The Day I Learned I Was A Cow
My father is standing over the toilet in a rage. He’s in the bathroom at the top of the stairs, holding a wet plunger, watching the bowl swirl empty then slowly refill. Between flushes and plunges, water drips onto the discolored aubergine cut-pile nylon that carpets every inch of our suburban house, including all four bathrooms.
My parents bought the house on Leavenworth Road from an ascetic Catholic couple who raised twelve kids there. When we walked through, crucifixes hung in every room, but my parents gutted the inside. They finished the basement, built walls, bought storm windows, nailed mezuzahs on every doorpost. The only original work that remained was the exquisite white and grey marble floor in the front foyer. My mom wanted carpeting to run clean through the house. Modern, she said. Purple everywhere. It’ll be fabulous. Their designer, a friend who draped scarves around her neck like Jackie Onassis, told my mother, with as much elegance as Jackie, That marble gets ripped out over my dead body.
Jesus Christ! he yells to no one, except perhaps the framed Jerusalem print hanging on the wall behind the toilet. She’s a fucking cow. A fucking barnyard animal. He draws it out and holds the plunger. Jeeeeesus Chriiiiist.
I am just outside the doorframe, out of his line of sight, at the hallway closet where my mother keeps the family silver and purple crystal goblet we use for Elijah’s cup during the Seder. It’s 1991, I am 13, and horrified at myself for having excreted what would, in a different family, give rise to genuine concern or go down in sibling lore as a comically large shit.
I was sure as it was coming out of me, confirmed when I stood up afterwards, that it was shaped like a bell. About five inches in diameter at the widest point and approximately a foot long. It stuck out of the water like a baby walrus coming up for air.
Though I won’t get my first period till later that year, I can feel my white Hanes Her Way underwear, from the outlet mall in Gretna, flush with shame. But that doesn’t concern me right now. Now, I’m concerned about the toilet flushing, my father leaving the scene. It’s been ten minutes, and already algebra doesn’t exist. Rachel Wolf & The Mean Girls don’t exist. Camp doesn’t exist. This is all that’s happening. The sooner the toilet runs regularly, the sooner I can go back to acting like this is a freak occurrence. Like I haven’t been lying to my pediatrician. Like he hasn’t had me on Citrical since fifth grade anyway.
What the fuck did she do? Wait three days?
In fact, it had been four. I didn’t have time Monday before the bus came, and no one could shit in the three minutes between bells at school. Monday night everyone was home, and the house was quiet. Tuesday, I woke up late and had ballet after dinner at the J. Bloated in my leotard, I joked about how much pasta I’d eaten. Wednesday, Anne slept over because her stepmom was being difficult again. We stayed up late whispering about Tony–she was crushing on him hard, but his mullet killed any desire I might have for him. By Thursday night, my body couldn’t hold it anymore. After dinner, I disappeared upstairs, and I heard my mother complaining that I was trying, as usual, to get out of clearing the table.
I’d been stopping up toilets as long I could remember. My dad reacted about the same way every time, so I almost never called for help. I had a system: I only went in my own house, usually when no one was home. If they were, I waited until the big T.V. was on in the living room (Dad) and the small T.V. was on a different channel in the kitchen (Mom). My sister would be in her room listening to something soulless like Amy Grant, and my brother, in the basement, was probably masturbating to the Playboy magazines my dad thought he hid in his closet under boxed button-down dress shirts.
I never went at anyone else’s house.
Except one time I had to. It had been a week, and I couldn’t hold it any longer. We were at the Williams’ beautiful home in Happy Hollow for a Shabbat dinner. The antique décor and warm wood made the whole house feel inviting, if slightly rickety. Predictably, I clogged the en suite toilet in their guest room, and I had to exit the bathroom, whisper to Mrs. Williams, a concert violinist, what had happened, then ask for a plunger. I hid in the bathroom, and she snuck through the crack in the door all she had–a tiny green sink plunger. I got shit all over my hands and arms. I found an extra roll of toilet paper under the sink and used it to clean the hardwood floors and myself. I couldn’t, wouldn’t dare, leave a trace of evidence on her ivory towels trimmed with lace.
