VERMONT — “I’m dying,” said Paul.
Paul’s my poker playing buddy in Vermont. We played last week with friends up in Eden and we both had lost. Paul had said, “Poker hates the Jews.”
“What’s the matter? Still feeling sick?”
We were sitting on a bench next to the river. I had been on my way to the library.
“I’m definitely feeling sick again. I was doing better a few days ago, but now I feel like I’m dying. Is this a rash?”
Paul lifted his shirt. The pale white skin of the Irish Jew.
“No, Paul, there’s nothing. There’s no rash.”
“Are you sure?”
“There’s no rash. Maybe it’s the mono.”
Paul had been diagnosed with mononucleosis months earlier, in a rare case of hypochondria justified. Before that, he had seen multiple emergency room visits, mostly fruitless, except for the time they thought he had leukemia. He had confided to me that he had “loved every minute of it.”
“Since ’07? Is that possible?”
“I think so. I heard that people can have it for ages.” I wasn’t sure about this and I wasn’t going to tell him that a rare complication of mono is a ruptured spleen.
“Maybe we should go on a hike. You’ll feel better. You want to?”
Paul looked at me as though I were insane.
“David, no I can’t. My ticker.” He touched his heart.
One of the rare complications of mono that Paul had experienced was myocarditis, which mono can trigger. A 65 year old cardiologist that Paul had seen up in Maine had never encountered myocarditis before and had to open up a dusty old book to look it up. Since then, Paul had gotten his heart echoed, EKGed, and stress tested. He was too scared to go on hikes but not too scared to smoke and drink coffee and impregnate towngirls.
“I know what you mean,” I said. “I really do. I went with Jen on this incredibly steep two mile hike up Stowe Pinnacle. My heart started skipping beats. Seriously. I had to stop for a second.”
Paul smiled, in heaven. He wasn’t the only one. I, too, was a hypochondriac. Once, I got locked up for two nights in the heart ward at Beth Israel. I shared a room with Al, eighty-years young.
“I told Jen that I needed to rest for a second. She was way ahead of me, climbing like some billy goat. I started wondering, What happens if I have a heart attack? I said to Jen, ‘if something happens to me, there’s no way anyone could get here. I’ll die on this mountain. You couldn’t get me down.’ She said, ‘I’ll call for help on my cell phone. I have three bars.’ ‘And what,’ I said, ‘they’ll send a helicopter? There’s no way helicopter can get up here!” Paul, it was rocky and wooded. I would basically just die up there.”
Paul was laughing now. This is what bonded us. Our fear and giddy anticipation of death.
Then Paul stopped laughing and looked at me, serious and piercing.
“How are things with Clarissa?”
“Fine, good. Why?”
“Yeah, really. You should stick with her. She’s cute, she seems smart, funny, nice style. And she’s young, right? How old is she?”
“See, that’s perfect. When you get cancer, she’ll be young enough to take care of you.”
“Yes, that’s the plan! My dad was 18 years older than my mom. When he was dying in the hospital, she was there every single day, running around, talking with all the doctors.”
“He’d be like 90 now?”
“Almost. He was 79, so my mom was in her early sixties. It was perfect. Clarissa might be too old. I might need someone younger. Let’s see, when I’m 80, she’ll already be 68. She might not be young and vigorous enough to tend to me in the hospital.”
Paul was laughing again, until he remembered his own predicament.
“Fuck, what about me? I need to find someone young. Who am I going to meet?”
“Don’t worry, Paul, I’ll take care of you.”
“You’re too old.”