The Right to Eat
by JT Torres
Dr. Pepper or her gall bladder, one of them had to go. Her doctor explained the option of eliminating soda and other acidic, fatty, greasy foods and adopting a diet of cucumbers and broccoli—foods that strengthen the stomach’s lining and the digestive tract. “Your gall bladder is currently operating at about 20%,” he said, and then went on to stress that a reversal of biliary dyskinesia and complete relief of epigrastric pain could not be guaranteed without surgery. My sister, Dezy, faced a decision that compromised her identity at its core, both physiologically and metaphysically. She had been taught, by our CPA father, that life is about costs and fluctuating supplies based on demand. Now, Dezy had to decide whether she would pay the new cost of enjoying her favorite beverage. Having a favorite, mind you, is a big deal in my family. Dezy saw it as her right as an American, echoing our father’s famous saying, “He who has a surplus has the benefit of favorites.”
The panic that settled in Dezy’s already unstable mind came not from the pain she had been feeling the past couple months but from the prospect of giving up the sweet, syrupy goodness, the pungent aromas of peppermint pouring out of a single can of Dr. Pepper. As a child, the substance was as verboten as dope, classified by our parents as a Schedule 1 drug with no medicinal benefits. Dezy didn’t understand why her parents would criminalize something that lined supermarket aisles, sparkled on TV commercials, and tasted like the gods’ ambrosia. Why should she be denied what is publicly available? Therefore, she made a pact with her soul that when she had her own house her refrigerator would be stocked from drawer to shelf with shiny, sweating burgundy cans of the liquid she wouldn’t live without.
She learned to trust the marketplace over her family, for only in the marketplace can any desire be fulfilled, at a price.
And so she considered the price, as explained by her doctor. “Remove the gall bladder, undergo a brief period of recovery in which you will have to remain on a strict diet, and then reintroduce more volatile foods, such as soda. I can guarantee, in this scenario, that the functionality of your gall bladder will not be a factor, since, of course, you will no longer have a gall bladder.” The doctor laughed, but then swallowed his smile at Dezy’s failure to appreciate his joke.
“So the problem,” Dezy asked, her legs going numb from the firm chair, “is the gall bladder itself?”
The sterile paper covering the chair crinkled under her shifting weight. Dezy, though bone skinny, felt heavy with the weight of a bowling ball pressing against her intestines.
“Indeed,” her doctor answered.
“Then remove it,” she said. And in that instant she felt a sudden release. Not from the pain twisting her stomach, but from the burden of having a very essential freedom taken away from her. She could survive an operation; in fact, she had already resolved herself to doing so. Hell, she had had her wisdom teeth pulled when she was fourteen. One operation is like any other. She could survive without auxiliary parts of her body. What she couldn’t do: renounce her sovereignty and not eat and drink what she damned well wanted to.
My sister the proud American: She votes Conservative in every election. She listens to Toby Keith and cries every time he mentions the word “soldiers.” She watches football every Sunday. The Star-Spangled Banner hangs from a post over her garage. Her kids are in gifted programs. Her husband is a manager. She is in the PTA. She supports the troops. Her last name is Blanco. Her last name before that was Torres. Her mother is Cuban, her father Columbian. She refuses learning Spanish on principle.
She buys the 24-pack of Dr. Pepper in sets of two, a habit she picked up from our father, who would buy cartons of cigarettes and stash them around the house. I remember being three years old and finding a carton tucked behind my Ninja Turtle toy box. Another time I found one under the matt in Thumper’s crate. Thumper was our Yorkie. My father used to say he felt more relaxed knowing he had so many caches than he did when he actually smoked a cigarette. When he had to quit, following a hernia surgery, he still bought cartons and hid them. Although he never returned to smoking, he couldn’t stand the thought of being denied possession. And so Dezy stocks her pantry and fridge with Dr. Pepper while her two kids have to come to my mother’s house to find chicken or juice.
My mother raised the issue with her once. Only once.
