Acid Reflux

by | Fiction, Issue #6, Issues

I was thirteen when I did it for the first time.
Thirteen had always been my lucky number. Other kids shied away from it, claiming that it would bring misfortune.
I wasn’t one of them.
My school ID number contained 13 somewhere in the long string of numbers. I was ranked the 13th best student in a class of 50 kids, the mediocre type of student that my parents couldn’t bear to brag about.
It began when my age finally hit 13. The early stage of puberty had long since become a best friend of mine, giving me irregular menstruation and a shit-ton of hormones. I was overweight. I was fat. My inner thighs touched when I walked and my pants always started to rip there, too; even the most durable textile couldn’t make a comparable enemy.
There were words, comments, benevolent suggestions and ill-intended advice. Words telling me that I had to stop eating like this, that I had to stop being like this and practice more self-discipline during mealtimes.
Words telling me that I didn’t deserve to eat; if I ate, then I didn’t deserve to live.
The 13th year of my life started with me attempting to diet, and all due efforts ended on the ‘attempt’ part. I couldn’t study with an empty stomach, and that was honestly more detrimental—being a somewhat good student was the only thing I could give back to my parents. If I fucked that up, I really wouldn’t deserve to live after all.
It was a casual conversation with my deskmate that gave me the sudden enlightenment. She watched me devour a whole bowl of rice, and commented plainly, “I don’t understand how you can eat this much without throwing up.”
I answered joyously, “You know what? I should try throwing up.”
So I did. Shoving two fingers down my throat like that was the most normal thing a middle schooler would do after a meal. Causing nothing but a violent gag reflex. Coughing. Dry vomiting. Not a single piece of food was able to crawl back up my esophagus.
“Nan-nan!” my mom called from the outside. “Is everything alright?”
I washed up quickly and told her that I’d choked on my own spit. It was believable. My mom laughed at me; I was just being my usual clumsy self.
I tried again the next day. The fit for two fingers felt less cramped this time, but the gag reflex was still there, turning me into a crying, gagging mess before I could properly vomit.
No one was home. Not a single living creature was there to care.
Within two weeks—13 days total, ah-ha—I figured out the right way to make myself puke, efficiently and effectively. The fingers needed to be guided down rather than pushed in. The throat needed to be relaxed, in the same way I assumed an adult woman would prepare herself before giving a blow job. Liquid needed to be inside the stomach to make the purging easier.
I was happy with the gulp of half-digested vomit exiting my body. It felt like a heavy weight had come off my shoulders. One wave after another. My stomach felt lighter. I felt lighter.
All I ever wanted was to be lighter.
But the feeling of lightness was short-lived. It startled me when my vomit didn’t seem to come to a stop. The solids were long gone, and what I couldn’t help puking out now tasted sour, smelled sour, dirty liquids gushing out of my mouth like a broken fire hydrant.
It must have been my stomach acid.
Opening my eyes wide, I saw the acid reflux making a huge mess on my fingers, dripping into the toilet bowl and joining the food excretion. It was acidic, abrasive, and corrosive. My throat and mouth and lips started to burn like a motherfucker.
I pulled out my fingers in a panic. This wasn’t supposed to hurt my hand. I’d read about bulimia and seen my fair share of thinspo. I knew about Russell’s sign. But this type of pain—a pain that felt like my fingers were being consumed by my own stomach acid—was nowhere to be found in my memory or search history.
It started with the tip, melting down like a long, slim candle, or a droopy penis that I hadn’t yet gotten a chance to see or touch. Flesh was shown and then peeled off by the acid, leaving just the bones for another five seconds or so.
And then both fingers were gone. Gone. Like I’d never had an index finger or middle finger on my right hand.
The scratches on my throat from the purging rendered my voice hoarse and ugly. I screamed, staring at my own fingers, or the lack thereof. It must be a dream, I told myself, no one would tell people online to try this if the cost was their own fucking fingers.
In a total madness, I flushed the toilet and closed the lid. I bashed my head on the toilet bowl until I blacked out.
“Why are you sleeping in the bathroom, Nan-nan?”
Woken up by my father’s voice, I sat up with a foggy brain, not quite remembering why I was lying unconscious on the cold tile for hours. Until I saw my own hands, both there, both intact and fully functional. Decorated with no wounds other than my red teeth marks.
Awkwardly, I started to explain how I was feeling hot, too lazy to turn on the air conditioning, and casually decided to take a nap on the cool floor of the bathroom. My father shook his head, half-amused by my stupidity, and bought my story without a second thought.
Was I dreaming? Hallucinating? Regenerating? I didn’t know.
As long as I hadn’t actually disabled myself, this weight-loss method was still worth the effort.
