I have a weird relationship with food. And being fat. And grocery stores. Basically I’m messed up. In an attempt to make sense of this, I wrote the following story. I sent it to “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction”, and they rejected it. Which is fine. I’m guessing a lot of their readers are obese and binge. Maybe the story hits too close to home.
Or maybe the story is too bizarre. Is it just me, or does “being normal” seem very important to everyone right now? Maybe that’s what terrorism and paranoia does to people. We retreat into conformity and uniformity and sanity. There’s a poster in Ottawa bus shelters that shows three penguins — two look normal, and the one in the middle is wearing a Hawaiian shirt. The accompanying text reads something like, “See anything weird? Call our security branch at this number and let us know!”
When you think about it, that seems a little sad, doesn’t it? Must all penguins walk around naked or risk the wrath of security forces?
Anyway, here’s the story.
This interesting article was written by
Nikolaus Maack (former owner of this website)
I was at the grocery store when I discovered it – a small, rectangular tin labelled unicorn meat. There were half a dozen in total, each dusty tin the size of my palm. They would have gone unnoticed if I hadn’t bent down to tie my shoe. The cans looked almost Russian – something about the slanted lettering, the dark purple color of the label. Foreign antiques. Imported from Glasvlaniam, said the label, and little else. I wasn’t too sure if this was a good diet for weight shedding…
“A prank,” I muttered to myself. “A ridiculous prank.” And I was surprised to find myself quite angry. My sense of humour is a point of pride. What about these tins was so irritating?
Going to the grocery store every weekend is my version of going to church. My preferred store is the size of a city block, and full of wonderful, magical, infinite possibility. It has many aisles – too many to count or keep track of. There’s a bakery, a butcher, rows of fresh produce, and endless aisles of goods. When I come to the store, I am at peace with the world. No matter how many screaming babies, no matter how many thoughtless people blocking my path with their carts, I am always happy. At one with the universe.
Yes, I am fat. That’s part of it. Food has always been important to me. A comfort when sad, a means of celebrating when happy, an adventure when I want to explore, a distraction when bored. And all these experiences typically start at the grocery store. That, really, was why the tin of unicorn meat struck me as a kind of blasphemy.
When I spotted a stock boy in a green apron coming down the aisle, I knew I had to do something. “Excuse me. Could you bring your manager here, please?”
“Yes sir,” he said, and rushed off.
Fat people always get great service from food-related businesses. We wear our customer loyalty like a costume.
A few minutes later he returned with a tall, elderly, Asian man. The stock boy pointed me out, and then ran off to some other task.
“What seems to be the trouble, sir?” the older man asked, in perfect, unaccented English.
I found it hard to believe this was the manager. He appeared to be in his seventies, with neat gray hair and a thoroughly wrinkled face. His hands were spotted and lined. But nothing else about him spoke of old age.
His deep brown eyes were sharp and lively. And his clothing was impeccable, making me feel like a slob in my t-shirt and jeans. He wore gray pants with a matching jacket, and a bright blue shirt with a dark gray tie. It was a business suit that put you at ease, fitting well, though it hung a little loose. The slack seemed to emphasize his casual competence.
“I found these, on the lower shelf,” I said, holding out one of the unicorn meat tins. “It’s clearly some sort of joke. I thought I should let you know, so they could be removed.”
He moved closer to me – walking with grace and strength – but made no movement to take the tin from my outstretched hand. On his lapel was a name tag which read “Yutaka” and beneath that “manager”. Now that I looked at the Asian gentleman closely, I realized I’d seen him about the store many times and assumed he was a fellow shopper.
“You say you found these?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, and turned to the shelf. “Right there.”
“This place is important to you,” he said, waving a hand casually through the air to indicate the store around us.
I was taken aback. “What? No!” Then after a pause, I admitted a little sheepishly, “Well, yes.”
“I thought as much. Most people – they would never notice these tins on such a low shelf. And if they did notice them, they wouldn’t give it any thought. They certainly wouldn’t bring the matter to the attention of the manager, as you have.”
“I… I suppose, that’s true.”
He still hadn’t taken the tin of unicorn meat from my hand. I let it drop into my shopping cart. Yutaka stared at me for a long moment, looking me up and down, as though evaluating me for some greater purpose. His eyes stopped at my stomach, making me feel fat. Then his perpetual smile broadened slightly and he held out his hand – offering me a jar of pickles. Where had they come from? There were no pickles nearby.