Two months before the surgery, during the incipient stages of Dezy’s growing discomfort, her mother said to her. “My house isn’t a restaurant.” This had been after a day of babysitting both my niece and nephew. “The kids told me they don’t have any food at your house.” Dezy, her face flushed as it had been the past week or so, sat at the table and gasped for air with one hand pinching the side of her stomach. At the time, she did not know that there was anything wrong with her. What she blamed on a cramp from a long day stocking shelves at Team Disney, a store that sold sports-themed apparel for the Dizzy Donalds, the Maestro Mickeys, and the Goaltending Goofys, was actually golfball-sized gallstones that blocked her bile ducts and threatened to rupture her gallbladder. What she blamed on a long day’s work in one of Orlando’s happiest kitsch shops was actually an activation of pancreatic enzymes that inflamed the area around her intestines and caused intra-abdominal hypertension.
She took in a deep breath and felt a razor-sharp string tighten around her gut.
“I already look after them all day while you’re at work,” my mother continued, as oblivious to Dezy’s discomfort as was Dezy. “Can’t you, I don’t know, pack their lunches? I have to go shopping now in order to make dinner.”
My mother collected my nephew’s homework and stuffed it in his backpack. Then she picked up my niece’s clothes, festooned on the back of the couch. Without once looking at Dezy—my mother always felt a shameful guilt after scolding one of her children—she walked to the patio door, opened it, and called her grandkids out of the pool.
After they dried themselves and came inside, Dezy, who hadn’t moved from the dining room chair, yelled at them for “playing the victim.”
“From now on you wait until you get home to eat,” she said.
“I like Nanny’s food,” my niece said.
Dezy stood up and the small patches of pink that had lingered in the fleshiest part of her cheeks vanished. She turned hospital-white all over. She grabbed an arm from each child and stormed out of the house.
Later on that night my mother called me and expressed her concern for my sister. “She’s been getting mad so easily,” she said.
“Next time you should ground her.”
I didn’t think anything was seriously wrong with my sister. It had always seemed to me that she lived a life without consequence. She dropped out of college to work for Disney because that’s “always been my dream.” Despite making less as a guest services representative than the hungover high school student in charge of the emergency break button on Space Mountain, she and her husband managed to buy a townhouse close to my parents’ house. She went on to have two children and then bought a pedigree beagle, all on an hourly salary and periodical help from my mother. It had always seemed as long as she did what she wanted, life would never catch up.
I called my sister once before the surgery. Because I had just recently jumped on the organic bandwagon that swept the nation like yellow Livestrong wristbands, I suggested that she change her diet instead of having the procedure. I recommended she read articles proclaiming the benefits of a diet sans processed foods. I also tried echoing some of T. Colin Campbell’s arguments that chronic illnesses can be linked to our eating habits. She firmly responded that she would not live her life in fear, as if she were giving in by not having surgery. “I’m not going to be one of those people that watches the news then hides under my covers,” she said. “First Muslim terrorists, then socialist college professors, and now processed foods?”
I could hear the uncertainty in her voice. Her tone made a faint call for me to argue with her, prove her wrong. Tell her that she should be afraid. Before I could, however, she apparently detected the same tone betraying her words and said, “Besides, according to my doctor our bodies don’t even need a gall bladder.”
When the gall bladder is working correctly: The liver manufactures bile, which is used to help in the digestion of fatty foods. The bile is secreted from the liver cells into small bile ducts, which join together to form the common hepatic duct. The bile then goes into the gallbladder where it is stored and concentrated for later use. When you eat a meal with high fat content, say, condensed milk straight from the can (one of my sister’s favorites), a hormone called cholecystokinin is secreted. It causes the gallbladder to contract and also causes relaxation of a small valve at the end of the common bile duct. This allows bile to flow into the duodenum and mix with food for digestion. After the cholecystokinin effect wears off, the valve closes, the gallbladder relaxes, and the cycle is repeated. The gallbladder stores the bile to be deposited into the small intestine to help breakdown fat. It also acts as a reservoir that uptakes excess bile when there is pressure in the bile ducts.
