I love meat. Probably more than most people. During a recent trip to Mexico I ate meat three times a day, every day. The buffet we grazed for breakfast: all-you-could-eat bacon. Lunch: pork, grilled on the beach. Dinner: steakhouses. Every night.
I hadn't eaten beef in five years, due to some late-adolescence-generated ideals about the rainforest, but in Mexico the smell of charred meat floats across cobblestone streets like the perfume of the hypothalamus. To resist it is like resisting your own saliva. Also, I was traveling with my parents, ardent followers of Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution, in which meat and cheese are staples, and bread is to be shunned like the doughy carbohydrate channeler it is.
So, we ate lots of meat. Streetside meat. Meat that had been very recently alive. Delicious meat. One night we ate at Señor Mr. Pepe's Steak House, perched on a hillside above Puerto Vallarta on the top floor of Señor Mr. Pepe's six-story residence. To get there, you had to climb a steeply graded cobblestone street and five flights of stairs. The climb made one very hungry. I ordered the Surf 'n' Turf, a platter piled with filet mignon, lobster, scallops, and pork tenderloin as big as my fist. Señor Mr. Pepe was thrilled that I, an American female too small for my own good, was partaking of such a repast. He hovered over my shoulder, watching me eat. He murmured encouragement. He kept my water glass full. The moon shone behind him, another gleeful observer, and I ate and ate and ate. It was heaven.
I don't blame Mr. Pepe at all. I would return to his establishment without hesitation; I would, in fact, probably eat pork off the beach to this very day. I could have picked up the E. coli anywhere. I try not to let it color my memories of filet mignon.
There are four recognized classes of E. coli in humans today. The most virulent -- the one associated with dreaded news reports and fast food restaurants -- is Escherichia coli 0157:H7. The other, more common type, Enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli, is also known as gastroenteritis, and lots of people bring it back, unhappily, from their vacations. Interestingly, only a few E. coli outbreaks have originated in the United States. (One aboard a cruise ship was traced back to the shrimp cocktail, and the incident was later turned into a very dramatic Quincy, M.E. episode.)
A week and a half after returning from Mexico, I was introduced to this second form of E. coli. Basically, it's like having some small person jump up and down in your stomach and hose out your lower intestine. The thought of food when you're in this condition becomes as tantalizing as licking the sidewalk in front of the Lusty Lady.
Since compelling evacuation is not something you generally want to 'fess up to, I tried to hide my condition from my co-workers. I would rush from meetings, mumbling, "I have to take this phone call," even when the phone wasn't ringing. Sweat would break out on my upper lip during the most casual of conversations, and I would laugh hysterically for no reason. Everything reminded me of my stomach: the new Michael Gross book; that collection of poetry from David Bottoms, for God's sake; a friend playing an album by Green Apple Quick Step.
At one point, during a working lunch at a Mexican restaurant, I thought I could handle a little cup of soup. Instead, I found myself rushing from the table, everyone's gaze locked on my pale grimace as I rushed to the bathroom. I didn't even have an excuse to offer.
I went to the doctor that afternoon. It takes three days to test for the E. coli bacterium, but due to my recent travel experience, there was little doubt as to what I had. Anti-nausea drugs were prescribed, tiny little things that packed a wallop of drowsiness. I spent the next two weeks feeling no better, falling asleep in bathrooms and coming to when my forehead hit the tampon box, blearily reading "Jesus Saves" written in grease pencil across the stall.
Religion didn't save me, but ginger did. One evening a friend of mine brewed up a teapot full of hot water and ginger root, and I drank it. The next day I felt fine. The following week I went out for steak.