It was the bottom of the fourth inning when, from the corner of my eye, I noticed our centerfielder toss his glove to the ground. He then crossed his legs, pushed his hips forward, and began pounding his own butt cheeks with his fists, hammering away as if he were a tribal warrior and his ass was a bongo drum. This lasted less than a minute; by the time our pitcher went into his windup, the centerfielder had retrieved his glove and was back in the ready position, legs slightly bent, hands on his knees. I looked around the diamond and the bleachers, wondering if I was the only one who had witnessed this oddity. It seemed no one else had noticed. Did I hallucinate? Catch a glimpse into some parallel universe, one that involved a ritualistic voodoo dance? Had our centerfielder developed some form of acute autism since his last at-bat? The possibilities were endless. I pondered them for the next three batters.
After the inning I approached him in the dugout. He had just put on a helmet and was wiggling his hands into a pair of batting gloves.
“Hey, what were you doing out there? At the beginning of the inning you were, like, pounding on your butt cheeks.”
“That’s the plopper stopper,” he said, selecting a bat and taking a couple check swings with it. He rested the bat against his shoulder, as though he were about to give me a hitting tip. “Whenever I feel a shit coming on, I do the plopper stopper. It scares it back up my ass. I’ll be good for at least three or four innings.”
“Huh. Do you take a lot of shits?” I asked.
“You never know when your number’s gonna get called,” he said, and then turned and walked to the on-deck circle, taking half swings along the way.
That was 1987. I had forgotten all about the plopper stopper, until twenty-five years later, when most of my colon was surgically removed.
Since then I’ve thought about it. A lot.
* * * *
In the summer of 2012 my Crohn’s Disease suffered a severe flare-up. My colon was inflamed, ulcerated, kinked and knotted. According to the CT scan, my intestines looked less like neatly stacked layers of insulation and more like my iPhone ear buds after I take them out of my pocket. What’s more, multiple perforations had opened, allowing bacteria and stool to leak out and form an abscess inside my abdomen. Between May and August I was hospitalized five times to have the abscess drained, a rather medieval procedure that involved snaking a tube through my stomach, puncturing the grapefruit-sized ball of infection, and then waiting six days for it to drip out into a plastic bag taped to my torso. It reminded me of a family trip to Florida in 1982, when my dad bought my sisters and I these plastic souvenir spigots that you stuck into oranges, yielding a tablespoon of freshly squeezed juice. A lot of build-up with minimal satisfaction.
The abscess would drain and then duly reform after a couple weeks. Surgery became my only option. The damaged part of my colon would have to be removed, but because the area was so badly traumatized it would take three months before the healthy ends could be reattached. In the interim I would require a temporary colostomy bag, which, to the opposite sex, is less appealing than genital herpes.
The surgery was successful and my recovery was swift. I finally quit smoking cigarettes, though I did replace it with a fierce addiction to painkillers. My weight quickly returned to normal. After nearly twenty years of wrenching abdominal pain, gaunt features, dark circles around my eyes and a waxy, translucent complexion, I finally looked and felt like a normal, healthy man.
Except for the shitting. See, the colon is like your kitchen trashcan. The smaller the receptacle, the more trips you make to the garage to empty it. The difference is that your trashcan can sit full for days, and when you try and pack in that last banana peel or crushed milk carton, it doesn’t blow diarrhea all over your new ceramic tiles.
People with Crohn’s Disease like to empty their intestinal trashcans as little as possible, if only to indulge in the illusion that they have some control over their bowels. The need to relieve oneself as soon as nature calls is like being the Manchurian Candidate--once the brain receives the colon’s signal Crohn’s patients clear their minds and immediately develop a single-purpose plan of how and where they are going to take a shit. Many times I’ve walked home from work and felt the floodgates open. I imagine that the look of jolted severity on my face is similar to Lawrence Harvey whenever he sees the Queen of Diamonds: one instant I’m playing an innocent game of solitaire, the next I must assassinate KGB agents at any cost.
