Jack was convinced he wasn’t sick, just experiencing side effects. Hadn’t he heard that antibiotics mimic flu symptoms? He must have heard that somewhere–the notion that antibiotics make your body think it’s being attacked, so your system accelerates its defenses and makes you feel sick, even if you’re not. Had his wife Cindy told him that? Or was it on a late-night medical show? Maybe he read it somewhere. The web is full of useful information these days.
Three months ago, Jack cracked a tooth chewing a mint he should have let gently dissolve–and he finally saw a dentist Friday afternoon. He’d been popping those little candy-coated ibuprofen like M&Ms as the tooth grew more troublesome, and he couldn’t ignore it any longer or hide the embarrassing malady from Cindy. She would be sympathetic, he knew, but he didn’t want to share such an intimate weakness with anyone–even with his wife. How could she not see him as just a broken-toothed old man? After all, he’d been having trouble seeing himself as more than that lately.
The dentist prescribed penicillin and scheduled a root canal two weeks later. Jack filled the prescription right away and got started on the pills Friday night. He could fix this and spare Cindy a broken husband.
Saturday morning, he and Cindy got an early start for the two-hour drive to Vermont where they would kayak for a few hours and then meet friends for a picnic at the state park. He felt a little stiff as he rose from bed at 6 a.m. and dry swallowed another antibiotic and three ibuprofen. At age 50, he often rose stiff.
The August air was cool and dry for a change as Jack heaved Cindy’s kayak atop his car. To his surprise, a brief wave of dizziness forced him to lean on the car. He glanced toward the house and was relieved to see Cindy framed in the kitchen window, hovering busily above the sink. She hadn’t seen his swoon. After his head cleared, he pressed his own kayak above his head and snugged it into the J-shaped brackets. He hadn’t touched a barbell until age 35, when he began lifting three times a week to stave off middle age. He’d been proud that he could usually load the kayaks without help from anyone else–good technique, solid muscle, and a stubborn sense of independence.
Jack disregarded the twinges in his shoulders and the dull ache in his back. After all, he was half a century old, and it was early on a cool morning. Twinges and aches were just part of his life now. Jack couldn’t unring that bell–no one could. The dizziness, however, was new, and his slow, awkward fingers as he secured the straps made him wonder.
Cindy and Jack listened to NPR as they drove, breakfasting on trail mix and a fruit smoothie Cindy had blended while Jack loaded the kayaks. Jack did his best to keep the hard nuts and frozen drink away from his bad tooth, but a dried cranberry wedged into the crack, seeping sweetness down to the damaged nerve. He swished half a mouthful of smoothie until the frigid liquid dislodged the dried fruit and flooded the nerve, sending a bolt of electric pain through his jaw. Jack automatically brought a hand up to his face, but he quickly pretended to be scratching an ear.
“You okay?” Cindy asked from the passenger seat.
“Sure,” Jack replied. “Look at that,” he said, nodding toward a gaggle of wild turkeys strutting through a field to their right.
Cindy turned. “They’re so ugly they’re cute,” she replied, the subject successfully changed for the moment.
After they left the highway, seven miles of rutted dirt and gravel bounced them to the boat launch. Each pothole rattled Jack’s brain, pounding his head. When they finally reached the lake, he carried the kayaks the few yards to the water–first one, then the short walk back to the car for the other. But each lift and carry seemed a mile long. Jack did his hauling as Cindy assembled the poles, inspected the kayaks, and checked their life vests. The morning’s minor twinges, aches, and stiffness had turned into outright pain. Jack’s back creaked like a rusty metal folding chair that wouldn’t quite engage into the proper position. His left knee, the one that earned arthroscopy after an ill-advised slide into third at last year’s company softball game, felt like a cantaloupe–squishy and bloated with each step back and forth to the car.
“How’s the knee?” Cindy asked, tightening her vest straps.
“Fine,” Jack lied. “No problem.”
Cindy settled into her kayak, and Jack bent to launch her across the water as he had hundreds of times before. This time, he had to fight his body’s momentum to stay on shore as he stumbled and lurched behind her. He was grateful that Cindy faced out into the lake and didn’t look to see him as he briefly windmilled his arms to regain his balance. Both shoulders throbbed from the unexpected effort.
Jack dragged his own boat to the water’s edge, stepped in, and lowered himself onto the hard plastic seat. Something seemed to be lodged between his life vest and the seat, but when he reached back to feel his lower back, nothing was there–nothing but an insistent ache. Jack rocked his body forward to move the kayak a few inches at a time into the lake, gradually freeing itself from the sandy shore. With each thrust, the pain in his back pinged like sonar and echoed in his head. When he finally cleared the shore and floated, Jack’s head continued pulsing. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the weightless feel of the water, a sensation that usually brought him peace, but all he could feel were the rolling waves in his stomach.
