Next to Cleanliness21 min read
‘I’ve been feeling a bit down, I suppose,’ Catherine said, ‘and my friend recommended you. She said you might be able to help.’
The doctor made a humming noise. He sat back, folding his arms.
‘Do you know what it means to cleanse, Catherine?’ he asked.
‘To be healthy, I suppose? To detox?’ she said. Dr. Matthews watched her, head cocked. His stillness made him frightening. He looked like the large, looming plaster castings of gods in art galleries, indifferent and unknowable.
‘Cleansing,’ he said, ‘is a complicated business. It can involve numerous methods, numerous factors. Diet, exercise, hormones, hurt, heart, soul, sin, spirit. Cleanses can be different for everyone. We all need to be clean in different ways. Do you understand?’
She didn’t understand. Susan had told her that Dr. Matthews had prescribed her a week of celery juice and encouraged her to keep a dream journal during her cleanse. She made it sound very appealing. Catherine had looked up the clinic’s website and had found filtered images of kale smoothies, medical spanking, possession by angel. She wasn’t sure if she understood at all. She had never been any good at science.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Of course.’
The doctor smiled; it sent a rush of something warm through her. ‘We’ll start with the basics. What’s your diet like?’
‘Ah, normal?’ she said.
The doctor stopped smiling. ‘Define normal.’
‘Just, you know, food? Normal food? Average meals?’
The doctor was now frowning.
‘Sandwiches?’ she said.
The word hovered in the air after it was spoken. The doctor left it dangling and looked down at his clipboard. He reached into his desk and removed a beaker. He leaned over the desk, holding it below Catherine’s face.
‘We’re going to try a test. Spit into this.’
‘It’s to test your body’s chemical levels. I need to know how toxic you are. Now, I said spit for me, Catherine.’
She paused, and then weakly spat a wad of saliva into the beaker. It dribbled down the side, slow and pathetic. A little had spattered onto Dr. Matthews’ index finger, but he didn’t seem to notice. He placed the beaker down and held his hands above it. He whispered something to the spit. The saliva bubbled, changing colour; it gleamed red, emitting a gory light.
‘Yes, just as I thought. You’re full of toxins.’
‘Oh,’ Catherine said and shuffled in her seat. ‘I’m sorry.’
The doctor stood, crossing to the shelves at the side of the room. The shelves were a treasure trove of medical paraphernalia: stethoscopes, crystal balls, scalpels, whips, unicorn skulls. He picked up a bottle and brought it to her. The bottle was covered in a layer of dried scum, a sickly, ashen film coating the surface. The doctor pulled a napkin from his pocket and began scrubbing the scum away from the label.
‘What is that?’ Catherine asked.
‘A detoxifier. For the next week, you’ll take a teaspoon of this once a day; you must purchase correct measuring utensils if you do not already own them. It will suck up all the toxins in your body. You eat nothing else. You drink nothing else—you might notice slight weight loss. You come back to me in a week so I can examine the results. Is that understood?’
Catherine swallowed. She felt humiliated, a schoolgirl caught with gum. She also felt a little aroused.
‘Yes, doctor,’ she said.
She drank the detoxifier the next morning, pouring it out into a spoon. At first, she thought: orange juice. Then: petrol. Then: sour milk. It fizzed as it hit her insides.
On the bus ride to work, she felt buoyant with energy. She beamed at strangers, stuck her tongue out at infants, whistled happy birthday to herself. She couldn’t sit still in her seat and was sweating profusely; when she rubbed her forehead, her hand came away dripping. The sweat was thicker than it should have been, almost gelatinous. It was like strawberry jelly left out in the sun for a little too long.
She went to the bathroom when she arrived. Susan was at the mirror primping; she turned to Catherine, smiling, and then recoiled, dropping her lipstick on the floor. ‘Christ,’ she said.
‘What?’ Catherine met Susan’s eyes in the mirror, and then she saw herself. The reflection looked like her, but much slimmer. Catherine waved and the doppelgänger did the same. They grinned at each other.
