The Skin is the Largest Organ
Step 1: Anticipation
The mouth is the beginning of the digestive system. Before you even take the first bite, the saliva glands start to secrete, triggered by the smell of food.
It is humid and the streets are tired. My skin is gluey with sweat and the city smog leaks through my sandals. It is so hot in my apartment that I soak my t-shirts in cold water and wear them dripping. I make small puddles on the floor, but everything evaporates quickly. I like it when the dust from the gutters gets ground into my bed sheets at night, and my days seep yellow into the mattress. It is evidence that I am living some kind of life.
I do not feel like eating anything. I am sticky and clammy and the thought of holding solid shapes in my mouth makes me want to vomit. I can stomach fruit because it is gentle. I slice watermelon into patient chunks and keep it in the fridge. I suck strawberries, pert and bitter, a collection of green tufts furring on my windowsill. Apples are sharp and sensible in the afternoons and pomegranate seeds roll between the floorboards like spilt rubies. Sometimes I add some natural yoghurt, or a few flaked almonds. Mostly, I have fruit and cold coffee, sitting on the floor.
I get home from work and kick off my sandals. I place a brown paper bag filled with bottles of beer on the kitchen table. When it is hot like this, beer quenches my thirst like nothing else can. I open the windows and roll a cigarette. I don’t smoke, but when the pavements are cracking with the force of the sun then all of the rules must be broken. I take off my bra. My apartment is at the top of the building and looks out over rooftops. I often sit in my chair with my legs resting on the window ledge. My bare feet hang over the city like a dirty secret.
Step 2: Insertion
As you put food into your mouth, the flow of saliva increases.
Julian turns up with two oranges. They are blood oranges, or perhaps satsumas, or clementines, or maybe even tangerines. I can never remember the right names. He says I need to learn categories and boundaries in order to understand the world, but I like it when things are blurred and indistinct.
(Saliva contains chemicals that begin to break food down.)
He cuts the oranges into large segments with a knife and puts them into two bowls: one for each of us. I watch his strong, clever hands chopping and slicing. He rinses his fingers under the tap and looks in my cupboard for brown sugar. I like that he knows where I keep it. He washes his hands again and we sit cross-legged, watching the sun seep through the window. The oranges are cold and hurt my teeth. The sugar sticks to my gums. Beer and citrus leak down my chin and the clouds are lemon drizzle in a persimmon sky.
Julian has a pip caught in his beard and I reach out to wipe it away, but he catches my arm and gives me a look that makes me quiver. He says that he is practising delayed gratification, and that an unfulfilled desire is more satiating than a satisfied one. I think that all of Julian’s needs are already realised. Wanting is a luxury and having is something he can do without. I have nothing, and so I want everything. I bite his hand, gently. He digs his pulpy fingernails into my skin and I focus on the birthmark on his forearm, the size and shape of a kumquat.
(Chewing breaks food down into pieces that can be more easily digested.)
Step 3: Swallowing
The pharynx is the part of the body that receives the food from your mouth. The act of swallowing is partly a reflex and partly requires voluntary control.
Autumn is lonely. Acrid, yellow leaves wilt from the trees and the sky is heavy and smells of burning. I wheel my bike along the street as the nights draw in, withstanding the cold for as long as I can. The lights in shop windows scald my eyes behind rotting branches. I hate pulling on my thick black tights. They cling to my body and make it difficult to breathe. I watch lovers in long coats and scarves bundle into bars to sup red wine by candlelight and curl up against the night, lips and tongues stained a smug shade of purple.
I must eat pulses, because they are a good source of protein and I need to grow strong enough for the encroaching winter.
(A pulse is the rhythmic throbbing of your arteries as blood is propelled through them.)
