In order to survive food poisoning, you first must acquire it. If you happen to be studying abroad in Prague, stock the refrigerator in your Stalin-era dorm with lunchmeat sandwiches, boiled eggs, yogurt and cheese. This will remind you of what you eat at home, plus will help keep dining costs down.
Towards the end of your stay, eat heartily from this stockpile for several days without realizing that the refrigerator keeps going off then coming back on, going off then coming back on. Notice water leaking from underneath the fridge one early morning on your way out to class. Decide not to eat any more of your picnic when you return that night to warm everything. You know trouble when you see it.
Board a nine-hour flight back to the United States the next day. Fly coach and make sure you have a middle seat.
Shortly into this flight you’ll start to feel hungry, or nauseous; you’re not quite sure. Decide to play it safe and eat some of the almonds you brought from home. Pop two into your mouth and realize after several chews that either these are the worst almonds ever, or you are about to become severely ill.
You are severely ill.
Jettison yourself over the young man sitting in the aisle seat and move as quickly as possible down the aisle to where the bathrooms are. There is no line this time (VACANT) so lean into the accordion door and get yourself inside. Unleash. You are Linda Blair without benefit of priest, pope, or parent. Try to match orifice with receptacle, receptacle with orifice. Try to tidy the bathroom so that the next guest can have a pleasant experience. Return to your seat.
Repeat entire process minutes later before dragon-breathing to the young man next to you that you are really sick and need the aisle. He’ll switch with you immediately, no questions asked.
You will make your way from your seat to the bathrooms and back at least three more times before a flight attendant kneels down next to you and asks if you are feeling alright. Say no; you think you might have food poisoning. When he asks if you’d like for him to call for a doctor on board, hesitate: You don’t want this attention, so of course you would not like that. But remember that you called 911 a few years back when your gall bladder went out, and if you’d been stubborn with the paramedics who came to your rescue that time, you might not be around anymore.
Listen through the haze of plane light and sweat on your lip as a doctor is paged over the intercom; a nice doctor-person is soon kneeling next to you. When he gently asks if he may take your pulse, agree. When all the nice people want to give you some oxygen in the curtained-off area where the flight attendants rest in their reclining chairs, don’t resist.
It won’t be too long—an hour, a day—before you have to move back to your upright aisle seat. There is no other place for you. Ask to lie to down on the floor even though the flight attendant says, “You don’t want to do that.” You want to do anything other than sit up for the duration of your flight. But all of your desires and those of the people around you are no match for your body’s natural reflexes.
During your next several trips up and down the aisle to the bathrooms, you push a small child out of line and say “I’m sick” as you take her place waiting to get in. You will your body to not revolt again until a bathroom opens up. These are the longest seconds of your life. On one of your last trips into the bathroom, shoes no longer on your feet, glasses no longer on your face, look down at the fluid sloshing on the floor and recognize it as urine from the men as they lost their balance during turbulence.
An afternoon or a day into this flight, people sitting by the windows will begin to raise their shades. For about an hour, you think, you’ve been sipping warm water and keeping it down. Somehow you will acquire a ginger ale, and you will keep that down too. Never has a ginger ale raised your confidence as much as this one.
Pay attention when the flight attendant who gave you his own soft, sterilized blanket and his reclining seat—not to mention the doctor and the oxygen—when he pops down next to you and says with a smile, “You look so much better now!”
And don’t be surprised when the strangers around you, people who you kept from their fair turns at relief, look at you with kindness in their eyes, not anger, as you were expecting.