She received many compliments during the first hour of her shift; almost every person who passed stopped to compliment her weight loss, her svelte figure, her healthy, glowing skin. She thanked them, wiping the sweat from under her eyes where it gathered in pools, solidifying as it cooled. She typed out emails, wiping her hands with a tissue each time she pressed send; the sweat was building up on the keyboard, oozing between the cracks. It had a tacky texture, like half-dry glue, and left the keys malfunctioning in spots. When the backspace key grew stiff with slick and could no longer be pressed down, she decided to take a coffee break and find Susan.
‘Are you ill?’ Susan asked, passing her a mug in the break room.
‘I don’t think so, but I’m a bit sweaty,’ Catherine said. She tugged at her blouse, conscious of the growing damp spots. Jellied clumps of sweat fell further down the split of her breasts, wedging under the band of her bra.
‘Maybe you have the flu? You look really unwell, you’re even thinner than this morning.’
‘I don’t know, I suppose,’ Catherine said. ‘How was your cleanse? Did you find it, I don’t know, a bit weird?’
‘I loved it. They can be hard, but it’s all about discipline, isn’t it? Why, how are you finding it?’
Susan put the mug down on the counter. A glob fell from her index finger, spotted with flecks of red like a bloodied egg yolk. At the tip of her index finger, there was a clean piece of bone shining through.
‘Fine, it’s fine,’ she said. ‘Actually, I am feeling a little ill. I might see if Rob will let me take the day off.’
Rob did let her take the day off. ‘You look awful,’ he said. ‘Did something happen? Is this about the other night, is this because of me?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Catherine, look at yourself. You’re not well.’
Catherine looked down. She had grown even thinner, clothes slipping off her body. She lifted a hand; all the flesh had dripped away below the wrist, her skeleton now exposed.
‘I’m on a cleanse,’ she said.
‘That might make you better, then. I think you should take some time off. You’re going to make your co-workers uncomfortable.’ Rob stared at a spot next to her face, not meeting her eyes. A glob fell from her other hand, hitting the linoleum with a dull splatter. Catherine nodded and left.
She tried to call the clinic’s reception after work. When she heard the cool, distant tone of the receptionist’s voice asking her to explain the issue, she looked down at herself and found she couldn’t say the words aloud. She hung up and opened Instagram and found the doctor’s account: yoga poses, quinoa bowls, bloodletting circles, conference shots. In many of the posts, he was with beautiful people. She wondered which of them he had fucked.
He could have any of them. He was beautiful himself. He looked like a soldier in the photos, or what she thought a soldier would look like. Strong and competent and heartless.
Catherine went to her bedroom and stripped. Her tights were bulging with the sweat. Or what probably wasn’t sweat at all. She held the tights above her face, feeling the weight of the substance filling them; when she squeezed, it felt like gripping the blubbery underbelly of a puppy.
The rest of her clothes were filled too, bulbous as water balloons. She looked into her mirror; her body had dripped completely clean. Her skeleton was so bright it looked like she had been dunked in bleach. The skull was the worst part. The eyes had remained but nothing else. She wasn’t sure why; she thought about searching WebMD. She ran her hands along the hard smoothness of herself and tapped the bones of her ribcage. She almost expected them to ring out like a xylophone, clear and sweet, but all they made was a hollow thud.
Dr. Matthews opened the door. His eyes scanned over her. His expression didn’t change.
‘That’s unfortunate,’ he said and gestured for her to enter. She stepped inside, arms crossed self-consciously. She had dressed in layers and sunglasses to cover the worst of it. The doctor moved to sit at his desk, and she followed suit.
‘So, is this bad?’ She took off her sunglasses; she didn’t want to be rude.
‘Not bad. Not good, either. The toxins are gone, for now, but it just means you had nothing else left,’ he said and picked up his clipboard. ‘Do you feel empty, Catherine?’
‘Physically speaking. Or, spiritually. Do you feel empty? Incomplete? Hungry for something more? Do you feel like you’re missing something inside of you?’
Catherine moved her hand to the space where her stomach once was. ‘Yeah, maybe,’ she said.
The doctor smiled, approving, and ticked a box on his clipboard. ‘That’s okay,’ he said. ‘It’s okay to be hungry. Food is a healer, Catherine. It’s a kind of magic. Sometimes we all need to feel full.’
