I should not have traveled; this much became apparent. I remained delicate since a previous surgery six months before. Yet I had succumbed to the lure of possible happiness. I am a law professor and had been invited to a conference in New York. I dashed off to Manhattan and drank like a bacchante. I subjected the gin-and-lemon “Fitzgerald” cocktail at Prune restaurant to a rigorous study, and interrogated a plausible Stoli vodka gimlet at Time Square’s grotesque Marquis Marriot. I’d thrown myself on a 2011 Chenin Blanc from the Loire at downtown’s Momofuku. I’d chugged bottles of ‘fresh and pure’ Aquafina, purchased with barely a thought at airports and a midtown bodega. I was a particular type of person, assembled of a variety of different mini-identities: My personae included those of a legal scholar, a writer, a wife, a 47-year-old Latina hedonist, and a human being with access to water.
Now I was no longer her. Two days after the conference, I discovered myself floundering first in an E.R. and then in a private room at Los Angeles’s Keck Medical Center. The diagnosis: Paralytic ilieus, or what may less mellifluously be termed as an obstruction. The pale room wavered about me, crammed with beeping machines busily tattooing grim hygiene upon my more fragile fibers. My husband, Andrew – tall, pale, bespectacled, clenched with anxiety – petted my hair, which had quickly mushroomed into a kind of disaster chignon. Kind nurses with large dark eyes and lowered voices slathered me with Dilaudid, a puissant opioid that also triggers a Saharan case of dry mouth. I mumbled at an RN named Christina. “I would like something to drink, please.”
Christina shook her head. “Surgeon says you can’t have anything until we get you out of the woods.”
I flapped at my mouth. “Water.”
“Sorry, no.” Christina pointed at a half-bag of saline that fed my arm. “You can only have this.”
“Ice chips,” I said, to her, then the next nurse, then my surgeon, one Dr. Smart.
“Absolutely not,” Dr. Smart explained, as Andrew took notes on her instructions on his phone. “I know it’s uncomfortable, but.”
“They’re trying to take care of you, honey,” Andrew said. He large pale hands clutched at mine. “I’m sorry.”
“Water,” I said.
This state of affairs continued for three and a half days.
Three and a half days of not drinking sounds doable, particularly when one is being pumped with complicated-looking space liquids that scientists designed to sustain human life. What is in those nacreous sacks? I’ve looked it up: Water plus a bit of sugar or salt. In it flows, lubricating all of one’s gears. Yet it is not enough.
I had never experienced thirst before. That ping ping you feel in your throat when your hydration levels lower slightly does not qualify. My body had only ever endured such trifles: Upon having reached a certain economic position, as I have, one merely needs to breathes a mention of hunger, and meats, milks, and candies come pouring down upon one’s head like El Nino. One wants a cool tall glass to drink, out comes water or wine rushing from multiplicities of taps. But when this abundance ceases, something existential and weirdly bad takes over the mind: I encountered the idée fixe, as the French put it so beautifully. The fixed idea, the obsession.
I thought that I had indulged in obsessions before, primarily literary and sexual ones. But thirst introduced me to madness. At first, my thoughts looped endlessly on water – the clear sparkling of it, the murmuring sound of it, its heartbreaking sweetness. I closed my eyes and felt it splashing on my face. I could hear a person sucking on a Coke can in the hall outside with a vampire’s auditory gifts. I had become a vampire – the sere, famished version that proves the most dangerous in Bram Stoker’s famous novel. Within a matter of sixteen hours I discovered that I had somehow lost myself – the Mexican-American lady who bought glorified tap water at airports. A changeling me had manifested. My dossier of concerns and tastes – left politics, a love of Rilke, French food, my sins – had drifted away and left a dry bundle of sticks animated only by the mandate to obtain liquid.
I lost the power of speech at the end of the second day, but this did not stop me from furiously scribbling notes and thrusting them at every orderly, surgeon, janitor, nurse, and physician’s assistant who entered my cell.
Water ice chips
Finally, one of the non-surgeon doctors said, “sure, you can have ice chips.”