“Would you humour me,” Yutaka asked, “by performing a task? I would like you to meditate while staring at this jar of pickles. A half hour every day, perhaps in the evening, before bed. Stare at the pickle jar in silence, and attempt to become one with it. I know it sounds rather silly, but I think you would benefit from the experience.”
“Um, sure. I guess. But – ”
Yutaka interrupted me. “You’re here every Saturday, correct? I’ve seen you around the store, noticed your… interest. Let’s meet again, next Saturday, and we can discuss your experience with the pickles.”
I took the jar from him, not knowing what else to do. “Thank you,” I heard myself saying rather stupidly.
Yutaka waved his hand, dismissing my thanks. “You’re doing me a favour. In any event, I’ll see you next week.”
I stared at the jar in my hands, for a moment, then said, “But I don’t even like pickles.”
It was too late. Yutaka was gone.
When I got home from the grocery store, I felt a little confused. Not only had I brought home the jar of pickles, but among all my other groceries was the tin of unicorn meat. According to my receipt, the tin had cost me thirteen dollars.
I opened the tin, out of curiosity. Inside was a scrap of yellowing paper. Written on it, in a faint, scratchy lettering, were the words “Your true stomach knows better.” Odd.
That first night, I stared at the jar of pickles, trying to remember – what was the point of meditation? I’d read a bit on the topic. Staring at a candle flame was one thing. But a jar of pickles? Still, I sat there on the edge of my bed, feet firmly on the floor, the pickles on my nearby desk. And I stared. They’re green, I thought. The jar’s label is red. Nice contrast. Pickles. Long. Bumpy. Brine. Jars like that can be tough to open.
And then the half hour was up and I went to sleep. Thankfully, I did not dream about pickles.
Each night before bed, I repeated this experience, feeling more and more frustrated as time went on. Every day at work, I mulled over my situation. Why had this old man, Yutaka, asked me to do this? And more importantly, why was I listening to him and doing it? Was he crazy? Was I crazy? Were we both crazy?
Friday night, I cancelled dinner with a friend. My worry was too great. Tomorrow, I would see Yutaka, and I still hadn’t had a “pickle breakthrough”. So it was now or never. I plopped myself down on the edge of the bed and stared at the jar. What had Yutaka said? Become one with the pickles. Become one with the… Forget it.
Frustrated beyond words, I grabbed the jar, twisted it open, and started eating the pickles. My fat fingers were just small enough to scoop them all out. The first pickle tasted disgusting and sour. The second one, less so. By the third, I was enjoying them. And before I knew it, all the pickles were gone. Thank goodness it was a small jar, otherwise I would have made myself sick.
Saturday morning, with some nervousness, I went to the grocery store. But why be nervous? What was going on, anyway?
As I headed down the cereal aisle, Yutaka was suddenly by my side, smiling broadly. “Good morning. It’s wonderful to see you again. How did your pickle meditation go?”
“Well, uh, not too good, I’m afraid. I stared at them, and stared at them, and then… Friday night, I couldn’t take it anymore… And I ate them. The whole jar.”
“You did?” Yutaka asked with glee. “Excellent.”
“Excellent?” I echoed.
“People think too much with their heads. They need to learn how to think with their stomachs. Your head will lead you on flights of fancy, into intellectual imaginings that can never come true. But your stomach – it won’t lead you astray. It grounds you. It’s practical. Your stomach is instinct, intuition – your stomach knows facts that your head will never be able to accept. You instinctively understood this. Meditating on the pickles, you recognized the folly of the head, and turned to the intelligence of the stomach.”
“I’m not sure that I understand. What are you talking about?” I asked. “I mean, what is this? Why did you make me meditate on pickles? What is going on?”
“Do you see this can of peas?” Yutaka asked me. And suddenly there was a can of peas in his upturned palm. “This can of peas is the entire universe. That’s because every single thing is connected to every other single thing. If you can understand this one can of peas, in its entirety, you will understand everything.”
As he spoke, the can of peas levitated into the air, rising from his palm. It hovered up, without faltering, and slowly moved towards me. We were still in the middle of the cereal aisle, and other shoppers were about. None of them seemed to notice the can as it drifted over to me. I held out my hand, palm up, and the can landed on my hand as neatly as a butterfly.
“Certain wisdoms are known to me,” Yutaka said. He waved his hand, brushing away his ability as if it were nothing more than a correct answer at Trivial Pursuit. “My name is Yutaka. And who are you?”
“Nathaniel Marcus,” I said.
“You live alone,” Yutaka said. It wasn’t a question.
“Yes. How could you tell?”
