Death Mattress

No amount of make-up, anti-inflammatory medication, long-hair-arranged-just-so around my face could disguise the truth: I was hideous. Unrecognizable.

Death Mattress

Thank God I hadn’t been trying to sleep with Naseef when my face swelled to extraordinary proportions, and I feared my own reflection.
In spite of the fact that the whole world over knows that looks aren’t everything, they are something.
Naseef and I met at a quaint hostel in Salvador, Brazil, my third city on a trip that was to take me around South America for about a year (or until my money ran out).
I’d flown from NYC to Sao Paolo, Brazil, spent a week in Rio Di Janeiro, and then flown north to experience quite a different aspect of Brazilian culture.

Although I’d hoped to find a place to CouchSurf (a community that organizes local stays for the culture-hungry traveler) as I had in both Sao Paolo and Rio, I hadn’t been able to secure a host in the spicy and colorful African-influenced city famous for its historic district, The Pelhourino, wild nightlife, and pretty but infamously dangerous beaches, so I checked into a hostel and introduced myself to Naseef in the cramped, sea-salt musty same-sex dorm room that we’d both been assigned.

Naseef had come on holiday from Scotland and was learning Portuguese. I knew none, but I planned to pick up my Spanish again once I got to Bolivia. He had five weeks; I had as much time as I could stand.
Within minutes, we were sitting on a bench near the beach with beers and shrimp fritters in hand.
After a couple of days in Salvador, a city constantly recommended by other travelers as a must-not-miss hot spot, a nonplussed Naseef and I decided to travel together to Lencois, an interior city, to do some hiking and horse-back riding.
I think Naseef had been hoping to find an exciting and accepting gay club scene in Salvador and was disappointed that it wasn’t delivering, and I, well, I’d kissed enough boys in Sao Paola and Rio (Brazilian men are notorious for planting their mouths on any woman who grants them a moment of conversation) to be ready for a break in the party scene. I’d done the alcohol-fueled backpacking trip post-college, but this journey had a decidedly different flavor for me, and I wanted to taste it.
“We can take the 11 PM bus, get in at 5, sleep for a couple of hours and then go see some waterfalls,” I said.
“Yeah, let’s do it,” Naseef readily agreed.
Although I’d been hoping to sleep on the bus and make the most of the next day, a tight jaw kept me from much more than some unsatisfying dozing. I figured I’d been grinding my teeth the night before and was more annoyed than anything else at my inability to sleep.

But by the time we got to Lencois, I was in a very bad place.

It hurt to swallow; my cheeks were tender to the touch. I was having trouble opening my mouth, and my speech sounded heavy to my own ears.

It was something excruciating.

And then, one look from Naseef, and I knew I had a problem.

After the mumps diagnosis at the hospital/clinic where the rough doctor quickly and knowingly assessed my situation, I put myself to bed, disappointed that the day would be wasted but resigned to getting better so that I could go trekking with Naseef the next day.

I had no idea how serious my condition was, and thus, my positive attitude was in vain. The happy, go-with-it demeanor I’d hoped to adopt on my journey fled as the pain increased each hour and my face grew fatter still, the swelling creating a grotesque and monstrous vision to my eyes and anyone that glanced my way.

No amount of make-up, anti-inflammatory medication, long-hair-arranged-just-so around my face could disguise the truth: I was hideous. Unrecognizable. And yet, I might have been able to deal with that by itself (avoiding mirrors was possible, averting looks another option, simply living as one who is unattractive), but I felt like I’d been beaten to within an inch of my life. My whole face hurt. I had no chin. No cheekbones. I felt like I had been abused and assaulted, only there was no blood, no bruises, just ugly. The throbbing was constant. Relentless. Hating.

Initially I made frequent trips to the shared bathroom across the hall from my room to check my appearance; I was looking for signs that the swelling had gone down, but when it became clear that I was only getting bigger, my glands so swollen that my ears were no longer visible, and I felt so ugly I cried at my own reflection, I stopped. When I had to use the toilet, I stared straight, avoiding the monster in the mirror.

I assumed the swelling, the pain, the ugly would lessen each day, and I’d be back to normal in no time at all, but it did not happen like that, each day bringing worse. And then Worse upped his ante when the unsympathetic and cold British hostel owner moved me to a vacant house containing nothing more than a thin mattress on the floor and a toilet.

When Naseef dropped me and my bags off, I uttered a weak cry and composed myself enough to ask him if he would bring me coconut water and yogurt regularly. He did so diligently.