He opened a drawer in his desk and removed a dish bearing a metal cover and cutlery. ‘You’re going to eat this,’ he said, ‘and you’re going to feel so full, Catherine. Bursting.’
She lifted the lid; a slab of raw meat on a plate.
‘Steak’s better for you blue,’ the doctor said. ‘Eat up.’
She cut into the steak. Blood oozed from the cut, a steady flow. Looking closely, she could see the steak expanding out and in, shuddering with life. She hesitated, lifted the piece to her mouth, and bit. Her eyes fluttered as warm red waves of pleasure flooded into her.
‘Good, isn’t it?’ the doctor said. He was sitting back with his hands behind his head, smiling.
She looked down at herself. Flesh was growing from her bones like mould, tissue forming in clumps at her joints. The tissue wriggled, spreading out, merging to form clumps of muscle, tendons, trickles of veins flowing over the length of her skeleton. Another bite and organs bloomed, blossoming up from her rib cage and spreading out across the raw, exposed plains of her torso. Her heart inflated, rising. It gave a nervous jerk, stuttering out a few syncopated beats before remembering its rhythm. She swallowed more of the steak and skin grew, translucent and thin as wet paper.
‘What kind of meat is this?’ she asked.
The doctor just grinned.
She abandoned the fork, picking up the steak with her hands. Her body had grown back, but the taste. Christ, the taste. She couldn’t stop eating. Silken at the back of her throat, like melted chocolate. Warm and rich and sweet too. But not chocolate. Not even really food, or even really taste. The weight of it in her mouth felt like the heat of her blanket on cold mornings, heavy and suffocating and irresistible.
‘Someone’s a glutton.’
Catherine startled, dropping the fork. It landed on her stomach, which stretched out in front of her, immense. She couldn’t see the doctor behind it. Her stomach bulged over the desk, spilling down the side of the wood, which creaked under its weight. Inspecting further, she could see the doctor buried under the flab of her belly. He squeezed his hands out and lifted one of the rolls of fat, burrowing his head forward with a wiggling motion until it was free.
‘So,’ he asked, ‘do you feel full?’
‘I feel sick.’
‘That’s a pity.’
He squirmed underneath her stomach—an arm shot out, a syringe in hand.
‘Hold still,’ he said and stabbed her stomach. It burst like an overgrown blister, letting out a hollow pop of air. Nothing splattered out—she was empty. She wondered how that was possible. Were other patients empty like her? Were they full? What were they filled with? She wanted to ask the doctor but didn’t want to sound ignorant.
The doctor cut away the dead skin, bandaged the wound. His hands felt firm and certain as they moved against her torso. When he had finished, his eyes locked on hers.
‘Come back to me tomorrow. You’ll have healed by then.’
‘How often do you achieve orgasm, Catherine?’ Dr. Matthews asked.
He stretched on a yoga mat on the floor of his office, practising downward facing dog. A long shape wagged from beneath the back of his trousers, distracting Catherine.
‘Orgasm plays a powerful part in our well-being. It can make or break a cleansing. How often do you climax?’
The doctor shifted to tree pose; his arms stretched out to the ceiling, leaves sprouting from the pores of his skin.
‘By regularly, do you mean excessively? Excess can be isolating. Damaging, even. Granted, not always the cause, but almost definitely a symptom. Did you know that chronic masturbators are often suicidal? Einstein once argued that we masturbate as a way to run from death—those who run more, run faster, are often those who feel closer to the void, so to speak.’
‘I don’t—I have lovers.’
‘So? Do your lovers make you come? Can you come in general? Are you afraid to? Are you terrified of letting go? Do you believe yourself to be undeserving of love? Are you a bad person, Catherine?’
The doctor bent his limbs to a half-moon pose. His skin began to shine, emitting a dazzling, milky light. She stared at the light until the rest of the room faded to shadow, blinding herself with its brightness.
‘What?’ she said. She couldn’t think. She wanted to bathe in his glow. The doctor’s moonlight darkened as he sighed.
‘You are prolonging the process by not being open. Your opacity indicates that there is something deeply problematic with regards both to you and your sex life,’ he said. He stepped off the mat, and the yoga marks faded away. The leaves fell in piles to the floor, his celestial skin dimmed to flesh. He gestured towards the medical bed at the back of the room.