I like root vegetables. They are solid and loamy and make me think of unshaven armpits, coarse and musky with sweat. The grocery stalls are full of knobbly squashes and wrinkled carrots. I stockpile curly kale and lug home tins of kidney beans and bags of dried lentils from the supermarket. I boil chickpeas and split peas and haricot beans. I roast tomatoes in the oven with sprigs of rosemary. I rub sage into my wrists like herby perfume. Everything I make must be eaten in a bowl, with a teaspoon. I take great care not to swallow too much.
Step 4: Opening
The food passes down your oesophagus and into a ring-shaped muscle called the lower oesophageal sphincter. This muscle opens to let food pass into your stomach, and then closes to keep it there.
I pull my turtleneck high around my throat and run up the steps to Ben’s front door. I knock, but he doesn’t answer. I push my ear to the crack as Nina Simone groans, so I let myself in and find him in the kitchen. A garlicky stink wraps itself around my body. His shirtsleeves are trailing into saucepans and stockpots and a laptop screen is beaming a recipe, covered in slop and coriander leaves. I pull the book I have come to return from my backpack and place it on top of the fridge, where I think it will be safe. He flits around the room in the nervy, handsome way he always does, pushing curls from his eyes with tobacco-tipped fingers. He pours me a glass of wine and I sip, listening to his voice.
(The stomach muscles contract periodically, churning food to enhance digestion.)
He is cooking a special dinner for Evie, to celebrate a new exhibition of her paintings. He says he loves going to the gallery and seeing her work, because it makes him feel closer to her, as though he is looking straight through her body and into her soul.
(If there is a problem with your oesophageal sphincter, you might suffer from reflux, which can cause heartburn and regurgitation.)
Burnt cinnamon creeps across the room and he bites his lip and pulls a tray from the oven, burning his arm as he does so. The edges of his baklava are brown and charred, but the centre is soft and delicate, just the way he likes it. He cuts away the blackened parts and wraps them up in tin foil, for me to take home. Ben knows I like the taste of carbon, smoky and ominous, on my tongue.
(Regurgitation is the process of food coming back up.)
Step 5: Secretion
The stomach secretes acid and special enzymes that break the food down into a liquid or paste.
I spend a lot of time thinking of other places. I sit on the top decks of night buses and travel over bridges. The glass turns steamy with other people’s breath and I try to believe that I am anywhere else. I imagine the lights along the river are trails of phosphorescence caught on the shore of a place that is kinder than this one. I lose a glove and forget to buy a new pair. In the morning frost, my bare fingers are tough and exposed. It is good to remember that I can be both.
My eyes water lemongrass over bowls of pho and I sweat turmeric into my nightdress. I grind rubbery mussels between my molars and press my ear to their broken shells, pining for an echo of the sea. I clear city sludge from my nose with dollops of wasabi and chew sauerkraut until my eyes begin to bleed. I want brine and chili and apple cider vinegar. I want anything that will shatter the dark, grey days.
(Eating certain foods, such as citrus, tomato, chocolate, mint, garlic, onions or spicy or fatty foods can increase your susceptibility to acid reflux.)
Alex and I walk side by side through Chinatown. Dead ducks glitter fatly in restaurant windows and our breath hangs silver in the black bean air. He says he would like to eat duck smothered in hoisin sauce, and I tell him I would like that, too. I do not eat meat, but I haven’t told him, yet. I am playing a different version of myself. His torn leather jacket grazes my hand as we turn into a warm doorway. I think the word inevitable as we climb the narrow stairs.
He orders chicken spring rolls for us to share and I cover them in salt. They fall apart so easily on my tongue. We slurp wonton soup and wipe our mouths with paper napkins. An army of gold cats watches us from across the room, their paws waving us on. He orders cold beers between courses and I drink mine too quickly.
(These processes are highly dependent on a large network of nerves, hormones and muscles.)
Alex tells me I’m floating. He says that he envies me because he would like to be as free. I don’t think I’m floating at all. I am an iron filing under a magnet, drawn helplessly to dangerous, velvet things. I decide that I am not going to tell him this. The sesame oil seeps into our pores and our faces shine like plastic. He takes a sip from my glass of water without asking, and I place my mouth over the imprint of his lips.
