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swine flu part one: a sad little bitch
nobody wants to be the main character of getting sick
hi friends. I know it’s been a while. Several months ago, I started writing something about a time I got briefly very sick in the very late ‘00s, probably for reasons to do with several topics pushing themselves lately to the center of the discourse (indie sleaze, epidemics). Then I got covid, and stopped writing it for a while, and when I came back to it, it started to be partly about having covid, as well as about some larger ideas to do with sickness and bodies and love stories. It got extremely long and thorny. The draft (I cannot possibly stress enough how loosely I am using that word) I have right now hovers around 10,000 words, which is, like…too many words. Or maybe it isn’t—I love a maximalist personal narrative—but it’s certainly too long for a single newsletter, and trying to edit it down and clarify the ideas in it kind of took over my life for the last few weeks, and it began to feel a little bit like Penelope staying up late weaving that shroud.
So I’m bringing back something I tried out last summer. I’ll be sending this essay in installments at least once a week for the next month or so while I figure out what it wants to be and how the pieces of it fit together (paid subscribers will get extra installments or maybe you’ll get some writing about unrelated stuff). Hopefully, in a month or so, I’ll send a final version that pulls everything together and edits it all down to a readable and reasonable length. Or maybe I’ll just send you a 10,000 word essay at the end of next month (I probably won’t do that, don’t worry).
Anyway, here’s the first installment of something about sickness and love stories.
In the spring of 2009, I was a sad little bitch. There was a virus going around the world. Maybe it was also going around New York City. Nobody really knew. Headline after headline—online and in actual newspapers, the kind that stained your hands the same way the subway did— all said something like “we are doing nothing, but should we be doing nothing?” Sometimes they included — again, I cannot verify any of this, this is just my unreliable memory — pictures of people in other countries wearing masks on public transportation. Captions under the photos asked if we should be doing that, and landed, I think, on us not doing that. Anyway, nobody did that.
Nobody did much of anything. We all just talked about it. Facebook posts and newspaper articles imagined something catastrophic, but that something never arrived. An achingly beautiful early spring carried on into the edge of summer exactly the same way it always does in New York City, the same way it did in 2020, and the same way it did this year in early April when I finally got Covid. In 2009, the virus was gossip; my friends and I talked about it a lot and then we did all the things we would have done anyway. I thought that nobody I knew was actually sick. It would be more than ten years before I learned how far from the truth that was.
On a Sunday, some friends came over to help me pack up my stuff for an upcoming move. I was moving out of an apartment I loved because of a guy I didn’t even like, who didn’t even like me either. It was the wrong choice and I knew that. I walked around through my life, up and down the streets and avenues, back and forth to the subway and the grocery store, knowing I was making the wrong choice and making it anyway. I felt bad all the time, which means I might have actually had symptoms before that Sunday and not even noticed them. But late that afternoon is when I remember it starting. My friends and I hadn’t really packed anything; we’d just sat around doing nothing, avoiding whatever felt bad. That was the only activity I ever wanted to do back then. I wanted to sit around and pretend nothing was happening.
Almost everyone had left by the time I started to feel very bad. I was standing up and then I felt like I couldn’t stand up anymore, so I sat down, and then I felt like maybe I wasn’t going to be able to stand back up again. I felt dizzy, and slimy, and too warm and too cold at the same time. My own body felt all at once profoundly unfamiliar.
Only one of my friends was still there at that point. I told him to leave, even though I knew when he left I would be completely alone, all the way down to the sinew and the bone of the word. I went into the bathroom and started throwing up. No other loneliness is really as alone as being alone when you’re sick. It stains down from the corners and gets in through the seams of whatever bright rooms you’ve built for yourself. Or at least that’s what it felt like to me, on that day in 2009, throwing up in the bright-blue painted bathroom in my old apartment on the hill near the river. My friend whom I’d told to leave had gone to the bodega and bought some gatorades and dropped them off outside the door before he’d left. I drank half a gatorade— it was yellow— and immediately threw up again.
When I finally stopped throwing up long enough to do anything else, I called my mom. In 2009, if you asked me who I loved and who loved me, I doubt I would have mentioned my mom. My mom and I were not on the best terms back then — I was a mess and she had understandably little patience for it, and more than enough going on in her own life to not want to add my mess to it. She lived across the country and officially we didn’t even like each other. I had a boyfriend for whom I was about to ruin my life; I had a lot of friends for whom I was constantly and grandly professing my love. But my mom was the only person I wanted to call when I got sick.
It is difficult to lie to yourself about who you love and who loves you when you are puking your guts out. I felt as though I had no one then, during that horrible spring of that horrible year. But I could call my mom, which is something not many people can say. Bodily crisis cuts through the bright false stories around it, revealing what small, hard things remain
My mom told me to take my temperature. It was bad. The thermometer made that panicked bright-red beeping noise. “Shut up,” I wanted to admonish it, “don’t you know my mom is listening?” My temperature wasn’t as high as it would eventually get, but it was over 101. I wanted to lie about it; I wanted to tell my mom that things were better than they were. But she could hear the thermometer over the phone, so I told her whatever the number really was.
I listed the rest of my symptoms, and she said I should probably go to the ER. I didn’t want to go to the ER; I didn’t even want to go to the other side of the room. I said I would see how it was in a few hours. She sounded worried, but she said she would call me back.
Night had fallen across the spring weather, and it was dark in my apartment, light spewing up out of one corner from the bathroom. I hung up the phone and laid down on the floor, or something like that. I don’t actually remember what I did; I just remember feeling terrible, unhitched from the world. I had not known before that a high fever is actually painful. I curled up in a ball and cried; I remember that part.
