It’s a cold day in February, and Jenny’s sick again.
I ask what it is this time and she just looks at me with ghastly eyes, staring out from over swollen, purpling flesh. She’s sitting bolt upright, propped by pillows, and there’s so much sweat everywhere that it’s like condensation in a steam room. I’ve seen her look bad before but never quite this bad. Where did she get this shit? How long is it going to last this time?
I can’t be the one to deal with this. We’ve been living together for maybe two years; we started sleeping together and ended friends, but mainly we just hit it off, and sharing a place seemed a good idea. I thought we had things in common then, that maybe we were going the same places. But I’m looking to finish studying as soon as possible, to carve out a career, and I have no idea what Jenny wants.
Maybe she just wants to die.
I think it was about a year ago she got into this, though you never know, do you? People are like oceans, the powerful stuff moves deep down and you almost never see it. So perhaps there was always something there, just waiting for an outlet.
Either way, it’s about a year ago that I find out. There’s a campus bulletin going around over a new drug, the usual about watching for strange behavior in our fellow students: absenteeism, mood swings, that kind of thing. I figure it’s the same old government stuff, rooting for subversives and trouble-makers. There’s always some new drug or faction or threat, and the next week you’ll hear that the campus police have been out, then maybe there’s a face missing in your next lecture. If you keep your nose clean and stay in the right groups it isn’t that big a deal.
So there’s buzz about this drug, without any real details. I don’t think anything of it until I get in one evening and there’s this noise coming from Jenny’s room, like nothing I’ve heard. Though a couple of months later it will be all too familiar, this first time I don’t know what to think. I mean, I’ve heard coughing before. But this isn’t clearing-your-throat coughing; this is a cruel, hacking bout that goes on for two full minutes, while I stand in the hallway, not sure what I’m hearing.
By the time I knock on her door it’s started again. When I open it the cough is shaking right through her, throwing her about like a rag doll. I don’t know what to do, whether I should try and help, so I just stand watching and for a while she doesn’t seem to know I’m there. Then finally there’s a break, and she looks up. “I’m sick,” she tells me. She says it with a weird grin, like she’s challenging me.
“What do you mean? Nobody gets sick. There’s nothing left to get sick with.”
Instead of answering, she holds up a small plastic bottle. Somebody has written the word CHOKE across it in blue permanent marker. I can see one small green and white capsule rattling around inside.
“What the hell is that?” She only grins at me again, then starts on another fit of coughing.
I find out later that this first time, it’s influenza. She spends two days with it, wrapped fetal in bed, skin like wet flour, choking until near the end I can see blood mixed with the filth she’s bringing up.
Then, abruptly, it goes away. It always does. I figure out eventually that the second capsule, the green one, is the cure. She takes it and an hour later she’s well. Except each time she goes a little longer without taking the green pill: One hour, five hours, a day.
After that, we don’t talk about it, and I guess we drift apart pretty quickly. Jenny’s out a lot, she doesn’t bother to make classes or lectures, and I know there’s a crowd she hangs out with but I don’t see them. Mainly I’m worried that she’ll get caught and that somehow they’ll blame me as well. I study harder, as though that will make up for her absences, I will the days away, and I feel scared. As much as I like Jenny, I like the thought of my future more.
Maybe I should try and talk to her about it, but we don’t talk about anything very much. When I do see her, it’s because she’s sick, too sick to go out. I don’t know what she tells the campus authorities each time. I don’t know where the pills come from. All I know is every month there’s a new bottle with a name written on it, like PUKE or BURN, in the same messy blue highlighter.
As much as I try to keep away from it, and from Jenny, it’s more and more a part of my life, a dirty secret I can’t help but hide. After a few months I start downloading old medical texts from the library’s archive. I figure maybe PUKE is gastroenteritis, but I’m majoring in Information Analysis not Science History; a lot of what’s in those books goes way over my head, and it’s not like I can ask anybody.
I wonder if I should try to help, to look after her somehow, but I’m too scared. Deep down, there’s a part of me that’s so damn afraid that one day she’ll decide not to take the green pill. I’ll come in to find her cold and still, and when the police find out what happened, that will be my life over too.
