Anemics are always cold. It’s an affliction of extremities, of icicled fingers and toes, of lightheadedness after standing too long in a chilly concert hall or at a sweltering summer festival, of darkness crowding the corners of the eyes in warning: find a seat, drink cold water, or succumb to blacking out.
Sometimes, when my heartbeat is at its most irregular, I feel like I’ve inadvertently shoulder-checked Mortality and now it’s ready to box me barehanded.
I don’t know how long I’ve been anemic or what caused it. I only discovered it when I visited an ER in October of 2019 and found myself admitted to the stroke ward. The hospital kept me for three days, for a half-dozen blood draws and a series of blood thinners injected into my stomach, a CT scan, an MRI that required the shooting of squid-like ink into my veins beforehand, and a series of sobriety-test-adjacent physical prompts: blink one eye, now both, raise one hand, now the other, touch your knees, now your nose, walk the length of the hall in a straight line.
The staff ruled out a stroke. They stopped short of calling the drooping right side of my face Bell’s palsy. I knew as little about why my left eye bulged wider and blinked on a second’s delay as I did when I was admitted.
By discharge, the only new thing I knew about myself was that I was anemic.
It didn’t come as much of a surprise. The signs had long been there. In my late teens, I started eating less and less, until I trained my body to get by on coffee and a pastry (and sometimes just the coffee, or less often: nothing at all) in the morning and a small dinner 10-12 hours later. I still eat that way, sparingly, only satisfied if my stomach feels concave when I’m lying on my back alone in bed at night, if the rumble and burn of self-denial can be felt under the flat of my palm.
That couldn’t have helped, all those half-starved years. Deprivation never helps.
When we were all required to close in on ourselves, for fear of catching a debilitating virus from one another, the world felt anemic, withholding, all the good drawn inward, sequestered and secreted, the pulse of normal life growing faint.
That was when I knew to look for love. Wherever I could find it.
In the stroke ward, the nurses stagger-stepped at the threshold of my room.
“You’re young,” said the night nurse as well as the one who took over the mornings, though I was sure they saw in my chart that I was one month shy of 40.
I felt haggard, half my face weakened by a force unseen. Before then, I’d always been in decent health, the kind even a hypochondriac could almost take for granted, but wasn’t landing here evidence that youthful vitality was a breeze blown by? Wasn’t I aging now? Wasn’t this the incarnation of oldness?
I didn’t understand until those straight-line walks down the hall, where all that could be seen behind the half-drawn curtains in each of the neighboring rooms were heads of white hair, dark veins under mottled skin, parted lips stuttering toward speech.
Sometimes, a sounded clatter. Other times, a weary yell.
Those strokes weren’t suspected. Those were real. And as it turned out, I was young.
He had a gravitational smile, the only pull in a sea of local profiles, the only grin great enough to stay my swiping hand. I stared at it and instinct suggested it was genuine, as warm and mirthful as it looked, and just as nourishing.
I needed to be nourished. I swiped right.
A pandemic is the only time when it makes sense to stake your heart on something as simple, as potentially deceptive, as a smile. Lockdown is the only condition under which that sort of risk pays off.
In a plague, you’re not looking for much, only someone willing to wait with you and listen for a hitch in your breath. Someone whose lips can confirm that you haven’t lost your taste, whose nose would seek your scent with the very last use of its smell.
He was more than that, refreshingly more. We ate and laughed and nursed something nascent and fragile till it felt hardy, thickened, like blood infused with iron and given room to breathe.
I spent those three days in the hospital alone. My nana who’d driven me to the emergency room hadn’t returned. My mother, who stopped in before I was admitted to pick up the keys to my car, which she’d borrow until my release, hadn’t been back, either. They took turns caring for my daughter, who at 9, was too young to visit the stroke ward.
A guy I spent years hooking up with off and on sent a text when he saw a tweet I’d posted in a pique of loneliness. The text read something like, “Everything okay?” Despite our insistence on referring to each other as friends, we didn’t have enough of a relationship for me to feel comfortable reaching out to him in a crisis. It was just as awkward to only be discussing one with him, because he’d chanced upon a tweet I’d posted to no one in particular.
I may have texted to notify my daughter’s dad or maybe my grandmother did. He called and we chatted in the brief, inconsequential way that we do unless there’s something heavy going on with our child. Surreally, my only visitor was his mother, who stopped by unannounced on her way home from work, the first night of my stay. She sat with me for an hour and we talked about God and politics, the common ground we find easiest to tread, as we share a religion and a portion of ideology, in addition to the daughter I have with her now-married son.
I was grateful for her company but more comfortable in the silence that followed her departure. It yawned and stretched its way through the room. It slept far better beside me than I did.
I may have been young, but here I could see a familiar future: an empty nest, cold bed, no intimates, an affliction of extremes.
I moved away from Baltimore for Silence. It had proven itself quite loyal. I’d been living amid the noises of a home that wasn’t mine for the better part of a decade. Silence deserved her own space and so did I.
But even Silence pines for companionship when the world has shut down. We found it in him, this smiling man who learned us fast and laughed so easily, who loosened our inhibitions and made us believe he’d keep us from ever reaching the depths of our discontent again.
We wanted to keep him even after the inoculation, ride next to him through the reopened world, and be as new as our regenerative months inside had made us.
We wanted that more than we could know until it was clear we wouldn’t have it.
It might be foolish to expect that the person who you meet when you think you could die at any moment is the person who’ll suit you best in the long-unfurling years after that imminent threat subsides.
But other pandemic couples have persisted. Some have gotten engaged. Others have already married.
It was possible for us.
Possible, but perhaps too easy for someone like me, who spent her whole life skirting exactly this kind of cliff edge, afraid not of the heights but of the plummet.
I deserved ease, though, didn’t I? For all these years spent hiding from new heartbreaks, for choosing a partner who loved so freely and who it felt so simple to love?
I’d been living on too little for so long. Too little food, too little affection, too fleeting friendships, even a shortfall of blood cells. And he was feeding me, enfolding me, and being my best friend in a foreign land. Enough, then maybe too much, a ship taking on too much water, a vessel floating away.
My daughter still mentions him often.
“I’m an optimist,”’she deadpans, unaware of how her mispronunciation of the word has made her claim all the more adorable.
“I know,” I answer, stopping short of confessing that I’m becoming one, too.
The man I dated for 15 months and lived with for 11 moved out of our apartment 8 weeks ago. He isn’t likely to come back, and I’ve stopped pining for him to. It may have been improbable to find someone I trusted so much, so quickly, and it may have ended in him leaving me to contend with the dozens of deprivations and abandonments I spent the pandemic avoiding.
But I know myself better for having loved him. I apply the notes I took as I watched him loving me. I eat, sometimes even at midday. I at least look at the iron tablets on the counter now, though I still forget to take them far too often. I try to get a better night’s sleep, be kinder to myself in the mirror. The boundaries I set now are the ones that keep me calm. I gather all my courage and enforce them.
I am alone but I am without regret, undiminished. He left the air around me electric. It crackles, voracious, just under the silence.
2 responses to “A Pandemic Romance Post-Mortem.”
So many years I have followed your writing and it never disappoints. What a beautiful meditation.
Darlene said what I came here to say.