Joanne Laurie had been sitting across from her best friend Suzanne at a very nice table at Balthazar, talking on the phone with her mother about her boyfriend’s sexual performance when she first started vomiting uncontrollably.
"If I wanted to get on top and work for myself I'd just get a Sybian. Maybe if he'd just man up and HURGGGHARFABLOOOOGGGG!!!!!"
Joanne covered her mouth, which only caused vomit to rocket out at various angles. Joanne ran to the bathroom, covering the other patrons in her upchuck. Suzanne shrugged to a waiter who came to clean the table and said, "If I was talking to my mom about fucking some guy I'd probably vomit, too."
In the bathroom Joanne hugged the toilet, filling it to the rim with vomit. She lifted a weak hand and flushed, clearing the bowl. However, the vomit kept rising again like a tide of sick. Joanne grew delirious. How much more vomit could their possibly be? What if she ran out of food and then began throwing up vital organs? With her head still over the toilet she stretched out a leg and kicked the door repeatedly to send out a distress signal for someone, anyone, to help her.
One of the wait staff came to the door and found Joanne with her steady stream of vomit, flailing her arms wildly. Joanne attempted to yell out to him, "Call an ambulance!" Instead, the small sentence came out as "Caug umb brauuuughlawphlarrrrg." Her head went back into the bowl. The waiter got the message. Moments later two paramedics with a stretcher were carrying Joanne out on her back, continuing to vomit an uninterrupted stream straight up into the air like some horrifically ill whale.
At the Joanne was placed in a room and given buckets to throw up in, but soon it became clear this would not do, as the buckets needed changing at hilariously short intervals.
At the suggestion of a particularly creative surgeon the nurses moved Joanne into the morgue and laid her face down on a table with a hole her head could rest in, so the vomit poured straight out of her mouth and into a large open drain. Later that night Joanne's boyfriend came to visit. He tried to read to her from Glamour, her favorite magazine, but could only make it part way through an article about The Worst Break-Ups when the sound and stench of unrepentant throw-up made him run from the room, never to return.
That evening Joanne, already on a hydration regiment that was less a saline drip than a hose, was fed intravenously. The creative surgeon came down that evening to check in on Joanne and was amazed to find her asleep, yet still vomiting.
The next day Joanne's mother came. At midday the surgeon came down to check in. Joanne's mother asked if the surgeon was going to operate. This was unlikely, the surgeon said, as the vomiting made it difficult to do any preemptive analysis like CAT scans, much less operate in anything near a hygienic environment. Joanne's mother then asked if the surgeon was single, as Joanne had recently come into trouble with her boyfriend, to which the doctor simply smiled, thinking to himself that frequent vomiting eroded the enamel on teeth, caused bad breath and could eventually eat through her throat and upper palate, which although he did find it quite tragic, he could not find terribly attractive.
The press inevitably found out. A conference was held amongst the hospital elite to decide what to do. Joanne's vitals had proved to be surprisingly steady. The vomit was only minutely acidic, so there was no immediate risk of damage. Hypothetically, the chief surgeon stated, with a steady IV regiment of fluid and nutrients, she could be, in a sense, all right.
An eccentric and ingenious medical equipment specialist was brought in to design an apparatus for Joanne. After a day of working and tinkering he came up with a device that looked like a combination of a gas mask and a vacuum cleaner, with a long hose attaching a facemask to a box the size of a medium-sized suitcase. The device operated in three ways; as a simple containment unit which would fill fairly quickly, as a basic filter akin to a Brita that would souse out the nastiness and release a flow of pure water (although this had the issue of needing frequent filter replacements and still had the byproduct of quite a bit of water), and as a heating and compacting unit which would basically boil the vomit internally releasing steam and creating a crust of burnt detritus that would have to be infrequently cleaned out. He apologized, saying he wished he could have done more, but the whole situation was simply "too icky" for him to continue.
