• Corona

    John Jeremiah Sullivan

    Spring 2024

    The fjords of Norway are one of the places I always hoped to see before I die. If you had told me thirty years ago that when I finally experienced them, I would find myself so racked with the fever and chills of coronavirus that my sweat soaked through to the mattress and my very eyeballs twitched, I would probably only have nodded—in sadness, maybe. Not in surprise. My life has been a succession of illnesses in interesting places. The first time I ever traveled abroad anywhere besides Canada—to Dakar, Senegal, in West Africa, as part of a foreign-exchange program in high school, a trip that changed my life in ways unrelated to health, as well—I caught a bug of some kind that played hell on my digestive system and caused me to miss a big part of my junior year. They never did figure out what it was. I learned the strange fact that some doctors get mad at you when they can’t determine what’s wrong with you. A specialist who had looked at my bowels thought it was “atypical Crohn’s.” Everyone else said no. My doctor at the time, Dr. Jeff, gave a paper on me at a conference. “My mystery patient,” he called me. They wound up megadosing me with horse pills of antibiotics and apparently nuking the thing, without having successfully identified it. Before that ambiguous closure, I underwent a string of ghastly procedures: colonoscopies, sigmoidoscopies, and barium enemas, along with simpler, cruder forms of invasion. The doctor who gave me the sigmoidoscopies was wonderful. Older, Jewish, I don’t remember his name, but I remember that at the beginning of every visit, as he was sliding his lubed-up index finger into my rectum, he would cheerfully call out, “Here comes the arthritic knuckle!” That was an important year for me as a writer, because I spent so much time in bed. The attacks of pain were worst at night. My mother would sit there with me, feeding me ice chips, the only thing that gave relief. There were no cellphones, of course, and I have always hated video games, so I read books—classics and trash—and wrote unreadable prose poems in my notebook. My stomach has been more or less permanently fucked since then. It was never great. I was one of those kids who are always throwing up. Every year on my birthday. It became a tradition. Once I ate a can of pineapple and barfed it all over the side of our car. Kids in the neighborhood saw it and asked me about it afterward. I told some strange lie about what it had been. The next time I made it back to Africa, in my early twenties—Morocco this time, in a place called El Jadida, where Orson Welles shot his Othello—a spider bit me during the night, on my right side, just below my armpit. I saw the spider in the morning and made the connection to the bite. I must have rolled over onto it and killed it. The spider was black, and relatively small, but somehow not as small as one would prefer. Over the course of three days, I developed a bubo at the site of the bite. A local pharmacist prescribed me a tube of curious coal-black cream that seemed only to accelerate the infection. I was traveling with my friend Ben, a tall kid from New York with brown hair and brown eyes. We had been on a few trips together already, and he knew to expect medical mishaps. Even so, I could tell he was tired of visiting pharmacies.

    John Jeremiah Sullivan is a writer who lives in Wilmington, North Carolina. The Prime Minister of Paradise, his book about an eighteenth-century Utopian philosopher who lived among the indigenous Cherokee in present-day Tennessee, is forthcoming from Random House.

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