The night before B’s twenty-third birthday, at the climax of the St. Louis summer heat, we come home drunk from the bar and fuck on his duvet-less duvet cover and pass out immediately, the A/C unit groaning in the window. It’s the first time I’ve ever fallen asleep without peeing after sex, and when the cramps start a few hours later, it’s as if I’ve reverse-manifested the infection—just a few months ago, I was listening with sympathy and secret horror to my college friends complaining about their UTIs, thanking a higher power that I’d never contracted a single one.
Now it’s as though a seal has been broken, and the infections come in waves I try to quell with one antibiotic and then another, with expensive cranberry juice and oregano oil and turmeric everything. In order not to be a nuisance and/or a downer, or maybe because I am stubborn and/or stupid, I keep drinking too much with B and his friends, staying out too late, having messy sex, and chugging multiple coffees the next day, all of which are expressly discouraged by WebMD.
When I move into my new apartment, B gifts me his old Chromecast, which he’s named “BigPissBaby” after his pea-sized bladder. If we spend too long without access to a bathroom, even when we aren’t drinking—but especially when we are—he’ll need to pull over by the side of the road or sprint into a back alley to piss, and it always needs to happen right now, like a little kid. Eventually, he tells me he’s starting to think he’s had an undiagnosed bladder infection for years. Years. He hasn’t been to the doctor once in the six months I’ve known him. Still, I don’t draw a line between his health and mine, if there’s even a line to draw.
I grew up with an autoimmune disorder and Jewish parents, so I have to practice the apathy B shows toward illness. But I’m a fast learner. The infections never progress—not that I know of, at least—and so neither do my attempts to cure them. I adjust to the rhythms after a while. Being busy helps—I take on four jobs; I start working sixty-hour weeks. It’s amazing the discomfort you can stomach in service of routine, the hurt you can bury when your life won’t allow it. So bourgeoisie, to always expect the body to function as it should, and even bougier to waste precious time fixing it, time we could spend making money or spending money to let off steam from the time we spend making it. We know not to ask for too much. Instead, we fold our bodies into cardboard boxes in our heads and close the lid, where we putrefy in the dark. When I stop and think about it, usually while smoking one of B’s cigarettes, I wonder if there are parts of me deep inside—parts so vulnerable they’re sealed under layers of fat and fascia and flesh—that are already dead.
For years now, an underground trash fire has smoldered through the West Lake Landfill out in the county, creeping toward the atomic waste entombed there after the bombs fell on Japan. In college, I sat in on a town hall about the landfill hosted by the moms of Maryland Heights, where the cancer has clustered. The moms banged their fists on their podiums and demanded local government stop pretending that the sickness wasn’t spreading, that their water wasn’t poisoned, that they shouldn’t fear the likely encounter between radium and flame. I walked around for a few days numb with dread. I only calmed down once my then-boyfriend scoffed and said that if the fire were really dangerous, someone would be doing something about it. I wanted to believe him, and I wanted to get back to my life, so I did both, as though the explosion were the problem and not the fuel.
A year later, when the rattle starts in my chest, I tell B I’m going to the doctor for an annual physical. He asks me why with an accusatory grin. I just told you, I say. It’s only a checkup. Just one of those things you’re supposed to do.
You’re ridiculous, he says. He grabs my hand and twirls me under his arm, still laughing.
© Lena Crown
[This piece was a finalist for the 2020 Forge Flash Nonfiction Competition, and was selected by Sommer Schafer]