Christmas comes and goes, and I’m glad of the break and to be with my folks for a few weeks, except that Jenny and her weird obsession have got into my head and my parents’ healthiness seems strange somehow: their perfect skin, their smiles, and their peace of mind. Having Jenny in my life is damaging me, but I only recognize it properly in that gap, in the exposure to normality and discovering how alien it seems.
When I get back to the flat I’ve already made my mind up that I have to move out. I don’t know how I didn’t think of it sooner. Almost a year’s gone by and it never crossed my mind that I could just leave.
When I see Jenny I realize why. There’s something so frail about her, even when she’s not sick, a depth in her eyes that breaks my heart. I don’t even know if she likes me anymore—maybe she hates me—yet suddenly all I can think about is the touch of her skin those times we slept together, the smell of her sweat mixed with the scent of her hair.
“I’m going to look for somewhere else to live.”
She looks surprised, if only for a second. “Sure. This place is kind of cramped. I can manage on my own.”
I choose to think that she means financially, but I’m not sure. I don’t mention the sickness. I hope she will, but I know she’s not going to. The way she is now, all of that is something that happens to another person. Right now, she seems so damn normal; except for that look in her eyes, that sense of unfathomable depth. “That’s what I figured,” I say, “I figured you could manage.”
By February, I’ve found a place—a couple of guys with a spare room—and I’m living midway between the two flats while I shift the last of my things. I don’t know why I’m not hurrying more. I could have been moved two weeks ago. Instead I drag my heels, take over a box every couple of days, and tell myself it’s easier this way.
Then I come in and hear the coughing, not like the first time but slow, drawn-out, more of a dry wheeze. I go in and it’s the worst I’ve seen her. She looks hollow, like a discarded shell, and more than anything she reminds me of these old porcelain dolls my grandmother used to keep: skin white, except where age had yellowed it, with black eyes that didn’t look even remotely human.
“What is it this time?”
No answer, just a stare, and a half-smile through flaking lips.
I go out and load up the trolley that I’ve borrowed with my last four boxes. I don’t even say goodbye.
The next time I run into Jenny is two years later. I just happen to take a certain corner on a certain street and there she is.
I can tell right away that she’s dying. I’ve never seen anyone die, not for real, but it’s some kind of instinct in my gut that tells me because suddenly I want to run away, to be anywhere else.
Instead, I make small-talk. It’s very small because there’s so damn much I know we can’t talk about. Jenny was my friend and for a while something more. And I walked away, for two years I’ve kept her out of my mind. “How are you doing?” I ask. It feels like about the stupidest thing I’ve ever said.
But she nods and smiles, and says, “I’m okay, you know? I feel pretty good.”
She doesn’t look good. I think about suggesting we go for a coffee, but I know she always hated those places. She called them “obscenely clean,” and there was only one bar she’d ever drink in, a place that had dropped so far off the map that the Hygiene Inspectorate didn’t know it existed. “What are you doing now? How did uni go?” What I mean is: Did you drop out? Did they catch you?
Jenny dodges the question, with all its implications. “Yeah, I’m getting by. And you, how are you?”
“I finished with a pretty good grade. Serious data dissection work is hard to come by but I’ve got a couple of interviews coming up, it’s looking promising. It’s pretty tight these days, I guess, but I’m hopeful.” Why do I feel guilty saying this? I’m not the screw-up here. I’m not the disease junky.
“Yeah? Well, that’s good.” She tries to sound like she means it. I feel as if we’re on different planets, separated by a million miles. All I can think is how I want to be somewhere else, and maybe that’s why I say what I do. “Jenny, you look really fucking sick.” It’s out of my mouth before I know it.
But she’s not even fazed. “Yeah?” She smiles. “Oh, yeah: I’m dying.”
This time, I don’t even try and make an excuse. I turn and walk away, and the closest I come to apologizing is that I try not to run.
That night I dream about Jenny, cold and blue and somehow happy, grinning up at me from some deep dark place with a rictus smile cut over her lips. The dream hangs beside me all the next day, like smoke in the air, and I feel like I’m caught in Jenny’s gravity, like I’m plummeting.
But it’s a week on from that chance meeting in the street, just when I’ve almost managed to forget, that my phone rings. I don’t recognize the name or face, except that she looks familiar somehow. For a moment I get that same gut feeling, that urge to run. I pick up anyway. “Hello. Can I help you?”
