When we were younger, it didn’t matter when we got sick, when our noses got stuffy or our glands were swollen. A pile of cough drop wrappers meant nothing, and when we fell under the weather as temperatures rose, nothing stopped us from touching, from feeling a gentler skin to the other’s burn.
In the first few weeks at Penn State, I came down with a case of mononucleosis. “Let the kissing jokes begin,” I told everyone, and they did.
My mother wanted me to come home as soon as I called her with the diagnosis, and I got on a Greyhound immediately. Three hours later, I began crying as the bus drove past the King of Prussia Mall, continued to sob as we got off at the Devon exit and drove up Valley Forge Road. I cried in the driveway and when I walked in the front door. I hugged my brothers really hard. I ate challah french toast that my mom cooked for me at ten o’clock at night. I took a shower without wearing flip flops, unafraid of athlete’s foot. I walked around my room naked. I put on pajamas and walked down the stairs and heard that familiar sound that my feet make on our hardwood floors. I cuddled with my mom in my room, on a bed with four posts and a frame. It was a homecoming I hadn’t expected.
When I returned to school, I was still lethargic. I mustered up just enough energy to go to a Halloween party, but not enough to get into costume or to drink anything at all. On a balcony overlooking Beaver Avenue, in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans, I puffed on a small cigar I connived out of a drunk boy whom I had just met. We kissed a few days later, after I warned him more than once. “I’m just getting over mono,” I told him, our lips already touching. “I don’t care,” he said. My best friend from home claimed that if he didn’t care about getting mono, he was the real deal. He and I only saw each other four times after that.
Five years from then, I find myself in a new home, where I live with my boyfriend, who’s been asleep all day, feeling tired and achy with a painful sore throat. Chicken soup has simmered on the stove, water boiled, tea steeped. We’ve watched hours and hours of television together, not talking, just listening to other peoples’ dialogue. He rubs my shoulders to thank me for taking care of him, not wanting to pass along whatever it is that he’s got. At night, he lays an arm across my body, careful not to breathe too close.
We haven’t kissed on the lips since Monday. I don’t know why everyone was so unafraid of getting sick in college, I don’t know why we always chanced it. No real responsibilities, I guess. We shared sticky solo cups with a hundred people. We passed around backwashed water bottles and soggy joints and of course, wet mouths. I suppose no one really cared about each other like we do, now.