“Nathaniel, you have a quality about you that I see every day. You live in your head. You think too much. Your body is a thing that carries around your brain. When you experience an emotion – love, guilt, anger, despair – you mistake it for stress or indigestion. This puts the entire world at a distance. You don’t experience life – you merely perceive it. So of course you’re alone. You work as a civil servant, pushing papers around, acting out dull processes. What passion you do feel comes from daydreams and food.”
His description of my life coincided with a growing knot of displeasure appearing in my stomach. Had eating those pickles made me feel sick after all? Perhaps a delayed reaction, I thought. Then I realized the sensation was my gut churning with anger – what he said made me furious. All of which proved his point – I do mistake emotions for symptoms. My anger quickly turned to despair.
“Who are you?” I asked bleakly.
“I am Yutaka,” he said, and pointed at his name tag. “Now to business. You must come to the grocery store tonight, at midnight. Alone. The store will be empty. Wear comfortable, loose fitting clothing. Preferably clothes you don’t mind getting dirty. See you then.”
And he walked away, as if I had no choice but to show up now. He was right, of course. By this point I was completely hooked. But hooked on what?
At midnight, the grocery store was dark inside. Yet when I touched the door, it opened automatically. I was wearing a jogging suit bought during an attempt to become fit that lasted six months. Some lights on, near the back of the store, drew me their way, towards the butcher section. Being in the shop after hours made me giddy. It was naughty, improper. I felt this insane urge to grab things off the shelves and stuff them in my pockets.
Yutaka was standing in the lit area, casually holding a sledgehammer over his shoulder. Without preamble, he handed me the hammer. Though he was moving it with ease and great casualness, the sledgehammer weighed a ton and I nearly dropped it.
“Nathaniel,” Yutaka said, “food is love. And food is hate. Food is power. Food is always an emotional experience. We are nurtured by its presence – the family sits down to dinner and bonds over food. We are punished by its withdrawal – you have misbehaved, no dessert! We are punished by its presence – you must eat all your lima beans if you want to leave the table! Food is tied up with our parents, with our childhood, with our darkest feelings and our lightest pleasures.”
He indicated, with a wave of his hand, a nearby cardboard box. It was large – maybe half the length and width of a car, and as high as my waist. “This cardboard box is full of cans of whip cream. I want you to attack the box with the sledgehammer.”
“That is a head question. Think with your stomach.”
“What does that mean? My stomach? That’s just… It doesn’t make sense! Stomachs don’t think!”
“That’s your head talking. It always wants to be in control. Heads are like that – always insisting everyone be rational and logical. But why should we be reasonable all the time? Logic can be so limiting – keeping us on the ground, in a groove, doing the same things over and over again. Sometimes we have to listen to our stomachs.”
“I don’t know how to do that,” I insisted.
Yutaka walked over to me, smiling as though at a naughty child. “It’s simple,” he insisted. “Put what’s up here…” He touched his index finger to my forehead. “…down here.” And he touched my stomach just above my navel. His touch sent strange ripples through my body.
I decided I may as well try. Raising the hammer over my shoulder, I let it fall on the box. It landed with a pathetic thud. Embarrassed, I raised the hammer again. My second swing hit with only slightly more force, making a slight dent. A can inside the box hissed briefly then stopped. Yutaka nodded encouragement. My third swing, and all the swings after that, were savage. I never knew I had it in me.
Hitting cans of whip cream with a sledgehammer is very satisfying. The cans exploded, sending cream in all directions as they shot off like rockets, ricocheting through the butcher section. The hissing of escaping cream spurred me on. I was fighting snakes. The cream was delicious venom. Laughter bubbled up out of my throat as the hammer came down again and again, crushing my enemies, my job, my little life, my insignificance.
Some cans sputtered around on the floor, fleeing my wrath. I chased after them and smashed them flat. Others knew better than to challenge me, and died in one blow. It was furious, demented fun. I’d never felt more alive.
But half-way through, it changed. It stopped being fun. It became serious. My play anger, that got me swinging at the start, turned real. True rage took over, and I smashed and crushed and bashed with fury. I started swearing at the cans. Hate. Vicious hate. The ridiculous cans of whip cream inspired that in me.
When I was done, I was sticky from head to toe, my shoulders and arms and knees aching. And I was crying. A torrent of feeling in my stomach and chest threatened to knock me over. Feelings. Dangerous, powerful, all consuming – they were in me. The real snakes, in my gut, convulsing and writhing with repressed fury.
The hammer fell from my hands and hit the floor. I looked up and saw the mess I’d made. Whip cream everywhere. Cans all over the back of the store – spread out at least fifteen feet. Had I done this?
