I run the bath at 3 a.m. Occasionally at 4 a.m., 2 a.m., 1 a.m., 5 a.m. Whenever my small body shivers with fever and can’t get warm, but more so, like this morning, when the pain builds like waves, like a California earthquake, spreading across my back and down my legs. Even at age twelve, I know the hurt starts in my belly, a twist of my diseased gut. By the time the pain peaks I swear it’s a tree, vines re-rooting all over my torso. 

The bath flows across my muscles, heats me from the outside in, warms the spasms deep inside me, calms my body during the stagnant night. 

I want my parents, but I don’t want to wake them.

While the water is only above my toes, I keep myself contained in a tight wad of limbs, my arms wrapped around my shins, chin resting on my knees, back arched, stomach tense like armor against jabs and left hooks punching at my organs from the inside. 

Older women tell me about childbirth, about the pain and how it’s unimaginable, but I think I can imagine, and I wonder whether they can imagine my pain, whether they’d do the same courtesy of trying to understand me, a child. But I don’t actually ask, I just stare. 

While I watch the water licking my ankle, I’m unaware how my body fails me, that there are parts of my intestine blocked like the pipes my father sometimes pours bleach into, but there is no bleach I can swallow to open up the buildup of scar tissue. When I eat, food travels down my throat as soon as the stomach acids begin to break down the fats and fibers, the reaction starts. Juices make their way into the loops of my tubing and the first pain comes from touches against swollen, raw flesh. The first pains are short, pre-shocks. As more food is digested, the juices are filled with rubble, partially making their way into my gut but becoming trapped against stiff organs, scarred into openings that will not stretch, and so the food sits. The pain starts. My body goes into panic, it pulses, it pushes yellow bile up to force the mush in my stomach to pass out the “in” door. If I’m lucky, I vomit. The pains last less long then, even if I’m slowly starving. 

On the phone once, my brother, away at college, pre-med, tells me that if I can keep food down for thirty minutes my body will consume most of the calories. I know I often I don’t make it thirty minutes.

The water is up my shins now. The sound of the faucet mimics the sound of the freeway a block away, visible just outside the second-story bathroom window where I’m soaking. If you look over the backyard you can see the cars sweep by during rush hours. But it’s not rush hour now, and for the next few hours it will be the quietest the freeway will get. The sounds of rushing now come only from the hot water barreling over my feet. The roots of the pain stop growing.

Sometimes my mom will hear me in the bath. My parents’ room is across the hall from me. We keep our doors open in case I need to call to them in emergencies. The bathroom is just down the hall, with the door closed gently, and before I turn on the bathroom light, I won’t wake my parents. Every night of my personal rush hour, I close the door like it is made of fragile glass, keeping the handle turned until it’s in the doorframe then letting the handle up. Despite sympathies for my parents’ slumber, every night I hope they hear me. I hope my mother enters and rubs my back. That she tells me it will be OK in soft tones. I hope she witnesses my self-sufficiency, bravery, problem solving. I hope she tells me I’ll never have to problem solve on my own if I, we, all acknowledge that I can, that I am able, abled, at least in certain small ways, like running a bath. 

Now the water has reached my waist. I uncurl myself and turn off the faucet before expanding until my feet and neck are submerged, my arms now wrapped around stomach, holding firm against my belly button. The pain loosens its grip, roots receding, and I’m wondering how long until the sun rises and others’ wake.

Katie Schwarz is a writer, guitarist, and pop culture fiend who lives in Oakland, CA. She received her MFA from Saint Mary’s College of California in June. She is currently completing her memoir about living with Crohn’s Disease from childhood through adulthood.

Art by Jill Khoury