How few of his friends' houses would a man choose to be at when he is sick.
-- Samuel Johnson
I stabbed a chunk of potato salad with my fork and brought it to my mouth. From across the table, David shot me a look of stunned disbelief, as if I'd just reached over and slapped him on the head. When he'd recovered from his moment of shock, he moved so swiftly that I didn't realize he'd grabbed the little bowl of potato salad until after he'd already spooned half of it onto my plate."You're sick ," he chided. I'd heard these words from him before, but the way he spoke them now led me to believe he wasn't complimenting my playfully sadistic nature or twisted sense of humor. This time, I was offended.
"You don't have to be so mean about it," I whined, directing my attention back to my bowl of matzo ball soup.
David, comfortable on the moral high ground, remained silent.
"It's not like it's my fault I got sick," I argued. It was clear, however, in the steadiness of his gaze and the desperation in my voice, that we both believed otherwise.
I didn't "catch a cold." It wasn't like I had pursued the virus to its secret hideout or purchased a net and prepared a petri dish in anticipation of acquiring severe sinus pressure. It is more correct to say "a cold caught me ."
I knew I'd been caught when I woke up one morning with a scratchy throat. I pride myself on not getting sick. I believe that deftly navigating the gauntlet of germs and avoiding ever-more devious strains of the flu each season makes me superior to those weaklings who frequently succumb to sickness. So how could this be? Scratchy throat? Increasing sinus pressure?
In a panic, I mentally reviewed my actions of the prior week with the thoroughness of the 9/11 Commission but could only recall various sequences of hand washing, breath holding, and touch-avoidance. I had worked so hard to avoid a covert viral strike -- where was the security breach? I catalogued each person with whom I'd come into contact. Over half of them had complained of illness, and I could remember, each time, thinking, that's because you weren't careful. Yet, here I was, slurping up Jewish penicillin, barely able to restrain my optimism that I might still scare away the cold before it had the chance to hang its hat. No such luck.
In the following days, I became a soup critic. DZ Akins for comforting matzo ball, any Chinese place for salty egg drop (despite the resulting scalded tongue), Rama for tangy tom kha, and Ortega's Mexican Bistro for a sinus-clearing spicy chicken. Regardless of my self-prescribed soup therapy, I continued to feel like someone was cramming rocks into my skull.
David's nervousness grew in direct proportion to my suffering. If I made a move to touch him, he'd recoil in apoplexy and accuse me of trying to infect him. He was only trying to protect himself, but I took it personally. That is, until I inadvertently discovered a way to benefit from his sudden aversion to me. Sifting through the pantry for a snack, I happened upon some leftover dark chocolate David had used for baking. The wrapper was torn, so I decided to cut myself a piece and preserve the rest in a Ziploc bag. A few hours later, I saw David digging around in the cupboard.
"Where's the chocolate?" he asked when he noticed me.
"Second shelf, Ziploc. Hand me a piece too, will ya?"
"Did you touch this?" David looked horrified. I swore to him that I only touched a small corner, but David was taking no chances -- he simply could not get sick with only four days left before we boarded a plane to Tokyo for his first gallery exhibition there. "Well, that's it," he said with a note of defeat. "I can't eat any of this." At first I felt bad. Then, realizing all the chocolate was mine, all mine, the sharp pang of guilt became a mildly irritating rash of remorse swathed in a cool balm of schadenfreudistic glee. In an effort not to give in to my dark side, I fought the urge to handle other things I wanted for myself.
Despite my new power to turn everything I touched into "mine," I couldn't help feeling like a pariah. I was burdened by the responsibility of keeping the virus contained within my body long enough for my immune system to destroy it. Ironically, everything I did in the name of protecting others from the microscopic demon I harbored in my sinuses only made me seem like an asshole.
Because I wanted to spend time with my father before taking off for Japan, I joined him at church, even though my pressure and pain were at their peak. I turned away hugs before they began by snapping, "Don't touch me!" To clarify, I added, "I'm sick. Probably contagious. Best keep your distance." When I said this to Rev Kev, he laughed and hugged me anyway. During the part when people greet each other, I kept my eyes to the floor. While everyone held hands and sang, I folded my arms across my chest. For those who hadn't been informed of my plague-carrying status, I must have appeared antisocial at best, an anti-community-misanthropic-atheist-bitch at worst.
Later that evening, I leaned on the kitchen counter and considered my drug options. Comtrex-Advil-Tylenol or NyQuil-Advil-vitamin? I popped two of everything. The skin around my nose had been rubbed raw. My temples throbbed. My forehead, cheeks, and neck ached with sinus pressure. I was about to groan in agony when I felt David's hand on my arm. I hadn't realized how starved for his touch I'd become. Like a plant given water after a drought, this small gesture after days of cautious avoidance was refreshing, enlivening, but even more than that -- it was comforting.