In junior high, we watched videos in Human Growth and Development class about body systems–reproductive, respiratory, endocrine. The movie about the digestive system showed a wobbly, animated purple oval, gently ushered through the large intestine by softly swaying villi. Music played over the animation. Clarinets, like old cartoon music. The happy blob grooved its way through miles of intestine, then waved goodbye on its way out. The villi waved back.
Outside the bathroom, at the top of those stairs in the new house, every nerve ending frizzled with fear. Please let it go down. Please let it go down.
With every plunge, his rage grew. We haven’t lived in this house one year! She’s going to ruin the plumbing. The entire fucking house will get backed up. If I have shit coming out of the ceiling downstairs, it’s coming out of her college fund!
The biggest design change, by far, was the track lighting they installed in every room, with dimmer switches. I think they thought it said Impressively Middle Class, which I guess it did. But because the house itself was old, because the guts were still 50 years old, every now and then, whether I’d clogged the toilet or not, pipes would leak, and water would trickle out of the recessed aluminum cans in the kitchen ceiling. My mother always wiped up the mess with a dark purple dishtowel, swiping it with her foot, a lumbering, domestic rond de jambe.
Worse than my father calling me a cow because of the size of my bowel movement, worse than routine trips to Gretna for shrink-wrapped six-packs of discount cotton underwear, worse than anything, anything at all, would have been if the fetid water leaked through the light onto the floor. The floors were white. The walls were white. The ceiling was white. Halogen bulbs burned white hot. I clenched with fear and held onto the hallway closet’s brass doorknob, trying to disappear into the small corner created by the wall, the door, and the drywall banister. If I could have crawled in and hidden among the china and serving dishes for the rest of my life, I would have.
The toilet drained too slowly, gurgled. Not yet. I leaned over the banister and listened for water dripping on kitchen tiles. Not yet.
God. She is disgusting.
A couple years later I’d see a pediatric gastroenterologist and get diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. I’d spend a semester of high school in Children’s Hospital, having my bowel resected, and getting hooked on soap operas. My parents would tell everyone how sick I’d been. How strong. They’d share unnecessary details—that my hemoglobin was normalizing, or that I could add fresh fruit back to my diet—to anyone who would listen. My mother would watch me at the dinner table, now vigilant. I’m still not sure if they were searching for penance or publicity. At 16, it looked like hypocrisy.
One October afternoon, after I’d been released from the hospital, I watched Days of Our Lives in the living room, eating my aunt’s homemade pumpkin pie from the foil pan. I weighed 97 pounds and had to gain back the weight I’d lost due to internal bleeding and intravenous feeding. My mother was on the phone in the kitchen describing to a girlfriend my week’s bowel activities and medication regiment. Prednisone. Azulfidine. Zantac.
I turned the volume up.
Vivian, under the influence of herbal pills prescribed by Dr. Wu, has buried Carly alive. She celebrates by rolling atop the fresh grave, running her fingers through white roses, and laughing like a madwoman in slacks and a pendant necklace. She says into a walkie-talkie, Don’t waste your precious energy trying to make me feel guilty, Carly. It won’t work.
Carly, from the confines of her coffin, replies, You could never live with yourself knowing the hell you’ve put me through.
Vivian counters, The thought of the hell you’re suffering is what’s going to keep me warm at night, Darling.
As I lingered just outside the upstairs bathroom, a 13-year listening for the toilet to flush clear, I wish I could have thought, What would Carly or Vivian do? But I didn’t know them then, and I wasn’t a glamorous surgeon or vindictive CEO. I was a cow pretending to be a girl. I should have been munching clover and grass at the edge of our neighbor’s garden. I should have been out to pasture, warm hair in the sunshine, with my herd. Not locked in a two-story, four-bed house in west Omaha, half-hiding inside a closet, alone with my shame. Branded.
About the Writer
Nicole Cox is a writer in the D.C. area. Her work has been published in Hanging Loose, Another Chicago Magazine, Briar Cliff Review (Pushcart Prize nomination), American Book Review, and others. Her plays have been workshopped in Chicago and at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. She is currently working on a book of poems and a bookof essays, which might intersect. We’ll see.