The first thing I saw in the aftermath was a beam of light from a video camera. The shadow behind it was laughing hysterically. Then the shadow was not a shadow, but a boy covered in dust.
Another boy arrived with a group of his friends. He put a hand on the small of my back. “Come with me,” he said, “You don’t have to be scared.” I shook the tornado dust from my hair.
“The tornado curled my hair,” I said.
He laughed. “It’s okay. I have curly hair, too.”
The boy’s name was Justin. He gave me a flashlight. I found my cell phone, my computer, my diary. Justin found my straightening iron. He pulled it out of a plastic grocery bag. “So your hair won’t be curly,” he said.
I slept that night on Justin’s couch and dreamt that Iowa City was in ruins. People were setting off bombs made of fertilizer. We planted the dead under giant calla lilies that spun in circles like miniature tornadoes.
The next morning, I washed the dust and sticks from my hair and remembered the ten chocolate Ex-Lax I had taken the night before. Justin had a yellow shower curtain with Herky the Hawkeye baring his teeth and a stack of Maxims next to the toilet. He drove me to Wal-Mart in his SUV. “You should get these,” he said, pointing to the hip-hugging gaucho pants that all the sorority girls wore. We stopped at Wendy’s, and I watched him eat two cheeseburgers and a large Dr. Pepper. “I don’t know how you can drink diet pop,” he said, “I like sugar too much.” Then Justin had to go visit his grandmother in another town. It was Easter weekend. Because I didn’t have any real friends, I made him drop me back off at my ruined apartment.
The trees looked like cotton candy, with their branches threaded with wisps of pink insulation. In front of my building, volunteers handed out bottles of water. A journalist asked me what I was thinking when the tornado hit. “I didn’t want to die,” I said, but I wouldn’t let her quote me on that.
At the time of the Iowa City tornado in 2006, I was a sophomore in college. I had moved from California to the University of Iowa to study creative writing. But soon I found myself sinking deeper into the eating disorder I’d had since childhood. I was so shy that I made myself hold my breath before I tiptoed into the Dey House, the creaky Victorian that housed the Writers’ Workshop. I hated how the floorboards sounded as I walked. Inspired by my new landscape, I wrote short, cryptic stories made up of frozen images: chattering teeth and spiraling snow. The Iowa winters left me enchanted. To a Californian, they seemed to belong to the realm of fairytales. Iowa was a place more imaginary than real.
I had not been ready for the tornado. The night it came, I placed an apple on top of a can of Campbell’s tomato soup in preparation for dinner. Outside, the sirens sounded, and the hail rolled in waves. I was not afraid until the windows started to tremble. Then they shattered, and the roof disappeared, and I prayed to a God I didn’t believe in, asking him to forgive me for starving myself. At some point, I looked up to notice the night sky. It was a bright, mustard yellow.
When I returned the next day, I found my furniture scattered about the apartment. It was as if the building, now missing half its walls, were a dollhouse that had been rattled. But the apple still stood in the same spot, on top of the can of soup, as usual. Small pockets of the apartment had been left untouched.
I stayed that second night at the Red Cross. Because I couldn’t sleep, I sat on a couch with a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas unopened in my lap. My literature class was cancelled for Monday, but I wanted to finish the book anyway. All I could do was look at the pictures, the faces exploding into screams. A girl from the Junior Brigades in Missouri talked to me about the frozen custard stand she worked at during the summer. She told me how many calories were in each serving. “You could get fat just from eating a spoonful.” Her brother, a slim boy in uniform, asked me if we could make out. I said no. A vacuum cleaner hit the back of the couch and sent shocks of green light through my veins.
The third night, they let me stay in an apartment at a place called Hawks Ridge, brand-new student housing set off the highway in an area where no one wanted to live. The lobby had grand floor-to-ceiling windows. Another storm rolled in. I went running through the halls as the thunder pealed, and the windows opened to the lightning that streamed across the dark, splintering sky. I didn’t scream. I didn’t know what to do.
Someone stopped me. “I am not from here, but I would like to help you,” she said. Her name was Sonia. The girl brought me to her mother. Her mother’s name was Sonia, too. Their apartment was full of statues of Jesus. A giant Puerto Rican flag hung over the window. “I came here to live with my daughter, because she was lonely,” said the mother. I was so scared I couldn’t say a word. The mother called 9-1-1. I thought about how, if the window exploded, the flag would be there to protect me.
The backseat of the police car felt hard on my sits bones. The storm had left droplets of rain on the windshield, but the officer didn’t turn on the wipers. The emergency room was quiet that night. They weighed me. I felt a strange calm come over me, even before the shot. “Do you hear voices?” they asked, but I was still too frightened to answer. Someone changed me into a hospital gown and tucked me to sleep.
The doctor had beautiful, full hair that she wore tossed to one side, as if we were on a television show. She asked me if I thought I was overweight. She tilted her head, an expression of sympathy. The next thing I knew, I was sitting in front of a plate of mashed potatoes, and I was crying. “You can do it,” said another patient. She was thinner than me. It felt impossible.
The girl’s name was Tiffany. She was 27 and had short hair stuck with colorful pins. Whenever she stated an opinion, she would hide her face behind a notebook. Mary, 40, had a bob and fingers like blue paper. She had an index card on which she tallied the water she consumed in milliliters. She chuckled after she spoke. Megan, 32, talked frantically and waved her stick arms around inside her hospital gown, the plastic bracelet sliding all over. “My father was an alcoholic,” she said, “I had an evil stepmother who made me join the navy. I’ve never stayed in one place for more than a year.” When it was my turn, I said I didn’t need to be there. “But you’re so young,” they said. “I wish I would have stopped at 20.” They were practically begging me. I felt like a fraud.
