"Was it the lamb?" she asked me from the other side of the bathroom door. Her voice, forward in her throat with that requisite but insincere concern, pitched up at the end in a question, but dropped over the last and equally artificial syllable. La-amb? You could hardly hear them, really, all the extra notes. British english. Asks a question and answers it in the same word. Was it the lamb.
"It wasn't the fucking rice, was it?" I spoke back. My voice echoed off the porcelain. Reverse the formula, make the answer a question. I could be English too, I thought. Ha. The seat felt cool against my face, but the acrid stench of...I had to move, stand up, flush, start over. Didn't want to, of course. Or didn't until I did. I was caught in that vicious cycle of sickness. Nothing worse than throwing up, nothing, except knowing you're going to, feeling you have to. Then you want to. You feel that queasy clench, the dizziness, the tingle in your crotch and the thick milk-sweat on your scalp--you'll pull yourself inside-out for the ten minutes of peace just after. Crack your body like a whip for a few brief moments of exhausted calm. But then it comes back. It always comes back.
It was coming back.
"No more Himalayan lamb curry for you."
It was still coming back.
"Perhaps you're allergic?"
It was really coming back.
"Do you want me to leave you alone?"
It came back. Buckled me like an aluminum can, an aluminium can. It was some minutes before I heard from her again. I'll leave you to it then, I said for her. Better this way. I'm not a good vomiter. She can take it pretty well, isn't as afraid of it. I'm always convinced it's going to kill me, that I'm going to die right there on the dirty bathroom floor, all my potential, all my precious young life and promise poured out into coffee grounds, and yellow bile when the talent's run out. Common yellow bile. We all puke the same.
Killed by a curry before I'd even reached my prime, I thought through the pain. Snuffed out by five bucks worth of cheap meat and a viscous brown liquid in a cracked ceramic bowl, much like the one before me now. Same contents, different scale, different time, reverse the flow, the order, the event, run it backwards until it never happened, until I was never there.
But I wasn't feeling well before I sat down. Feeling just not quite well. The little thought flicked at the back of my brain, called me liar, coward, in that tiny little voice you know is you, is inescapably you, you cannot lie to me, and in those five or six lucid minutes you have, you think, and remember, and pale.
The Himalayan cafe on Houston and 1st. Four formerly white plastic tables and black-streaked chairs stained with...people, ten thousand people, their mud, their drunken grime, the fatigue of their city sticking to every surface like grease, maybe it was really just grease after all, maybe it was just the grease. It was not the grease went the prickling voice, what was it? A split light covering above the door, three tallow -colored blocks hanging crookedly over weak incandescents and a door dropping away from its hinges. Half-rotten fruit in a basket under glass at the counter, necrotic soft tissue spreading in mal-formed circles, glistening thick under flickering, pulsing fluorescent, that pale and deathly whitish blue. Green on film. You see it wrong. Let me show you... I resisted, shut my eyes, looked away. She placed our order and we sat down.
What is that in the water?
"Did you get anything done today?"
"I was at work today."
"But you couldn't get anything done?"
"I can never get anything done at work."
"Where are you now?"
I'd gone somewhere, outside, over her shoulder, out through the smudged glass windows, almost to the sidwalk...
"What? How many pages?"
"Oh. Oh. The same."
"Mm. You'll have to work faster if you want to be finished by January..."
She continued; I left again. Down the sidewalk, into the street, past the mounds of black trash bags clustered, ruptured, spilling out their putrid contents to the open air. I stepped over streams of piss, animals' or men's, the same in the nose, dark rivers reflecting black to my eyes, running from wall to gutter making tiny islands of bottles, condoms, pillaged packs of cigarettes, dropped, forgotten gloves and lumps of shit. Animals' or men's, the same on your shoes...
When the food finally came I was already approaching the subway, vision awash with New York's sickly nighttime color, that weak orange and pinkish streetlight haze, filth in photons, waves, unnatural, unnatural, oppressive and unclear.
"Looks good. Would you like some of mine?"
I looked down to the fork in my hand, to the chopsticks in hers, walking like a pair of stilts through the swirling, wriggling mass of...noodles, just noodles, eat, relax, forget, just noodles, not noodles, let me show you...
"No thanks." My fork twisted into a lump of meat.
"Sure." She speared a piece for herself, chewed it viciously, a stream of...juice?...ran over her bottom lip, down her chin. She swiped at it with her tongue. Sounds from the kitchen behind me pulled on my ears, yelling in a foreign language, the clanging of pots, the hiss of steam and screech of a blender, a blender making a four dollar beverage from dying remains. A thousand places like this. Brown-stained rice entered my mouth. Your life like this...I will show you.
The subway took me to places where, I thought, ha, the F Train does not go. I stepped from the platform, the platform full of people spitting onto the tracks, throwing pages of soiled newspaper to the rats. Away from the drips of an uknown liquid from the flaking, crumbling, pustule-covered ceiling, the little bumps on every painted surface threatening always to burst and rain down the city's chronic disease, its degenerative condition, into an empty car.
It picked up speed, great speed, when the doors closed, then opened, then closed, closed, closed, rattling through the dark tunnels past iridescent slashes of metallic paint visible around dim and dying lightbulbs. Graffiti even on the walls of hell. It rumbled past a year ago, then two, then five, forgotten versions of my life the way it was, all the way back to a house in the suburbs. It had a green yard. Two crabapple trees in front, a green forest behind, blue trim around the windows, the roof tiled, clean, detached, isolated. I was in it somewhere. Upstairs? In the makeshift hammock strung between the bunkbeds? Or the basement, with the Atari and the old TV? No--I would be out back, in the grass, a field of grass before the forest's edge, breathing sweetened sun and air in cool clean daylight, cracking a swatch from my mother's willow tree like a whip. Like a whip. There was no such thing as New York. It could not exist, people could never live that way, in great cities, close and crowded, dying cities, they would never allow that to happen to them.
He would never allow that to happen to him.
"You look pale--are you alright?"
The undecorated, cracking walls reformed around me. Had I been talking the whole time? Carrying on a conversation? I didn't recall. Here I was, again, as before I left, but the bowl had only drying trails of sauce and soppy fragments of potato. Nothing left of the lamb. I must have eaten it. It hardly seemed possible.
"Actually, I don't really feel well."
"I must have eaten too much. I don't know. I feel full, bad full. Too full."
"I don't know." You do know. I did know. It was in me, there was too much in me. I had to get it out. It had to come out. All of it, every piece and drop, my body refused to accept any more. No more five dollar meals in broken buildings. No more sitting under lights that bleed the colors all to muck. No more sickness, sadness, wandering through all the ugliness wondering where your life went or could go.
I stood from the table, threw down a twenty. Left my coat hanging over my chair and sped for the door, the door dropping away from its hinges beneath the tallow-colored artificial lights.
"Was it the lamb?" I heard die on the air.
I should add that I did not get "food poisoning" from the Himalayan Cafe, which does exist, and would not benefit from such besmirchment. Thank you.