(Problems with any of these components can cause a variety of conditions.)
Our duck arrives with pancakes and strips of cucumber. We get to work smearing and rolling. He orders two portions of special fried rice. He serves it onto my plate in a soggy heap while I dig my nails into my thighs beneath the table and smile, graciously. My stomach clenches in a hard, tight fist as I force pellets of ham into it. His phone keeps vibrating and he puts it on the table and switches it off. He winks.
(Your stomach lining contains special mucus-producing cells that protect your stomach walls from being damaged by the acid.)
He picks up a piece of duck with his chopsticks and offers it to me, his silver rings glinting under the lights. I lean across the table without breaking eye contact and take it, soft and tender, in my mouth. Anticipation glistens wetly in his face. Later, I pick beaks and talons from between my teeth.
Step 6: Waste Processing
Food passes from your stomach into your intestines. The large intestine is a specialised organ that processes waste so that excretion is easy and convenient.
I shed my winter clothes too quickly, desperate for the light to warm my skin. I get caught in a rainstorm in a pair of red sandals and the dye soaks into my feet. I scrub my soles with a scourer, but I cannot get rid of the residue. I cycle around the city with my dress tied in a knot above my knees. Construction workers with bare chests in high-vis vests spit static as I pass, but I am moving too fast for them to catch me.
(The problem is, not all food can be digested by your body.)
I am hungry for things that are not fit for human consumption. The smell of bulbs pushing through soil in the park makes my mouth water, and the green bins in back gardens, filled with compost and cut grass, bring me out in goose pimples. The sludge that coats the swans on the canal in green fur hits the back of my throat like something pure. The shy sun on dank concrete makes me bite the insides of my mouth with pleasure.
(The undigested food must be removed from your system, as a buildup of matter in your large intestine is not healthy.)
I want to grow a skin that is less penetrable than the one I am in. I am so fluent in the language of other people’s desires that I have forgotten how to speak my own.
Step 7: Solidifying
The waste left over from the digestive process passes through your colon first in a liquid state, and then takes a solid form.
I still want strange things. I stand outside my house when there is no one around and stick my tongue between the cracks in the bricks, relishing the rough thrill of moss on my tongue. I unlock my bike and find the chain has slipped out of its cogs. As I kneel down to fix it, I find I want to lick the oil, black with dust from the roads. The metal is cold and sharp against my gums. An old man walks by and looks down at me with interest. I smile at him through greasy teeth.
(It is easier for your body to store solid waste.)
The fresh daylight shows up all of the filth in my house. It makes me itchy inside of my bones, where I cannot reach to scratch it. I spend a Saturday morning bleaching everything. I scrape mould from my bathtub with my fingernails and suck them carefully. I like the taste of chemicals at the back of my throat.
Step 8: Release
When anything enters your rectum, sensors send a signal to your brain. Your brain then decides whether your rectal contents can be released or not.
I think that if I learn how to survive on grime and dirt then I might become better. I am tired of belonging to other people when I do not feel like I own myself. My skin is thin and porous and I do not want substances to seep into me without my permission. I want to be industrial, like metal and wood. I want to be a solid, impervious thing.
(The human body is very hard and very soft simultaneously.)
I twirl wires around my fork like spaghetti and feel the electricity rushing to my heart. I crunch light bulbs and chew the filaments into tiny pieces, enjoying the shock as it crackles through my blood. I fill my favourite wine glass with wet concrete and sip it, slowly. I force myself to swallow as my throat begins to clog. My bones grow heavy and I am pleased. My marrow aches as it begins to set inside of me. I crawl into bed and smile as the mattress dips to hold my form.
(How hard is too hard?)
Max pulls back the duvet and climbs in beside me.
(How soft is too soft?)
I want to reach out and touch him, but I cannot.
Photograph by Maxvis / Thinkstock