‘Lie down there. Back straight. Legs spread. Now,’ he said.
She tried not to shake as she walked to the bed. He followed her, standing between her legs. She felt faint, looking down at him through them.
‘This is not a place of shame, but it is a place of healing. Will you let me fix you?’
‘Of course, I’m sorry.’
‘For the next week, you aren’t going to orgasm. I’m going to close you up, to make sure. At the end of the week, you spit in a beaker. The week after that, you achieve orgasm every night. You spit in a beaker at the end. You come back in two weeks with the beakers, we compare their varying toxicity levels. Clear?’
‘How are you going to close me up?’
The doctor reached behind her ears. He produced a pill and a bottle of water from behind them. He winked.
‘Take this. Then, lift your hips, and snap your legs shut. Check the results when you’re home. It’s all very safe. It’s often used as a contraceptive in Sweden.’
She followed his instructions. She felt a tightening in her lower body. She winced.
‘Don’t forget to sort payment at reception,’ Dr. Matthews said, pointing to the door.
She stripped in the bathroom once she was home, goose bumping in the cold. She sat on the cool tiles in front of the long mirror, opened her legs, and looked.
She thought it would look as friendly and clean as a Ken doll, chirpy with asexual smoothness. But it looked painful and ugly, like a limb sewed onto the wrong part of a torso. Or a pair of hands locked together with superglue.
She rang Susan on Tuesday evening after drinking a very large glass of wine.
‘We miss you,’ Susan said, ‘Come back!’
‘I’m not allowed.’
‘After the cleanse, I mean. When you’re feeling better.’
Catherine swirled the stem of the glass, spilling a little wine on her bed. ‘Susan, what did you think of Dr. Matthews? Did he really help you?’
‘I thought he was brilliant. Tough, but brilliant. Kind of sexy, too. Why, are you finding him helpful?’
Catherine flicked her glass. She was disappointed when it didn’t crack.
‘Yeah, he’s great. Really great,’ she said.
On the seventh day, she felt a rush of release, like unclenching a jaw that she hadn’t known she was tensing. She spat into a beaker, leaving it on a shelf in the bathroom.
That evening, she sent Rob a picture of her tits and he arrived within half an hour, looking guilty and excited. He spent four minutes jabbing her urethra, pinched her nipples twice, and then slipped on the condom. He moved his hips in quick, shallow pumps.
‘Yeah, you fucking cunt,’ he said, speeding up.
‘What?’ Catherine said, but he had already begun to come. After he left, she finished herself off while thinking about Dr. Matthew’s hands.
When she was done, she walked into the kitchen, not turning on the lights. She washed her hands under the tap. She made herself a bowl of cereal and ate it in the dark, hovering over the sink. The tiles of the floor numbed the soles of her feet with cold. The drip of the tap was loud in the silence.
‘Place the beakers on the desk for me, Catherine,’ the doctor said. He was hovering in the air above the desk, legs crossed, arms outstretched. Numerous candles were balanced along his shoulders and arms, all lit. Catherine took the two beakers from her purse and placed them down. She hesitated, and then sat down. The doctor hadn’t yet looked at her.
Dr. Matthews let out a long hum and began to slowly float down to his seat. The candles remained hovering in the air.
‘Right then,’ he said, rubbing his hands together and leaning over the beakers. He began to whisper to them. Once again, the saliva in both turned a bright, glowing red. Identical.
The doctor frowned, and the flames of the candle flickered out.
‘That can’t be right,’ he said. He whispered again, but the saliva stayed the same. He looked up at Catherine and her stomach jumped.
‘How are you feeling?’ he asked.
‘I meant in regard to the experiment. Did it have any effects? Did the first week leave you calm, peaceful, clear? Or agitated? Did the second week leave you sated, rejuvenated? Or perhaps unsatisfied, lonely, dejected? How did they make you feel?’
‘Well, tense, the first week, I suppose.’
The doctor rolled his eyes. A candle fell out of the air, hitting the floor.
‘Not the physical results. I mean how you feel. Feel, Catherine. Your emotions. Heart, spirit, energy. How did the two weeks make you feel? Was there a difference?’
