I don’t know what this is and should probably ask someone for help, tell someone how ill I feel, how wavering and two-dimensional, instead of being too full of pride to. I’m walking in the wind with too many layers on: a shirt designed for running in cold weather, tight against my skin, followed by sweatshirt upon sweater, down vest beneath down jacket. A hat, too, on my head, a fur hat. But the wind moves across the open plain of my face, the only exposed part of my body, and it’s excruciating, even though it’s not very cold out here, high 50s maybe. I feel the hot, prickly sweat under my arms and under the hat, but I’m cold. A contradiction that can only mean one thing: fever.
This unmedicated state itself is inspiring, not to mention what happens when you add potent elixirs to the equation: acetaminophen or valium or tramadol or whatever happens to be lying around. But up here, the medicine cabinet is an exhibit: most of the things on those three pine shelves expired two to ten years ago, and none of them are powerful. So far I don’t need them, or don’t want them. I like this feeling, as if my brain has been submerged in some thick, hot liquid, unfurling parts of it that aren’t normally used.
I don’t see, but feel things that aren’t there, aren’t here. I feel his presence, though he’s back behind me, inside, probably still asleep. He doesn’t know I’m sick and I don’t want him to, because I doubt him. I doubt him because I doubt myself. I’m not sure how he would treat me, whether he would take care of me, or stay away.
In my gut I know what he would do: come by with helpful things, things I wouldn’t think to get myself. Soup, some potent powder to pour in hot water, and he would talk in a concerned tone, frowning, to his parents about how pale I looked, how I probably wasn’t eating enough, how he was going to come over with food and a gadget holding the entire season of some engrossing TV show that he’d downloaded. And he would say he was just going to leave the computer with me, but then he would lie down next to me and watch it with me, though he’d seen the show before, and though my body was giving off its viral vapors into the air around us, and in a couple of days he would be this sick, too, but I would be gone by then and wouldn’t be able to take care of him.
Which made me think, as we sat there watching mythical families conspire against each other on the little screen, about past episodes like this, times when we were so young that illness meant our parents’ worlds being upended for a week or maybe more, staying home from work, anxiously watching from across the room our hearts fluttering between our ribs, the fat stripped away from our bodies as our organs took everything they could to fight the same virus. I wonder if they ever talked about it, how we both got mono,”the kissing disease,” the same year, and not from each other, but from different droplets of saliva thousands of miles apart, and how both of us had come fairly close to danger, not death’s door but as close as our parents would hopefully ever come to that kind of vertiginous pain.
He lost pounds of muscle and fat, and was hospitalized. At the time I’d lived in a fickle little island nation, so my hospital was a world of blankets and pillows, notebooks and books, and bowls of bland food, a world my mother set up for me in the living room. While he was on an IV being taken care of by a national health service, my family’s doctor was still trying to figure out what I had. I lost so much weight that my mother said I looked like a mirage as I walked from bedroom to living, across a long, cold marble floor, the shutters on the windows still closed at midday because the sunlight, staggering and persistent, hurt my eyes to look at. If they had been open she probably wouldn’t have been able to see me at all, the light paling me.
One day I’d been absorbed in an Alan Garner novel in the tent I’d erected over my bed, the next I was wondering whether I’d only found the book so engrossing because of the fever reaching with its long fingers across my brain. I would have a fever for a month. I would miss the first three weeks of seventh grade. What marks would this strange disease leave on us? For me, depression, at least for a few weeks: throwing things across my bedroom, creating black scratches on the white doors of the wardrobe.
And I’m sure it held both our bodies back a few months. Here we were, supposed to be growing to the heights of our fathers and grandfathers, the tall ones in our families, but instead of a spurt we were forced to put it all on hold, put our growing up, at least the physical part of it, off for awhile. If it weren’t for mono, I like to think, I would be 5’10, not 5’8, and he would be six feet, not 5’9, a collarbone taller than me, and maybe he wouldn’t be able to refer to my arms as my “skinny little arms,” but no, I think I was destined to have those anyway.
Now, a similar feeling, a kind of blissful but undeniably unnatural warmth, as I walk to the cliff behind which a whole world is hiding, a mile-square stretch of grass overlooking the lagoon-like part of the lake, the nice part of the lake, the expensive part of the lake. I remember being so happy, in spite of my body’s temperature, when I had mono. I had incredible dreams, I wrote obsessively in a notebook about everything that was happening to my brain, and everything that was happening on the TV, which was my constant companion for that month, along with the cats, who were of course thrilled that someone else wanted to lie curled up under a blanket on the sofa for as long as they did and give off warmth they could share. I had just met him that summer, which made me think maybe I had somehow given him the disease, or he had given it to me, some innocuous exchange of germs in the public pool at the end of the road, or during a water balloon fight, or in a lick of each other’s ice-cream cones. It was that easy, that simple, to contract that bully of a disease, which grabbed you, pulled you to the ground, and pinned you down for as long as it felt like it, especially if you were young, delicate, still malleable.
