When Beth started the paleo diet, her stomach burned like a smoldering fire. Paleo because her fit and high-performing friends leapt through muddy pits with smiles and swung from the gymnastic rings with a flourish. Beth wanted to do that too, so she dined like a caveperson: meat, seafood, veggies, nuts, and some fruit. But her belly felt ablaze on the inside and not the kind of fire one gets from falling in love after a five-year wait or eating soup drenched with habanero sauce. On the first morning of the burn, when Beth said, “Good morning, I love you,” to her husband, Jim, a puff of smoke clouded the air between them.
Are you smoking again?
“No,” Beth said. “But I feel kinda sooty.”
The next day, Beth went to workout. A few of her muscular and bulging-in-all-the-right-places buddies, who ate paleo with much more ferocity than Beth, sniffed around her, their noses scrunched, investigative, the accusations ran across their minds like personal records, weight scores, and calorie counts, especially the coaches, who feared the worst: a smoking relapse.
The workout consisted of 25 box jumps, 75 sit ups, and 12 pull ups done as fast as possible, three times in a row. Beth dreaded the pulls ups, laboring every second of every milli-inch. Her arms couldn’t or wouldn’t pull her body weight up and down, up and down, but she tried with her hands forward, her hands backwards, with a band, two bands, three bands, a platform to catch her, someone holding her legs to help her, but she always fell off and always whispered, “Fuck.”
But, this time, as soon as she wrapped her hands around the bar, her grip tightened, muscles in her hands popped, she lowered herself so her arms were fully extended, straight. No bands. No bench to catch her. No partner. With a new ease and without any grunts, not even a peep, she pulled herself up, higher and higher, her chin arching over the bar, and with a toothy smile, she did pull up after pull up without pause or a tremor in either arm muscle. She did 12 rounds of three for a grand total of 36 — all by herself. She thought about doing a fourth round for good measure, but talked herself out of it. Greedy, she wasn’t.
After Beth wiped off the inordinate amount of sweat that pooled on her chest and stomach with a damp paper towel, she patted her belly, not in pain but in pride, like she was pregnant although she most certainly wasn’t.
Beth’s husband said, “Your stomach feels like a furnace. You need to go to the doctor.” Beth agreed but only because she feared she might entirely combust. The doctor referred her to a specialist because he was only a general practitioner, more in the lines of antibiotics for the norovirus or knife wounds from careless but eager chefs.
Three days later, the specialist examined Beth. By then, small flames tickled her esophagus. Smoke crept up her throat, snuck out her mouth. Notes were made. A portly woman in need of a dye job, the doctor specialist first recommended Beth drink double her normal water intake and quit any and all booze, especially tequila because it’s flammable, but Beth had already doubled her water consumption because she was always so hot and so thirsty. Unquenchable, really. Beth only drank tequila on Cinco de Mayo.
“I’ve never seen this before although I have heard of it. If you review the MRI with me, you’ll see a small campfire like occurrence in your stomach.” Dr. Portly tapped the screen with her fingertip. A campfire outline with what appeared to be three logs silhouetted Beth’s rib, spine, and pelvis bones.
“Did you swallow an ember?” the doctor continued. “Have you been partying at the beach? Around a fire ring?”
“Partying? No. I gave that up years ago, except for May 5th. Did you just tell me I have a campfire in my body?”
“Yes, I did. Smoker?"
Beth pulled her gown out to peer down at her belly button, which emanated the tiniest of smoke rings.
“Let’s return to the questions, please, Beth.”
“No, and I don’t sneak anymore, although I do think about it sometimes.”
With her heels clinking against the linoleum, Dr. Portly circled Beth.
Craving and doing are two different things. Luckily. Any significant changes in your life? Stress? Hormones? Diet?”
“I changed my diet.”
Beth raised her shoulders up, her neck shrank, unsure of her answer although it was the truth.
“Let me guess. Paleo?”
“How’d you know?”
“I heard about this backlash at my last conference in Boston.”
“You like your meat blue, correct?”
The rare meat caused the fire: the beef and pork of all sizes and shapes from tenderloin to chuck, rib-eye to flank, roast to ribs. She’d never eaten this much meat before. Even meat for breakfast, the most important meal of the day. And all of it had to be blue or she wouldn’t eat it. Carcinogens and cancer. She couldn’t have it. Nor could she have dairy or sugar. Gone were the days of delicate fruit-on-the bottom yogurt with little chunks of peaches and reassuring oatmeal with a dollop of maple syrup.
“Yes, with the excessive consumption of blue meat, stomachs are somehow responding by building campfires — even if the meat is already slightly cooked. It’s an adaptive response, much like hair as protection. Undercooked meat is a haven for bacteria. Your body is so amped up that it’s fighting off the bacteria with a campfire.”
“What can be done?”
“Nothing, I’m afraid.”
“This didn’t happen to my friends. What if I quit Paleo?”
“Your friends likely cooked their meat more. Once the fire starts, there’s no way to put it out. Think of it like the eternal flame.”
“Great. Now, I’m a memorial.”
On the way home from the doctor’s office, Beth needed something sweet to eat, some sugar, something to remind her of who she used to be before measured broccoli and steamed kale, before kettlebell swings and burpees, before six AM workouts, before she wanted to be strong and healthy. Before she ate too much undercooked meat. Before she felt the inordinate pressure to prove she could do this because that’s what all of her coaches always told her, “You got this. You can do this.” She didn’t care if her lapse in judgment hindered her performance progress, hell, her and her husband’s 10K obstacle course wasn’t for another two weeks, so she drove herself to the nearest 7-11, plopped a bag of full-sized marshmallows on the counter, paying with the spare change fished out of the car’s ashtray.
Beth looked left and right before getting back in her car. That wavering voice in her head looped, What if one of your paleo friends sees you? Should you have gone to the 7-11 in the next town over? Is this sabotage? Do I have this?
But Beth didn’t move. Didn’t budge. Didn’t fasten her seatbelt.
“Not dead. Can’t quit,” ran laps through her head. That’s what she said to herself when her fit and high-performing friends finished their workout faster than she did — and that happened ten out of ten times, until the fire started. At this morning’s workout, Beth finished second in everything: the 800 meter run, the bear crawls, the stinkbugs, and the leapfrogs — only beat out by a man a foot taller than her. But now Beth laughed because wasn’t she already kinda dead? Dr. Portly did compare her to a memorial. The marshmallow’s sugar content promised to do something to her — shame her, ruin her teeth, or fuck up her training, according to her paleo friends. But she didn’t care. The pressure to keep performing so well required a rebellion.
With a pack of multi-tasking toothpicks Beth kept in her car (freshen her breath and pick her teeth), she pierced a marshmallow. She pulled the sweet kabob up to her lips and carefully, slowly, twirled each marshmallow in her mouth, allowing the outside to turn the perfect char of brown and the inside to turn into a soft, gooey mess. Beth devoured twenty-seven marshmallows, letting the sugar stain her chin and the flames reach beyond her lips. The fire never went out.