Therefore, each bowel movement becomes a test. How long can I hold this? If I get that sluicing feeling in my belly at 4:30, before I leave my office, will I make it through the evening? Or should I play it safe and just unload everything at that moment? The safe route seems the most logical, but at the same time, the most subservient. After all, there is a chance that the feeling will pass, thereby granting me a brief reprieve from the bondage of my bowel disease.
This is where I begin to factor in other variables. The first is location. Where will I be in two hours? A movie theater? If so, I’ll try and hold it. And if I get too uncomfortable, well, a cineplex is a great place to take a shit. The restrooms are spacious, sparkling clean, and almost always empty, provided you go during the show (and not immediately after). I find a nostalgic comfort in leaving a dark theater mid-movie and walking to the restroom, down the empty corridor, following a tacky red and yellow carpet with designs of arc lights and film reels printed on it, passing framed posters of classics like E.T. and Casablanca and Field of Dreams. I feel safe whenever I take a shit in a movie theater restroom, the same safety I felt when I watched movies as a kid, that warm feeling of experiencing life by proxy and without risk, the guarantee of second-act conflicts and third-act resolutions. Safety, comfort and happy endings…all key ingredients to the ideal bowel movement experience.
Since I don’t drink anymore, I no longer have to worry about taking an emergency crap in some “cool” dive bar men’s room, those tiny, unventilated closets with a marbled glass window, one urinal, one toilet, no mirror, no lock on the stall, poems that involve necrophilia scrawled on the wall and a pool of urine at your feet. Drunk assholes will come in to piss while I’m sitting on the can and immediately gag or even blurt out “Fuck, bro, that thing in your ass needs a eulogy!” Shitting in a dive bar is like hiding out in a South American hotel during a military coup: you never know when some bloodthirsty nationalist is going to kick in the door, seize you and hand you over to the masses.
On the other hand, I do spend most nights at AA meetings, which are actually worse. Restrooms in church basements are often just as small and unventilated as those in dive bars. The main difference is that they’re far more neglected, which means they never have hand soap and could be out of toilet paper at any given time. Their functionality is spotty, too. I’ve gone into AA bathrooms and found the toilet bowl overflowing with what looks like melted Rocky Road ice cream, a situation I find equally horrific and gratifying: I am reminded of the chance we all take when shitting in a public restroom, and yet I am thankful not to be directly involved. It’s the same bone-deep feeling I get when I hear news of a plane crash.
Contrary to what you might believe, I’m actually quite fond of unisex bathrooms. These are usually found at trendy bistros, yoga studios, tattoo parlors and design firms. The trappings and décor of unisex bathrooms far outweigh the nightmare scenario of walking out of the bathroom just as that cute receptionist is on her way in; rather than apologize for the biological weapon you left behind you simply avert your eyes and walk away, praying that you never come in contact with her for the remainder of your life. In spite of that, however, the unisex bathroom is a shitter’s utopia, designed to make the movement of your bowels as pastoral as possible. They typically have soothing paint schemes, like pistachio green, or sky blue with a trim the color of sand dunes. They are equipped with bowls of potpourri, Meyers hand soap and a variety of air fresheners, from lavender rose petal to lemongrass sage. Some are furnished with orchids or viburnums (if not the real thing than at least a still life hanging on the wall). It’s as though I’m taking a shit while sitting next to Andrew Wyeth. I’ve been in a few unisex bathrooms that even offer reading material—and not back issues of Good Housekeeping or Glamour, either. I’m talking about a driftwood shelf with a dozen clothbound American classics, just in case you want to lose yourself in the selected works of Robert Frost or Henry David Thoreau while you’re squeezing one out.
The other variable to consider when forecasting my nightly bowel movement is my last meal. What did I eat for lunch? Was it starchy? Meaty? Ethnic? Leafy? Deep-fried? How many shots of espresso did I pour into my afternoon cup of coffee? Frankly, though, none of that really matters. I have eleven inches of colon; you have five feet. My digestive system operates like a shot glass that’s held under a running faucet. I could eat nothing but rice cakes, peanut butter and Imodium all day, but if my Crohn’s feels the need to announce itself with authority, I am powerless. All I can do is run, as fast as I can with clenched butt cheeks, that is.
