Bitter Toxins (Fiction)

You forget why you take so many kinds of medicines. Most of them are localized painkillers, as far as you know. You look at your prescription again. Though some corner of your mind screams that there’s something wrong with your lifestyle, you ignore it. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me.’ You pop your ninth packet of medicine into your mouth and swallow. The drugs had long since lost the bitter taste in your mouth. As the pills work their way through your digestive system, you think of your younger daughter and how much prettier she would be if she were skinnier. Soon, a black rage takes hold in your heart. Why couldn’t she just eat less? She looks like a pig! She’d be so beautiful if she were just skinny, like the other girls in her school.

She comes home from somewhere – probably out with her mother to plot against you. You take her curt greeting as a personal affront – how dare she speak to her elder in that manner? You could have sworn your wife did a better job of raising her than that. Instead of answering her greeting or ignoring her as you usually would, you tell her to stop eating. She looks at you, obviously not understanding what you said. You repeat, to which she replies that she wasn’t hungry anyways.

The door slams behind her. As understanding finally dawns on her face, you resist the urge to reach out and choke the living daylights out of her. She had obviously not inherited her sister’s intelligence – which, you were proud to say, came from your side of the family. Yet again she startles you by doing nothing but going to her room to change clothes. Your wife comes in right afterwards, having parked the car and waited for the elevator a while. You make it clear that until she reached a weight of fifty-five kilograms (fifteen under her current weight), your daughter was not to receive any food other than one pack of tofu and a bag of celery sticks per day. Your wife does nothing but sigh and shake her head, muttering something about medicine overdoses.

Her ignorance of your physical health enrages you again, and you drag your daughter out of her room, convinced that she had poisoned your loving wife with her lack of regard for your health. After reducing her to tears for the eighth time that week, (seriously, who cries that easily? Weakling…) you finally realize that she’s still half-naked. Topless and shivering, she throws you another dirty look before running into her room and locking the door behind her. Your wife shakes her head again and enters her room through the master bedroom, looking significantly at the empty medicine packet clenched in your fist. You glance down at the wax paper, wondering if you really were overdosing. You shake the idea out of your head. The doctor told you that you needed every last pill; hence, your wife and daughter were wrong.

The next morning, you wake up to the sound of your wife and daughter speaking in hushed tones. They abruptly stop when you bid them a good morning from your room. As you enter the kitchen, your daughter scrutinizes your face and then flees, abandoning her half-eaten egg. ‘What’s with her?’ Something crosses your mind – a packet of medicine scrunched up in your hand. Speaking of which, you haven’t taken your medicine yet. You shake your head when your wife asks if you want any eggs, telling her so. At the mention of your medicine, she sighs, shakes her head, and turns back to wash the dishes. You ask her if something was wrong. She says no, but the way she flinches when you touch her shoulders tells you otherwise. Curious, you ask her why she flinched – you don’t remember ever laying a finger on her. She refrains from answering. Instead she asks you a question.

“Have you ever thought that you’re taking too much medicine?” Your mind flashes back to the packet of medicine in your hand the night before. The flashback and her question confuse you. It seems that all your wife talks about is how much medicine you take. “I mean, it’s probably worse for you in the long run, shoving all those chemicals down your throat. Those chemicals are toxins too.” You grunt, insulted by the way she had worded her ideas. “I mean… chemicals like that can change your personality, too.” You wave off her passive-aggressive accusation. Things like that are only old wives’ tales. Despite the repeated reassurances you give yourself, you can’t shake off the feeling that you’re forgetting something incredibly important.

At work, you take your next three packets of medicine. Your secretary comments on your increased dosage, noting that your temper seems a little shorter than usual after you take your medicine. You snap at her, telling her to get back to work and mind her own business. The feeling that crept up in the back of your mind earlier this morning deepens. ‘Why is everyone nitpicking me about my medicine? Do I need to stick my prescription onto my forehead for people to understand that I’m not overdosing for the heck of it? And what’s all that about medicine changing my personality? I am who I am, nothing more, nothing less, and no amount of chemicals will change that.’

You come home from work exhausted as usual and say hello to what you think is an empty house. You’re wrong. Your daughter says a curt hello from the study and returns to her work while your wife comes out of the kitchen and gives you a small smile and a quick hello before scurrying back to the kitchen to finish whatever she had been doing. Once again, you shut yourself in your room and watch TV.