My face was so swollen that opening my mouth more than a quarter of an inch proved impossible, but I still considered my body’s need for nourishment, fuel for regaining strength. Besides, I was hungry.

By this time, alone in the cold and hostile-feeling house, I grew hopeless.

“What if it’s not mumps? What if it’s some rare disease? Please talk to dad, call my doctor, find out how this happened to me,” I wrote to Stephanie. (I had been twice vaccinated against the mumps and was driven at one low point to believe I had some rare and fatal disease.)

I believed I was dying.

In another e-mail, (which I composed by sneaking into the hostel’s common area early one morning after being basically forbidden by the stoic owner to enter its premises), I outlined a will and informally made my sister executor.

Naseef comforted me as best he could, but poor guy, he didn’t really know what to say. And I could tell he didn’t want to lie to me, didn’t want to say, “your face looks better. You’ll be out of here in no time,” when he couldn’t be sure of anything.

And as I didn’t think it fair to place the burden of my dying on someone I’d only just met a week earlier, I wrote to my sister again, suddenly religious as my own death loomed:

Nobody wants to come within ten feet of me. I feel like a leper. It`s the most isolating feeling in the world, and yet I understand. I wouldn`t wish this illness on my worst enemy. I prayed all night last night. It was the longest night of my life. It hurt to lift and lower my head. I’ve had to stop looking at myself in the mirror. I struggled with a fever every hour. I sweat through my clothing, then was freezing. Nothing they’ve given me helps. My face feels bruised, like someone beat me up close to death, and it is hard to sleep comfortably because when I sleep on part of my face it hurts, but when I sleep on my back, my whole face throbs. I can’t read or eat. I just kept asking Jesus to get me through this. I’m really scared.

Just in case something happens to me, please pay attention to the following, ok? Please don`t let this upset you. (Later, Stephanie would tell me that I had completely freaked her out, that my email-will had forced tears.)

I want to be cremated, and I want my heart and lungs and kidneys donated (I know you said you need paperwork for this, but if not, please see to it that people in need get my good organ.). I don’t know if my liver is good or not.

Please tell Eileen that she is the best thing that has ever happened to me since 2005. I am grateful to her for always making me strive to be a better person.

Tell Tedros that I never stopped loving him and never stopped seeing him as the father of my children.

Tell mom I am sorry for all of the times I hurt her feelings. I’m sorry I wasn’t a nicer, more respectful daughter.

Tell dad that I do forgive him and should have let it all go years ago when I said I did.

Tell Jeff he should write his book and do motivational speaking. Let him know he has always lifted my spirits when I needed it and that I am glad we repaired our rs.

Can you give Little Deville a kiss for me? Sit with her, let her know she was my best friend in Binghamton?

Baby Cas. I’ll watch over him.

Please don’t ever let Gram S know how awful this time was for me.

Of course, everyone should know how much I loved them. All of our family. Heather. Gram and Grandpa. All the aunts and uncles and cousins.

Tell G he needs to take good care of you now that I cannot.

In response, Stephanie e-mailed my friends, asking for their love, support, and prayers, and my family collaborated on how to get me home.

I had scared her profoundly, but the way I saw it and felt, there was no unnecessary drama involved in my words. I was only saying what had to be said. I did not then and never have sugar-coated.

Shortly after our raw and depressing e-mail exchange, I began to slowly heal, my crazy mind slowly returning to the world of the sane (a world where I was not entertaining thoughts of getting back together with my ex, for starters).

I stayed alone in the vacant house because once I realized I wasn’t going to die, I wanted to live. Badly at that. Not much feels better than the strength you feel upon recovery, and as I started to physically feel better, I coaxed myself to sleep on what I once saw as my death mattress. I gulped soup and drank gallons of water. I read for short periods before finding sleep again.

I wanted to live with a ferociousness, better than I had before: independently, in a world where I decided the order of things, when I said go or stay, where I was living and breathing outside the once-suffocating cubicle I’d inhabited, where my time was in my control.

Let the journey begin anew. This backpacker lives!

Naseef and I traveled back to Salvador together. We laughed about my face and brainstormed about the blog I’d post based on the experience. In agreeing that I had to keep it light, add a dash of comedy to the somber scene, the traumatic turn of events, we began tossing titles around.

Suddenly, Naseef lit up and said, “You could call it, ‘Does My Face Look Fat in This?’”

“Oh my God! I’m totally using that! Thank you!”

“Thank you, Naseef,” I said again, but, of course, I was thanking him for a lot more than a silly blog title.


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