I lean the side of my forehead against the window of an Uber, close my eyes. The odd relief of Mexico City streets makes my head bang softly against the glass with every tiny little bump. “A stranger’s car is no place for drunk naps”, I think. I learned that the hard way… except I didn’t, someone did and now it’s common knowledge. My stomach growls because I’m starving.
The world is crawling with bacteria. Specifically the one I’m about to contract, Helicobacter Pylori. It doesn’t care about any of this. It cultivates on the surface of a spoiled slice of ham, waiting to be consumed by a host (that’s me!). It does not care about Cuba or climate change, the revolution or sandwiches. All it wants to do is multiply, to be more.
Must be nice.
Here’s what you need to know about H. Pylori: It is exceptional at what it does and humans are no good at spotting it. I read on Wikipedia that at least fifty per cent of humans are infected by H. Pylori. Fifty per cent! Doctors call it “the most widespread infection in the world”. The exact way humans get infected is still a mystery, but experts suggest it happens through contaminated food and water or coming in contact with infected saliva, vomit or fecal matter. Yeah, I know.
A man cuts down a tree with a chainsaw somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness and I puke into a toilet. I’m alone. Have you ever puked into a toilet in an empty house? It is, to put it lightly, a worrying situation. I could die, I think. The soft hum of the television is depressing me in the background, the way it tries so hard to be entertaining is obscene. “Alaska: The final frontier”, but H. Pylori doesn’t care. It’s the most widespread infection in the world, even Alaska, but it does not even care.
Being an adult is weird, man, one minute you are doing Molly with strangers in a club in La Condesa and the next you’re crawling on your knees, alone, in a house that you rented on the internet, trying to reach your phone because your legs feel like pepperoni sticks when you stand up and you really need to call your mother.
“Do you have a fever?” I’ve got a fever alright. “You should go to the hospital.” Fuck no. I hate hospitals. This was a bad idea. I lie, tell her I’m feeling better and hang up.
It’s you and me now, Helicobacter Pylori.
Arthur finished building a cabin with his own two hands to cope with his PTSD from the war in Iraq. Melinda, his wife, does not want to stay in Alaska. She misses Milwaukee, her parents, the smell of burnt butter from the diner and the warmth of other people’s company. She misses breakfast with her sister and people-watching in her favourite park. Melinda doesn’t want to start a family in Alaska. I don’t blame her. Arthur, never wanted to start a family at all, he just wanted to feel useful, like he did something other than war. Arthur and Melinda break up.
Arthur stays in Alaska.
H. Pylori’s next move is going to hit me like a ton of bricks. Out of nowhere, a laser-shot of harrowing pain to the heart. My chest tightens, my breath shortens, I groan, roll off the bed and my head hits the dresser. I lay there, staring at the ceiling. I’m for sure about to die, I think.
But then, H. Pylori talks to me, from a place deep within my body. It speaks in a calm voice, it says words I recognize:
Little Creatures are coming, and they are asking if I am god, and I am asking what god is, and they are telling me, and I am not this god. And God is nowhere. Little Creatures wandering through the air, and they are dragging in places and echoes of lives and they are asking me about god. I am going to tell you something, Little Creature. There is a hole at the centre of everything and it is always growing. Between the stars, I am seeing it. It is coming. And you are not escaping. And the universe is forgetting you. And the universe is being forgotten. And there is nothing to remember it.
I’m having a heart attack. I always assumed I’d die in Mexico City but never figured Alaska into the equation. Who would have known I would be this calm throughout the whole thing? Baller.
Little Creature, you are not chosen. There is no one to chose you. You are atoms. And your atoms are not caring if you are existing. Your atoms are Monstrous Existence.
We are not meeting again. And the universe is forgetting you, and I am remembering you, but not because I am caring. The beginning is moments ago, the end is moments away, there is no time to forget before all is forgotten.
I know where I read that. It was in a video game and this isn’t a heart attack, it’s the goddamn sandwich. I mindlessly chug some rubber-sole flavoured antacid and swallow two or three pills in a last-ditch attempt to soothe whatever the fuck is happening to me. Gulp! It’s not working.
Goodbye, Little Creature.
Now, I’m all alone.
“Dear you, I’ll try to be honest and brief. I never quite understood what happened between you and me. I remember it being my decision, but when I think back on it, it doesn’t feel that way. I don’t believe we ever had a choice. Now we’ve moved on, or “on” has moved us, I can’t tell. Anyway, I met someone else, fell in love, fell out of love, met someone different and fell in love again. I’m sure you have too, I wouldn’t know. And even though I don’t love you anymore, I still think about you every now and then and wonder if you ever think about me too. It’s childish, selfish even. I bumped into you once at that party and we said we would get coffee, remember, then never did. We didn’t even try and that’s okay. Sometimes it hurts, and let me be clear, I don’t love you anymore. It hurts because I knew you once, I knew you well and you knew me and for a moment there, it felt like we knew what we were doing. Together, things made sense. It hurts, sometimes, because we had that and we let it go. When it hurts I feel stupid. But I’d rather be stupid than indifferent.”
The pain is gone. At some point that I can’t remember, all goes dark.
“What you experienced was a severe oesophagus contraction. Recent studies on Helicobacter Pylori,” the gastroenterologist explains to me, “show that the bacteria can be beneficial to the body when it lives in the intestine but not when it infects the stomach. In this context, it can cause stomach cancer and other complications.”
That’s so typical of you, H. Pylori. You don’t care, you just reproduce, become more, unaware of whether you are helping with digestion or killing somebody. You are Monstrous Existence.
Fragility is a funny thing. It fluctuates like my mood. Some days I’m invincible, others I’m… quite vincible.
“What, are we going to ask her about the federal tax next?” Laughs some old, arrogant idiot on the radio of my taxi back from the hospital. Yes, we are, idiot, we are, and then we are going to listen. Because institutions need to adopt some of Greta Thunberg’s naivety if they are ever going to see the problem of Global Warming for what it really is, a potential species-wide catastrophe. Some people feel so separated from death, disconnected somehow from the world’s destiny. The religious should be especially worried because one thing is clear: if you don’t act on this, you are for sure going to hell.
Maybe we should revisit the ten commandments:
Thou shalt not be indifferent to matters of species-wide survival. Thou shalt care and not act like a successful bacteria colony. Thou shalt not eat sandwiches that were not left in the fridge overnight.
The fact is, I don’t want to get stomach cancer and that is why I am going to nuke you with antibiotics, my dear H. Pylori. “Goodbye, Little Creature” indeed. I know you don’t care, but it will feel good to get rid of you and get some control back. Control over my stomach flora, muthafuckah. Mankind one, bacteria zero, but who’s keeping score anyway?
“Wow, you should’ve called me. I would have come to take care of you,” she says, in that genuinely concerned but simultaneously soothing way that only Erika can get away with.
“Nah, I didn’t want you to worry too much. It wasn’t that big of a deal,” I lie.
A pause. I can hear her thinking, carefully considering what to say next and after a soft breath, she chooses perfectly. “Anyway, come over to my place, I’ll make you some rice and chicken soup and we can watch a movie.”
I do and she does, and it is warm rice and tasty chicken soup, and we cuddle while we watch Two Weeks Notice (2002), an outstanding romantic comedy starring Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock and it feels good to finally hold someone other than myself. This worldwide infection won’t go away before a couple of days and all this rice and chicken soup is making me nauseous. But it doesn’t matter, I smile and pretend it helps.
(Photo: “The Future Sucks” by Inés Estrada. T-shirts available at http://inechi.com/shop.html)