That was a winter of fire alarms. Smoke set off the blare one afternoon in mid-February, shrieks bouncing through the halls of my small-town high school as we exited, half-costumed, onto the frozen grass. Our science-teacher-cum-set-designer had decided that burning bamboo poles for our South Pacific set was a good idea. The strobes flashing from the walls when the warning system smelled smoke told him otherwise.
Something in my father’s heart wasn’t working right. Until that afternoon, we didn’t know it. Even when my mother tried to call me six or seven times to tell me about the ambulance, that tests had found something serious and they were rushing him to the hospital, the fire alarm swallowed up my ringtone’s harsh jangle. I didn’t see the missed calls until after the belching red trucks had pulled away.
You might not know what salivary glands are, or that you have two, one on either side of your face. Put your fingers on the line of your jaw under your ear, and now move them towards your nose a little. What you are touching under the skin — that tough tissue — those are salivary glands.
I didn’t know I had salivary glands either until I contracted an infection in Berlin that caused them to swell up like hard balloons. My friend got it first; we were having dinner in our small apartment when she lay down on the ground and stopped moving. We didn’t have a thermometer, so all I knew was that her forehead singed my fingers when I touched it, and that her eyes were kind of blank. But we were sixteen, invincible, broke, and living an adventure in a foreign city. We had no guide book, no Internet, and no knowledge of an equivalent to 911 (nor knowledge that 911 works anywhere). So we got in a cab and told the driver Krankenhaus, and he drove us away into the empty Sunday-night city.
The weather in Scotland is far from feverish. Clouds bristle, bulging in flocks along the tops of barren peaks. Houses and lampposts are swept into grey shadows. People grow smaller as they walk along the streets. Limbs fold in on themselves to brace against the rain. I used to imagine the sullen inhabitants of grey brick houses being swallowed up by their stone floors and heavy wood doors. I remember how harsh accents would rip the wind in my ears.
I am eight years old and am standing on the edge of a beach in Eastern Scotland. Cliffs cut harshly into rough sea. The sky is low, oppressive. I am wearing lime green leggings and small white trainers. The trainers used to flash brightly when slammed down, but now they only flicker wanly. I am trying to revive them, slamming my heels roughly on the pebbled beach. The heels remain white. My brother is standing next to me, skinny, his buoyancy repressed by the cold wind. He clutches his oversized coat around his frame and stares glumly out over the water. We do not talk. It smells of burned rubber, the clammy sharpness of salt. Noises, frisky and anxious, emanate from the car a few meters behind us, from my parents standing beside it. They have lost a map. My dad has lost a map—my mum is saying—although it is just as likely it was her.
The clouds wear the last pinks of a fallen sun. I’m reclined on a gusty, deserted beach, letting prickles of numbness build up in my arms.
It’s my last evening up on the top of Australia, and I’m a frightened child. Everything can kill you here. I heard talk of a plant that can lodge its stinger in you and cause constant pain for years. Crocodiles skulk like serpentine abominations in medieval paintings. A row of dense bush behind me seems keen to muffle screams.
It’s gorgeous, though: a perfect cove, lightly pitched so the water strays up high and forms thin, silvery pools. Plus, it’s my last night in Cape Tribulation before returning to Cairns, and, from there, Sydney. The rugged individualist within who has pushed me this high on the continent picks me up from the sand for one final wander into a mangrove grove in the last light.
The air conditioner was broken in my tiny room at the Smile Hotel. Even two hundred miles north of Tokyo, the late-July heat could smother you if you asked.
By day, I left my room to work for the two people I worked for. By night, I went to dinner with the two people I worked for before returning to my room. They were paying my expenses and gave me a small stipend, for which I was grateful, et cetera.
One night I left dinner early and not undramatically. It’s difficult to faze me, but once I am fazed I tend to stay fuming, the offender’s existence becoming a personal affront to my own. I ran back to my room and, sweltering, stripped naked in the six-inch wide strip of floor space between desk and bed. I looked to my right, into the mirror above the desk that extended nine inches from the wall on a good day. I wanted to see a face blistered with anger, scorched with fury. But the yellow light of the room had soaked into my skin. My features were razed the way purikura makes eyes bigger, limbs thinner, skin smoother until each person who steps into the photobooth walks out looking like the one that came before. My likeness said arigatou gozaimasu! like everyone said to everyone else.
Why does Stallone have to take the offer? Most importantly, he doesn’t have a cent over $106 in the bank. In fact he’s already had to sell his dog, and not even to make a profit. He just couldn’t afford the dog food anymore.
On the one hand, in 1975 Stallone considers himself lucky to have $106. Five years earlier, when he went broke and got thrown out of his apartment, Stallone slept in the Port Authority Bus Terminal for three weeks. Flipping through job listings on an empty stomach, he saw a casting call for a film called The Party at Kitty and Stud’s. He auditioned and got cast as Stud. After that paycheck Stallone was never homeless again, but he also never forgot that he’d been reduced to small-time porn.
I have cold hands, always. In the winter, I can’t touch my hands to my stomach without flinching. In the summer, friends sometimes take my hands and lay them across their face and neck like a cool cloth. My mother tells me I will be this way until menopause—something to look forward to.
I collected heating pads as a child. Not out of anything as dramatic as medical necessity, but simply because warmth is charming for one who is perpetually cold. I had the whole array—the plug-in electric, the microwavable beanbag, the hot water bottle. My particular hot water bottle was red, heart-shaped, and had grooves down the front that made a pleasant rubbery sound when strummed. I would carry it around the house like a toy tucked under my arm.