After her doctor provided the ultimatum—Dr. Pepper or gall bladder—Dezy found solace in the company of strong-willed friends. Anne and Claire, both of them neighbors and mothers of children who attended the same school as Dezy’s children, came over to her townhouse. Each held a shoulder as Dezy cried onto wilted hands. Life, for her at that moment, became a steady process of losing certain parts of her body. At age fourteen went the wisdom teeth. At age twenty-one went the tonsils. At age twenty-seven went the ACL in her right knee. The gradual loss of her self sent her into an existential confusion, since her identity relied so much on the individual liberty and ownership promised by the movies, songs, and magazines of the 1980s to the 1990s. She had every song with the lyrics “I want (Insert: Candy, Money, to Be a Cowboy)” memorized. What did she know of songs of loss?
Anne, a freckled-face woman with the proud jaw of Southern gentries, told Dezy she’d feel better once she started talking. Claire hummed. Her voice, soft as the evening breeze, lifted a few strands of Dezy’s long, frizzy hair.
Dezy felt surrounded by love. She told them the news.
“Honey,” Anne said. “That’s nothing. Neither of us have our gall bladders.”
“Neither does my husband,” Claire said. Even when she spoke she carried a melody.
“It hasn’t changed a thing about our lives.”
“What about the recovery period?” Dezy wanted to know. She lifted her swollen eyes and waited for any excuse to restore hope. Anything would have done.
“Honey,” Anne started and squeezed Dezy’s shoulders. “I ate a bag of Doritos the night after the surgery.”
“You don’t have any regrets?” Dezy asked. “I mean, that’s an organ you never get back. What if I need it at some later point in my life?”
“Life’s about sacrifices. You sacrifice aspects of your life that prevent you from getting what you want. This is the new millennium. You have every right to have what you want.” The tone of Anne’s voice changed somehow, as if inadvertently weighed by the careless intrusion of anger.
Claire hummed. The sweet sound caromed off the tile floors and onto the beige walls decorated with photos of Dezy’s family. Photos of the beach. Photos of the townhouse on the day they moved in. Photos of her children rummaging under a Christmas tree. Photos of a life worth living, a life worth wanting.
“Get the surgery. When it’s over, Claire and I will take you out for pizza and margaritas. We’ll call Ruth and Evelyn. They both had their gall bladders out last year. On the same weekend, I think. Maybe there was a special going on. They said the doctor was drop-dead-gorgeous. How’s yours in the looks department?”
“You promise it’s a safe procedure?” Dezy trembled. She wanted Anne to continue holding her until her husband returned home from work.
She tried thinking about layers of cheese on a Chicago thick crust and the acidic kick of a José Quervo-mixed margarita. “Either way,” Claire said, “we’re going out. Are you willing to watch us enjoy the foods we enjoy and not do a thing?” Dezy suddenly felt pressured, cornered in. The consolation she sought turned into a threat. However, she couldn’t let her friends down. She couldn’t let herself down. She shook her head.
Both Anne and Claire smiled and wrapped their arms around Dezy’s pale, trembling body.
“Now, as for your doctor,” Anne said in a much lighter tone, as if she were talking to a child, “is he handsome or not?”
Six years later, my niece had a similar choice: increase her dietary intake of fibers or remove her appendix. The way her doctor explained it to Dezy: the pain your daughter feels is a corollary of bowels blocked in her intestines. If her appendix were to rupture from the pressure, the damage could be detrimental. The quickest way to alleviate her of the pain is by performing surgery. It isn’t quite appendicitis. We could try to treat it with antibiotics, but she would have to drastically change her diet in order to stand even the slightest chance of avoiding a laparoscopic appendectomy. On the other hand, if you do go through with the procedure, she will be back on her feet eating what she pleases in no longer than a month.
This doctor was handsome.
On the way home, Dezy talked it over with Kerstyn. The hot Florida sun pushed through the CR-V’s tinted windows and pressed both mother and daughter against their seats. Even with the A/C on full blast, both felt a blanket of sweat, the loss of oxygen.