You must have slept for a good three hours when the phone rings and your daughter answers the call with a cheerful hello. You miss the conversation she has with the person on the other side, too immersed in your thoughts on how nice it would be if she could always be that cheerful and don’t notice when she’s come into your room until the phone is in your face. You take the phone and she leaves quickly, shutting the door behind her tightly.

“Hello?” Your mother answers with her standard chitchat about how your daughter’s voice is so pretty and how her dinner tasted and whether you have eaten yet. You give the same answers that you almost always give, and the conversation moves on innocuously. You promise your mother that you’ll stop by the next day to pick up some kimchi that she made for your family. Just as you’re about to hang up, your mother asks you a strangely innocent question.

“How have you been sleeping lately? Are your day and night still switched around?” It’s been a while since she’s talked about that. “You know, your daughter said something about you not feeling too well. Are you still sick? Chemicals are no good for you, Son. They’ll change you and turn you into a different person. Have you ever considered herbal medicine?” You cut her off before she can continue.

“I’m fine. I’ve just been tired. I don’t have any problems with my medicine, and that’s just an old wives’ tale, Mom.” Your mother sighs and agrees.

“You’re probably right; you’d know more about this Western medicine than I do. Well, take care.” You hang up, thoroughly bothered by the extent to which all of your immediate family emphasizes the negative effects of your medicine. Your daughter comes in to take the phone back to its charger just as you’re about to take your seventh packet of the day. You tell her what you had been thinking while she was talking to your mother. You don’t mean for it to sound offensive, but she takes it personally and whips up a surprisingly witty retort about how she would be happier if you would stop bullying her. Angered, you stand up abruptly and watch her flinch and shrink back against the door before turning and slamming it behind her.

The way she flinched when you stood and the fear in her eyes haunt you. You don’t recall ever raising a hand against her. ‘What could make her so afraid?’ You decide to ask your wife.

“Is she being bullied in school?” Your wife narrows her eyes at the question as she shakes her head. “I stood up and she flinched. What was that about?”

Your daughter pokes her head out of her room. “You don’t remember anything?” You’re confused by her question. You remember everything that’s to be remembered. Whatever it is that you “forgot”, it must have been important to her. You suppose that she should probably straighten out her priorities to match yours, and you tell her so. Instead of lashing out at you, she asks you another question. “Which one are you right now?”

“Which what?” You catch your wife giving her a look. “Which what?”

“It looks like you’re a little more sober, so maybe you’ll listen to us.” Your wife starts cautiously. Your daughter rolls her eyes and continues.

“Every time I’ve brought it up, you’ve brushed it aside. Since you’re a little calmer, I think we need to talk about your medicine problem.” You remember why you resent your daughter so much – she’s too foreign, too blunt. But you remember that that was how you raised her to be, assertive and outspoken. Suddenly, your heart blossoms with love for her. “You’re taking too much medicine, Dad. You’re like Mr. Hyde when you take them.” Your wife slaps her arm.

“Quiet. You agreed to let me do the talking.” She turns to you again. “Honey, don’t mind her. It’s just that we’re both very worried about your health and your emotional state whenever you take your medicine.”

“I should have noticed,” mutters your daughter. “Dad, the morning you found the broken cabinet, what were you thinking?” You vaguely remember seeing the shattered glass cabinet in the morning.

“I had a headache. I don’t remember anything other than that.”

“Was it like a hangover?” You nod. “The thing is… you’re the one who broke it the night before. Dad, have you ever considered that the medicine is intoxicating you?” Your daughter’s words make sense, but then you remember: several doctors had given you the prescription and had it covered by your health insurance.

“I have a prescription for every medicine I take.” Your daughter nods in resignation.

“I know, Dad. But doctors are human too. They can make mistakes. You’ve elevated them into a position where their word is absolute, and that’s not right.” It’s been so long since you heard her call you “Dad” instead of “Father”.

“Well, if you and your mother are done talking, I need to take my evening medicines.” They both sigh heavily as you exit awkwardly. While pulling out your seventh packet of pills, you think about what they said. Their expressions strike you as particularly strange: they looked as though they had been debating whether to bring it up. You had never once thought that something as beneficial as medicine could be a point of distress for other people. You shrug. ‘I don’t have a problem. They’re just imagining it.’