“Great sky today,” Cindy called over her shoulder.
Jack craned his neck and squinted upward. “Beautiful,” he called out, putting on his prescription bifocal sunglasses to block the glare.
Cindy and Jack fell into their usual routine as she led the way around the edge of the lake. They always enjoyed scouting out various coves and inlets, sometimes exploring the streams that branched off. Jack usually studied the shallow bottom with its rippled mud, flowing mosses, and jutting rocks. He could stare into the shallows for hours–but today the hazy shimmer was too much. The reflected light lasered through his sunglasses and squinted eyes directly to his optic nerve.
Cindy’s lithe arms easily sliced her kayak through the water, and Jack struggled to keep up. Paddling seldom winded him, but he found himself breathing harder than usual. Despite the cool morning, sweat began to build under his cap. When his knee healed after surgery, Jack gave up team sports and started jogging. Getting used to running without a ball to chase took some adjustment, but Jack eventually mastered his breath and could keep a good pace for five miles, enjoying the run itself almost as much as the relief of finishing.
But today, after just ten minutes of paddling, Jack felt like turning back. His shoulders burned, so he had to rest after every few strokes. He spent longer than usual pretending to observe the driftwood and sandbars. Cindy glided ahead, and Jack alternated between sprinting to catch up and stopping to take even more photos than usual. If a Monday went by without photos of some outdoor activity posted on Facebook, Jack’s friends sent messages asking why they had such a lazy weekend. Each Sunday night, Jack added shots from the hikes he and Cindy took together, their bike rides, kayak excursions, zip-lines, snowshoe trips, 5k races, and even Cindy’s occasional ventures into triathlons. In all their photos, they beamed, no matter how deep the snow or steep the climb.
This day’s two hours on the lake, however, were something different altogether. Jack wasn’t thinking about their next adventure or Facebook posts as he passed the camera to Cindy. He paddled raggedly forward, sometimes closing his eyes and dangling his head, his shoulders aching, fingers nearly cramping, back straining, neck and head thumping.
With each stroke, he slipped deeper into the trance of pretending to feel fine, falling into the deadened rhythm of padding. He kept telling himself that all this would pass, that side effects, even ones as brutal as these, are only temporary, passing things. If he just got through this day, this hour, this stroke to the next, he wouldn’t have to burden Cindy with his fleeting frailty. She wouldn’t have to know about his broken tooth or the antibiotics or the ibuprofen he wished he had a few of in his pocket. He wanted her to continue seeing him as the man she loved. He knew he wasn’t the teenager she’d met in college, of course, but he wanted her to keep seeing him as the man in the Facebook photos–not exactly young any longer, but still youthful in middle age, not broken.
When at long last they neared the boat launch, Cindy said, “You got some color–looks good,” as she snapped a photo.
“Thanks,” Jack replied, managing a weak grin, but he knew his face must be reddened with fever, not toasted with sunlight.
Finally back on shore, Jack was barely able to drag and lift his kayak, but he gamely hoisted it onto the car, not letting Cindy see the strain on his face. Cindy was stowing the life vests and paddles in the back seat, so she didn’t notice Jack stagger as he approached her kayak. After dragging it to the car, he bent low and clutched the curled lips on each side of the cockpit. He steadied himself, sweat dripping into his eyes and blood rushing to his head in a thrumming pulse as strong as any current they encountered on the lake.
Jack could hear Cindy calling his name from what seemed to be a dark cove somewhere far across the lake. He flexed his legs, trying to build the momentum to swing the kayak up and toward the rack atop the car, but his knees kept dipping deeper until he was surprised to feel them grind into the jagged sand. There was no pain, just grit on skin. Jack felt hands grasp his shoulders and realized they must be Cindy’s. She was saying something, something important and insistent, but her voice was murky, soaked with mud and moss.
Jack couldn’t pretend any longer. He would have to tell Cindy how he felt. He knew she loved him, young or old, whole or broken, or somewhere in between. Everything would be okay–if only he could speak his cloudy thoughts. He got the words out just before he collapsed across the kayak, words he still halfway believed despite the obvious evidence otherwise.
“Not sick,” he mumbled, sliding into wet oblivion. “Side effects.”
John Sheirer is a writer and teacher living in Western Massachusetts. His books include the memoirs, Growing Up Mostly Normal in the Middle of Nowhere, and Loop Year, along with the short story collection, One Bite. The story “Not Sick” is greatly exaggerated from his own experience. John can be found at www.johnsheirer.com.
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