“Good,” Yutaka said. “Very good.”
“I feel awful. My stomach aches like crazy.”
“Don’t worry. It will pass. Take a moment to regain yourself.”
I leaned against a nearby post, and wiped the tears from my eyes. Where had these emotions come from? What were the emotions? Rage and fear and… What did it all mean?
My life seemed to be this way, all the time – things happened, and I reacted to them. The reaction was always a surprise. I would see a beautiful flower growing by the side of the road and feel this urge to crush it. Caught in the rain, I’d get soaked, and find myself laughing. Smash a case of whip cream and end up in tears.
“Who am I?” I muttered to myself.
Yutaka answered, “You are a man who eats.”
“What does that mean?”
“You are a man who eats,” Yutaka said. “You take things into you, to the very depths of your core, and they sit there, forever. You hardly ever let them go. All your experiences, all your feelings, all your everything. You draw it into you, and it collects in your true stomach. Sometimes a feeling will sneak out, just a little, and startle you. But for the most part, your false stomach blocks the release of emotion. And that’s why your true stomach is mad at you. It has better things to do than hold all your experiences and feelings. You have to let some of it out. You have to make room for new experiences, new feelings, new everything.”
“How do I let it out?” I asked weakly.
Yutaka smiled, as though dealing with a slow pupil, “Learn to think with your true stomach.”
Though I wasn’t even sure what he meant, I said, “I’ll… I’ll try.”
“Good! You have already started.” Yutaka held out his hand, and in it was a plastic grocery bag, tied into a knot. There was a rectangular shape inside. “Take this home. Don’t look inside now. Open it when you feel comfortable doing so.”
“Um, okay.” I took the bag from him.
“Do not eat the contents. Just keep the item in your home. Bring it back to me next Saturday.”
I was confused, but Yutaka always confused me. “Fine,” I said. He seemed to be hinting that I should leave. I looked down at the mess around us.
“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll take care of this,” he said.
“Um, all right.” And I reluctantly left the store. Maybe he could use telekinesis to clean up.
When I got home to my apartment, I dropped the bag in the front hall. It was late, I was tired and felt disgusting in my sticky clothes. A quick shower made me feel better. I was on my way to bed when I remembered the bag Yutaka gave me. Why not take a look?
Sitting up in bed in my pyjamas, I tore the plastic grocery bag open – and met my worst enemy face to face. Inside was a bag of blueberry cheesecake cookies. How did Yutaka know? How could he possibly know?
It had happened to me over and over again. Each time left me feeling guilty and disgusted with myself. I go to the grocery store, buy a bag of blueberry cheesecake cookies, (swearing this is the last time), take them home, turn on the TV – and the next thing I know the bag is empty. There’s no taste of the cookies on my tongue. I have no real memory of eating them. They’re just gone. Binging.
I’m overweight and more than aware of it. All efforts to become slimmer have failed. Binging seemed to be just another habit I picked up along the way. One that I couldn’t drop.
Keeping a bag of these cookies in my home, without eating them – it seemed impossible. Just touching them made my hands shake. For now, I hid them in the kitchen, in the cupboard above the fridge, and went to bed and tried to sleep.
Sunday morning, in the shower, I noticed a thin scar along my belly. I’d never noticed it before – a horizontal line along my midsection. Odd. I decided I must have slept funny on the sheets or something. I hadn’t slept well. The cookies called my name all night long.
I spent my day off out of the apartment, doing chores, seeing friends. The blueberry cheesecake cookies weren’t far from my thoughts. But because they weren’t in front of me, I was safe.
The scar was more pronounced Monday – a pink, red line running from hip to hip, just over my navel. It concerned me, but I didn’t know what to make of it. There was no pain or anything like that.
Before heading to work, I considered moving the cookies to a better hiding place – then realized this was a trap. Once the bag was out in the open, in my hands, they were fair game. I would eat them. Better to leave them where they were.
Wednesday (day four of the cookie struggle) I was at home, sitting down to watch TV, desperately trying to forget about the cookies, when I felt my midsection open up. The scar had split in some way – I felt my gut move in two separate parts. My shirt got wet, but not with blood – with what looked like saliva.
I had an enormous mouth on my stomach. I stood in front of the mirror in the bathroom, my shirt off, and looked at my fat belly. The scar was split, and more pronounced. Like lips. And when I thought about it, concentrated, the mouth opened. There were sharp, vicious looking teeth, and a tongue. The mouth was huge, dangerous looking – almost shark-like.
