Sometime during Charlene’s thirteenth summer, she became convinced that she had contracted rabies and had only two weeks to live. Thirteen is an addled age anyway, a sort of staging ground for adult neuroses; Charlene had read that her brain was sprouting synapses at a blazing rate, and all this additional circuitry not only spawned weird anxieties, it stored them away in spacious new quarters for quick access and long shelf life.
Looking back, Charlene could easily see the traits that would someday make her more Emma Bovary than Jo March; more Lily Bart than Emma Woodhouse. But even at thirteen, worrying oneself into a frenzy over rabies when one had not even been bitten crossed the line from eccentric into full-blown neurotic. Charlene knew that her fear was ridiculous and told herself so by the hour. Yet, the fear persisted, its teeth deep and locked on, shaking the girl like a rabid wolverine.
She attributed some of her hypochondria to being an early and undiscriminating reader. As a small child visiting the neighborhood library, she had not turned left and descended into the children’s section, with its perky decorations and gentle, rhyming tales. She went straight up the stairs and took her seat amidst brutal adult reality.
At age nine, browsing the science section, she had come upon The Merck Manual, that handy, authoritative guide to afflictions major and minor. The Merck had no bedside manner, minced no words, softened nothing, and comforted never. Charlene’s mouth dried as she read the lists of diseases and symptoms: she had leprosy, she realized, in addition to glaucoma, trichinosis, acromegaly and, just possibly, sleeping sickness. She was riddled with tumors, all inoperable. Turning to the mental illness section, she identified her manic depressive psychosis, incipient schizophrenia and progressive megalomania.
Charlene’s two uncles, younger brothers of her father, attended medical school at the University of Minnesota. They would drop by sometimes to grab a lunch, stethoscopes swinging like whips from their necks, throwing around words like dextrinosis and saccharomycetaceae and Paget von Schrötter syndrome. At the arrival of these two family princelings, a cold chill would lift the hairs on the back of Charlene’s neck. What if they noticed her lesions? Her lassitude and malaise? She tried to breathe normally around them, but it still sounded like rales and stridor.
Usually, with time, the mundane issues of school and social life would distract her, and her fears would eventually fade or be replaced by others. In later years, though, she could see that she was only banking them up like glowing coals; they lay dormant but alive, awaiting their summons to erupt again.
Summer of Hydrophobia
For a hypochondriac, rabies just may be the perfect storm: rare but incurable, agonizing beyond belief, and capable of hiding in plain view. When it came to sheer horror, rabies rang the bell, thanks to the evolutionary genius of the rabies virus.
The disease (Charlene read, barely breathing) was usually spread by the bite of a mobile creature. The virus acts on the victim’s brain in such a way as to bring about, in dogs, for example—still overwhelmingly the commonest host—an irresistible urge to bite. As a child, she had sat weeping beside her friends in the theater at the fate of Old Yeller; the finest dog that had ever lived, transformed by rabies into a snarling death’s head, raging to destroy the boy who loved him. This evil metamorphosis was the work of the most cunning virus that had ever set its perfidious endoplasmic reticulum on planet earth.
Rabies, as Charlene learned, was actually a trio of deadly sisters who went by the elegant stage names Lyssavirus, Ephemerovirus and Vesiculovirus. With their non-segmented, negative-stranded RNA genomes, the sisters turned heads and dominated the red carpet at any danse macabre. Despite their age—thousands of years—they were eternally fresh and deadly, reliably contagious, forever renewing themselves.
On this particular summer, having made it through eighth grade, Charlene had joined her mother and younger sister for a summer visit to the mother’s own sister, who lived on Long Island.
The visit started benignly enough. Aunt Elinor had two daughters; the older daughter, who was the same age as Charlene, had recently adopted an amiable German Shepherd named Wolf, whom she had acquired from some unknown source. Strays were fairly common in what was then a semi-rural neighborhood.
Charlene, nearly five-feet-ten and as skinny as Olive Oyl, her detested nickname, loved dogs with the fierce, desperate love of the outcast, the misunderstood. And so It fell upon poor Wolf to provoke her worst ever episode of hypochondria.
