by Daniel Johnson
I contracted food poisoning once before, around this time of year in 2014. I had just gotten back from an alumni weekend at my alma mater with my then-girlfriend, who had insisted (she was insistent) we dine at a less-than-reputable sushi garden before the evening’s dockside bar crawl. I know: the poisoned-by-sushi thing is so exhausted a narrative that, most times, I’ll explain the virus entered me via the White Russians I drank at the little Mexican food joint where myself and all the other alums played song trivia. Because who dares to drink White Russians from a taco truck, or at all, really. I’ll say it was around that time when I remember the margarita-colored strands of lights strung along the marina started to twinkle in a nauseating way, when it was high tide hot saliva-wise.
My mother took care of me then. I was still living at home and she was (still is) a practicing nurse. She brought me ginger ale and applesauce and key lime Jell-O with plastic flatware while I shit the bed in my sleep and vomited napalm into the toilet whenever I managed to crawl—literally crawl—to the bathroom. It was a horrorscape, but she navigated it with grace and tenderness.
At night, she replaced dampened cold washcloths on my forehead while I endured some of the most terrible fever dreams I’ve yet had. In one of them, I set my garage on fire and beat my cat nearly to death, after which I held her crooked paw and wept both in dream and reality. My mother told me they were just the combination of dehydration, fatigue and medicine. She said, as all mothers do, that they were just dreams.
I didn’t believe her. A little over a month before I got sick, I had started working with a dream analyst who also doubled as my writing mentor. I made this decision so as to, perhaps, gain access to some spiritual cavity of my subconscious that might be beneficial to my creative process. We corresponded via email and she had noted the re-occurrence of feline imagery in my nightmares. She told me I should most likely interpret the cat as the Jungian archetype of The Dark Mother, who is particularly present in men’s dreams and damaging to their independence. She said, more or less, that The Dark Mother grows increasingly dangerous as young men get older: she represents the part of the son that will forever carry and be hindered by the burdens of his mother, i.e. (at the risk of sounding overly oedipal) the part of me that, in 2014, was hesitant to move out of my childhood home because I was unsure as to how happy and fulfilled my mother was in her marriage to my father. I asked my mentor what she thought of the cat-beating and the arson. She told me it was her strong suspicion that I might be blaming my mother for my homebound, postgrad waywardness.
It’s true that I found it hard not to fiercely resent her while she took care of me during those miserably ill days. The psychology behind her bedside supervision, within the context of my dreams, felt manipulative and transactional. I was partially convinced my mother had fostered my dependency on her during my recovery so as to further keep me under her roof. Her role as compassionate mother was totally contingent upon my participation as her ailing son; maybe, I thought, she preferred buttressing that identity over facing her possibly blurry one as a wife. It seemed to me some sort of infantile regression: I was incontinent and eating foods for the toothless. I began to deny her care. I asked her to let me rest alone, so she did. I got better.
Today, I have food poisoning again. I’m home from work—from a new job in Manhattan that I adore—convalescing alone in my Brooklyn apartment. I’m watching sitcoms on my Macbook and using pillows to block out the natural light from my windows. When I look at the birch trees stenciled on my wall, I get dizzy and turn over. I drink water in sips.
The likely cause: in a late-night attempt to discern what the goddamn hell ‘bodega’ means and what’s so special about them, I stopped by a corner deli and ordered a grilled chicken sandwich that tasted neither like it was grilled nor chicken. I’m new in town (I moved here last week) and don’t yet know the places to frequent or to avoid. Safe to say, I’ll be more selective when purchasing a hot meal from establishments where I can also stock up on, among other miscellany, fabric softener, sleeveless undershirts and Midol.
I don’t at all mind recovering alone. I’ve been told this is a distinctly feline eccentricity: when they’re sick, cats disappear, curl up on the corner shelf in the storm cellar and lick each wound until they’re ready to come upstairs. Perhaps this urge to be alone was what I was really raging against two years ago, in that fever dream in which I attacked my cat. In retrospect, I’d like to think I wanted and failed to be gracious about simply letting my mom be a mom by doing what she’s good at and nursing her kid back to health.
Dream jargon can be tricky like that. It’s often poignant, but in a really conspiratorial and over-prideful way. I like key lime Jell-O, after all, and my parents’ marriage is just fine: when I called today to let them know I had food poisoning again, they had to cut the conversation short. They were headed up to Maine, where they’ll shop for antiques in novelty stores and watch reruns of Wings by the light of a gas fireplace.