Now I am sleep-walking, sleep-dreaming, to the cliff, which is like a screen, on the other side of which I feel free to cry, to scream, to sing aloud, to think about him. And I think about something that happened just yesterday, how when I got up to get him a glass of water he got up too, came to the kitchen to receive it, unnecessary and lovably strange. So we stood there for two seconds, which felt like a long time for us, since we preferred to dart around, never stop moving long enough to ask each other what was really going on here — if anything. There is always that disclaimer: if anything. We stood face-to-face, and he smiled, and I rummaged around for something to say, feeling that words were another kind of movement: just get us out of this silence, so we won’t wonder too much.
But that was all I did, as soon as he was gone, as soon as I was alone again, and I liked to walk at least a mile away, as if he could hear my thoughts when we were in our homes, neighbors, as if I had to get out of earshot. Because sickness aside, there were odd forces at work here: shared diseases, familial bonds going back generations. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he could read my mind. I was sure he could read my mind. That the only thing standing in his way, the only thing that made my face incomprehensible to him, was his lack of confidence in himself.
I shared that affliction too, but we were too old now to blame outside forces for the way we were: our positions in our families, our overprotective parents, who seemed to have always wanted us around more than they wanted us to be independent and brave. I was rejoicing in our shared badges, babies of the family, sickly and lovable, lacking any of our older sisters’ pride and certainty, when I rounded the corner to the other side of the cliff to find him there, a hundred yards in front of me, sitting on top of the rock I called the “submarine rock,” smoking a cigarette. So he was awake, and he was getting himself going, having that first smoke of the day. He needed to feel some physical excitement, a kind of carbonation within him, to get through the day. His chosen tools were cigarettes and joints. I wanted to say now that I could solve that predicament, give him some different way of seeing things, by kissing him and kissing him, under the pretext of sickness-sharing, celebrating some anniversary, the 17th or so, of our mysterious emergencies, our sudden and frightening frailty. Instead, of course, I just ambled towards him through the fluffy purple weeds and tried my best not to look ill.
It didn’t work. He asked if I was all right. You look like a ghost. I said I think I’m sick, the uncertainty only of someone who doesn’t want to be weak, though maybe showing my weakness would ensure he wouldn’t leave me: damsel in distress. He reached his hand down to pull me up to the top of the rock, where I sat behind him, and he turned ninety degrees to get a better look at me.
I’m sure you’re sick, he said, and after hesitating, put his giant hand across my forehead, held it there for many seconds as he seemed to know he should, or maybe he just wanted to. Oof, he said, almost cheerfully, as if he wanted to make me feel somehow hopeful about being ill, but I think he was just happy to have something to do that wasn’t work. You’re wearing far too many clothes, he said. I almost closed my eyes, but not due to the fever, just in reaction to the sudden removal of his palm from my face, which had been keeping it warm. I tried to open them wide again, felt suddenly like I was in one of those dreams when you’re struggling to keep your eyes open. And I looked into his, so bright, so alert, so temperate. Then he took lapels of my jacket and pulled the snaps apart, like a parent to an exhausted child who has just come in from playing in the snow and stands there obediently, waiting for the time when the parent will say, “Arms up.” Here we were in yet another intimate situation that could be excused away by other facts on the table. We had sat so close to each other last night because it had been cold. He was undressing me now in the middle of a field because I had a fever.
But he stopped at the jacket. Let’s get you back, he said, stuffing the jacket under his arm and pulling me down off the rock. You shouldn’t be out here — that chirpy fake-scolding tone he was so good at. You should be inside, with some hot soup, but first, a cold shower. You’re lucky cold water is the only thing available here. He kept babbling on, still holding my hot, bony hand in his hand. You shouldn’t be near me, I said, interrupting him, because this had been a long moment, a record long moment for us, and we couldn’t have that. But then he said what I knew he would say, the only thing he could say, really, being him. But I was so skeptical, others had made me so skeptical, that I almost couldn’t believe my ears: Too late now. He wouldn’t have had it any other way, I realized, than to have come too close and then shrugged this all off, than to have risked getting sick just so he could be here, be the one to be here.
Possibly I would wake up from this in my bed, alone, I thought. Or possibly I would wake up from this, having replayed it all, replayed a thing that had actually happened, in a sweaty dream, and see him, lying on his stomach next to me, reading the middle of a book I hadn’t even started yet, flipping forward two hundred pages to a story with a title he liked the sound of, waiting for me to wake up, though he had no idea what he would do when I did: the trepidation that comes with wanting someone, of not wanting to ruin the thing with want.