Joyland

Toronto |

A Dozen Stomachs

by Tom Thor Buchanan

edited by Kathryn Mockler

1

A stomach is an organ in a moving body. It is pale pink in colour and shaped like a crooked knuckle. It is able to sit, lay down, stand again, balance on one leg. It has a large range of motion, opposable thumbs, the ability to distinguish the specific from the general. It retains memories that may influence its behavior in the future, either consciously or not. It has a suitable amount of biography. It jostles against other organs, it moves through crowds. It demarks a boundary between the external and the internal, is a mediator through which certain forms of matter become comprehensible. It possesses its own complex interior ecology, something akin to a system of weather. It makes decisions about what to accept and what to reject.

 

2.

A stomach is riding the Yonge-University line at 6:32PM. It’s sitting on a bench. It makes a fold, it makes a shape. Its skin stretches and contracts in ways that make it feel disfigured in some way. It transfers at Bloor and experiences a crew-change delay at Christie station. It gets off at Lansdowne and walks north, past Wallace St. and the Salvation Army. At Dupont there are sparks being emitted from the streetcar wires. The stomach shifts beneath its shirt, rubs against the cheap metal of the clasp on its belt. It’s a cold night, the air is sharp. The darkness is a charitable blue colour.

 

3.

A stomach is sitting in an eggshell-blue office chair. It’s filling out some forms on a clipboard. The woman who has given the stomach these questions has left the room to afford it some privacy. It’s answering a series of questions about the way it feels. To each question it must answer either “strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree.” The stomach has trouble pinning its feelings to these positions. It strongly disagrees that the world is out to get it. It strongly agrees that it often feels that others are scrutinizing it in an unrealistic way. It somewhat agrees that it has made mistakes leading to its current situation. It strongly disagrees that it is potentially a danger to others. It somewhat agrees that it is potentially a danger to itself.

 

4.

A stomach is stealing food from its roommate. The stomach doesn’t buy any groceries because the stomach isn’t eating right now. It has decided not to eat. Its side of the refrigerator is empty except for a few old pickle jars. Hunger has become constant and unnoticeable, like wallpaper. Until it becomes unbearable. The food it’s stealing is particular. The stomach’s roommate is a beekeeper. In a big cabinet in their kitchen, the roommate keeps a dozen jars of different kinds of honey. The stomach takes them all arranges them on the counter in front of it. Each one tastes different. The stomach dips a spoon into one and tastes sage. It dips the spoon in another and tastes lavender. It tastes basswood, alfalfa, tulip poplar. The honey doesn’t taste like food. It tastes like process and labour and great distances.  The issue of the many creatures that made it. It tastes perfect: sweet, alien, brief. The stomach very quickly eats about $200 worth of its roommate’s honey. It puts the jars back in the cabinet and washes the spoon.

 

5.

A stomach is sitting at a conference table in a room. Other than the stomach there are four people at the table with it. Each one of them is wearing a lanyard around their necks with their name and a small photo of them. Hands are in laps. One woman is explaining to the stomach that they are concerned about the stomach’s attitude. The stomach is not progressing the way they had hoped. It doesn’t seem to be taking part in group activities and has an attitude that has been perceived as confrontational. Its food diaries have not been properly filled out. The people around the table do not think this program is necessarily a good fit for the stomach. They want the stomach to understand that if one person is struggling it can affect the other participants’ progress as well. There are certain decisions they have to make for the good of the program. They hope the stomach understands. They are willing to make some other recommendations.

 

6.

A stomach is on a bench with a friend in Queen's Park. It's a fall day in the late afternoon, and everything is turning rich, steeped colours. There is a statue of a man on a horse that the stomach can see behind its friend's head. Both of them are wearing thin coats. They are drinking some warm beer that the friend brought with him. The stomach is explaining to its friend, trying to explain something about the way it is living. It's trying to describe a feeling of uncertainty, a mode of life. It’s trying to explain how it feels tired but is having difficulty. It tells its friend to imagine the feeling of having not slept and trying to remember a phone number. Unable able to remember why you’re standing in the middle of your kitchen holding something in your hand. That's not quite it, the stomach says, but it’s part of it. Embarrassment is also a part of it, it says. The stomach feels embarrassed even now, talking to its friend. It feels it is revealing something about its sense of self-importance. It doesn't like the feeling of taking up space on the bench, in the park, in the city to talk about all this. As well as its friend’s time, slowly ticking away, only so many hours left of daylight. The stomach’s friend will have to go home eventually, back to his family. The stomach's language is a mess. It doesn't know what it's trying to say. Everything feels wrong instantly. Sentiments have chilled, wrong angles. Time to say the right thing is running out.

