By five in the morning my mattress was deflated enough that my side was on the floor. The dawn light was coming in and while I listened to a pickup idling at the intersection outside I contemplated how things had gone so wildly off course.
I left London with no answers as to what was gradually destroying me. The walk was on an indefinite pause.
I knew catching an illness was part of the risk I took when walking around the world, so I wasn’t upset, but all the momentum I’d built over two years of walking was gone. Whenever I returned to the road it would be like starting from scratch.
For now I was back in New Jersey, in my parents new apartment, waiting for my endoscopy and colonoscopy three weeks away.
The night before I’d been up six times to sit on the toilet. A worst of the bacterial spasms were gone after a CT scan in the ER revealed bacterial colitis and I was prescribed antibiotics. The reason the colitis wasn’t caught earlier is because it didn’t exist earlier. My body had been trying to rid itself of the virulent bacteria so long that it began attacking all bacteria indiscriminately. My body attacked its own colon and intestines.
The oddly beneficial result of that was there was finally some symptom noticeable in a scan that pointed to a malicious bacteria.
So the bad bacteria were gradually being rid from my body, but the colitis I’d developed was probably more painful than the spasms I was having periodically before.
The first symptoms of the colitis began during my final days in London. I ran to a toilet and threw up a cuban sandwich. Over the months of stomach pains, that cuban was the first thing I’d thrown up. It felt as if there was a blockage just before my stomach. I could feel the cuban unable to fit then come roaring back up.
After that the vomiting increased alarmingly fast – quickly turning from every other day to nearly every meal.
Intertwined with the increase in vomiting was a worsening burning sensation. Everything I ate seemed to be grating exposed flesh as it went down. If my body didn’t reject the food then I was bloated and in agony for two hours as the food was processed.
I was losing weight and energy. By the time I returned home I was a hundred and fifty-five pounds and a walk to the park was an absolute odyssey.
At six I pushed myself off the deflated inflatable mattress because I could no longer resist the urge to sit on the toilet.
It always felt like I needed to go, but I knew if I sat there I’d be sitting for twenty minutes with no movement.
For a minute I stared at the toilet, but I resisted the urge to sit on it. Instead, with my barefoot, I slid out a scale from under a storage basket and stepped on it. The numbers flashed zero then went to a hundred a forty-one.
The weight loss was as steady as clockwork.
I moved to the mirror to assess myself. My hair was wild and long and seemed to be thinning quicker than usual. I tried to depress a cowlick with some water and my palm but it only flicked back into place. I stood back. My eyes were sunken, with deep bags below them. I was pale. My bones held a sparse amount of muscle on them, but with absolutely no definition. I could see my ribs easily.
I tucked the scale beneath the basket then dressed in gym shorts and a hoodie and went to the fridge to reluctantly remove an ensure.
The apartment was quiet and I kept it that way as my mom was asleep. My dad was out for a walk around the river with Savannah. When they returned my mom would probably wake from the noise and that’d be fine.
I cracked open the Ensure and gazed down at the pink liquid sloshing about inside the aluminum container. Two-hundred and sixty calories. Eight of these would make over two thousand calories. That was the goal for the day.
Eating was becoming an act of willpower. Food scared me. I no longer saw foods as their flavor or texture, but as delayed pain.
In a moment of strength I chugged the Ensure. Afterwards I dropped into a chair along the island as though I’d just come out the other side of a great battle. I pushed the empty bottle to the opposite end of the island then laid my head in my folded arms. I was too tall for the way the seats sat at the counter and my back was now too weak to hold myself upright for more than a few minutes.
The door behind me opened and Savannah bolted in. At the sight of Savannah I was suddenly felt well enough to move.
I crouched to greet her. As we always did, Savannah pressed her head into my stomach and I pressed my head against her side and rubbed her belly.
“Did you have a good walk?” I asked rhetorically.
“She almost knocked over Fred today,” said my dad. “She jumped on him. He weighs about hundred pounds.”