And so Joanne went home with her mother looking like a soldier in a mustard gas attack who sold luggage. Joanne became despondent. She had become the popular tabloid item of the week. Everyone had thoughts on her predicament. David Letterman wondered if it had started after she'd seen the new CBS lineup. Arianna Huffington said this was the inevitable result of poor young women assaulted daily by sexist, damaging advertising. Pat Robertson said this is what happened to people in liberal meccas like New York. The worst were the interviews with her friends and coworkers. They weren't mean, but they certainly didn't sound nice either. Suzanne said that Joanne had been a bit of a boozer and a party girl. Her boyfriend had speculated that she had perhaps foreseen that he was going to break up with her, essentially doing so himself, at that moment, on Nightline, in front of a nation-wide audience that included Joanne herself sitting in a ratty chair in her mother's living room, vomiting into a vacuum cleaner, being fed through tubes and wanting to die. When her mother told her she should try to find the positive in all this she pulled up her shirt and poked her six pack abs brought about by the constant tension of a stomach in turmoil and the bare-bones dietary intake. She thought about how once upon a time having such a tight tummy would have made her ecstatic. Now it only seemed like a mocking joke.
Joanne had been approached by every paper, magazine, talk show and news program around, and she had rejected them all out of hand. She figured she'd make a lousy interview, just sitting there listening to the interviewer's faux concern and then writing her responses while quietly, intently throwing up into a portable incinerator. But then, one day, as she was flipping through the channels she passed the Oprah show, where she was interviewing a soldier who had lost his legs in Iraq. Joanne watched the whole interview in rapt attention. She saw Oprah's sympathy, her intent interest in the man's story. Joanne saw the man well up with tears as he thanked Oprah for listening. Then she saw Oprah well up and heard her thank the man for his courage. Then she felt herself well up, and suddenly she was crying. She wanted that, she wanted that so much, that unconditional appreciation, that sympathy that wasn't faked or from guilt or horror.
Joanne wiped the tears from her eyes and hopped out of the tattered old chair. She ran into the kitchen and flipped hurriedly through the mail that had piled up. She found the letter from Oprah's production company, her eyes tearing through the page until she found the number for the scheduling department. In her excitement she ran to the phone and dialed, listened through three rings before remembering that she was unable to speak into a phone and hung up just as a man answered the phone. Joanne ran down the hall and loudly knocked on her mom's door.
"What is it?" her mom asked, a worry in her voice that something, somehow, might have gotten worse. Joanne held up the Oprah letter and gave her mom a thumbs up. "Well, all right!" said Joanne's mom.
They were flown out in one of Oprah's own jets. They were put in a very nice hotel, got private seats at a show at the Chicago Theater and got to sit in the press box at a Cubs game. Then came the day of the show.
Joanne was brought into the show in a private limousine and taken in through the back entrance. Joanne got to meet Oprah. She talked to Joanne, and it was everything Joanne had dreamed. Oprah gave her the general run down of how the show would go, told her not to worry, that everything would be fine.
The show began and Joanne was brought out onstage. Her mother sat beside her. Oprah asked her questions and then waited patiently as Joanne wrote out her answers and her mother read them. Oprah told Joanne that she was very brave to come on the show. Joanne smiled, then she started to cry even though she had promised herself that she wouldn't, and wrote that she was actually just a normal girl and that's all she'd wanted to come on the show to say.
Oprah turned to the camera and said, "Come back after the break, I promise you, you won't want to miss this."
The show went to commercial and make up people came out and started futzing with Oprah and Joanne and her mom. Joanne looked over at her mom. Her mom looked back and smiled, then gave Joanne two thumbs up. "You're doing great," said Oprah, and patted Joanne on the knee. Oprah turned to the camera. Then they were back.
"When Joanne Laurie first experienced her unusual condition she was taken to St. Vincent's hospital in New York some of the best doctors in the county were at a loss with what to do for her. However, our next guest believes he may have an idea. Please welcome my guest and dear friend, Dr. Sanjarwal Patel!" Oprah stood up and clapped. The audience clapped as well. Onto the stage walked an Indian man in his early middle age with a bushy-bearded face round and paternal.
Dr. Patel explained that Joanne's condition was not entirely unheard of, a very advanced form of a rare disorder called Cyclical Vomiting Syndrome, or CVS. This disease was related to the patient's mental state. Not quite a psychosomatic illness, but close. Dr. Patel had developed a system to ease the sufferer's mind and assuage the affects of the illness. The doctor asked if Joanne would be interested in trying his cure. Joanne could hardly contain her excitement. She nodded ecstatically and clapped her hands, bouncing up and down in her chair. "All right then!" said Oprah, and the audience erupted into applause.