It took me another 13 days to get used to the horrific sight of my temporarily missing fingers. I perfected my skills. I learned to pull my hand out of the way before the projectile vomit of stomach acid took off. I learned to ignore the physical pain and get used to the fact that they would slowly regenerate. No scars left. No wounds unhealed. The red marks on my knuckles triumphed.
I was no longer 13 years old. I was a whole 13 pounds lighter.
I felt lighter.
My family moved to the United States in 2013. I started high school. I was good with my schoolwork and nothing else. My English skills were limited to mathematical terms and basic greetings. People tolerated me, called me sweet and easy-going, and ended the conversation anytime I showed the littlest sign of not getting their cultural references.
The 13 pounds that I tried so hard to get rid of quickly came back. Followed by another 13 pounds, and another 13 pounds to top it off. My face bloated up like a big water balloon. My fingers swelled up like chunks of turnips threaded together.
The magic of bulimia stopped working.
During lunch, I sat with my only friend at a table of her friends. I kept eating—distracting myself with the food consumption process to cover up my social anxiety.
The girl with short hair sitting across from me kept talking about diets, and the healthy foods she was interested in trying.
“But you’re already so slim,” one of the other girls responded. “You even played in varsity sports for all three seasons. What’s the point?”
The short-haired girl snorted. “The point? The point is to not be like her in a couple of months.”
I was about to put another spoonful of rice into my mouth when her cold gaze met mine.
“Hey!” My friend knocked on the table. “Listen to yourself! How can you say cruel things like that?”
Taken aback by the unexpected anger, the short-haired girl muttered something unintelligible, turning her gaze back to the low-fat Greek yogurt and fruit chunks on her plate.
“Sorry,” I quickly apologized, picking up all the utensils and plates. “I’ll see you all in Pre-Calc.”
My friend trailed along with me back to the student lounge.
“You totally don’t need to apologize,” she stated with a stern expression. “What have you done wrong? Nothing! Claudia is totally sabotaging you and she should be the one feeling sorry.”
I shrugged, and drew myself away from her worried eyes.
“It’s okay, Lily. I understand where she’s coming from.” I smiled. “Excuse me for a restroom break.”
Rushing to the last stall, I closed the door and kneeled in front of the toilet bowl like a desperate whore. Except that I was more desperate for something to come out of me rather than have anything come inside of me.
My fingers nested at the end of my oral cavity like a newly hatched bird.
I ruminated. I regurgitated. I threw up everything inside my stomach.
I wished I could vomit out my organs, too. How much weight would I lose through that? Must be a nice number.
“Nan-nan!” I heard Lily calling for my name. “Nan-nan, are you not feeling well?”
I hadn’t been feeling well since the age of 13.
“Are you—did you throw up? Let’s go to the school nurse, alright? It’s probably food poisoning or something. I promise everything will be fine.”
You couldn’t promise me shit, Lily. You were too kind for your own good.
“Nan-nan, can you still hear me? I’m coming in to check on you.”
I had forgotten to lock the door to the corner stall.
She pushed the door open, and took in the horrific sight of me with two fingers down my throat, eyes widened and trembling. I turned, intending to reassure her that there was nothing to be concerned about.
A gush of stomach acid rushed out of my mouth.
It was unstoppable. It covered Lily from head to toe.
“You, I—Ahh!”
Biting down on my hand to stop myself from screaming out loud, I watched my friend get devoured by the yellowish acid.
Her hair and skin melted first, peeling off her body inch by inch, falling down into a lump of nameless, bloody meat and fat. And then the muscles. The skeleton. All consumed by my stomach acid. All melted into a pile of digested food on the ground.
A foreign voice in my head said, “You’ve killed your friend, too, in the same way you killed yourself.”
It was my fault. I couldn’t deny that.
I skipped class for the first time in my life, not caring about attendance or those stupid theorems for Pre-Calculus. I forced myself to stay in the restroom, forced myself to stare nowhere but the pile of meat and bones that used to be my friend.
I waited, for hours, for all the body structures to slowly, magically attach back to one another, forming the familiar figure of Lily like putting together a three-dimensional puzzle.
I told her that she had run into the bathroom to check on me, but slipped and fell out of her consciousness.
She believed me.
I couldn’t even believe myself.
I was 26 when I realized this habit of mine had been with me for the past 13 years.
I graduated high school cum laude. I earned an undergraduate degree in Engineering Physics with a minor in French Language and Literature.
Time passed. Things changed. People came and went.
What stayed constant was my self-destruction, shoving two fingers down my throat and letting my stomach acid kill some part of me.
It took longer and longer for my corroded body parts to regenerate. Sometimes I wished they would never grow back.
