creative nonfiction by Alexandra Kesick
It has been exactly five hours since I have eaten, so I will need to eat again. We’re in line at Marshall’s after a day of shopping. I pick up a rubber duck tea ball and turn over the box in my hand.
“What are you craving?” my friend asks.
“I don’t know,” I say.
I put the rubber duck back. There are packets of gummy bears and apple chips on the next shelf. I pick up a bag of caramel apple chips and crush it in my hand.
“You know what would be good? Roasted summer vegetables with lots of garlic. Or maybe sushi,” she says.
I imagine some of my favorite foods: soft and red medium-rare cast iron steak with butter and herbs, roasted brussel sprouts with garlic, and buttery salmon sushi dipped in soy sauce. Salty seaweed salad, too, green and vibrant. But my mouth does not water, my stomach does not have anything to say. I feel nothing.
Craving food has become a foreign feeling since I had begun medication for my migraines. And while the medication works well—going from three to five migraines a month to one or two every three months—I have lost the desire to eat. I don’t lose appetite or taste: if there’s food in front of me I can eat it, taste it, and feel full, but I don’t crave or covet food.
After puberty, there would sometimes be pressure in my head so strong I was tempted to press my fingers into my eye sockets to ease the pain. I would collapse onto the couch with my head stuffed as far as I could into the cushions.
“I think you’re dehydrated,” my father would say while putting a gatorade down beside the couch. So I believed him.
The pain continued seemingly at random. I felt as though I slept enough, drank enough, ate enough, and yet the pressure would build up. I imagined if I was stuck on a desert island and didn’t have enough water to drink, I would be the first to go.
“I keep getting headaches,” I finally told my doctor my sophomore year of college.
“How badly?” the doctor asked.
“I usually have to go to sleep the rest of the day when I get it.”
She tapped my knees, waved her finger in front of my eyes.
“Any vision issues?” she asked.
“Sometimes, it gets blurry,” I said. It was true: when the pain is strong, a darkness falls over whichever eye is worse.
The doctor finally laughed and told me with my descriptions and debilitations, these were migraines. I had been with them for ten years without knowing.
After this, I discovered there was more to my condition.
I was having a conversation with my roommate and I suddenly felt like I could walk away from it. I looked at her: I had lived with her for two years, known her for longer, and she almost felt like an imposter. My soul floated inside my skin as she spoke. I told my doctor and he sent me to an EEG specialist who put sticky pads on my head and soothed me into a state between sleeping and waking to determine whether or not I was having seizures.
Migraine sufferers commonly experience visual auras: stars or rings of light in their eyes. But my aura causes the world around me to seem like a dream. Conversations I have with people seem so unreal that it feels like I can walk away without consequence. Time passes by in a blink of an eye. If I put together dough for bread in the evening, two hours later it will feel like I did it only five minutes prior.
Either of these feelings, the dissociation or dazed aching, are my warnings. When I have my warnings my body reacts: I have to eat. I have to drink. I have to do something to avoid the pain. Food is supposed to be crafted and thoughtful. It is supposed to be patient on both sides: the chefs and creators with fresh ingredients: the salted water to boil, cut vegetables, a chicken carcass of meat and bone simmering to make stock. Endless patience amounts to energy and magic to create meals that deliver that magic back into the world.
I have cooked and baked my whole life, beginning with bread making with my parents before they divorced. I kneaded the bread with my tiny fists and watched it bake, fascinated by the way it rose and changed shape. My father rolled out pizza dough and my mother cooked the sauce. They both laughed when I ate a bowl of the sauce like soup because it was just that good
I have gathered up cookbooks to learn how to make the best roast chicken, which means marinating it in buttermilk and rosemary before cooking it in the oven. There is a balance and art to dividing the elements and ingredients in a meal, such as pasta aglio e olio, made up of a handful of ingredients but made into a dish of Italian simplicity, beauty, and integrity.
But when the dreamy feeling comes to warn me about the pain, I become desperate and savage. There is no magic. There’s no hunger. There is only equation, and it becomes a means to an end: having food means a possibility to quell a pain that can incapacitate me for hours, sometimes an entire day. It doesn’t matter what I eat just as long as I can get it inside me. And when I eat it, there is no joy.
I go to work and get through the day. Instead of the afternoon drag, I begin floating in my body. My head rises to the ceiling as I stare at my computer screen. Desperate to save myself, I rush to a restaurant and buy a peach and burrata salad, the peach slices ombre and juicy, drizzled with black balsamic alongside the tomatoes. I scarf down half.
I press my fingers to my temple inside the Lyft home and stumble through my apartment doorway. I throw everything up before resigning to my bed for the remainder of the night.
The worst part is when it is in vain. There is guilt there: for the way I’ve tried to use food as a cure, for the food I’ve wasted. I love food and I love cooking and I have betrayed it. I use it for something beyond its real purpose.
I miss loving food the way I used to.
With my medication that lessens the amount of migraines, I don’t feel much hunger anymore. Sometimes, it does feel like a fascinating curse, as though the Greek gods who dolled out punishments for gluttonous behavior decided that my continuous attempt to cure my migraines with food was hubris. I would never want food but my migraines would be gone. But with this curse came freedom. When I first began taking it, I realized how easy it was to go out into the world without tension in my body.
Now, I go to the center of Harvard Square and sit on the grass beneath the trees and read. I don’t think about where I might have to go to get something to drink or eat if everything became fuzzy on the edges, if I felt like I could walk away from everything when it felt like a dream. At home, I make ceviche with scallops, peppers, and fresh lime juice. I think back on the time I used to have it in California and it seemed to have a little more olive oil than I added. I think about the farmer’s markets when I lived there, filled with gold plums and figs that look like watermelons: bright green on the outside and pink on the inside. They had fruits fresher than they will ever be here on the east coast but I can keep the memory of them. I will go out and get the figs here in season and they will be the color of a dark purple bruise. I will perhaps not crave them, but I will bite in. They will be like honey, sweet on my tongue and deep and rich with the syrup of its bright, deep red-heart center.
I will enjoy the taste.