The nurses wouldn’t let me walk or cross my legs. I sat with my diary in the common room, perfectly still, and tried to put the other patients on paper. The manic girl, Angelica, had auburn hair. She came up to me holding one of those Bibles that they hand out on street corners, a little green copy of the New Testament. “I know you with the long, black hair,” she said. “You come from another world.” Later, she stripped naked in the hallway and wrapped herself in a white sheet. Her father was a doctor, and when he came to visit, she would yell and pound on the off-key piano. She had talent, they said. There was a boy, Elijah, who wore a faded Nirvana tee, the one with a smile face with Xs for eyes, that showed off the lines of scars running down his arms. He played the guitar and came back from ECT with his head ajar like a Picasso. There was a woman, Darla. She was morbidly obese and so depressed she could barely walk, barely mouth out her words. “Everyone hates me,” she would croak. I found Justin in the phone book and called him for help. When I got off the phone, Darla said consolingly, “You’re feeling sad, too. Here I was feeling that way myself, and you’re feeling just as lonely.” She said it as a matter of fact and pinched me on the arm. She winked. “I can tell you were talking to someone you love.”
Justin came wearing cologne and his shirtsleeves rolled up. He brought me a phone card and said I didn’t need to be ashamed. “You were in a tornado. I would be scared, too.” Then I watched his expression change when I told him the details. “Because you’re so tiny? But you’ve been this size your whole life, right?” I liked the way he said it. “Tah-nee.” He pressed the call button, but they wouldn’t give him the answer he wanted. “Never mind, ma’am.” Then, “You need to call your parents.”
My stomach felt full as I lay on the table. I didn’t know why I couldn’t go, if it was because I had no laxatives or because someone was always watching me. They took me to the bone density scan in a wheelchair. I told the nursing assistant that it was unnecessary. “You can walk once you’re healthy” was all he would say.
“Are you White, Hispanic, or Black?” asked the technician.
“I’m half Asian and half White,” I said.
“You can only choose White, Hispanic, or Black. I know it’s strange, but that’s just the way it is,” she said. She smiled at me.
“Bless your heart,” she said.
Dr. Bergman called the eating disorder patients in for a couple minutes each day after breakfast. He had a golden beard and refused to listen. “You’re spaghetti on the outside, but I can tell you’re hard as steel on the in,” he said. I said I had to go back to school. It took the threat of a court order for me to call my parents. “Just hang tight,” my father said.
My father booked the soonest plane to Iowa.
“Your roommate is very friendly,” he said about Megan.
“She’s very thin,” I said. I knew that’s what he meant.
“You could end up like that.”
“I don’t think so. I’m the same weight I was at Christmas.”
“Well, I don’t know about that.”
Then, a long talk with him and Dr. Bergman. I was embarrassed. Dr. Bergman told him I was dying. My father said he would take care of me. Against medical advice, they let me go.
My father found me a room in a boarding house for women nestled over the co-op. I ate a slice of French toast with real maple syrup. “Getting three square meals a day is your job,” he said. I picked tornado dust off my stuffed animals and watched it waft off into the breeze that blew softly that day.
I went back to school. One night, at a poetry reading, a girl named Rebecca from my workshop called me over to her. She was from California, too, and called me by the name of my hometown. “Hey, Cupertino. Sit with me,” she said. Afterwards, we walked to the Java House, and she cried and said I reminded her of her sister. “She’s soft spoken, too.” We sat facing a brick wall in the ped mall as she smoked her cigarettes. She turned away from me and tried to blow the smoke in the opposite direction, but it kept coming back. “I liked your story. Really, I didn’t understand his criticism at all.” I told her I thought he was a good writer. “Yeah,” she said, “But your stories are different.” The smoke formed a cloud that just sat there between us. She kept swatting the air.
I couldn’t read or write. Between each page of my dictionary, there were little flakes of the tornado that I couldn’t shake out. After classes, I ate in silence, too scared to turn on the radio. Right before the tornado, I had been listening to NPR, as usual, both broadcasts of All Things Considered, as I pumped my legs in precise sequence to stories of Katrina and Iraq. I had needed the voices, even if it was only someone from the fund drive or a listing of shortwave signals. But now I was afraid the voices would crackle and go out. The tone of the National Weather Service felt somehow primal, like a warning of birds.
Everything in me started to swell. I watched in horror as I expanded in the usual order, my face like a moon, my fingers, my underarms, the outsides and insides of my thighs, the space between my knees. I saw a therapist once. She told me she also had a raw deal. “I am short and fat, and I am a lesbian,” she said, “But I’ve learned to accept myself.” There were Buddhas everywhere, and a warm light shone in from the window. She compared my life to a game of poker. “Sometimes, you get dealt a bad hand, but you can still play the game,” she said and smacked her lips. “Say you get a pair of jacks.” I didn’t know how to play. “Say you get a pair of jacks. Sometimes, you’re going to lose. But sometimes, you’re going to win.”
That summer, the storms kept rolling in, and each time they did, I was reminded of the fact that I was an animal. I would cower somewhere, absolutely still, and hold my breath, as if that were a form of protection. As if I could fool God by playing dead, as if I would be forgotten by him. All around me, the solid things revealed their impermanence. Every material object contained the potential to fold away and be whisked by the wind.
I took a summer course in the literature of religion, and the professor assigned us a book about angels. The angel on the cover had the rainbow wings of a parrot, but it looked like it was falling, tumbling through the clouds as it sounded its horn. The book was about the near death experience, about being reborn, but all I can remember is holding it unopened in my hands, understanding none of the words inside, wondering how long it would last.
Erica Kanesaka Kalnay reads, writes, and makes art in Madison, Wisconsin. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from New York University and is currently working on a Ph.D. in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin. You can find her online at ericakanesaka.com and @ericakanesaka.