It began with a teensy, nagging doubt. Did that hangnail on her thumb qualify as an open wound? It had bled, she recalled. She stared at the tender scab until her teeth began to chatter. And how about that blister she had just popped on her other hand? Another invitation to the Viral Sisters? She and Wolf had played catch with his saliva-drenched tennis ball; they had rolled about on the floor wrestling. They had shared snacks. Had the dog been vaccinated? Charlene tried to assure herself that he must have been, but her cousin seemed to be ignoring her tentative queries. She knew Charlene well, that particular cousin, and she was something of a sadist, not above tweaking Charlene’s anxiety just a little bit, with a teasing sidelong glance. “I would miss you if you died,” the cousin said with a sigh, and looked at Charlene with her pale blue eyes of infinite sadness.
“Please don’t die, okay?”
So Charlene tried to ignore the growing drumbeat: anyway, she knew that rabies had been nearly eradicated in the U.S. Practically. Nearly. Almost. So it was not impossible, but merely unlikely that she was infected. “Unlikely” sounded too much like a roll of the dice to offer much comfort. Lying alone in bed, Charlene’s efforts to reassure herself collapsed before the onslaught of full-fledged panic.
Confessing her fear to an adult would be a double whammy: not only would she not get the vaccine, but her distorted mental architecture would be exposed to all the world. Caught between these two dreaded outcomes, Charlene trembled through her dwindling time on earth.
As the incubation period and her lifespan shrank by the desperate hour, she still could not muster the nerve to tell anybody. She knew that the adults, with indulgent grins, would first try to reassure her. Charlene’s mother would use the opportunity to flog everyone with her daughter’s high reading level. She would explain to Charlene that she could not possibly have rabies and needn’t worry over such things for one more minute. Charlene would note the hint of warning in her voice that she had better not embarrass her mother any further in this preposterous way. Her mother and aunt together would dismiss Charlene’s anxiety—sealing her fate. Charlene pictured them at her bedside as she lay in restraints foaming and convulsing. “She tried to tell us,” they would wail. “We didn’t believe her.”
Somebody must have coaxed the fear into the open at last, and word quickly spread: Crazy Charlene was worried that Wolf was rabid. She quickly became a figure of welcome fun in a visit that had begun to grow dull.
That evening, Charlene’s cousin approached her, holding out a tepid glass of milk. “Here,” she said, with faux sweetness, “this will make you feel better.” Charlene grabbed the milk with rabid fury and hurled it across her cousin’s new canopy bed. The canopy was decorated with lilacs and green tendrils above a border of cotton lace; its beauty and feminine elegance were the wonder of the family. The ensuing fracas brought the two mothers running to see milk pooling in the center of the canopy and dripping from the posters onto the mattress. Charlene’s cousin widened her eyes to the absolute limit of innocence, insisting disingenuously that she had “only been trying to comfort” her frightened guest. Charlene the perpetrator, wounded and impotent, called her very own cousin a liar and a sadist.
Charlene’s mother set her chin and narrowed her eyes. Hopeless, Charlene realized that she alone was responsible for ruining the visit and abusing her family’s hospitality. That very night, she was packed up and shuttled off to the home of another relative, there to wait out her span on earth. “I forgive you, I hope you get well soon,” her cousin had whispered in her ear, as Charlene departed.
Sometime after the dreaded Day 14 had come and gone uneventfully, and back now in her own bedroom, Charlene awakened and looked around at the scuffed linoleum floors and faded blue walls. Her father’s chronically unstable business had left nothing in the budget for updating the decor of Charlene’s early childhood, so the wall still sported a series of painted wooden hangings: a footsore Cinderella racing home from the ball; her coach morphing back into a pumpkin—what if Cinderella got sealed inside, Charlene had always wondered—and the footmen sprouting disturbing mouse tails that bulged from their livery. Dr. Seuss characters capered mockingly across her curtains.
But the utter mental clarity that Charlene felt that morning told her, and for certain, that she was not rabid. In her relief, she grasped, vaguely, that such good fortune carried with it a sort of mandate that she rise and encounter the world that awaited her—today, and on Day Twenty, and even perhaps on Day Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy-Five. Whatever befell her in life, it would almost certainly not be rabies, which was, after all, only a guarantee that it would be something.