excerpts from Allergy Girl
Wasting. A hunger so great I bite through a pacifier.
My mother tries to fix me with more milk, more milk.
Doctors run tests on my squalling body. No breast
is safe, no cowgoatsoy milk. I nurse on apple juice.
My parents agree on one rule: Don’t break the baby.
They pour quarters into the arcade game of adulthood,
working the mechanical claw right, left, right, back,
aiming for the stuffed bear, missing. A clutch
of cheesecake. A buttermilk biscuit. Each time
my lips swelling, breath skipping. They pace the E.R.
Did we break the baby? My mother dissects labels:
casein, protein, lactylate. Easier to cook from scratch.
My father perfects Shhh, it’s not that bad, you can breathe.
Breathe. They cradle me in Benadryl. That’s the secret
of marriage: bleary silence in white rooms. Too busy
not-breaking me to take the wrecking ball to each other.
Stacking bowls. Cupping flour.
Greasing the square pan with
sunflower margarine. At twelve,
I am safe if I stick to the surfaces
of baking. When my mother’s back
is turned I trespass, caressing
the mixer, settling a knife in the butter.
I tap an egg to the bowl’s hungry lip,
stop at the half-crack. She is the one
who makes the cake’s heart beat—
pouring milk, whipping in vanilla,
taking yolks from whites. I’m charged
with the toothpicks, foil, arranging
pink sugar letters, pebbled with yellow,
that spell out Happy Birthday.
I balance the pan in both hands
all the way to school, picturing
my whole class with plates out,
singing the high tones of duty. Before
our teacher divvies it up, careful
not to touch me. Before someone says
I ought to try a slice, at least the frosting,
and gets shushed. Before they watch
as I line up twelve birthday gumdrops
in the pencil groove of my desk.
You need to go on the Nebulizer. No.
No. I was ten. If you don’t, we’ll use
the Epipen. A needle that could shoot
through denim. So I gave in
to that high altitude taste, oxygen
constellated with epinephrine.
A sound rushing, insistent.
They fitted green straps over my ears.
All I could think of were those masks
that drop from the airplane’s ceiling
when you fall more than five hundred feet
in one second. That’s it. My mother
a stewardess, perfect and distant. Relax.
They fed me sky until my lips grew cold.
Now, I have learned to be a bad patient.
I refuse IVs. I knock back two Benadryl
with vodka, asleep before asking
anyone to check, each hour, for breath.
When that long itch starts up my throat
I buy a large fries, scarf them down,
sure this greasy mash will shield
my stomach from the egg or melon
or milk protein. Same as that
doomed girl in 14C who knows
her plane is plummeting, is impatient
for the crash, but still sneaks the shade
shut between her and the ground rushing
toward glass double-paned for her safety.