#99: I finally found it
It was in an unmarked bar on the Lower East Side
It took me 99 newsletters to catch the virus that inspired me to start it. Wish it could have been 100 but I guess that’s greedy…
I once came down with a bad flu that had me out of high school for three weeks. During the worst of it, I lay completely still on our living room sectional, too weak to sit up, eat, or change my clothes. Eventually my mom sat me in her bathtub and poured glasses of warm water over my head to wash my hair. I must have been clammy. I remember being naked in front of her—how it felt different from being naked when I was healthy. More clinical, no self-consciousness whatsoever. I was 14. After the bath, I told my mom that my hair, which was wet and piled on top of my head in a bun, felt heavy. She repeated this to my teachers when they asked if I was okay, as if that were all they needed to know. My Spanish teacher came by to drop off my homework.
My mom was and is a loving and attentive parent, but she was never the type to stroke my cheek, cup my face, and call me perfect. Doting wasn’t her natural register. So I reveled in the sick loophole: my mom no longer bound to her parental ethic of what constituted “babying” me, and me, free to be a baby at last. When I started to recover and my mom, for the first time in weeks, left my side to go out to dinner with my dad, I cried, longing for her, as the garage door closed behind them. It made no sense. I was a teenager, otherwise itching for independence, for permission to go to Ricky Appler’s party unsupervised. My sister was mystified by my tears but I felt too pathetic to be embarrassed. I’d ceded to some elemental aspect of myself. I’d been reduced to my most basic, needy form, then embraced it.
I thought about the sick bath while taking another sick bath a couple weeks ago, in my New York apartment at the age of 32, my mother across the country in San Diego, tending to her garden. I guess it was more of a sick shower. I’d taken to sitting halfway through them, to rest. I was four days into having Covid, which felt like the worst flu-cold collab of my adult life: fever, aches, congestion, fatigue—each of the classics, all at once. It felt satisfying to give in to gravity, like getting a seat in the middle of a long subway ride. I wasn’t really in there to get clean anyway. I was in there because of the headaches, which I’d become convinced had something to do with my hair follicles, and so I kept shampooing them, scrubbing at the pain. It was an unusual type of headache. Like a migraine but more unnerving. I kept describing them to Avi as “feeling like the sound of a motorcycle” or “the awful fizziness in your brain when you get water up your nose at the community pool, but sustained.” Somehow, electricity seemed involved.
I’d finally caught the virus after two years of avoiding it, on April 23rd, at the birthday party of a 27-year-old actress-model, the younger sister of a friend of mine. I remember feeling homely and old at the party, wandering around the unmarked Lower East Side bar like a ghost among her beautiful, waifish friends wearing ironic fringed leather jackets. I spent most of the night huddled in a corner with the other elders and was the first to leave, around 12:48 a.m. Later, when I realized someone in attendance had breathed covid-19 molecules into my throat, I thought about how, hours before the party, I’d told Avi that I was tired and probably wouldn’t go. “I bet you’ll change your mind once you go to dinner and have a single drink,” he replied, and he was right. It was a margarita. Two days later, I was coughing.
When the test came back positive, I was secretly satisfied. There is something reassuring about a positive result, even if it signals the less appealing outcome. I remember taking a pregnancy test in college, knowing it was a terrible time for me to get pregnant, and still some tiny, walled-off part of me wanted it to come back positive, for the attention from my boyfriend alone. When it was negative, I was snapped back to reality with relief. But this positive test, the Covid one, wasn’t all bad. It gave me proof. By the time I got the result, I already felt heavy and sensitive to the touch, symptoms that sound much more manageable in theory. Half the battle of being in pain is being believed. That darkened second line saved me a lot of grief.
Then I got much sicker than expected. In bed for nearly two weeks. Early on Avi brought me a ramekin of 30 Advil, which was a joke until I took them all. Had I not been physically miserable, I might have enjoyed it. Being sick is about regression. If you can shoulder past the shame of that, and if you have the requisite resources, the avoidant possibilities are endless. You can stop working, stop cooking and cleaning, stop washing your face, stop answering texts, stop making to-do lists, stop holding yourself to any standard whatsoever. You can rely on other people who expect nothing in return. Your only job is to get healthy, which mostly means lay down. You can set aside climate disaster and abolishing the filibuster and leave a half-eaten bowl of applesauce on your bedside table for days.
I could only manage the regression in spurts. I kept apologizing to Avi for bringing me tea, for giving our cat his life-saving medicine, for letting me quarantine in the bedroom, which left him sleeping on the couch. I kept trying to turn stupid, feverish ideas into essays so that I could get back to work as soon as I felt less than 700 pounds, which I was perennially sure was around the corner. I knew these were the wrong ways to be sick, and so I was grateful, in a strange way, whenever I felt too ill to do anything at all. Only then could I accept care and turn away from my work without guilt, the way I easily did when I was 14. When your incompetence is involuntary, you’re finally free.
I became pathologically attached to the bedroom, my prison, like a child to a teddy bear. I liked how it felt different during the daytime versus the nighttime, almost as if it were two separate rooms, two separate experiences. During the day, the sun spilled across my light blue duvet as if it were the sky itself. Sometimes, I’d open the sliding glass door to bring in fresh air, and watch the budding tree out back swoosh healthily in the breeze. Once, when the door was open, I heard my downstairs neighbor talking and laughing with a friend in her garden, and I received this like a telegram from the future: It was me outside talking and laughing with a friend, only later. Once, Avi sat on the balcony and read his book to keep me company. When he saw two cats fucking in a backyard below, he told me to come look, but they’d stopped by the time I made it out there. I was the grim reaper of sex. The sun always seemed to set without my noticing. Suddenly the room would be dark, my eyes adjusting as if I’d walked into a movie theater on a sunny afternoon. I’d turn on my bedside lamp, which cast a warm glow over the room. I’d make the bed while I brushed my teeth—throwing away the used tissues, replacing the kicked-off pillows—so that it felt fresh when I got back in.
I never really blamed myself for getting sick. If anything I was proud of my body for fighting. I felt this the strongest while sitting in the shower, my spine resting on the back of the porcelain tub, my ears so pressurized I could barely hear the water running over me. I imagined how busy my insides were. I saw my immune system as a bustling metropolis working to restore me to health, and felt a saccharine tenderness toward myself. My nakedness returned to its clinical form. I felt sorry for thinking so little of my body for most of my life, for acting like it owed me something even when I treated it like shit. I gave myself a literal hug. I was curious if I could be the sort of person who could do something so mawkish and really mean it. I think I actually did.
Time expands when you don’t have the energy to move through it. Emotionally, I was sick for months. Call it an elastic mood. My case of Covid was ultimately mild. Millions have experienced worse, or died instead of recovering, or else failed to recover but kept on living anyway. When I was sick and maudlin, I imagined being a covid long-hauler. I pretended to be me in a year, trying to remember the last time I’d tasted something. In the end, my taste restored fairly quickly. I was just being dramatic. The virus ran through me and died there. Now I’m back at my desk, the details already fading, basically the same as I was before.
My favorite article I read last week was “Dreamers in Broad Daylight,” an essay by Leslie Jamison for Astra Mag that is actually one of my favorite things I’ve read this year. Last week’s 15 things also include my new favorite pants, where to find good fries downtown, a podcast I was recently on, and lots of other good stuff. The rec of the week was what to do with purgatory clothes (not dirty, not clean)—a tale as old as time that remains relevant against all odds.
Tuesday’s podcast will be a discussion between me and Harling Ross about Leslie Jamison, our daydreams, trying to write better, etc.
Hope you have a nice Sunday,