It’s that moment where I feel the virus dig in and take hold, the moment where I contemplate throwing myself out of a window—the moment when I realize I’ve got a cold, and I’m going to spend the next several days leaking. The shades come down with a dangerous mechanical slam, red lights and sirens firing off, the next ten days on my calendar instantly black out, and where there was some to-do about groceries, violent looking skulls and crossbones appear over black squares. Over your clothes a scarlet letter R materializes, marking you as a carrier of the rhinovirus, not to be touched, not fit for human interaction. People shield their eyes when they see you, looking away and with palms up, they twist and contort, trying to climb into the walls to avoid you and your disease. Sleeves are used to open doorknobs, shirts untucked to handle silverware, and arsenic pills are passed out en masse. You’re going to spend the foreseeable future breathing through your mouth, and if you attempt to step out from your hovel, three men who drew short straws are waiting to pitchfork you and burn everything you held dear.
I hate it, I hate getting a cold. I’m a giant slobbery baby when it takes over, and I don’t want to do anything but slump into bed and moan at the floor until the whole thing passes. I’m terribly careful. My wife finds my slow progression to a Howard Hughes level of germ awareness pointless. Every doorknob or cabinet handle that I touch (outside of my own home) is clocked and counted, every surface accounted for, every finger I’ve brought too close to my face, remembered. I’m at the ready, always. I’m not going to be the guy who got a cold because he rubbed his eyes after using a communal ink-pen at work, no, I’m going to be the guy who’s laughing at the lepers because they should’ve washed their hands before adjusting their glasses, slow walking mummies covered in ghastly bandages, all while I’m in the corner of the room, drinking vitamin supplements and covering my hands in antibacterial ointments. What my wife fails to understand is that the weepy long gray hair is to cover my ears from invaders, the malnourished body to give the germs less to invade, and the long fingernails to fight off the shadow men who keep trying to get me to touch the grocery store shopping carts with bare hands.
My sister-in-law nearly sent me right to the booby hatch two years ago at a Thanksgiving gathering. She arrives at the event—the usual for us all—a space meant for six people now crawling with thirty, their larva touching everything with their little nose pickers, the commune spreading its own filth around like a Civil War medical tent, flies and rusty instruments daring the bacteria to have a go of things. I begin the questioning with a passion. How long have you had this cold? What, currently, are your symptoms? I’ve read that after four days you are no longer contagious, but this may be nonsense—when did you first start feeling ill? When we hugged, did you face away from my ear? Are you willing to eat your lunch in the cellar? Sure, they say as long as you keep your hands washed things should be as right as the mail, but they have a short memory, and the common cold is a bastard of a virus. It’s going to kick in your door, snarl at your family, laugh at your hand soap, then hold you down and give you the business while your family sobs, terrified, in the corner of the room.
She comes at me, my sister in law, when she’s discovered my hyper phobia and avoidance of her. A cackling laugh overtakes the movie we’re all digesting to, and she begins licking her hands—full slathers of shiny disease coating each of her mitts. Palms now outward, she stands up and zombies over to me, laughing wildly. I lean back into the couch, “Back! Back you monster! I’ve done nothing for this! Someone, I beg you, hand me a shoe, give me something large and loaded!” Left with only two alternatives, kick her in the stomach, or let this vile thing happen, the latter wins out for the relationships of everyone involved. Both mucky hands are slowly placed onto my face, as those on the couch next to me flee for their health. She sits back down, the laughter subsidies, and she looks to the ground, then me. “I’m sorry, I’m really not sure why I did that,” she mutters. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen her do this, the woman is to be warily trusted. During the entire assault, I had visions of her in 1994, two fistfuls of red Jello. There’s a lesson here for me, somewhere.
