My college specialized in the wonders of science. Perhaps that’s why the students’ health-care facility wound up on the thirteenth floor, a symbol for an unspoken yet understood premise: no “stupidstitions” allowed. With that principle in mind, I considered a doctor’s request for a follow-up to a physical as significant as the day after Christmas and rode the elevator up with only a shrug. I was young, healthy; what could possibly be wrong?
The doctor asked me to sit.
“Your lab results from your stool specimen came back with eggs in them,” he said, his speech so clipped it sounded like a rebuke.
Not sure what he meant, I waited for more information.
“You have a parasite.”
“What?” I screamed, jumping to my feet.
“Quiet,” he said. “Someone will hear you.”
“Oh, God,” I said, ignoring his admonishment. Like I really gave a shit now if anyone heard. “I hope it’s not a tapeworm. Just tell me it’s not that.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, not bothering to hide a yawn, “but that’s what it is. A fish tapeworm.”
I sat back down, stunned, and listened while he explained what I’d have to do to get rid of it.
“No, it will not come out of your mouth,” which praise the Lord, answered my first question. “Actually,” he added, “as far as parasites go, it’s one of the easier ones to treat.”
Yay! Lucky me.
My aversion to tapeworms began in a high-school biology class. A teacher passed the oddity—a coiled-up dybbuk preserved in formaldehyde—around the room. At first glance it looked like a strand of cooked spaghetti, but on closer inspection I could see that it was divided into tiny interconnected segments. Feeling queasy, I passed it to the next student before an embarrassing accident could occur and stain my regulation school clothes.
The teacherdrew a picture of the worm’s life cycle on the board. It didn’t appear too complicated. Crustaceans swallowed eggs from the parasites. Freshwater fish ate the now infected crustaceans. Subsequently they, too, became infected and developed larvae which migrated to their internal organs. Humans ate the fish and—voilà!—the adult version of the worm developed inside the unfortunate victims.
I came back to the present as the doctor finished his recitation then, breathing hard, rushed down to the school library where I immersed myself in all the info I could find. In addition to the written word were gruesome pictures. Unless you happened to be another Diphyllobothrium latum, I don’t suppose you’d find them particularly pretty.
According to one book, the length of a fish tapeworm averaged thirty feet. It made its home in a human host by attaching to the wall of the small intestine by way of the two sucking hooks in its head. Then it went on to lay its eggs, a gift to your body’s solid-waste depository, to be subsequently released into the sewer system via the toilet. How pleasant! I looked up, ran my eyes along the line where the wall met the ceiling and tried to estimate thirty feet. That was almost the length of one side of the library, and I had that hideous thing inside me. “Shit! Double Shit!”
That choice of profanity made me think of the only bright side to this disgusting kettle of fish. Ha-ha! Now I could use my favorite word—SHIT—as much as I wanted. After all, I was a shitty type of girl; none of this stool or feces stuff for me.
The more I pondered, the funnier it seemed, and I came up with an endless supply of shits: holy shit, fucking shit, no shit, shitsmear, ugly shit, even you lucky shit. With its variegated forms, it is probably the most popular term in the English language, and that doesn’t even take into account its offshoots like doggy doo, crapola, cow pies, dingleberries, and brown tracks on your underwear. There’s a shit not only for the physical act itself but for the expression of just about every emotion. The single idiom—holy shit—can describe anything from anger to happiness to sadness and pleasure by the user’s inflection alone. Still, I would have preferred to have not gotten into this shitty mess in the first place.
It didn’t take me long to figure out how I caught this crappy pestilence. When I had lived in San Francisco, I developed a taste for sushi, raw fish, from Japanese restaurants. After I’d moved back to The Bronx, I continued eating it from time to time. So that’s why I’m so skinny, I reflected, looking down at my sliced-thin frame. You dumkop, piece-of-dreck worm! You’re stealing my food!
I’d been losing weight over the past few months, but since I felt okay, it didn’t cause me any concern. Now, however, it all made sense, and that included the strident screams from the customers at work. I’ll explain—
In addition to school, I worked as a salesgirl at one of the higher-priced department stores in Manhattan. With my 15% discount, I had purchased some clothes for my model-sized body.
I remember what I wore the first time I got the “look” because I had never before been so closely scrutinized by a person, male or female, who locked onto my form with a gluelike fixation. Dressed in my micro-mini with tan-and-white stripes, I was the picture of young, hip, and stylish. The stripes ran horizontally. (Okay, maybe they were vertical, but who cares!) The fabric was thin and clung to my angles and curves.