More disturbing, the mouth wasn’t always under my control. It would open a little and a long pink tongue would dart out – and I didn’t do it. Had this stomach mouth always been there? And when I wasn’t controlling it, who was?
This explained the blueberry cheesecake cookies. When I binged, I blacked out, and never tasted the cookies. That’s because they didn’t go into my mouth – they went into this other mouth, in my stomach.
I suppose I should have been frightened of this second mouth. Or worried that I was losing my mind. After all, this was something completely bizarre. Normal people don’t have giant mouths in their bellies. Do they? But it was all so familiar. Like I’d always known about its existence, and just pretended not to know.
“Oh look, my left arm! I’d forgotten about that.” That’s how it felt.
Going to work with it was unusual. My shirts hid the mouth, so none of my coworkers knew it was there. But I did. And it gave me a strange sense of pride. I had a secret. Something that made me different from everyone else. Something that made me special. At the exact same time, it seemed shameful and weird. What if they knew? How would they react?
Thursday evening, I tried feeding the second mouth a piece of carrot. It opened of its own volition, took the carrot in, swished it around a bit, then spat it out.
“Can you talk?” I said to it. “You’re a mouth, so I’m guessing…” I trailed off, feeling silly.
“Oh yes, I can talk,” it growled in a deep, dark voice. It seemed quite angry for some reason.
“Who are you?”
“I am the stomach monster,” it said. “And you must give me the cookies.”
“Why? What do you need the cookies for?”
“They keep me quiet. They keep me asleep. I’m like a hibernating bear. Every few months or so, I get you to buy me cookies. And then I eat them and I can sleep for a few months, until the next feeding.”
“Why do you sleep? What happens if you don’t sleep?”
“I don’t know,” the stomach said. “I always sleep. That’s what I do.”
“I’ve promised a friend I wouldn’t eat those cookies. Could we not feed you and see what happens?”
“I don’t know,” the stomach said, considering it. “That makes me nervous. It’s a change from my ritual.”
“Well, it’s Thursday night. All I ask is that we hold off until Saturday morning, when we talk to Yutaka, my friend. Is that all right?”
“I guess so,” the stomach grumbled. “But it makes me nervous.”
With the agreement in place, I put my shirt back on, and went about my night time routine. Again, there was the sensation that this was bizarre because it didn’t seem bizarre. I felt fine. Shouldn’t I feel “not fine”?
Friday morning, as I undressed for the shower, I looked at the pink line across my belly – the lips of the mouth. Again, I concentrated, and found I could open the mouth and have a look. The teeth were triangular, a greyish yellow, sharp, and nasty looking. Well, it did call itself the stomach monster, so that made sense. They were teeth like a children’s drawing of a shark. The tongue was long and pink, almost pretty. It didn’t suit the monster teeth at all.
An odd thought occurred to me, and I giggled to myself. I loaded up my toothbrush with toothpaste, and brushed my stomach’s teeth. As I did so, the colour of the teeth became slightly less yellow, more white. Then I leaned my belly over the edge of the sink and the stomach spat out the toothpaste by itself.
“Thank you,” it grumbled, a little reluctantly. “That was very kind.”
“You’re welcome,” I said.
I had a shower. When it came time to brush my teeth (as opposed to my stomach’s teeth) I looked at the toothbrush with some distaste. It had been used by someone else, and using it now seemed a little unhygienic. Then I remembered – both mouths were mine. I was being silly. I gave the matter no further thought and brushed my teeth as usual.
When Saturday morning finally rolled around, I confronted my stomach monster in the mirror. “I’m going to take the cookies out of the cupboard. Do you promise to behave, and not eat them?”
My stomach grumbled, ground his teeth slightly, and then said, “Fine! But I want to talk to this Yutaka friend of yours, find out why he won’t let me sleep like I’m supposed to. It doesn’t seem fair to me.”
“Sure, you can talk to him. I don’t see why not.”
I took the cookies out of the cupboard and put them in a plastic bag. My stomach monster moaned and whimpered under my shirt. The bag didn’t seem safe enough, so I looked through the closet and found an old suitcase.
“Don’t you trust me?” said a muffled voice beneath my clothes.
“I do,” I said, “but I want to make it easier for both of us.”
I put the blueberry cheesecake cookies in the suitcase and snapped it shut. Then my stomach monster and I headed for the grocery store.
Wandering the aisles, Yutaka and I found each other in frozen foods. He was dressed in one of his suits, and smiling his usual merry smile.
“It spoke to you,” he said in way of greeting. He took the suitcase from my hand.
“You knew about…?”