Catherine thought for a moment and shook her head.
‘I felt the same both weeks, for the most part.’
The doctor exhaled through his nose, and all the candles dropped with a clatter. One barely missed Catherine’s skull. She could see the annoyance on the doctor’s face. She looked to a spot behind his head, a poster of a woman eating salad, head thrown back in mirth. Beneath it, the words: live, laugh, love.
The doctor breathed out.
‘Right,’ he said. He clapped his hands. A plastic container filled with green liquid and straw appeared on the desk. He handed it to her.
‘What is this?’ she asked.
‘A kale and banana smoothie.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘Catherine, I only help those who are willing to help themselves,’ he said. He stood and began picking up the candles, shoving them somewhere inside his lab coat.
‘You’re as toxic as ever, which shouldn’t even be possible. The chemical levels are identical to week one. Do you realise most people take a week, at most? A week with me, and they’re clean. They’re happy. But you. It’s like you’re choosing to be unhappy.’ He stopped, ran a hand through his hair. He whistled, and all at once, the remaining candles on the floor melted to wax.
‘Drink the smoothie. Drink one each morning, they’re good for digestion. Meditate, get plenty of exercise. Get air, get sun. Smile. Do something that scares you. Do something you love. Say I love you. Pet a dog. Dance in the rain. Cut off negative people. Update your Twitter. Tell everyone about your day. Advance in your job. Start a vlog. Eat a salad. I don’t know, do it all. Do none of it. But you’ve got to at least try to be happy, Catherine. Right now, I don’t think you’re trying at all. You’re wasting your time and you’re wasting mine. If you aren’t going to try, I can’t help you.’
Catherine stared at her hands, clenched in her lap.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
‘Take the smoothie and come back next week.’
She picked up the smoothie. She stood from the chair and crossed the room, head down as she left.
The next morning, she blitzed kale and banana in the blender.
She drank green smoothies every day for a week. She rang her office and asked to come back to work. She slipped out at five am to run around the block, to meditate, to examine the colours of the rising sun—pale amber to burnt orange to so much red, a sky the colour of a butcher’s window.
She thought about the sky, about the world. She wrote her thoughts in a bullet point journal. She contemplated gratefulness. She wrote the words ‘I am grateful’ over and over for thirty pages. She grated carrots and peppers, mixed vinaigrettes, threw her head back and laughed at her co-worker’s jokes while eating colourful salads.
‘You have a beautiful smile. I appreciate your presence in my life,’ she told Susan while photocopying pictures of baby animals to stick above her computer.
She cleaned her apartment, bleached the floors. She tossed the dresses that didn’t fit. She packed away all the half-read novels she wasn’t going to finish and gave them to a charity shop. She volunteered for an evening at the dog shelter, stroked the soft fur of the blind, limping greyhound, anointed herself with the soured smell of canine.
She stared at the ceiling at night and thought about how to be happy. She listened to podcasts about self-enlightenment and Alan Watts and focused on her breathing. She lay in the dark until she dropped off to sleep.
‘You must understand, there’s only so long this can go on,’ Dr. Matthews said.
Catherine nodded, trying to concentrate. The doctor was usually clean-shaven, but he had allowed himself to roughen this week, stubble framing his lower face. It fascinated her. She couldn’t stop looking at his mouth.
‘There are other types of cleanses we could try if we had time. Gravity recentring, sterile flagellation, psycho diving, keto. But it’s outside of the price bracket we established,’ he said, filling out a form.
‘So, we’re done?’ she asked. She felt dazed, far away from her body.
‘Not quite. We’re going to try one more method, for this last session. Are you religious?’
‘Marvellous. It’s for sheep. However, certain parts can be useful for science. Ritual can work medical wonders. Tell me, have you any experience with exorcisms?’
She shook her head. He hummed and clicked his pen against the desk.
‘Lie over on the bed, and we’ll begin the procedure.’
She walked over to the bed. Dr Matthews followed her. He leaned over her, taking out a syringe. This close, Catherine could smell his skin. She felt the pinch of the syringe in her arm.
He peered down at her face, looking into her eyes.
‘How’d that feel?’ he asked.