“Should I have Nanny make broccoli for dinner?” Dezy asked. She took one hand off the steering wheel and held it over her side, over the scar left by the choice she had made for fearless freedom.
“I don’t like broccoli,” Kerstyn said. Her obstinate voice felt far too familiar to Dezy. An echo from a recent past. A vague memory of a proud history. “I’m not eating broccoli.” Kerstyn was determined as hell to beat her condition, to conquer her body, weakness by weakness.
“The doctor said you don’t have to have surgery,” Dezy offered in a tone that suggested not even she believed what she was saying.
“I want my appendix out. I’m tired of it hurting. I can’t dance. I can’t laugh. I can’t do anything. I want it out.” Kerstyn was twelve and already knew what she wanted in life. Tears welled behind the pale blue of her eyes. Her cheeks turned as red as her cherry-stem lips. She kept her arms crossed over her sweat-soaked stomach.
Dezy slowed down and pulled onto the right-hand lane. She needed time to negotiate. If she arrived at our mother’s house before coming to a settlement with her daughter, she knew she would lose. Perhaps because she realized her own inconsistencies but wouldn’t acknowledge them, perhaps because she feared making those inconsistencies public, but Dezy could not confront her children in front of our mother.
“You can’t live off fried chicken fingers and chocolate.”
This was precisely what Kerstyn lived off.
“You need to eat greens.”
“You never eat greens.”
Dezy came to a stop at a yellow light. The car behind her honked his horn.
“We’re talking about your diet.”
“You had surgery. We can put my appendix in a jar with your gall bladder and send the jar out to sea.”
“Even if you get the surgery, you’re going to have to start eating greens.”
“I don’t like vegetables. They taste like garbage. What’s the point of eating if I can’t eat what I like?”
When the light turned green, Dezy felt the sudden urge to floor it, to end the drive as quickly as possible and return to the typical relationship she shared with her daughter—best friends. They never fought. They rarely disagreed. The tension nauseated Dezy and confused Kerstyn. Throughout the CR-V, the churning air from the A/C swallowed the settling silence.
By the time they reached my mother’s house, the only other time they spoke was when Kerstyn asked her mother to keep Nanny in the dark about the diagnosis. Eager to finally be on her daughter’s side, Dezy agreed.
For dinner, they had fried chicken and pasta. For desert, they had Oreos crumbled over chocolate ice cream.
My mother didn’t find out about Kerstyn’s condition until a week before the surgery. I had come down from Georgia to support my niece. It was the first time she was going to receive anesthesia. We ate fettuccini at my sister’s townhouse for dinner to “celebrate.” Surgery had become a festivity to the people in my family—the disburdening of vital organs a modern parallel to ancient purgative rituals.
Only once did my mother challenge my sister’s reasoning.
“Why didn’t you encourage a healthier diet?” she asked.
“I didn’t want to force her to do something she didn’t want to do.”
I felt angered by my sister’s response. My mother had, after all, raised us on spinach, carrots, fish, asparagus, etc. We were only allowed junk food once a week. At times during my childhood, I remember calling my mother a diet-dictator, citing America’s claim that we were in a “free country.”
Why couldn’t my sister realize what my parents tried to teach us, that freedom still requires self-restraint, that freedom and austerity aren’t inherently opposed but, actually, co-dependent?
I went into the kitchen to refill my glass of water and when I opened the fridge the sheen of immaculate maroon cans, each deliciously reflecting the stale white refrigerated light, caught my attention. I stared at each can—the smooth aluminum curving with the grace of a midnight gibbous. Every shelf on the door stocked full of Dr. Pepper reminded me that my sister’s refrigerator was, at the cost of all else, including personal health, a cache of the American dream.
|JT Torres received his MFA from Georgia College & State University. He teaches creative nonfiction for Johns Hopkins University's summer program, Center for Talented Youth, and teaches composition during the rest of the year at Front Range Community College. His stories and essays have appeared in The Rambler, The Florida Review, Fiction Writer's Review, Broken Plate, and The Greensilk Journal Photo by Karen Badia.|