 

7.

A stomach writes something and calls it “Hunger,” finding that easier than saying “I’m hungry.” Things feel more bearable when they are put elsewhere, it reasons. The stomach sits for hours in the university library, using its expired student ID, surrounded by books, barely able to stay awake. It reads a paragraph and it feels like the words are knocking sluggishly against it, like a boat tied to a dock. Sometimes later it'll remember something it read but can't remember that it read it.

 

Sometimes, when it is really hungry, the type of hunger that is both an awake pain in the gut and behind the eyes, but also a kind of slow torpor in the blood, purpling fingernails, the stomach believes that a unique feral intensity arrives to it, an ability to concentrate and see things with, if not clarity, extreme magnification. The kind of magnification that lets you see all the tendons along someone's throat and jaw as they chew, popping like cables on a collapsing bridge. It'll think this after calling in sick to work for the fourth day in a row. It’ll spend all day watching noise on its computer. The stomach is thinking of a hospital, a circle of chairs, a colour wheel, a woman with a lanyard around her neck.  Group activities and the sorting of plastic fruit into tidy, colorful piles. Lukewarm food in foil on a tray. A standing scale with a sliding weight. A body filled to the brim, beyond its ability to bear. A journal, a worksheet, a photocopied affirmation with a spelling error: something perfect to reject.

 

8.

A stomach reads that cows do not actually have four stomachs. In fact, a cow’s stomach possesses a complicated architecture, divided into four chambers which are further divided into a series of sacs, walls, and canals. Food passes through these chambers like a tour group guided through a museum. It is not only digested but also fermented, sucked free of moisture, and regurgitated to be chewed and swallowed again. Because cows chew almost constantly throughout their lives their teeth are always growing, to avoid being worn down to stubs. Their mouths also produce enormous amounts of saliva, in some cases over 100 litres a day. 

The interior lining of a cow’s stomach is called tripe and can be eaten. Looking at tripe in a supermarket, you can see the individual character of each chamber. Tripe originating in the first part of a cow’s stomach, or rumen, is flat and smooth, while tripe from reticulum is lacy and honey combed. Tripe from third chamber, the omasum, looks like fine layers of gauze, and is sometimes called “bible-leaf tripe.”

Because of its distinct taste and appearance, eating tripe can be described as “intense”, and feel almost intimate. After all, these are substances drawn the deepest part of a living being. The stomach imagines being eaten. It imagines being turned inside out and spread flat, like a map.

Historically tripe, like offal, has been disparaged as a “peasant food”, something that eaten out of necessity in circumstances where food is scarce and no edible part of an animal’s body can afford to be wasted. The history of food is full of admonitions against waste, which is portrayed as a kind of ultimate transgression. Children are told to finish their food on account of the starvation of others half a world away, as though we all sit at the same dinner table. The constant nature of hunger makes the issue of waste an urgent one. The stomach can recall pouring vinegar onto its dinner to make it inedible, or throwing food in the garbage when no one was watching. It has bought bags full of groceries only to let them go black, to rot in its refrigerator. It has wasted almost all the food it has ever seen. Including what it has eaten.

 

9.

A stomach learns that in the 19th century, adolescent “fasting girls” became famous for their alleged ability to abstain from food for weeks, even years at a time. It reads about Wiley Brooks, the founder of the Breatharian Institute of America, who claimed to survive solely on sunlight and fresh air. In 1983 he was observed leaving a Santa Cruz 7-Eleven with a Slurpee, hot dog, and box of Twinkies. Brooks would later revise his philosophy to recommend that that fellow Breatharians periodically break their fasting with a special list of spiritually nourishing foods,  including Diet Coke and McDonald’s cheeseburgers. The stomach devotes time to researching the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, fasts undertaken by artists like Adrian Piper and Chris Burden, and popular fads like the “Warrior” diet, which posits that the body gains access to hidden reserves of emergency energy when it engages in strenuous exercise while being partially starved. The stomach makes notes on what it reads, arranges them into lists. The lists feel soothing while it is making them but inert and futile later on.