“My name is Linda Ulek. I’m sorry to intrude on your time, but it’s very important, and there really isn’t anybody else.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t—” Then I remember where I’ve heard the name Ulek before. “You’re Jenny’s mother.”
I met her once. Jenny’s parents came to the flat and looked uncomfortable and left as quickly as they could. Jenny told me once that they were both high up in some obscure branch of the government. That explains how she got hold of my private number.
“As I say, I’m sorry to intrude, but Jenny doesn’t have any friends that we know of and we remembered your name, and that the two of you lived together, and were close at one point. Of course we’d like to go ourselves, of course we would, but we’re in Rome this month and we have commitments. And the doctors are adamant that somebody who knows her should be with her—”
“I’m sorry; I don’t understand what you’re asking.”
“Jenny’s in hospital,” she says. “She’s very sick and the doctors have asked us to visit her, as part of her treatment. As I say, we can’t do that. We thought that perhaps you could.”
I didn’t know there were any hospitals left. In a world with a cure for everything, I figured the common hospital was as extinct as the common cold. Whatever I’m expecting, the Rondelle Panacea Clinic isn’t it. It’s just another nondescript building, a few klicks out of the city, like the office I work in or the flats I live in. I press the buzzer beside the doors, and a few moments later a young woman in a white suit appears. When I tell her who I am she says, “You’re here for Jenny Ulek,” and ushers me inside.
The woman, who gives her name as Doctor Meier, leads me through blank-walled corridors, into a small office, and offers me a seat. It occurs to me that Jenny must hate this place, that in fact it’s everything she despises. White walls, white furniture, white people in white suits. If somebody had to design a personal hell for Jenny it would look a lot like this.
Doctor Meier sits opposite me and says, “It was good of you to come.”
I nod. There’s no point telling her how close I came to saying no.
“You’re aware of Jenny’s case history?”
“Some of it. We lived together for a while. I know she likes to get sick.”
“Well, it’s a little more complicated than that, but in essence, yes, Jenny takes a certain gratification from physical illness. Recently Jenny has introduced a disease into her system that, left untreated, will be terminal within the next two months.” She pauses for just a moment, to let that sink in. “We could cure it, of course, completely eradicate it. Or we could use more outmoded techniques to keep it in check.”
“Why would you do that?”
Doctor Meier has clearly prepared her answer. She looks the type to have prepared an answer for anything I could hope to ask. “Because if we were to let Jenny out into the world tomorrow she would immediately find a way to infect herself again, with the same disease or perhaps with something worse. Put bluntly, the condition we need to treat in this case—if Jenny is to survive in any meaningful way—is not the physical one.”
I nod again. Sure, I get that. From these peoples’ point of view, Jenny is crazy. I guess if I’d thought about it I would have come to the same conclusion, but somehow it never occurred to me. “So, what’s the alternative?”
“There are two options. The first, perhaps the easiest in many ways, will involve gene therapy, some alteration of memories, intrusive brain surgery. Put bluntly, we would correct Jenny’s personality to a degree where she can function safely in society. It sounds, perhaps, more drastic than it is. But at the end of it Jenny will, obviously, not be quite the same person she is now.”
Damn right it sounds drastic. “There’s another option?”
“There is. It’s slower, and there are no guarantees, but we have excellent psychologists on staff, and similar cases have been treated with a high degree of success.”
I know that there’s going to be a “but,” it’s written all over her face.
“While there’s a good chance that Ms. Ulek can become well with sufficient help and support, it will take more than the kindness of strangers. What she will need is someone she knows, someone who knows her, who will devote time and—”
“If you’ll just let me explain—”
“No, I can’t do that. I have a career, I have my life.” Suddenly, my heart has sunk right down into the pit of my stomach. “I haven’t seen Jenny in years, I don’t think I mean anything to her at all, and I can’t possibly do that.” Listening to my own voice, I know that what I’m saying is true, and yet at the same time I know it’s not the truth. But what would be? That I couldn’t say.
“We’d only ask that you spend some time considering it.”
“Sure, I will. I’ll consider it, and then the answer is still going to be no. It’s just not something I can do.”