My wishes never came true.
I was still 26 when my parents explicitly asked me to go back to school, after working for a few years at a research lab at my undergraduate institution.
“What you learned from college isn’t worth much,” they told me in disappointed tones. “You have to get a higher degree, in a field that can get you a well-paid job.”
I was busy working my ass off when they came to visit me at my apartment.
I shared the place with a roommate, who had been my roommate since college and had decided to stay. We had never been close, but our routines and lifestyles matched too well to not be roommates for the rest of our lives. We had sex occasionally, on his bed, or my own. It wasn’t anything about love or romance. I made that clear our first time together. And he understood.
“How’s everything?” my mother asked me, taking out containers of delicious Chinese food that they had made themselves.
My father was glued to the sofa, lighting up a cigarette, while ignoring the fact that the house was made of wood and could catch on fire so easily.
They looked at me like I was the world’s biggest failure. I couldn’t say I wasn’t.
“It’s alright. Work’s going okay. We’re trying out a different agent next week and hopefully starting a new line of protocol.” I picked up a piece of pork with the chopsticks, pretending that I was craving it the same way I craved an erect penis. “I asked some of my professors to write my recommendation letters. One of them already agreed. I’m still waiting to hear back from the other one.”
“Go find the professor at the office or something.” My father rolled his eyes in dismay. “How much work can there be for him to miss your emails like this? So rude. I know those white people aren’t trustworthy.”
It was my major advisor that he was talking about. She was definitely not white. But I had no more energy to correct him on that.
“Are you still exercising these days?” my mother asked, putting down her chopsticks and closely examining my face between her palms. “What a round face you got. You were a fat kid. A fat teenager. And now a fat adult. Why can’t you just work harder to lose some weight, huh? No wonder no one ever wants to date you.”
“Mama.” I put down my chopsticks, too, and reached over for my water bottle with shaking hands. “I’m exercising regularly. I’m always trying to lose weight.”
“I’m saying it for your own good. We didn’t bring you here to be fat like these Americans.” My mother frowned. “You always say you’re trying, you’re working on your weight. But where are the results? You were at a normal weight for a year or two during middle school, and then what? Nan-nan, I don’t know how you can handle looking at your own reflection in the mirror. It’s bad for your health and your image.”
“Mama, please stop. I thought you wanted to eat with me.”
“Eat? All you think about all day is eat!” my father snorted. “Why can’t you ever learn some self-control?”
I stood up, unable to force a single word out of my throat.
“Where are you going, Nan-nan?” My mother held onto my hand, uncontrollably squeezing into the soft flesh of my palm. “Oh God, your meaty hand! Eat more vegetables and less meat, alright?”
I tried to shake her hand off me, but I couldn’t, not with their eyes carving holes into my body like this.
“I just want to use the bathroom…”
“We’re still talking to you, you rude bastard! Do you forget all the politeness and filial piety you’ve learned back in China? This fucking place really polluted your mind—”
I was still 26 when I found out that I could make myself vomit without any external forces.
In front of the mortified figures of my own parents, I puked and puked and puked, purging everything out of my stomach. Appetizing dishes turned into big, wet piles of disgusting mess on full display. It was humiliating.
For my parents. Not for me. I was long used to this.
Feeling the reflux of my stomach acid coming up, I wanted to warn them, but no voice other than the gushing of vomit could make a presence on stage. It came out through the opening between my lips. It tasted sour.
Acidic. Abrasive and corrosive.
My mother reached out her hand in an attempt to stop the acid. Followed by a sharp scream of hers, as half of her palm started to melt immediately under the killing power of my stomach acid.
My father, still mortified by my rebellion, tried to soothe me despite the visible disbelief in his eyes.
They were approaching me. They were cornering me. They were trying to get me to tell them that this was all a dream and I was still a daughter that they could feel proud of.
I had learned to prove them wrong.
I had learned to do so 13 years ago in the bathroom of our old house.
Under their gaze, I stepped into the pile of my stomach acid, and sat down at the very center, bringing my knees up close in a vulnerable fetal position.
I sat there. Surrounded by the food they made for me to eat. The words they forced down my throat. The body they gave me to take on.
All was destroyed.
All had been melted into bloody and greasy liquids from my acid reflux.
I no longer wished for the regeneration to stop. I knew I would do it again. And again. And again. Regardless.
Cynthia Lan is a writer, creator, and PhD student in Dallas, TX. She was born and raised in Jiangsu, China, and spent the last decade moving from city to city in the United States. Her work focuses on the portrayal of violence, trauma, and mental illness, in a quiet, unique style. When she is not writing, she spends her time doing what all good PhD students do: researching and crying.