A nurse darted out, then ran back in bearing a chalice. I gazed greedily down upon a quarter Dixie up of crushed ice. I took a flake into my mouth. I gnashed the rest. It was the best food I had ever consumed in my life. As a rated member of the bourgeoisie, I had long searched for this level of ecstasy: The year before, I had eaten at New York’s Le Bernadin, where ten waiters rose and tumbled about me like ballerinas while handing me plated morels of duck fat and urchin. I had eaten Satan’s own cheese pizza at Pizzeria Mozza. I had cooked and then devoured Richard Olney’s red wine eggs Bourguignon, from his masterful French Menu Cookbook. One night in Guadalajara, I had eaten complex goat tacos with none other than Jonathan Gold, the famous food critic. And I had touched bliss during sex, while reading poems. But no: None of those previous experiences compared. As I absorbed the ice chips into my body, large warm mouths of pleasure seemed to open up in the top part of my head – around the eyebrows, and above the ears. My eyes closed like a heroine’s in a Dante Gabriel Rossetti painting. An erotic explosion burst forth from my abdomen and swelled toward my throat, then to my face. I was crying. In my mouth, I held rain. I held health. I had captured holiness; though an atheist, I believed in God. It was better than Dilaudid.
Then it was gone.
“Egh, they shouldn’t have given you that,” Dr. Smart said ten minutes later. An orderly tugged the cup away. The blessing of the ice receded and immediately took on epic proportions in my narrowing memory. I laid back. I listened to the machines beep. I clutched at my iPhone, as if hoping to call an H20 911.
Much depends on dinner, as Lord Byron once wrote. Sweet stories about the transcendent powers of food and drink charm our libraries – consider, for example, how an 1860 Veuve Clicquot inspires General Loewenhielm to burst out “grace is infinite!” in Isek Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast. Even the abstemious Virginia Woolf observed in her A Room of One’s Own that when cups flush canary and crimson with wine, the soul may find itself illuminated by “the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse.” But a harsher side of this tale may also be told. In the 1940’s, University of Minnesota physiologist Ancel Keys conducted the infamous Minnesota Starvation Experiment. Though Keys would later find renown as the first U.S. proponent of the Mediterranean diet, he spent World War II starving conscientious objectors in order to determine how best to feed malnourished people in newly liberated territories. The experiment, which lasted a year, included a six month stint when the subjects reduced nearly to concentration-camp like levels. These men began almost immediately to behave strangely, by collecting cookbooks and enduring nightmares about cannibalism. They lost interest in sex and socializing, and badgered their friends about food wastage. There was also an incident involving self-mutilation.
Other, far, far worse stories about non-consensual wartime starvation also exist, of course. And within my speechless state of prostration, I did not reach anything close to the same kind of pain as those wretches. But even surrounded by well-meaning doctors, hooked to a bag, and loaded with dope, within twenty four hours of feeling thirst for the first time, I began to replace my lengthy accumulation of quirks and tastes with robotically insane rituals that resembled those of the unlucky Minnesota pacifists.
I used Pinterest. “Pinning” had previously been to me to be an incomprehensible hobby for dolts. Now it became my cosmology. I opened up an account and quickly loaded it with images of drinks that I thought would best trigger the same state of grace as had the Dixie ice cup. After dallying for some time in the varied fields of frozen beverages – I learned about Hawaiian shave ice, a fairly self-explanatory Maui concoction loaded with fruit syrup, and also how most efficiently to make peach wine “slushies” – I determine that the holy grail of drink aspirations existed in a jumbo 7-11 Slurpee.
Slurpees are frozen soda, and their avatar the ICEE was invented in the 1950s but one Omar Knedlik. I had not enjoyed a Slurpee since perhaps the fifth grade. They had been overtaken by far more glamorous affections such as pour-over coffee and Fiji water. Yet suddenly, a bright red Wild Cherry swirl, perhaps with the some ice cold Coca Cola or Mountain Dew splashed on the top, promised the end of all of my parched sorrows. My Pinterest account began to bulge. I no longer watched television or scribbled bitchy missives or read the book that Andrew had brought to distract me – Mary Beard’s SPQR. Instead, I became a gurney connoisseur of Blue Raspberry Rush, Cherry Coke, Bumblebee Blast, and Crystal Light Tangerine Lime. Many of the photographs that I pinned showed comely lasses hoisting these frosty libations as well as exiguous wardrobes. Slurpee soft porn was a thing. I began to accumulate Pinterest followers. When Andrew would try to talk with me about my symptoms, I thrust up my iPhone to show him a picture of a frosty Fanta Pineapple or Minute Maid Blueberry clutched by one of these damsels. Once, I took up my pen and wrote him a query: Please tell me a Slurpee story.