When my mom called back in a few hours, I answered from the bathroom, the phone sitting on the edge of the sink, its face pointed toward the ceiling. She asked me to take my temperature again. By then it was around 103. I threw up audibly and then I said “just tell me I don’t have swine flu.”
“I… can’t tell you that,” she said.
She sounded— as I remember it, anyway— sort of grimly amused. I might be making that part up, but it makes sense; I had just described a laundry list of swine flu symptoms and then asked her to tell me that I didn’t have swine flu.
In the last year or two, the term “main character syndrome” has swum up into vogue. The phrase is self-explanatory, and usually not a compliment. Being the main character means needing to place yourself at the center of whatever is happening. It means assuming every story is about you. Telling stories like this, like the one I’m telling right now, is main character syndrome. Everybody’s getting sick, so let me tell you a story about when I got sick. A virus is in the news, so I have to talk about a time when I had a different virus.
But nobody wants to be the main character of the storm when the storm rolls in; it’s only when the storm has passed, and everybody is talking about the storm, that we want to have been at the eye of it. All I wanted was to not be the main character of the swine flu. After throwing up for hours, with a 103 degree fever, I really thought I could just ask someone to tell me that whatever was happening to other people wasn’t happening to me.
Again, my mom said I should go to the ER. I could have gone, of course— people drag themselves, alone and in far more dire circumstances than I was in then, to the ER all the time. But to go to the ER was to admit that it was happening to me, that the disease and the stories, the headlines and the posts, the lists and symptoms, were also my own life and my own body, living in my own home, real as skin and blood and sweat and vomit. My mom said she guessed I could keep drinking water and taking my temperature, but maybe I should just go to the ER now anyway?
She was so kind, and I was overwhelmed by it, and I probably never really thanked her, and I didn’t go to the ER. I hung up the phone and went back to drinking Gatorade and throwing up and taking my temperature, hoping it wouldn’t get worse.
Time passed in stuttering, lumpy pieces. The table by the bed accumulated tissues and empty water bottles. In the big window along the wall, light blinked in and out of view, as though someone were fiddling with a switch somewhere. I called my mom several more times, and threw up and then stopped throwing up, and slept a lot, and was very scared, and drank more Gatorade and refilled Gatorade bottles with water and drank that, and then, eventually, I started to feel better.
I don’t know many days it was; I do know that I stood up and walked away from it. I got lucky, which is a word for something far more complicated than random chance. I got so lucky that I was able to behave as though the whole thing had never happened. I should have learned something from it, but I didn’t. I woke up one day and my life went on, swallowing up a blank week where nothing happened and everything hurt. I learned nothing; nothing changed. I still moved in with that horrible boyfriend, and I still regretted it almost as soon as I did. That’s what I remember, mostly, about the spring when I had the swine flu. I remember that I learned nothing. I got sick, and I got better, and I stayed a sad little bitch.
I didn’t really think about the swine flu again until eleven years later, when once again a virus went around New York City in gossip and headlines. In the spring of 2020, one of several conversations I found myself having over and over was about swine flu. It turned out vastly more people than I had realized had had it too. I would mention that a decade ago I had had it, and then the other person would say that so had they. Everyone dredged up their stories about getting sick; suddenly it all felt relevant. I had never really talked much about the swine flu, in the intervening years, except as a footnote underlining how bad all my decisions were in that terrible part of my life. The parenthetical moved on and swallowed up the virus; the story rushed forward to other things. The physical illness, which at the time had been horribly literal, got shoved over into the figurative.
But for two years now, everyone has been telling stories about getting sick, not in the figurative but in the literal. Sickness, and the progression of it, the rooms it occupies, its relationship to love and family, to buildings and systems, has shoved into the center of the discourse.
Every story about sickness is a love story. Telling a story about being sick often ends up at love—who was there for us and who wasn’t, who helped and who didn’t, who we called when we didn’t think we had anyone to call—and telling a story about love often finds its way to a crisis in the body—we discover the material ways we are bound to people, we arrive at the sometimes disgusting bargains that come with opening our heart or home to another living thing—and becomes as much about sickness itself as about love. Both make their home in the body, with its ground-floor truths and its forced perspectives, its miracles and its trapdoors. Both force us to confront realities we would rather ignore. Sickness tells us who we love, and love tells us how we will manage it when we have to confront sickness. Each topic leaks into the other; as often as it seems impossible to talk about sickness without ending up back at love, it is increasingly difficult to tell a story about love without running into sickness, the ways our bodies fail or falter, and what we do about it, and about one another, when this inevitability occurs.
When I had swine flu, the only person I wanted to call was my mom, and that was a love story. It wasn’t about romance or longing, but most love stories aren’t. It was about who was there at the bottom of it, when everything pretty has been cleared away, and love is nothing but the facts of a body and the phone sitting face up next to the toilet on speaker, revealing who loves us and who we love when love offers nothing in return.
this is the first installment of a roughly six-week series on a very broad topic of sickness and love stories and how the two intersect and intertwine. if you want to read all the upcoming parts of the series (or if you want access to the full archive of this newsletter, including the most recent subscriber-only posts, or if you enjoyed this and want to support the project), you can become a paying subscriber here. subscriptions come with lots of fun extras, including weekly conversation pits, as well as the weirder essays or fragments I don’t feel comfortable sending to the big public list. anyway, see you back here next week, and thanks for reading. xo