While waiting for a shopper to assist, I stood perfectly still daydreaming of the many places I’d rather be. It was then that I noticed a woman giving me the once over, running her eyes scrupulously up and down. I maintained my position, wondering what the hell was going on. She can do whatever she wants, I told myself. After all, the customer is always right. Right? Maybe she was gay (no biggie) or maybe just strange, but finally I got tired of standing with my weight on one leg and shifted to the other. At that moment, the woman opened her mouth, shrieked, and almost swooned to the floor.
“I thought you were a mannequin! I thought you were a mannequin!”
After I assured her I was quite alive, we both calmed down—I from her caterwaul and she from thinking I was a plastic dummy. Then following a shared laugh, I directed her to the department where I had gotten the outfit. I, of course, used good judgment and refrained from telling her that it wouldn’t suit her chunky legs. So all this was because of the worm …
I was called up to the thirteenth floor at school again. After my initial diagnosis, these invitations were coming on a regular basis. The question remained the same: when would I be hospitalized for my “little” thirty-foot problem? The infectious-disease specialist, treating me at his posh office in Manhattan, kept asking for additional Grade-A shit specimens. Laughing like the perpetrator of a practical joke, he told me why.
“I’m submitting a paper to a medical journal about your tapeworm. It’s not acting normally.”
Hooray for me! My worm’s abnormal. Gotta get it a shrink. Paging Dr. Fishburn.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Fish tapeworms lay about 1,000,000 eggs a day. Yours is lazy, not laying a sufficient amount.” He nodded his head as if this piece of information was of utmost importance. I nodded back, assuring him I was sympathetic to the situation surrounding his future article. Like ca-ca, I was.
“Listen,” I said. “They’re hasslin’ me at school. They keep calling me up to the health clinic. The worm’s gotta come out. ASAP.”
His mouth twisted sideways as he considered my request. “Okay. I think we have enough specimens, after all. I’ll call the hospital and see when they can get you in.”
Within a few weeks I was admitted to Columbia-Presbyterian for what was to be a one-day stay. The doctor came by that evening and gave me a cursory physical, and afterwards I settled in for the night. My room, with a private bath, was at the end of the corridor—far away from everyone else. I’d learn why the next day, and that would be when the real fun would begin.
The next morning I ate a light breakfast. I had barely finished when the doctor walked in. He explained what the procedure would entail. First I would be given an oral medication to kill the worm. If I was willing, he would give me some pills—experimental, he pointed out—which had been used in Europe for a number of years. If I didn’t agree to that, I would have to drink some nasty-tasting stuff. Then a nurse would come in and give me a laxative. Soon I’d be in business.
I signed the permission slip for the experimental drug, took the pills, the laxative, and waited. While I sat in the boredom of my solitary room, before bombs away would hit me like a ton of manure, I contemplated on the wonders of digestion.
Most people, me included, are more interested in what goes into their mouths than what comes out the other end, but then shit happens. Judging by how often it does, and thanks to the slew of tummy troubles from diarrhea to constipation, I suspect we think about it more than we care to admit.
Feeling serious stirrings below, I knew this was it. As the sweating, the cramps, the urge to push intensified, I rushed to the crapper and bore down to deliver my alien creature. The doctor had carefully instructed me, “Do not flush the toilet!”
Okay. That wasn’t going to be my problem.
He had explained that the worm could come out in three ways: (1) as a whole—the worst way, in my opinion; (2) in pieces—not as bad, but bad enough; (3) completely dissolved—the no-doubt-about-it very best way. The only flaw with the latter was that I would have to be tested again for eggs at some future date, but I could live with that.
The doctor came in from time to time to mess in my mess, but I didn’t feel sorry for him. He had chosen his specialty and, besides, he had kept me waiting so that he could write his dumb article. What he was looking for was the head of the worm. Without the head, detaching from my intestinal wall, the worm wouldn’t die and would continue growing and making segments.
By the end of the afternoon, I was dehydrated and exhausted. Zombielike, I staggered back to bed, holding on to the wall for support. I felt as if I had lost an additional five pounds, and there was no worm to be found. It had dissolved. Good! If I had seen it, I think I would have hit the ground like a sack of fertilizer.
The doctor told me I could leave the hospital, and we scheduled a follow-up to check for eggs.
Once again, I did my doody and carried my numero dos in a plastic bag to my next appointment. There were no eggs, and to be on the safe side we scheduled a second visit where that specimen, too, tested negative for eggs. The pain-in-the-ass ordeal was over, and I was finally able to sing, “Ding dong the wicked [worm] is dead.” And, needless to say, my sushi-eating days took a no-ifs-and-or-butts everlasting dump.
Nancy Widrew has had both short stories and nonfiction published in webzines and print, along with a novel (horror), Something Down There, published in 2017.