“Of course, Nathaniel. You’ve begun to think with your true stomach. And now the false stomach – the monster – it wants to communicate with you. We’ve lured it out into the open. Now we can get down to real business.”
“It wants to talk to you.”
“Of course. Let’s go into my office, where the three of us can speak more privately.”
Yutaka led me into the cold storage room at the back of the store. Crates of cabbages, carrots, celery, cauliflower, and other vegetables were piled high up to the ceiling. The floors were concrete, painted white, like the walls. Florescent lights flickered overhead. We weaved our way through the crates. Hidden in the far corner was a wood door that had been painted red. Yutaka opened it, and motioned me to enter.
Stepping into the office, I gasped. It was luxurious. The floor was black marble that shone, naturally lit by the skylight overhead. The desk was large and yet strangely practical – not pretentious. It was made of a dark, luscious cherry wood. There were several comfortable-looking black leather chairs in the room. On the desk was an antique lamp with a purple shade. Expensive-looking paintings of dragons hung on the oak paneled walls – some of the art was very old, but other works were more modern. How contemporary artists could paint dragons without them looking tacky was beyond me, but they’d done it.
“Take off your shirt, please, and have a seat,” Yutaka said. Meanwhile, he moved behind the desk and opened the suitcase. He removed the bag of blueberry cheesecake cookies and put them in the middle of the desk, as if to display them just so.
A little embarrassed, I undid my shirt. My stomach was eager to speak, and almost before the shirt was off, it growled: “Why did you stop me from having my cookies?”
“It was necessary,” Yutaka said, sitting down behind his desk, “so that we may become acquainted. I am Yutaka.”
“He’s told me all about you,” it said. “Some sort of magician. Some kind of food guru. Hocus pocus and abracadabra. I don’t see the point in any of that.”
“As a matter of fact, neither do I,” Yutaka answered smoothly. “It’s a game, really. Something I do for fun. Do you like games?”
“No, I don’t like games.”
Yutaka smiled. “I don’t believe you. You like to play the stomach game. Here you are latched on to your host, playing at being his stomach.”
“Host?” the stomach asked innocently. “What do you mean, host?”
“Come now,” Yutaka said. “Have you been wrapped around this one for so long that you’ve forgotten what you are? You’ve grown into him, like a pig hiding itself in the mud. Only now you think you’re the mud.”
“Wait,” I said, slightly annoyed. “This is my stomach. Isn’t it?”
“No,” Yutaka said calmly. “It’s not your stomach at all, Nathaniel. It is a monster pretending to be a stomach.”
“But… Sometimes I can control it. I can open the mouth and move the tongue. Doesn’t that make it mine?”
“It has become a part of you,” Yutaka said. “But it wasn’t always there. It has attached itself to you, in a parasitic relationship. You feed it blueberry cheesecake cookies, and it sleeps on you. And the sleep of the stomach dulls your emotions. It keeps you quiet and still. Your relationship with this stomach monster is out of balance. But we can fix that. You need to become aware of your true stomach, filled with real emotions. It’s buried under this monstrous fake one.”
“That’s complete crap,” the stomach said to me. “Are you going to listen to this fraud? I am your stomach. I am you and you are me. Right, buddy?”
“I’ve been teaching you about your real stomach, so we can deal with this fake one,” Yutaka continued. “The feelings you’ve been having, since we met – they brought the monster closer to the surface. The blueberry cheesecake cookies you didn’t eat – they were bait to bring him completely into the open. Now we have to confront him.”
“No one is confronting anything around here,” the stomach growled.
I didn’t know what to think. Was this really my stomach or not? Was it drugging me, somehow, with its sleep? Yutaka seemed trustworthy, but I was skeptical.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said.
“There’s nothing you have to do,” the stomach insisted. “This guy is a nut. Don’t listen to him.”
“Nathaniel,” Yutaka said, “you have to trust me. I understand you, and what you are feeling. I am your friend.”
“What do I do?” I asked. “What can I do?”
“Removing the stomach is simple,” Yutaka explained. “Tell me, what is the opposite of blueberry cheesecake cookies?”
“Ridiculous!” the stomach monster growled. “Food doesn’t have an opposite! The question is meaningless.”
Thinking logically, what the monster said made sense. But then I made eye contact with Yutaka and realized my error. It was time to stop thinking with my head, and start thinking with my stomach. My gut. Intuition.
“The opposite of blue is orange,” I said tentatively. “On the colour spectrum. So whatever it is, it has to be orange.”
“Good,” Yutaka said.
