In the last week before we leave, I get either a horrible cold or the worst bout of summer allergies I can remember. My nose is constantly stuffed up and/or dripping; my throat feels scratchy and tastes sour; my whole head feels clogged with pressure; and every morning, I’m wiped out before the day even begins. But I have no fever, and a quick trip to urgent care informs me that I don’t have strep throat, so I do my best not to slow down. There is a lot to get done before the trip, and I do it all while coughing profusely.
Three days before we leave, I have a dream that Alex tells me he got back together with Sarah, that he can’t take the trip anymore.
I wake up feeling sick to my stomach. All day I try to get the dream out of my head. At two thirty, he sends me a picture of Flannery.
Do you ever miss Sarah? I write back.
Sometimes, he says. But not too much.
Please don’t cancel our trip, I say, because this dream is really, really messing with me.
Why would I cancel our trip? he asks.
I don’t know, I say. I just keep getting nervous that you’re going to.
The Summer Trip is the highlight of my year, he says.
Mine too, I tell him.
Even now that you get to travel all the time? You’re not sick of it?
I could never get sick of it, I say. Don’t cancel.
He sends me another picture of Flannery O’Connor sitting in his already packed suitcase.
Tiny fighter, I write.
I love her, he says, and I know he’s talking about the cat, obviously, but even that makes that fluttery, warm feeling come alive under my skin.
I can’t wait to see you, I say, feeling suddenly like saying this very normal thing is bold, risky even.
I know, he writes back, it’s all I can think about.
It takes me hours to fall asleep that night. I just lie in bed with those words running through my mind on repeat, making me feel like I have a fever.
When I wake up, I realize that I actually did. That I still do. That my throat feels more swollen and raw than before, and my head is pounding, and my chest is heavy, and my legs ache, and I can’t get warm no matter how many blankets I’m under.
I call in sick hoping to sleep it off before my flight the next afternoon, but by late that night, I know there’s no way I’m getting on that airplane. I have a fever of one hundred and two.
Most of the things we have booked are now close enough that they’re nonrefundable. Wrapped in blankets and shivering in my bed, I draft an email on my phone to Swapna, explaining the situation.
I’m unsure what to do. Unsure if this will somehow get me fired.
If I didn’t feel so horrible, I’d probably be crying.
Go back to the doctor first thing in the morning, Alex tells me.
Maybe it’s just peaking, I write. Maybe you can fly out on time and I can meet you in a couple days.
You shouldn’t be feeling worse this late into a cold, he says. Please go to the doctor, Poppy.
I will, I write. I’m so sorry.
Then I do cry. Because if I don’t make it on this trip, there’s a good chance I won’t see Alex for a year. He’s so busy with his MFA and teaching, and I’m rarely home now that I’m working for R+R, and in Linfield even less. This Christmas, Mom was excited to tell me, she convinced Dad to come to the city. My brothers even agreed to come for a day or two, something they insisted they would never do once they moved to California (Parker to pursue writing for TV in L.A. and Prince to work for a video game developer in San Francisco), as if upon signing their leases they’d also committed to a die-hard rivalry between the two states.
Whenever I’m sick, I just wish I were in Linfield. Lying in my childhood bedroom, its walls papered in vintage travel posters, the pale pink quilt Mom made while she was pregnant with me pulled up tight around my chin. I wish she were bringing me soup and a thermometer, and checking that I was drinking water, keeping up on ibuprofen to lower my fever.
For once, I hate my minimalist apartment. I hate the city sounds bouncing off my windows at all hours. I hate the soft gray linen bedding I picked out and the streamlined imitation Danish furniture I’ve started to accumulate since landing my Big-Girl Job, as Dad calls it.
I want to be surrounded in knickknacks. I want floral-patterned lampshades and mismatched throw pillows on a plaid couch, its back draped in a scratchy afghan blanket. I want to shuffle up to an old off-white fridge covered in hideous magnets from Gatlinburg and Kings Island and the Beach Waterpark, with drawings I made as a kid and flash-blanched family photos, and to see a cat in a diaper stalk past only to bump into a wall it did not see.
I want not to be alone, and for every breath not to take an immense effort.
At five in the morning, Swapna replies to my email.
This sort of thing happens. Don’t beat yourself up about it. You’re right about the refunds, though—if you’d like to let your friend use the accommodations you’ve booked, feel free. Forward me what you had in the way of itinerary again, and we’ll go ahead and send Trey to shoot. You can follow when you’re well again.
And, Poppy, when this happens again (which it will), do not go in so hard on the apology. You are not the master of your immune system and I can assure you that when your male colleagues have to cancel a trip, they show no indication that they feel they have personally wronged me. Don’t encourage people to blame you for something beyond your control. You are a fantastic writer, and we are lucky to have you.
Now get yourself to a doctor and enjoy some true R&R. We’ll speak about next steps when you’re on the mend.
I’d probably be more relieved if not for the haze superimposed over my entire apartment and the extreme discomfort of simply existing.
I screenshot the email and text it to Alex. Go have fun!!! I write. I’ll try to meet you for the second half!