I guess I've led a charmed life. Until this month I had never been even a bit sick at any point in the 21st century. I'd had some very minor sinus problems and some quick jaunts with food poisoning, but nothing even vaguely serious. As far as the flu was concerned, I had found religion in December 1999, when my partner, who works with kids, came down with a case of the flu that was horrific enough to require hospitalization (he had a temperature of 103 for about 36 hours straight and went into fever delirium), though he wasn't hospitalized, because I was able to nurse him through it. I learned to make Jell-O like a pro, because that was about all he could keep down. It went on for two weeks, and though I never caught it from him, I swore I'd get a flu shot the way Scrooge swore to keep Christmas well. So I got one as soon as I could, just before the full sweep of flu season came into reach.
This year, weeks after my latest flu inoculation, on Friday, Jan. 4, my throat started feeling scratchy. Uh-oh! I was sure it was just a cold, which in itself seemed strange to me, because I had stopped getting colds thanks to a plastic neti squeeze-pot I used twice a day. (You flush out your sinus snot with warm, sterilized, saline water.) I had been keeping colds and sinus infections at bay this way for several years.
On Saturday, Jan. 5, I was scheduled to have lunch with my friend Darrell Perry and his boyfriend Roger, who had come in from cold Wisconsin, where he lives most of the year. We had lunch at a bar not far from Darrell's apartment near midtown. I told them that I thought I was catching a cold, and Darrell said, "Don't worry. It's winter. Everyone's catching something."
But I could tell something was happening. My energy level is usually about that of someone 15 years younger than I, but now I felt like I was now dragging a weight behind me, and the weight was increasing. After lunch I was scheduled to see another friend for a more intimate experience, and the question was, "Am I contagious?" I felt better at Rick's apartment downtown (it was actually a bright, sunny day), and I was sure that this cold would be a minor thing, and perhaps only turn out to be a sinus problem, give that, despite the neti pot, I still feel susceptible to them.
But several hours later I realized that this energy drag was increasing and decided to go directly home. I had a light supper, but by the next morning I had realized that something was definitely happening. Even with a flu shot, I had it. Exactly what it was I wasn't sure. I had no intestinal problems -- no diarrhea or vomiting -- but was running a slight fever, and even getting up and dressing was difficult. I spent the rest of Sunday on a couch in our living room, barely able to move. I had no appetite; I managed a couple of Saltines, some ginger ale, a Coke and water. Luckily there was Jell-O in the house, and I made some: It's amazing what that stuff can do when you can't eat anything else.
The next day my partner, who's a doctor, had to go to work, and I was on my own. Mostly all I wanted to do was sleep. I was running a very low fever, only about 99.6, but I just felt washed out; even getting up to pee took effort. I caught up on my reading but had no interest in watching TV; that took too much concentration. I was sure it would be over within two days; I could not remember being any sicker than that in my adult life. I always bounced back so fast, but this time I wasn't bouncing.
Instead, I was just lying around, while time either contracted to nothingness (suddenly I'd realize that I'd spent three hours napping or doing nothing) or lingered like a punishment. I felt so weak and drained of energy that it was like being in jail. I called Rick; he was fine. He had not contracted anything from me, but he was scared of getting it if we met too soon. He was scared that he'd give it back to me, and that we'd go on like that until... I couldn't even imagine it.
Because I still have a fast metabolism, I lost about three pounds in the first several days. Since my weight had stopped at about 152, I had been joking about wanting to lose two pounds. Big whoop! Many of my friends were trying to lose 40, and I'm thinking of losing two. But suddenly losing weight like that didn't feel so good. I had no appetite. Nothing tasted worthwhile. Even iced tea, which I still live on, as a Southerner in New York, tasted horrible. Too acidic. Revolting. I could stand ginger ale but not iced tea. There were still Saltines, and maybe some vanilla frozen yogurt, but eating was awful. Finally, on the fourth day, my appetite returned. I was still worn out, but I was eating again.
At the end of my first week, I was ready to be back to my normal self again, walking faster than other people and having the energy to write, see people and do what I need to do to maintain my identity like everyone else. But it wasn't happening. I was still worn out, and any kind of effort zapped me. Suddenly I realized something: This is what death is like. You wade out into some sickness you can barely name, that you don't want to even recognize, and then it waits for you. It ambushes you. I thought of all those people who died of the Spanish flu in 1918 -- 40 million of them, more than all the deaths from World War I -- and also of the flu stats that come in every year. Several hundred people still die from the flu, mostly the very young or the very elderly. "I'm 65," I thought. "This is serious." So many of my friends died of AIDS, and so many are HIV-positive, but that always seemed slightly abstract to me. This wasn't.
Eventually I reached the end of the second week of the flu. I had no fever, and my energy and appetite returned after a few "minor" setbacks. I say "minor" because I didn't want any of them. I didn't have the patience for them; I hated having them.
Now I'm thinking about my dear friend Tom Finley, who died of AIDS in the mid-1980s, when you could barely mention AIDS, even in New York. He was at Beth Israel Hospital, and I went to visit him. The hospital attendants would not bring trays of food into his room but would just leave them outside the door. He was complaining about the situation, then he looked at me.
"You've never been sick, have you?" he asked.
I thought for a second. "I had mono," I said. "A light case of it in college. Everybody got it one year. But not a lot else."
"You don't understand," he said to me sadly. "I guess you just don't understand."
Perry Brass is the author of 16 books. His latest is King of Angels: A Novel About the Genesis of Identity and Belief, awarded a Bronze Ippy for Best Young Adult Novel 2012. His previous book was The Manly Art of Seduction; both books are available as e-books and in print. He is currently working on a book about the power of desire and can be reached through his website, www.perrybrass.com.