Birthday Mumps

Instead of having to celebrate his birthday in the expected grand fashion, Fayes T Kantawala is somewhat relieved to be battling a seasonal affliction all alone in New York

Birthday Mumps
You know that one kid that used to get everyone else sick in school? Of course you do. You can picture him now, the little snot-nosed sniveling, wheezing mess in the corner. Slowly, as if from an episode of The Walking Dead, he would radiate his pathetic sickness outwards like a circle of doom, infecting all those around him with runny noses and swollen tonsils. After leaving school and the compulsion to be in small places with large groups of potentially bacterial people, I thought I’d be free of catching these silly flus and colds. Believe me, it’s amazing how healthy solitary confinement can be. But I saw the reincarnation of that kid a few days ago on the subway here. I was sitting, reading a book, when I heard a sniffle and cough. Oh god, I thought, no. I looked up and sure enough a little red-nosed gremlin was staring at me, picking his contagious nose. I tried to move away but before I could he sneezed everywhere. In slow motion I saw the projectiles launch forward but I wasn’t fast enough. It went all over: my book, my hands, everywhere. The only way I didn’t scream out “Murder!” was by imagining bathing in a vat of hand-sanitiser when I got back home. I couldn’t get sick. After all, this was my birthday week and plans had been made.

That said, I’m not a huge of my own birthdays. I don’t really object to the gift-giving, or the well-wishing or even the aging, which is out of my control until Botox becomes more reliable. I find these things embarrassing but still tolerable. Most of what I object to is the expectation that it has to be something grand - the communal declaration that you get this one day of the year, so you had better make sure it’s the best, most memorably happy and laughter-filled, glass-clinking, light-twinkling night you have ever had. It’s a lot of pressure.
I brought enough antibiotics from Lahore to eradicate Anthrax from the Earth

It was a mild relief then, that this week, mere hours before my great day of aging, I felt a tickle in my throat that developed into full-blown illness within hours. I couldn’t swallow or speak or even inhale without a sharp pain. My skin was on fire and my head was pounding. Strangely, I felt relief at knowing that my birthday was going to be spent in convalescence. At least now I could just unravel slowly in my bed sheets - and people don’t expect that to be a glass-clicking, light-twinkling sort of affair, for the most part. The moment I woke up on my birthday morning, still sick and feverish, I sighed, went down to the corner store for some meds and soups, and came back to my bed to assume a pose reminiscent of a Victorian with consumption.

It is never advisable to battle ill health without insurance in the US
It is never advisable to battle ill health without insurance in the US

Part of the aging process is that you get to know your body pretty well, including all the then-exciting ways it reacts to new germs and illnesses. I’ve been through that. I know, for example, that I am an impatient patient, that I prefer to be left alone when sick and that regardless of my actual ailment I am prone to extravagant fevers and technicolour night terrors. I’ve known this for so long now that I am now prepared for the drama that goes on in my head when these terrors come. I am prepared to meet my repeated hallucinations of Itit, a preverbal creature that I manifested during jaundice earlier in the year, who has apparently decided to stick around. I am prepared to douse my forehead with a cold cloth in the manner of a Jane Austen patient, barely a heartbeat away from calling for leeches or a porcelain dish into which I might bleed.

But, to paraphrase Dorothy, I’m not in Kansas anymore. What I mean is that I am away from Pakistan and alone in NY, without health insurance, which is a dubious position to be in. I intended to get it the minute I got here, but I got involved with other things and, as is perhaps a symptom of the last vestiges of youth, I never imagined I’d need it this quickly. Big mistake. Still, I came prepared with enough antibiotics from pharmacies in Lahore to eradicate Anthrax from the Earth and so I’m (sort of) self-medicating. The doctors reading this are probably mortified. I’ve been told that my immune system is just getting accustomed to a new environment, and that these things are natural.

Let me tell you: there is nothing natural about this environment, even if you account for sniveling incubators of viral plagues on the public transport. It’s almost 18 degrees Celsius in the middle of December, a time when it should be snowing. Yesterday people were wearing t-shirts, shorts and sandals outside and the sight of all those pasty ankles was the first time that I got legitimately scared at the prospect of global warming. I saw them from my window as I swept around my loft in dark shawls with sallow skin like some kind of agoraphobic Dementor. But as they say, ‘tis the season for sickness and flus and weddings and parties. For them all, I wish you health and Vitamin C.

Don’t feel sorry for me. I have Itit to keep me company.

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