Monday, December 15, 2008

feeling toxic, or, the disquietude of bodies and the trails they leave behind

I've had a sore throat, on and off, for a few days, and have been sneezing every now and again. Nothing particularly onerous, but I was supposed to have dinner with a friend tonight and even these small complaints were enough to make me cancel our plans.

This friend, you see, has been undergoing treatment over the last two years for multiple myeloma. A cancer of a particularly nasty sort, from what I can tell, and one that most often attacks people decades older than he and I.

He has been home for awhile now, recovering nicely from the latest bone marrow transplant. But he cannot yet go back to work, cannot eat in restaurants or go to the movies or go out for a drink or walk around in crowds or take public transportation.

And he most definitely cannot be around anyone who is sick, even someone just sick with a cold.

This got me to remembering a particular discussion from a queer theory course I took in college. The topic was, uncomfortably enough, seepage. Fluids. Ooze. Excretions. Specifically the seepage of bodies; the breakdown, the breaching, of boundaries and the contamination, real or imagined, that ensues.

We sometimes think of our bodies (or at least we are sometimes told that we should think of our bodies) as temples, to be honed and toned and shaped into some idealistic mold of what it is to be human, impenetrable to age, disease, danger. But eventually this gets turned on its head, ripped out from the inside, and our bodies betray us and become, in themselves, dangerous. Usually we think of this in terms of danger to ourselves. Congestive heart failure. Stroke. Cancer. But every once in awhile we are reminded that we can be, that we sometimes are, a danger to others, however unintentionally or unwittingly.

A woman I once knew was misdiagnosed as having Hepatitis C, an infectious disease transmitted by blood. She carried this (mis)information around with her for weeks. I remember her telling me about a dinner at some fancy restaurant where she somehow cut her finger. Not a bad cut, little more than a paper cut, but it bled a bit, as fingers do. Not thinking, she staunched it with her napkin (a cloth napkin, this being a fancy restaurant). But then awareness came crashing back into her and she snatched the napkin off the table and crammed it into her pocket, guilt-stricken, not wanting to leave any of her malignant self, any of her personal danger, behind.

I've been thinking about this napkin and the need for containment, and the mingling and unmingling of bodies, and the spaces around bodies, and the traces bodies leave behind.

I've been anxious about seeing this friend of mine for months, for almost two years, truth be told. I avoided visiting him for a long time, despite feeling horrible about it, both during his hospital stays and later when he was back home. Never because I didn't want to see him, because I did, but rather because I could never quite trust my generally healthy body to not somehow contaminate his oh so fragile body.

Sometimes when bodies collide, even if it's just the air around them, even if it's just a shared moment of in- and exhalation, bad things can happen. Sometimes the best thing we can do for people we love is stay well away from them.

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