She stretched up and placed a kiss on his mouth. His lips were soft, dry, and his stubble scratched her chin.
He stepped back. He frowned.
‘You are not interesting to me, and I do not find you physically attractive,’ he said.
‘Oh,’ she said.
‘Right, exorcism,’ he said, and moved back to his desk, opening a drawer. He removed a pair of rubber gloves.
‘Upon examination of your reactions to different forms of cleansing, I have concluded that purification of toxins is not enough. You will, as you have already done, continue to produce more. This indicates that there is something toxic inbuilt into your system.’
He pulled the gloves on with a tight snap.
‘To put it simply, there is something wrong with you. I’m going to pull that wrongness out. We’ve perfected the traditional exorcism method into something quicker, scientific.’
‘How do we do it?’
‘The anaesthetic will have kicked in by now, so we’ll have you lie back down.’
Catherine did as she was told. Dr. Matthews was right, the anaesthetic was working—her head was filling with cotton balls and softness.
‘Open wide and say ah.’
‘Ah,’ she said, opening her mouth. The doctor put his fingers in her mouth—the powdery plastic taste of latex was comforting. He grabbed her lower gums and pulled hard. It should have hurt, but it didn’t. Her jaw felt like taffy, stretching further than she thought possible. It fell down and down until she could feel her bottom lip against her collarbones.
The doctor pulled a small torch from inside his lab coat and pointed it into her mouth. He peered into her throat, into her guts.
He hummed. ‘Oh, oh yes. There it is.’ He clicked his tongue and put the torch away. He pushed his fingers farther into her mouth, past the knuckles, slipping his fist inside her.
‘Breath through your nose,’ he said, and slid his fist down her throat.
She breathed sharply in through her nostrils, braced for pain. But felt no pain. The fist was full and firm but felt unimportant. Her body was gaseous and impermanent as an afterthought.
The doctor’s fist moved further through the cloud of her insides and stopped somewhere in her stomach. The hair of his arm tickled a little against the walls of her throat. The hand made a sudden movement, jerking against her side. Then, all at once, the doctor was ripping it back up and out of her.
Catherine spluttered as the fist pulled out of her mouth, saliva dribbling down her chin. She sat up, clutching at her jaw that swung loosely against her chest. The doctor was holding something bloody in his hands. It wriggled in his grip. What is that, Catherine tried to say, but her jaw was too stretched for speech.
The thing was convulsing, spasming in the doctor’s hands. It was emitting a high-pitched keening sound, desperate and ugly. She thought of drowning puppies. Dr. Matthews lifted the thing and examined it—it seemed to have limbs, a torso, a throat that he held it by. She stood, looked closer. It had eyes. It had huge, horrified eyes, and it was screaming. Dr. Matthews turned to her, still dangling the creature in the air by the throat. Its bloodied paws tore feebly at his fingers. He didn’t notice.
‘Lie back down. I’ll dispose of this, then we’ll patch you back up.’
She shook her head, but he had already turned away. She stumbled towards him, arms outstretched, woozy on her feet. He placed the thing on the table and walked to his shelves, looking for something.
Catherine teetered to the desk and picked it up. It stank of rotting meat, spoiled eggs. It was slippery in her hands. It was bleeding, covered in gouges; every pore was a wound. She clutched it tighter, pressing it against her chest. Its flesh had the texture of wet, slippery Play-doh.
She blundered to the door, heavy-footed, jaw knocking against the creature.
‘What are you doing?’ Dr. Matthews asked from behind her, but she ignored him, opening the door.
She could hear the sound of him moving behind her, putting something down, but she staggered away, out the door, out past the receptionist, and out of the building. The receptionist shouted out at her from the front door, but she didn’t stop.
Outside light too bright, solemn stare of the sun. She was covered in the thing’s blood, covered in its smell. People stared as she passed them. She tried to ignore them and held the bloodied thing tighter to herself, quickening her pace. It screamed louder with each step. It was dripping its ooze all over the footpath. Fathers and bakers and bankers scowled at the noise, at the stink, at the mess. A child sobbed in fear when she ran past and let go of his red balloon, the bright orb flying far away into the sky until it disappeared out of sight. She ran, and ran, and ran out into the world.