Somehow, it’s never enough. No matter how much I wire my temple with supplements and carefully timed public-surface avoidance, the bastard cold always finds purchase in my upper respiratory machine, digging its vicious little talons in and pissing out an infection that, ultimately, won’t do it any good. It’s not going to win, it won’t actually claim my body. An army of antibodies are less than a four day walk away, and when they arrive, they’re going to rape and scorch the virus until everyone it’s ever known has been broken and thrown in the nearest hole. It’s because I recently found out that I have allergies that I’ve become an expert at dealing with a cold. I can tell the type, and duration, within hours of “that feeling” we all get when we’ve been kissing one homeless man too many: Something’s amiss behind our nose, and it’s time to settle in for a doozy.
I know which decongestants work well for me, we’ve got the menthol drops and vitamin C stuff all on a shelf and ready to go, and I know my favorite brand of tissues—the ones that leave minimal irritation when I’ve run a few thousand of them through my snout over the course of a few days. Basically, I arrive home, instruct my wife that it’s air-smooches only, and put on my silver suit. I strap into the chamber we’ve designed to keep the rest of the family healthy, and for the next few days I use a series of tubes to keep fluids coming in, and others heading out. In about a week and a half the chamber will open with a metallic thunk, hissing and steam everywhere, and on my hands and knees I’ll appear before my wife—a journey survived—unshaven, full of stories from the beyond, and ready for a warm meal.
My favorite part of a cold, if there can be one, is the wild home remedies people swear by. Everyone has some bizarre folk remedy that accomplishes absolutely nothing, but they swear that, “After two weeks my cold was completely gone! Trust me! Pickle juice spiked with dog blood has been used in my family for generations!” Foolery. There’s no shortage of these possible remedies, twisted machinations that fly in the face of the reasonable future-medicine we currently enjoy.
Possible Remedy: Load up on vitamin C. Consume your daily recommended dose of it every hour, on the hour, until your cold is gone or you suffer massive iron poisoning and your liver fails.
Possible Remedy: If you feel yourself getting a cold, immediately drink one half bottle of Jack Daniels brand whiskey, then bathe in tomato soup.
Possible Remedy: Fill your ears with hydrogen peroxide, then sleep on a first edition copy of Awaken the Giant Within, by Tony Robbins.
That’s my favorite. My most unfavorite, is how to finagle your work life around the new sickness. Every job I’ve ever worked has some strange distrust of those who’ve fallen ill, the worker bee returning to the hive after a sizzling bout of the trots, only to be mad-dogged with furious looks and lurid assumptions. Every eyeball in the room is shooting you the same accusations, “Yeah… I know you were probably sick, you looked sick, and you had sick days to take… but you… I don’t trust you. You were probably… you were… you know what you were.” Sick days are always faked—always—so sayeth the new cultural canon. Managerial staff of every accord are handed a pamphlet when they’ve attained their new rank. Inside, there are many horrible directives, and one of them falls under the heading, “Sick Days,” sub-heading, “How to Fuck With Employees.”
I was never Catholic, but damn, the guilt comes on fast. Most places on my resume never actually gave a whistle if you took a sick day to lay in bed and recover, or if you just took one to finally learn how to braid friendship bracelets. I always feel guilty anyway, the brainwashing was done in long ago. Every time I call in sick, the real fevers come on, a swirling pool of “what-ifs” that never let up.
What if they fire me for taking a sick day? No, they don’t want me at work, I’m contagious. But those looks, did you see those looks? I wonder if they think I take a lot of sick days. They probably do. No, wait, no, this is, like, my second sick day in the past five years. But, what if someone just imagines you’re gone all the time? Like, they rarely see you, but it just so happens that they only walk past your office when you’re gone? Now they’re going to think you never work, and you’re always gone, and you fake being sick, and you’re stealing from the company, and you’re abusing your days off, and you’ll never get vacation, and your marriage will suffer, and you’ll wind up alone and addicted to quaaludes, giving six dollar handy-jays at a bus stop so you can pay off the two Krishna dudes who’ve been fleecing you for weeks… Ugh, I hate getting a cold. Maybe I’ll just quit.