My dad hung the leashes and his jacket. He was tan and big boned and looked more akin to a boat captain on the Mediterranean than the solar developer he was.
My dad moved to the other side of the island to set a kettle on the stovetop. “How you sleep last night?” he asked.
“I got a few hours, maybe.”
“I heard you up.”
“How was the walk?”
“It was good. Lots of people out. Savannah saw a bunch of her friends, threw up from drinking too much water.”
I gave Savannah a pat on the side then returned to my seat at the counter. I did my best to look my dad in the eye but was already too exhausted to keep myself seated upright. I laid my head on my folded arms and listened to my dad talk about how Fred still does yoga everyday and how he’s been doing it for fifty years now. It was relaxing to listened to him. My old boss once told me, “Your dad could talk to a brick wall.”
That aspect of him was reassuring now. Listening to him made it feel as though I were doing something.
But while he went on the Ensure I’d drunk was being tested by my fearful body. It was what I expected now – twenty minutes after eating I became nauseous and my body would try to reject the food.
If I gave it in and vomited there’d be relief. If I managed to get the food beyond the first stage of nausea I’d get about thirty minutes of comfort, followed by two hours of such uncomfortable bloating that if I moved suddenly or smelled the wrong thing I’d be running to the toilet.
But, if I managed to get through that initial nausea, and if I pushed beyond those two hours of immobility and stomach pain, then I’d be rewarded by a thirty minute session in the bathroom where my internal bleeding became external.
As my dad told a story about Savannah trying to drink from the river then slipping and falling in he slid a piece of buttered toast in front of me.
I’d made it through the nausea from the Ensure and was onto the bloated phase.
“I had an Ensure already,” I said, putting my head back down.
It was quiet between us for a minute. I heard my dad turn off the gas, lift the kettle, and pour the boiling water into his translucent green mug.
I realized I’d forgotten to write my weight down.
“Could you get my phone from the living room?” I asked my dad.
He sat the kettle down then got my phone and sat it in front of me.
I opened Evernote.
10/19 – 143.2
10/20 – 142.4
10/21 – 142.8
10/22 – 142.0
I entered 10/23 and my latest weight: 141.6.
I sat my phone face down then pulled the buttered toast towards me. I ate half of it before pushing the rest away.
After a good while trying to collect myself I went to the office where my deflating mattress rested. I deflated the mattress completely then curled and shoved it in the corner.
Savannah peaked in to sniff the air then turned around and trotted back into the kitchen. Her nails clinked against the tile as she went.
I saw through the office doorway my slice of toast half eaten on the kitchen island.
Even on days when I managed to put down two thousand calories I was still losing weight, so what was the point of eating if it only brought pain?
My endoscopy and colonoscopy were three weeks away. I wasn’t allowed treatment for the colitis until then because if I had an infection and was given steroids then the infection would only worsen. The doctor had to know what type of colitis I had before prescribing anything.
In the meantime, I could do little more for myself than survive.
I returned to the kitchen and carried the plate of toast into the living room and sat it on the table in front of the sofa. Then I sat on the ground with my legs under that table and my back against the sofa.
Atop the sofa was an alpaca blanket I’d sent my parents from Perú. It was beige with large brown alpacas patterns. In Cusco, Perú most vendors had blankets labeled one hundred percent alpaca which were noticeably ersatz to the touch. It took me hours to find a blanket truly made of alpaca. And even after finding a true alpaca blanket the vendor selling it tried to swap the one I asked for with a different blanket as I glanced away.
Each time I held the blanket that memory played in my head. And that memory brought about related memories, like sleeping in a hut beside the Nazca lines and the feeling of sand pelting my legs during a windy day in the desert.
I pulled the blanket of the sofa and shrouded myself in it. The half-eaten toast before me stirred only dread so I tightened the blanket around me.
Outside the apartment the autumn winds forced groans from the old trees and inside the apartment Savannah napped on the cool floor and my mother slept in her warm bed and my father stood checking his emails and I clenched my eyelids to the pain of digestion and tried to remember those days when I was four thousand miles away.