myself in the mirror, asked myself, Do you want this? My body knew its answer immediately. It said no: I threw up in the sink, my inaugural vomit. My mind, too, said no: I tried to figure out a way to get home that wouldn’t embarrass anyone — this was before teenagers carried cellphones, and in Miami, where public transportation left (and still leaves) much to be desired. My mind worked and worked to figure out a way to keep my body safe. My mother had warned me the night before that good Cuban girls go out with chaperones, but fine, okay, she would tell my dad I was going out with friends because this guy did seem so nice and he was so handsome and he came into our house and looked my mother in the eye and she knew then he’d never hurt me. Besides, she knew his mother. My mind was trying to make sense of the guy she met with the guy I was about to meet. As I ran water in the sink and, with paper towels, picked up chunks too large for the drain, my body somehow already knew it would need to go to extremes to keep me safe. And that it would fail: The mind let the body down and made it do something it didn’t want to do.
I ignored what the body told me for a long time after that.
In eighth grade, my history class went on a field trip to Thomas Edison’s home in Fort Myers. It was on that tour that I first heard this quote: “The chief function of the body is to carry the brain around.” I agreed with Edison for as long as I could.
The other day, I yelled at my body out of nowhere. I had the familiar throw-up warning feeling (a mouth suddenly full of saliva, a guttural churning), but I wasn’t about to do anything important — I was only working on the thing that would later be important, the thing that would end up going so well my limbs would tingle afterward with the pleasure of knowing I’d fucking killed it. But this hadn’t happened yet. I was still only preparing. The thing was three days away. I’d never had the vomit come this early in the process. This was new and not okay, but it’s proof I’ve been working hard to face things I normally refuse to admit even happened. It’s proof that I’m listening to this unruly body in ways I hadn’t before.
But I yelled at it anyway. Through a clenched jaw I didn’t register until moments later, I told my body that if it kept this up I would end it. I will end you, I spat at my fists while standing in my home office, and I meant it so much that I started crying, beating those fists on my thighs and saying, I hate you, I hate you.
While I don’t think I was talking to myself, my mind has for too long believed the lies it invented, lies echoed in our culture: This was not a big deal; it was your own fault anyway; it didn’t even matter; it doesn’t matter. Your people have gone through worse — your parents left a country behind. Your pain is nothing. You got off easy. So you throw up sometimes. No one has to know. That’s nothing. Look at how stable you are. Look at the books you’ve made, the worlds you’ve built there—aren’t they proof that what happened wasn’t so bad? That what happened isn’t even worth telling?
But my body knows better. It disrupts this dangerous narrative in the most grotesque way it can. It empties itself: the Crucet Curse turned upside down.
And then a version of the you sneaking out between retches won the Republican nomination, and the curse stopped being something I could dismiss with a cute name. My body’s unruliness escalated, would keep escalating if I kept ignoring it. It revolted until I accepted that its unruliness is the very thing that would save me.
My body still has a lot to teach me. I’m still learning, week by week, to listen. I’m told it will get worse before it gets better. This week, I’m sitting in this body and accepting it as an organism that sometimes vomits in self-defense — I am, perhaps, a sea cucumber. Or maybe a turkey vulture with an impressive 10-foot spew.
But to become this unruly body, to feel it as my whole self, looks eventually — I think — like this: I keep evolving, from cucumber-vulture into octopus, my brain decentralized, neurons buzzing through every arm. I am a mollusk without a shell. I have three beating hearts. I’ve been known to walk on land when I have to. I teach others like me to open jars when no one is looking. I jet around on my own ink, its disguise my best form of propulsion. The ink is mixed up with every disgusting thing inside me. My soft body throws up nothing else.