The Lives of Otters: One Sick Homo
Somewhere inside my mouth the blood is 104 degrees Fahrenheit hot. I sit naked on the bathroom floor, thighs folding and straining around the base of a toilet, arms and fingers trembling in cold sweat against a warming porcelain rim teeming with the exotic microfauna of two well-traveled college-age male urinary tracts. Wrinkled books, shattered stemware, stained cushions and sheets strewn across tile furnish an incandescently-lit tropical hell scene shifting with malarial irregularity between an abandoned Ebola ward, the inner sanctum of Colonel Kurtz, and a BUTT magazine shoot.
Something stirs in my lower torso. At this late hour and deliriously high body temperature, I’m certain that it must be a sentient, resentful parasitic twin eating at a cruelly slow pace from the few clusters of liver cells not rendered unpalatable by gin metabolites. My back goes rigid, pupils roll upward into my skull, and as a brilliant pink light that only I can see flashes through the apartment, obscenities fly from my mouth like the fragments of peanut noodle, fried tofu, and chili cheese fries that soon follow them. I gaze at the oily shoal of foodstuff moving with incongruous grace through the increasingly-less-clear, increasingly-less-room-temperature bowl water.
Panting, trembling, leaking, and terrified after the ecstasy of the 3.5 gallon flush oracle, my wracked and dehydrated form again finds its furrow between several damp pillows. As my heart rate slows and the world grows dark, I sigh and thank no one in particular for the twin blessings of embodiment and gastroenteritis.
When gay men talk about disease, we tend to focus on one—to wit, the Big One. As a group of people who have survived (and continue to try to survive) a modern plague, this is understandable. But our thinking and talking about illness is bound to remain anemic in its own way if we confine it to the kinds of things we get blood drawn at Whitman-Walker for. There is the popularized image of the athletic, well-toned, hygienically immaculate and immunologically robust young gay male on the one hand, and on the other the stinky, sweaty lived reality of those of us who deal with ringworms, latex allergies, and troublingly pronounced red circles on our tongues (amateur diagnosis commence now. Seriously, my university health center doesn’t accept my parents’ new insurance plan.)
When we choose, in the best cases, lives of permeability that open us to perspectives and experiences of the sort which less courageous kinds of people will never know, we open ourselves also to a world of risks. One of the most apparent and exciting of these must be sickness: the prospect of temporarily hosting another organism inside our own, blurring lines of physiological and genetic integrity in a way that reminds of just how wrong the old, ugly homophobic slur must be—it isn’t that all queerness is sick, but that all sickness is queer, an inherently dual and ambiguous state that confronts and disrupts the categories we usually use to file away parts of the world and our lives.
We might say that disease is a gift—something unexpected, undeserved, and impossible to compensate for which the world thrusts into our hands (or throats, or stomachs, or large intestines) whether or not we’ve asked for it. By way of sushi, doorknobs, escalator rails, public toilet seats, or foreskins, fate has a way of arranging meetings with bugs that yank us out of our normal modes of getting along with our environments and other people, reminding us with headaches, fevers, chills, and (if we’re lucky enough) drugless hallucinations just how fragile and arbitrary the common-sense notion of an “ordinary frame of mind” is.
And getting sick is, valuably, the single most powerful reminder of the facts of our own materiality. Sex – never too distant from disease in the gay imagination – is an agreeable way of getting in touch with the complex of bone, meat, and blood that our minds are projected out of. But sex can also be hugely misleading: in orgasm, our body parts melt into themselves and into those of other people, and the illusion of a kind of oceanic spiritual fusion can be too tempting. In sickness, we are reminded of our embodiment in a radically particular way: when I hurl, I don’t just feel icky- I feel my stomach, my esophagus, and my throat reflexes all working backwards, I taste the vegan spring roll I had at lunch for a second time in a very different way, and I am confronted in a powerful and unarguable way with the fact that I inherit from my parents a faulty, poorly-designed monkey body bound to break down often. Punctuating even the most normal and trivial activities with new and demanding kinds of pain, sickness brings us back to earth, to the sewage and acid and salt from which we all sprang forth and to which we will all, with varying degrees of luck in the meantime, have to return.
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