In the morning, when the fever breaks, I eat voraciously: Fried eggs, bacon, toast with strawberry jelly. Two sliced pears. A pancake with maple syrup. Fingerling potatoes fried with zucchini and leeks. Coffee – black, hot.
My hunger surprises me. I eat almost to the point of discomfort, then try to read the newspaper, curled up on the couch, under a blanket. Instead, with a burst of the energy I have been lacking for days, I clean the kitchen – the dishes, the counters, the stove. The morning is bright and through the window, looks cold. I am still warm though, from breakfast, perhaps from the sickness, and the kitchen, too – warm from cooking. I imagine throwing all the windows open wide, letting in the fresh winter air, inhaling deeply. It feels so good to be moving again, after more than twenty-four hours of immobility – a small, quiet kind of rebirth.
I spend the day of my illness drifting in and out of sleep, in and out of fevered dreams. Scenes from childhood bump up against present-day life. I am walking up the stairs to my office, but as my six-year-old self, in the red polyester pants and striped shirt I loved as a child. I wake for a few minutes, my son standing over me. He tells me about the game he is playing, the rules that he makes up as he goes along. I nod, reach my hand out to touch his cheek. I close my eyes – just for a moment, I think, and then I am going to get up – and before I know it, it is dark.
I am hot – throw the blanket off, pull off my socks. And then I am cold again. All the while, my family drifts in and out. They go to the pool to swim and when they come back, their skin and hair smells of chlorine as the hover near me, their heads cocked to the side, watching. Food appears – toast and tea. Soup. I sit up, drink. Eat. Then lay back down again. And I am gone.
When I was a child, my aunt, my mother’s sister, lived in the apartment beneath ours. For a time, she worked nights, on a special assignment at the law firm where she was a secretary. She would leave in the late afternoon and return home after midnight. My bedroom window looked out over the front entrance and some nights, when I had trouble sleeping, I would wait up to hear her footsteps on the front stairs, her key in the lock. I would kneel up on my bed, peek out over the sill, watch until the door closed behind her.
There was reason to be vigilant. Talk of strange happenings in our neighborhood. A story on the late night news about how – in the church parking lot not far from where we lived – there was found a pile of stones and the remains of a fire inside a large painted circle. Bits of bone found in the embers. Mesmerizing words whispered late at night – sacrifice, satanic rituals, cults.
As I think may be true for many girls raised in Catholic families, attending Catholic schools, there was a time when I believed that I might, in fact, have a calling. We go on retreat in grade school, to a distant convent where we pray and prepare our meals together, spend the night in sleeping bags on the polished wooden floor.
We learn of the saints and the martyrs. Stephen, stoned to death for faith. We reach up and touch the cool stone of his statue, feel the hollows meant to depict his wounds. Beautiful Lucy who plucked her own eyes out lest her beauty lead her to sin. She holds them out on a plate, the two perfect orbs offered up like after-dinner sweets.
We take Communion, let the papery wafers melt on our tongues. We kneel down on velvet-lined cushions, hold our heads in our small folded hands. We are told to be open to the Holy Spirit. To ask for the Spirit to enter us, to fill us with grace. On the bus ride home, I sit alone, pray silently as the rest of the students are led in hymns. It is a particular burden, I recognize, to be called by the Holy Spirit, and I weighed down with it. At night, in bed, in confusion and fear as I wait to hear the familiar sounds of my aunt returning home, delivered safely in grace, I pray myself to sleep.
Last night, I rally my strength for a dinner party, the date of which had been set long ago. We drive up in the dark, and still, I marvel at how dark it is, so early. I misremember the house number, so we wander for a few minutes on the dark street. Through the lit window of a house near the corner, I can see a woman standing at the counter, her hair pulled back in a blue scarf, her eyes down. From another house, the pungent aroma of garlic and onions cooking. Finally, we are rescued by our host, who has come out into the street to fetch us. “Twenty-four,” he says as he guides us to the door.
Every part of the meal seems extravagant, rich. From the cocktails and candied nuts and gougeres, to the cauliflower soup, the delicate savory dumplings. We dine at a long table dressed smartly in muted colors. White dishes, crystal glasses. On the walls, a painted mural of the hunt – jacketed men on horseback, the dogs running on ahead against a pastoral landscape. I eat roast leg of lamb for the first time. It is infused with garlic and rosemary. It is tender, succulent. We eat savory bread pudding, glazes and sauces. Warm homemade biscuits. The wine flows.
The conversation meanders in pleasant fashion through many topics on which I feel no need to comment, enjoying as I do, the easy exchange around me. I am full and warm and drowsy as we drive home through the dark, cold night.