A massage table with a hole for the face to rest in, similar to the one Joanne had been placed on in the morgue, was brought onstage. A section was taken out of the side so that the tube could slide through. Joanne lay down. Dr. Patel stood behind her and began rubbing ointments onto her back, her shoulders, her neck. He reached underneath her and spread the ointments onto her stomach and just below her collar bone. Joanne felt her body ease its tension and begin to relax for the first time in ages. Finally Dr. Patel knelt in front of Joanne and told her to close her eyes. He was going to give her guided meditation.
Joanne heard Dr. Patel ask her to envision a lake in the middle of a field. He told her to walk along the lake's shore. He told her to imagine herself sitting down beside that lake and look to her right. On the sand by the lake was a fishing rod. Pick up the fishing rod and cast it far far out into the lake, Dr. Patel told her. Watch the bobber fly through the air. Watch it get very very small. Watch it bob up and down on top of the water. Now imagine you've got a bottle of your favorite drink beside you, Dr. Patel told her. Imagine opening the drink and taking a sip from it. Watch the waves on the water. Listen to the water moving.
She wasn't sure exactly what Dr. Patel kept saying, she couldn't hear his words. Maybe what she saw next was his instruction, maybe it was just drawn up from her own mind. She saw her mother sitting beside her on the beach. She saw Suzanne driving a boat across the middle of the lake, trailing Joanne’s boyfriend on a set of water-skis. They waved. Joanne waved back. Joanne saw a tree with long, wide branches and a tire swing. Standing on the tire swing was Oprah. She wore a bathing suit and was pushing and pulling the swing to move farther and farther out over the water. Oprah rode the tire as far out over the water as she could, then jumped. She flew through the air, and right as she reached the apex of her arc, Oprah stopped. Joanne saw Oprah looking at her, stuck in mid-air, her face contorted with a tension seemed as if Oprah's skull was growing larger than her skin. Then there was a scream.
Joanne came to, feeling her meditational landscape melt away. Except for the scream. Joanne gave a sluggish pull to lift up her head and felt a spray of liquid hit her face. Suddenly she was fully awake. She saw the audience gone amok, running to the exits and covering their faces. Some of them were vomiting. She turned and saw her mother's sad, pleading face. She heard Dr. Patel muttering "I'm so sorry, I felt her throat, thought she had stopped." Joanne felt around her body, looking for the mask. She heard a voice behind her say, "Joanne, your machine..." Joanne turned.
There stood Oprah, holding out the machine by the hose. Joanne saw her there, a frozen moment of Oprah reaching out to her for one pure, beautiful moment, just before the vomit hit her full in the chest. Oprah stumbled backwards at the impact of it, her whole front suddenly an abstract painting of fluid and sick. "Goddammit!" yelled Oprah, then caught herself and looked at Joanne, shame on her face. "Joanne," she said, then couldn't say any more. Joanne wanted to say "I'm sorry," she wanted to give Oprah a hug and thank her for trying, but she couldn't. She'd never be able to do that. She was an idiot for even coming, she thought, and ran backstage into her dressing room toilet, leaving a trail of vomit behind her. She locked the door behind her and collapsed on the floor, her head in the toilet, just like the day it all began.
Oprah came to the door, telling Joanne not to worry, she was sorry the show had turned out as it had, she had only wanted to help. Joanne couldn't even tell them to leave her alone. She continued to sit, vomiting into the toilet and crying. Joanne’s mother came to the door and asked to come in. Joanne stretched up an arm and unlocked the door. Joanne's mom had the device with her, but left it at the door for the moment and sat down beside her daughter. They sat there for an hour, mother holding daughter, rubbing her back, kissing the top of her head, telling her everything would be all right.
They flew back home. They resumed their life. They made trips to the doctor for check ups. They played scrabble every night. They started a book club, just the two of them. They watched tv together. They never watched Oprah.
About a month after her appearance on Oprah a letter came. It was from a small sustained living community in Washington state. They told Joanne about how they worked a small patch of land to grow everything they needed to survive and sold the excess products to get money for what little they couldn't make themselves. They said they had a place for her, if she wanted it. They believed they could use her particularly individual output as fertilizer to their crops. She would have to work, they said, but sometimes feeling a sense of accomplishment was something people needed in their lives, and if that's how she felt, she had a place in their community.
So Joanne got on a plane one more time, and found a place like home. She's still there. They say you can find her by putting your ear to the wind and listening for the sound of a girl vomiting, not just with viscous bodily upchuck, but with joy.