If You Don’t Mind Me Asking

We say hi, hi, how are you, good, how are you? I don’t think she answers. And if she does, it’s a muttered fine or a shrug of her lips as she looks away. I comment on the weather with the mail of mostly coupons for oil changes and credit card invitations in my hand, how nice it finally feels now that spring is here and the weeds are growing again, but she wants nothing of this bait into the shallow end. She says, if you don’t mind me asking, what sickness do you have that makes you high risk?

What sickness do I have? I’m not sure how to start answering this question, hence the shuffling and the rosy cheeks. (Often, I wonder, am I a writer because I’m sick? Or am I sick because I’m a writer? Perhaps I’ll never know.)

I tell her the story of the pretty girl who woke up with a fat face. It’s an old story that I’ve grown tired of telling. The narrative is dated, the storybook’s more worn out than a favorite bedtime read with crinkly pages and loose binding. It’s a classic that I assume everyone’s heard already, but then I remember that to her I’m a stranger.

Here’s how the rest of the story begins: When she was 14, she woke up with a fat face. She’s spent days, weeks, years on a green couch (always a green couch). They kept her in the hospital for two weeks every year, made her better and sent her home. There’s lots of poking, prodding, and waiting. During the third year in the pediatric wing with the popsicles, an intern wondered why the pretty girl came back every year with the same fat face. He gave her parents a checklist of symptoms and they brought the checklist to her bedside table lined with Jell-O and Lemonheads, together, they could check off every single one. Show-grins, Sjogren’s. They can’t pronounce it, but then they practice for years and they can. And so it began.

I decide to jump ahead, skip a few chapters, flip the pages faster: She took care of herself, and then she didn’t. Especially in college, she played a game where she pretended she wasn’t sick. Then, fast forward 17 years later when she takes on a new name, Lupus, that no one has ever asked her how to pronounce.

She is sick and she is also well, and this is a story that has no ending.

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