My poor husband looked at me with Heathcliff eyes. Once, he began, there was a construction worker named Paul who worked in Tucson, Arizona. It was the hottest summer that anyone could remember. Over 105 degrees in the shade. He’d been working all day on throwing up the frame of a ranch house in a development, and it was so blazing that he ran out of water at 11 a.m. He was sweating rivers, and his mouth was dry as cotton. This went on for hours, until it was finally time to end the day. He got in his pickup and drove down the highway, and what did he see but a shiny bright 7-11, and he knew that inside was an ice-cold Wild Cherry Slurpee with his name on it . . . .
Eventually I healed. My powers of speech returned, and I dedicated them to demands for a bucket filled with 1/3 Wild Cherry, 1/3 Mountain Dew, and 1/3 Blueberry Splash. I had devised this Golden Ratio from my furious study. Doctors of various expertises cascaded into my room, gurgling happy pronouncements but devoid of libations. On that fourth day, though, Christina the nurse glided in with a tall, cool glass of water, and I devoured it, along with two cups of ice. The numinous frisson of the first Dixie cup evaded me, but a soothing peace balmed my mind nevertheless.
Keck Hospital dispatched me with a cleanish bill of health. It has been six days since my escape. I sit now in the freedom of my own home, surrounded by my books, my pens, my dog, and when I open my refrigerator I look upon a vast collection of juices and smoothies that I bought in a gleeful compulsive fit at Whole Foods in the early hours of my release.
But I remain haunted by my exposure to real thirst. It only took one to two days for me to transmogrify into a bushel of hair that hid a 64-oz Double Gulp instead of a carefully curated brain. And what had that little Lear known? Some Gnostic wisdom that can be delivered only in extremis? Why had I become so obsessed with Slurpees? Maybe my life of arduous study and high art should be junked in favor of simple, gross pleasures, I thought.
Yesterday I decided to go to a 7-11 and meet the beast.
I Ubered there. It took five minutes, as I live in a Southern California town that bears not one but three of these franchises. I tottered into the large, dirty store. I moved past the racks of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Lay’s potato chips and aimed for the plastic saloon advertising Pepsi Cherry Vanilla and Sourpatch Watermelon. My three flavors announced themselves via kaleidoscopic signage: Blueberry Splash, Wild Cherry, and Mountain Dew. I plucked a small cup from a dispenser and grabbed hold of the plastic levers that deliver the drinks. The machine sort of peed a bunch of weird colors into my cup, though the Wild Cherry did fuzz up in an icy way. I raised the drink to my lips. I waited for heavenly mouths to open up over my eyebrows. The Slurpee foam crawled up my teeth.
“So because I had this earlier cancer surgery I got this intestinal blockage, which I guess can kill you, and I couldn’t drink for almost four days and I became obsessed with Slurpees,” I bleated ten minutes later to my Uber driver whiles going back home. Jake is a middle aged blond man with a ponytail and reflective sports sunglasses. “So I got onto Pinterest and pinned all of these pictures of Slurpees and now I’m an erotic Slurpee Pinterest celebrity, and I figured I should probably taste one before I take this new career any further.”
“Did you like it?” Jake asked, fascinated.
“It was disgusting. Like, it starts with an undifferentiated, throat-mashing blast of sweet which is soon followed by a middle note of plastic and a deep bottom chord of petroleum – ”
“HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!” Jake said.
It’s not really that funny, I was about to say, but then I realized that I was rolling around in a tight little ball in the back seat, emitting shrill giggles.
I’m actually glad that Slurpees taste so bad. I didn’t want to discover that I had all this time suppressed an authentic nature that skews to convenience “food” and social media. The problem is, I also now know in a deeply nontheoretical way that I have no authentic nature. This little collage of self that I’ve constructed for over 47 years can be pulled apart by the briefest discomfort. And what’s weirder, the exquisite manufacture I call “me” seems to require a huge daily dose of unPinnable banality to persist. I’ve deconstructed the cocktails at Prune and read Rilke, all in the hopes of experiencing extraordinary glee. But the person that you are is not designed for such heights. We are built to muddle through, and be bored. Embrace your big dumb life! Because if you find yourself experiencing the best time ever, with the requisite heavenly mouths opening up over your eyebrows, watch out. Monotony is health. Ecstasy is meant for insane and dying people. It means that you are in trouble, and maybe doomed, and that something has really gone wrong.