“Cheesecake is sweet, so the opposite would have to be salty. Cookies are round, so it would be square.”
“And what,” Yutaka asked, “is the opposite of cake?”
“Bread. When the people wanted bread, Marie Antoinette supposedly replied, ‘Let them eat cake!’ So, the opposite of blueberry cheesecake cookies would be a square, orange, salty, bread-like thing.”
And then I knew what the answer was. It didn’t come from my head, but my gut. I said, “The opposite of an entire bag of blueberry cheesecake cookies is a single, square, cheese cracker.”
“That’s idiotic,” the stomach monster insisted. “Where’s the logic in that? A cheese cracker is the opposite of cheesecake? They both have cheese in them! It makes no sense.”
“If you were truly a stomach,” Yutaka chided, “you would understand.”
And he was right. This so-called stomach monster didn’t seem to understand stomach logic at all. Which made me all the more suspicious of its nature.
“When is the last time you ate a single, square, cheese cracker?” Yutaka asked me.
“I can’t remember,” I said. “That’s funny. I don’t know that I’ve ever eaten one.”
“Perhaps you would like one now?” And a silver tray, piled with crackers was suddenly in Yutaka’s hand.
“No!” the stomach monster said, sounding frightened. “He doesn’t want one.”
“Change is not necessarily bad, little stomach,” Yutaka said soothingly.
“Yeah, listen,” I said to the parasite, and then I looked down to talk to him. There were now two eyes above the mouth, one on either side of my navel. (Or was that even my navel? Some sort of parasite nostril?) Each eye was pitch black, with a fiery red dot in the centre.
“No, you listen,” it said, the red dots shifting towards me as it looked up at my face. “We have a good thing going here. You don’t want to mess with this. I keep you comfortable. I keep you happy. If I didn’t keep you sleepy, who knows what kind of trouble you’d get yourself into? We’re pals! We’ve been together for so long! A boy and his stomach!”
“You’re not my stomach,” I said to it.
I stood up from the chair, walked over to Yutaka, looked over the tray, and took a single cracker – the squarest one I could see. For a moment, I merely contemplated it in my hand.
The stomach monster grumbled and roared: “You don’t know what you’re doing! We’re a team! I’ve been with you forever!”
Ignoring it, I put the cracker in my mouth. It tasted salty, with an artificial cheese tang. It crunched under my teeth, turning into a powder. My saliva mixed with the powder, turning it into a paste. It was so unlike a cookie, somehow – truly its opposite.
How could I have gone through my whole life, never eating crackers? Clearly the stomach monster had done it – keeping me from eating the one food that made it vulnerable. That was just another way it had controlled me.
When I swallowed, my stomach fell off and hit the floor with a bang. Love handles and all – one big piece, it fell off and lay there on the black marble floor, a pinkish, misshapen blob with eyes and a mouth. It shuddered, and slowly turned green as it uncurled two clawed feet from beneath itself. Then it stood up, and shook, like a dog. Somehow, this brought three blue horns – all in a row – up out of its flesh, above its eyes. Standing up, the stomach monster was as high as my waist.
“Now look what you’ve done,” it said to me, digging its claws into the floor, making deep scratches in the black marble.
I looked down at myself – and there was my true stomach, exposed for the first time that I could remember. It was like I’d been wearing a fake, Santa Claus belly for decades and finally taken it off. My true stomach was pale, wrinkled, white. I was skinny. That was the most amazing part. Yes, my arms, my legs, my face – they were all slightly pudgy. But without the stomach monster wrapped around me, I was actually quite thin. This had to be the craziest diet ever.
My pants were also sliding down around my knees. I quickly pulled them up and tightened my belt five notches.
The stomach monster stretched its legs, and sighed. “You see what you did?” it said, turning to face me. It gnashed its teeth in annoyance. “Now I’m going to have to kill and eat you.”
“No,” Yutaka said. “I don’t think so.”
“You’re going to try to stop me, magician?”
Yutaka stood up from his desk and stepped away from it. “Not at all,” he said casually. “You’re simple incapable of such cruelties. It’s not in your nature. Hmm. You’ve scratched up my marble floor with your claws.”
The stomach monster looked down at the black marble. “So I have. Sorry about that.” It sounded genuinely apologetic and sheepish.
“We have a bag of blueberry cheesecake cookies here,” Yutaka said. “Why don’t we sit down and have a meal and discuss this situation.”
The creature thought for a moment. “I do like those cookies.”
“Fighting is so uncivilized. Would you like some milk as well?”
“That would be nice.”
