Long before I knew the word emetophobia, you knew how I suffered. I have read many a love letter to Business Relationships that gave their readers cozy feelings and fond memories and you, my book friends, have given all that and more.
Only you knew how it took all my childhood energy some days to not think about the possibility of getting sick. Was that a twinge in my side? An onset of the stomach flu, or appendicitis? I would hug your worn covers and smooth pages closer, The Boxcar Children, and swim into the stories of courageous Henry, capable Jessie, sweet Violet, and fun-loving Benny. With those four at my side, I could ride the swells of panic and break through the surface with breath left in my lungs.
When I was ten, my father got cancer. This filled me with dread not only for his wellbeing but also because with cancer comes chemotherapy, and with chemotherapy comes vomiting. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, we both remember this: me visiting my dad, you clutched at my side. Him talking. Me trying to smile. Him slipping the kidney-shaped barf receptacle onto his lap. Me running out the door of the hospital room. You and me hunched in a far-flung bathroom, my mind clawing onto the steady ground of your words, your story of a family surviving terrible injustices.
No one understood why I could not bear to hear the sound of his sickness. What kind of daughter runs away from her sick father? I cried this to you, and you absorbed my shame into your pages so I would have less to carry.
Holes, you were the only one who put up with the B.O.ish scent of garlic seeping from my skin two years later, when I believed raw garlic a talisman to keep away the stomach flu and all its iterations. You watched my classmates plug their noses and beg me to use more toothpaste. You heard my teacher tell me to eat less garlic, please, because it seemed to be leaking from my pores and was disturbing the classroom environment.
On that night when even shredded garlic on tortilla chips couldn’t keep me from vomiting, you comforted me in the throat-burning misery of After. My mother said, kindly, “It’s not as bad as your brain made it out to be, is it?”
But you knew how I quaked at the thought of enduring such forceful trauma again. I sought out the climactic pages in you where Zero gets violently ill on the way to the Big Thumb, because if he could live through it, maybe I could too.
At nineteen, after a year of saving hard-earned cash, I traveled Europe on a Eurail pass. I discovered chocolate hazelnut wafers in Vienna and ate the best pasta of my life in Italy. But emetophobia always stared back at me in the mirror of those treasured moments. What if I got sick on public transportation? What if I vomited in the Louvre, right there in front of Mona Lisa herself? I spent hours in art museum bathrooms: Madrid, Paris, Florence, petrified that I would ruin a statue or painting with my infelicitous vomiting. I hadn’t brought a book with me to Europe, and how I craved your calming touch.
Five years later, I lay on my back in a surgery room about to get cut open to deliver my baby. I Capture the Castle, you waited in my maternity room. Even from there your sturdy spine beamed strength into mine. You understood why I begged the anesthesiologist to pump me full of anti-emetics. You understood the shame, again: here I was at a pivotal and dazzling moment in life, and oh so heavy on my mind was that old and weary fear.
Later you were at my side, To The Bright Edge of the World, when—for the first time in twelve years—I got a stomachache that made me almost want to vomit. I flung you on the bed next to my seven-month-old baby and rushed to the bathroom. I closed my eyes. Somehow, knowing you and my son were near, needing me and caring about me, I was able to let go and allow myself to be sick.
Then I rushed back to my baby. And to you. I cuddled my sweet son close and, once a friend came to put him to bed, I opened you to the last place I’d left off.
I’m still scared, I whispered to you. I’ll always be scared of That.
I know, you seemed to murmur back. I rested my shaking hand on your gentle pages and eased my mind onto the curves of your letters. Your stories, your magic, they rocked me to sleep. Like always, you comforted me, and if I could give you more than this simple love letter, I would.
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