 

10.

A stomach is a magnet moved around on a diagnostic grid. It seems as though there is a place for it on the grid no matter how it is living. If it sometimes eats and then feels the need to vomit what its eaten it is moved along a vertical and horizontal axis to a point on the grid. If it restricts what it eats until certain bodily processes begin to fail, if swallowing is no longer possible, it is moved to another point on the grid. The sum of the possible combinations of coordinates on the grid make the stomach feel as though there is no derangement of particularity of lived experience which the makers of the grid have not accounted for.

The stomach enjoys the pressure of the flattening effect, the subtle frisson it feels moving across the grid’s cool lines. But it also fears its potential expulsion from the grid on account that it may experience a state which it does not believe the grid has a corresponding coordinate. The stomach feels that it will experience a state which is somehow the grid does not consider accountable. It is afraid of being accused of constituting a surplus position, one for which the grid has no response. Which would mean its ejection from the field of recognizability and into a new position that has been deemed unchartable. A magnet swinging wildly, with nothing familiar for it to desire.

 

11.

The stomach sits at a cafeteria table in the wing of a hospital with a half dozen other people. At this table there are a number of rules that are non-negotiable. The doors to the bathroom have been locked. Diners are not permitted to stand up before their meal is finished. Conversation is permitted, but the topic must be pre-approved. Approved topics include: vacation destinations, popular television and film, and the weather. Unpermitted topics include: food, eating, bodies, physical sensations. A woman with a notebook walks around, inspecting everyone’s meal. She asks the stomach to tell her what it’s brought to eat. The stomach recites for her: tofu for protein, whole-wheat noodles for carbohydrates, vinaigrette with mustard and olive oil for fats and salt. It holds up its Tupperware. The woman tells the stomach that she doesn’t think there are enough calories on its plate. Each meal eaten at the table is bound to a goal, to caloric intake, to dispelling aversion, to restarting digestion. She asks if the stomach would like to add some of the chicken they have in the fridge. When the stomach tells her that it doesn’t eat meat, the women reminds it that voluntary dietary restrictions are discouraged. But they also have more tofu. And veggie patties. The stomach looks down at its stupid, grotesque salad. It does not appear edible. The stomach cannot stand the thought that it will enter its body. It knows that if it does not eat this it will not be permitted to leave the table, but it also knows that if it eats this it will begin to cry, or to scream. It cannot stand the frankness of these reactions. It cannot stand the room it’s in. It cannot stand the interaction with the woman. It looks at her, a look of benign concern on her face, but an aura of health around her that tells the stomach she is speaking to it from a different place. It cannot stand this day, or the prospect of the next.

 

12.

The stomach is acutely aware of being a physical organ in a cloud of subjectivities. It stands there, dumb as a mule. All around it are the things being emitted by other bodies, shoveling the air aside to make room. Friends make statements and those statements are inscribed in the permanent body of the world. Language, emotion, desire all appear and sink into the texture of what is passed between organisms.

At times it wishes that it could slough off all this matter, all this biology. It feels the factual as a flesh. It wants to drop out of the metabolism. Peel away fat like waves from a shore. But it is confronted with the fact that it is still just a living sac, a knot of dirty, identity-riddled muscle. Only so much can be repealed before it meets itself bone-deep, a border than cannot be further reduced. Pores remain. Membranes remain. There is no escaping it. DNA like dirt, getting everywhere.

 

13.

A stomach is dreaming. In the dream the continents of the Earth are drawing together again, after so many years. The oceans churn and change direction. Cities crumple like tinfoil. Mountain ranges so famous they’re on license plates disappear with a sound like teeth being broken. The continents are racing towards each other, there’s no time to understand. In the dream everyone is terrified. They are afraid of sudden death. As the continents draw together they are overjoyed to see one another. It has been such a long time. They embrace. That is to say, the continents hug. Great Britain and the Carolinas are vaporized. Sub-Saharan Africa creaks as it is rearranged into a parabola. The continents dance around in a circle, joining hands. The climate changes, the poles are loosened. The sun drags across the surface of the Earth in wild patterns. There is a death toll. It’s a number, but it’s easier just to say: everyone.