A bottle of milk appeared in Yutaka’s hand. He reached into a drawer of his desk and pulled out three glasses. Then in his hand was a sandwich, which he put down on the desk. And then another sandwich appeared in his hand. From the desk drawer he pulled out three plates.
“Come on, Nathaniel, pull up a chair,” Yutaka said.
“But can we trust it? I mean…”
“Don’t be rude to our guest.”
So I pulled my chair up to the desk. Yutaka poured us all some milk and handed me a sandwich on a plate. It was salami, with tomato and lettuce – quite tasty. The stomach monster got a plateful of blueberry cheesecake cookies. It stood on one claw, and with the other claw delicately selected cookies off the plate – looking like a reptilian flamingo.
“Don’t eat too many,” Yutaka warned the stomach, “or you’ll fall asleep.”
“Thank you for your concern,” the stomach replied.
There was a moment of silence as we all ate and drank. And then I couldn’t take it anymore.
“I can’t believe we’re sitting around eating cookies and sandwiches and drinking milk!” I yelled. “This creature was a parasite around my waist for I don’t know how long!”
“Since you were twelve,” the stomach said helpfully.
“And then we finally remove him, and he says he’s going to kill and eat me!” I continued. “And now we’re going to sit around and – what? Eat and drink and make small talk? Is that it? Shouldn’t we be fighting? It should be attacking us with those razor sharp talons, trying to chomp on us with those ferocious teeth. And you – Yutaka! You should be zapping him with food-related magic spells that amaze and astound! Streams of cottage cheese shooting from your fingertips!”
Yutaka, smiling as always, shook his head. “Nathaniel, that’s simply uncivilized. Not to mention unnecessary.”
“I don’t really like fighting,” the stomach monster admitted. “And I’m sorry I threatened to kill and eat you. It was all talk. Will you accept my apologies?”
“Uh, I don’t know,” I muttered, feeling foolish.
“I have to admit,” Yutaka said, “I was going to suggest you keep the stomach monster as a pet.”
“A pet?” I exclaimed. “Never!”
“Aw, why not?” the stomach monster said, his feelings clearly hurt. “We’ve been so close for so long.”
“Until a few minutes ago, I didn’t even know you were a separate entity! I thought you were my actual stomach!”
“That’s how tight we were,” the stomach said hopefully. “Friends so close we blur together!”
“You are living alone, and lonely,” Yutaka said. “Now that you know what the stomach monster is, I thought the two of you might get along better. Feed it a few blueberry cheesecake cookies now and then. And if you ever missed being fat, you could invite it back on to your belly. Remove it as required by eating a cracker. You shouldn’t have any problems. Despite those razor sharp claws, it is relatively harmless. I don’t see why the two of you can’t be friends.”
“Yeah!” the stomach said hopefully. “That sounds terrific.”
“After all,” Yutaka said, teasing me slightly, “how do you feel, now that you’re skinny?”
I looked down at my now fairly flat gut. “A little… exposed,” I admitted. “After years of dieting… I thought this is what I wanted. But, now… I feel small and… Less real. I live alone. I hate my job. Without my fat, I’m practically invisible. Non-existent. But that doesn’t mean I want some monster sharing my life! I… I’ll um… need to think about it.”
But the stomach monster and Yutaka beamed at each other, clearly thinking the matter was settled. And it most likely was.
“I think you should come work for me,” Yutaka said. “Your job doesn’t satisfy you. In my employ, you would gain substance without gaining weight. After all, you have passed all my tests so far. One of my most promising pupils. You are well on your way to becoming a Kung-Food Master.”
“I… I think that would be great,” I said, overjoyed.
I took the stomach monster home with me. I’ve even named it: Belly. It cleans the house and cooks me meals. Sometimes I wear Belly out of the house, but usually not. Lately, I find I don’t really need that “body armour” cushion. I’m starting to feel solid on my own.
Turns out the grocery store is really a training facility in Kung-Food. Working and studying with Yutaka, I have a stronger sense of self and substance. We all look like grocery store employees, on the surface, but there’s so much more going on. Most people never notice our ongoing training. That’s why Yutaka leaves little “recruitment tests” lying around – like the tins of unicorn meat.
Staff sit in meditation for several hours each day. We undergo elaborate training rituals. Two months into it, I’ve managed to make a grape out of nothingness – although it’s still quite sour. And I can levitate a can of tuna two inches off the ground.
Food is love. Food is hate. Food is power. A weakness is often a strength in disguise. Food has always been my calling, my passion. I thought my love of food was my biggest weakness. Turns out it’s my greatest strength. And I’m getting stronger all the time.