Doctor Meier nods. She stands up and moves towards the door. I can tell she’s bluffing, that she hasn’t quite given up yet. “We’ll call you in a few days, when you’ve had time to consider.”
I guess I know myself better than Doctor Meier does, because when she calls three days later the answer hasn’t changed. I didn’t make Jenny sick. I didn’t make her want to be sick. I have another interview coming up, and I can’t be asked to abandon that for someone I barely know. But I don’t tell her that. I don’t have to explain myself.
Only, the nightmares keep coming. In some way, a way I don’t much like, it seems that Jenny is still a part of me. I find myself remembering, more and more, those months we lived together. Jenny has become a ghost, and I don’t know if I can escape her.
A week after my visit I phone the hospital. I don’t recognize the doctor who answers so I have to explain who I am, the whole situation, before I can finally get to saying it: “I’ve changed my mind. I’d like to help.”
This new doctor, male and middle-aged, looks away from me for a moment. When he looks back he says, very flatly, “Ms. Ulek’s procedure was completed yesterday morning. She’s due to be released at the end of the week, but perhaps you could visit her in the meantime. I’m sure she would appreciate the company.”
I don’t kid myself that I go for Jenny’s sake.
Doctor Meier meets me at the door, and she’s all smiles: “The procedure went well,” she says, “we’re very optimistic.”
She leads me through corridors again, presumably in a different direction this time, but it’s all so indistinguishable that I honestly can’t tell. Either way, we wind up at a particular door and she steps back and says, “I’ll let you go in on your own. I’ll wait here until you’re finished.”
“I won’t be long.”
“Take as long as you need.”
I won’t be long. I don’t need long. I’m only here to say goodbye.
I push through the door and the room on the other side is a lot like the corridor, only wider. Jenny is propped up in bed, with some glossy magazine spread over her knees. When she hears the door, she glances up and looks confused for just an instant, then turns her puzzled look into a smile and says, “Hi there. You’ve come to see me.”
“Jenny. How are you?”
“Oh, I’m great. They cured me. They found a cure.”
If she’s telling the truth then it’s strange, because I’ve never seen her look this bad. I can’t put my finger on why, because she seems as healthy as I’ve ever known anybody to be, not only not sick but radiant with health. For some reason I find myself remembering again those porcelain dolls of my grandmother’s, with their white skin, their black eyes, all of their flawed perfection.
For the first time, I think I understand Jenny. Not this Jenny sitting in front of me, with her neatly-styled hair and her faultless smile, but the Jenny I cared about all those years ago. Suddenly I want to feel sickness writhing in my gut; I want decay and impurity, and fever burning under my skin. More than anything I want to know I’m alive. It occurs to me that this place, this clinic, was never designed for living things to inhabit.
I look at the pristine walls, dizzyingly white like the face of the sun. “Shit,” I say, “it’s all so ugly.”
Jenny only smiles back at me, uncomprehending. “It’s kind of boring, isn’t it? They’ve taken good care of me, though.”
“Yeah? That’s good. I’m glad to hear that.” I cough and scuff my feet, no longer sure how to say what I came to say. Then I realize it’s really very simple. “Listen, I had an interview a couple of days ago, and, well—I have a job. They’re flying me out to Portugal next week, and I really just came by to see how you were and to say goodbye.”
“That’s great. It’s what you always wanted.”
It is, isn’t it? Suddenly I’m not so sure anymore. Still, I’ve done what I came for. Not knowing what to do next, I lean over and kiss Jenny on the cheek. Her skin is astonishingly smooth. My stomach revolts, just for an instant.
“Goodbye,” I say again, and she smiles and waves back as I walk out the door.
Outside, I pause to lean against the wall. My thoughts are a whirlpool, and my breath comes in shudders. “Goodbye, Jenny,” I whisper, one final time. It’s not meant for the stranger in the room beyond, but for that impossibly fragile girl I walked away from. Probably I’m the only one who knows to grieve her passing, but a whispered farewell is all the mourning I can offer. Because I can’t carry her in my head anymore.
I’ve got what I wanted; has Jenny as well? She’s gone through health and found something beyond, something as virulent as any disease. She’s annihilated herself as certainly as any suicide.
I wonder if the doctors realize how she tricked them.