* * * *
My first experience with my new, “leaner” large intestine came a month after my surgeries, in November of 2012. I was at my doctor’s office for a follow-up, discussing the broad strokes of living life with a travel edition-sized colon. During the meeting my stomach gurgled and some mild pressure began to rise in my abdomen; I chalked it up to psychosomatics, the same way Chuck Norris hears phantom machine gun fire when he returns to Vietnam in Missing in Action. I squirmed and crossed my legs and the feeling subsided.
Thirty minutes later, driving down Commonwealth Ave., the pressure returned. And it mounted fast, a deluge of water rising against the dam. I started to sweat. Then I started to pray. I heard my sphincter call out to me, the words squeaking out like gasps: I can’t…hold it…anymore… I tried to picture nice things, like swing sets, or kids riding bikes in a 1950s neighborhood. What came to mind instead were images of people getting sucked into things, like tornadoes, or the little girl who gets swallowed by her closet in Poltergeist. Human futility in the face of nature’s wrath.
I unbuttoned the top of my jeans. My stomach spilled over, bringing mild relief. I unzipped my fly, giving my distended belly as much room as possible to breathe. The pressure continued. My sphincter was speechless, its fingernails scraping along the castle’s wall, about to succumb to a flood of Biblical proportions. There was no recourse. A series of quick images flickered before my eyes: Easter eggs, little league, birds chirping, a base hit, the cheering crowd, a first kiss, an ice cream truck, the plopper stopper.
The plopper stopper.
“Son of a bitch!” I cried, and veered off Commonwealth and up a hilly side street. To my left were houses; to my right was a wooded area. I pulled my Jeep onto the grassy sidewalk, yanked up the handbrake, pulled down my pants, pushed the door open, pointed my ass out and shat onto the street. I let out a long, audible, thankful sigh. Just then I saw two women in yoga attire walking in my direction, both pushing baby strollers. “Oh fuck,” I said. At that point, any sort of wiping was a forgone luxury. I climbed back into the driver’s seat, floored the gas and drove off. I ducked down as I passed the two women, but I can only imagine the disgusted and horrified look on their faces. Dear God, Catherine, who was that animal? How dare he desecrate our quaint, affluent neighborhood with his fecal matter! Shall I phone the police? This kind of travesty is the very reason we bought houses on an avenue instead of a street.
I turned onto the main road and smiled. Then I started laughing maniacally, driving in my Jeep, sitting in my own shit.
Although rare, on-the-spot bowel movements have become a way of life, like springtime allergies or achy joints during a rainstorm. I have learned to accept them, to always take the safe route and to not gamble with my Crohn’s Disease, no matter how bound up or sturdy I might feel in a given moment. Like a snake in the grass, Crohn’s can sink its venomous fangs into your heel anywhere, anytime: on a date, at the beach, anywhere between point A and point B. I’ve shat in people’s backyards, in strip mall parking lots, behind dumpsters. I’ve shat in duffle bags and in cardboard Amazon.com boxes. Anywhere, anytime. From sea to shining sea. If it’s on the map, I’ve probably taken a shit there.
* * * *
One of my bizarre traditions of 2014 was wearing leather pants to work on the third Friday of every month (excluding May through September, for obvious reasons). On October’s Leather Friday my company received word that we had won a substantial piece of business, so to celebrate we went out after work for drinks at a nearby watering hole. I didn’t consume any alcohol, but I did partake in many of the exotic appetizers that were passed around the table. An array of egg rolls, dumplings, chicken satay and clever little deep-fried balls of breaded cheese, all accompanied with a variety of dipping sauces. I ate and laughed and rejoiced, toasting our agency’s hard work and good fortune, paying no heed to the rumbling that began, deep in my gastric seas.
I bid farewell early, still light outside, while my coworkers were so legless that they were arm-in-arm, pledging eternal friendship and singing along to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, even though most of them despised each other from the hours of nine to six.
As soon as I left the bar I felt the first warning shot of pressure in my bowels, followed by a warmth in my undercarriage and around my neck. I had a twenty-minute walk ahead of me. No problem, I thought. I’ll put in my ear buds and listen to something relaxing to keep my mind occupied.
Once I crossed over the expressway underpass, into South Boston, I received another warning shot, this one a hot pain that seared up through my sternum, causing me to double over. I wiped sweat off my forehead and undid the top button of my Banana Republic leather pants, which were already sticking to my legs. I took a deep breath and resumed walking over the West 4th Street bridge.
By the time I got to Old Colony Ave. I started panicking. The pressure was at a fever pitch; my sphincter felt like it was holding back an entire grain silo. I shut the music off and focused on my breathing, walking bolt upright, tensing my legs and torso. Somehow I didn’t think relaxation would be wise in that particular moment. The only nearby business was Doughboy Donuts, but they didn’t have public restrooms. So I walked on, my strides getting shorter and shorter, my butt cheeks clenching tighter and tighter.
Once I got to D Street I felt a surge of hope. A few more blocks and I’d be home. Maybe I’d try the plopper stopper when I got to my street—West 9th—and buy myself an inning or two. Worst case I could shit in the walkway next to the crack dealer three houses down from me, which I’d done twice previously.
As I turned the corner onto West 9th the pressure eased up. “Thank you, God,” I said, smiling like a prisoner of war after the lashing stops. As soon as I saw my front steps jutting out on the left the pressure disappeared completely, and I resumed my normal walk. It must have had a psychological effect: the comfort of seeing my own house had calmed my volatile colon, like blowing cool air on an open wound. I breathed a long sigh of relief.
Then I saw my neighbor, John, standing out front, waving me over. He looked distraught. John is a decent guy, albeit on the trashier side, to put it kindly. He always takes my garbage to the curb on Thursdays and shovels my front walk when it snows. He loans me tools, even offers to watch my cat, which I would never in a million years accept. Regardless, I like to be a good neighbor, so I stopped at my front steps and asked how he was.
“This is bullshit,” he said, not really answering my question. “My fucking daughter just got picked up by the cops. You see all the cruisers out here a minute ago?”
“No, I just got here. What happened?”
“Fuckin drugs. Fuckin OC sixties, you believe that?” His voice was shaky. He wiped snot from his chin. I could smell the tooth decay in his breath from six feet away.
“Oh, John, that’s…” Just then my reservoir started flooding again. Fast. I bent over and held my stomach. He kept going.
“I had to call the cops myself. She won’t get help, you believe that? Now she's bangin her dealer, some fuckin spic from Mission Hill.” He started to cry. I had tears in my eyes, too. I tried to imagine a field at sunset, tall reeds swaying in the breeze and milkweed sifting through the air, but all I could see was John’s obese, 20-year old daughter, with her mullet and her Nike high tops, having sex with a scrawny Latino man in the back seat of her Chevy Caprice.
I pulled my keys from my jacket pocket. My hands were so shaky that I couldn’t locate the front door key and I ended up dropping them on my steps. John continued with his rant, telling me at least six times how his daughter was banging her dealer. I bent down to grab my keys, and that’s when the floodgates opened wide. Down both legs of my leather pants.
“Oh...that’s fucking awful,” I said.
“I know, right? I had a problem with booze and coke, but I quit on my own. Been thirteen years, did it myself. You had some problems with that shit, too. Right?”
All I could do was nod, leaning against the rail of my front steps, holding my head in my hand.
I stood there for another ten minutes listening to John talk about his daughter. Finally I told him I had to go. I shook his hand and wished him luck, told him I’d be happy to talk to her about recovery whenever she was ready, then crab walked up my stairs and into my condo. Fortunately my leather pants were so tight and sticky they trapped most of the shit against my legs, sparing my favorite pair of boots.
I removed my shirt and boots, stepped in the shower and turned on the water. Once the leather pants were off, the cleansing could begin. A new day always comes, with or without hope, or safety, or the possibility of happiness. Clothes can be replaced. Everything is disposable. Even good health is elusive, no matter how often you get to the gym or how prudent your diet. But humility…that stays with you for a long time.
Or at least I hope it does.
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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