I was nine years old, or ten. My third year at TDI, and the first I was allowed to board for the week in the dorms. My roommate’s name was Bailey. She had a rabbit named Tigger, and I cooed over her photos.
Bailey got homesick halfway through the stay. She’d never been away from home for more than a night before. Neither had I, but I promised myself I would stick it out. No matter what happened.
After that, I remember only flashes. Hunching my shoulders against the oppressive summer sun. Tripping down the broad bridge from Johnson State’s dining hall, blaming my swimming vision on too much caffeine. The rattle in my lungs. Stumbling through the hazy heat, not realizing I was stumbling at all. Talking to myself in the empty dorm room as I get dressed. “C’mon, girl, you gotta get to breakfast in five minutes. Stand up, get your shirt on, why are you lying on the floor?” Bobbing in the pool, savoring the weightlessness the water brought me. Hauling myself painfully back to gravity.
I didn’t think anything was wrong. I didn’t realize this wasn’t supposed to happen. I was merely tired, I decided; the heaviness of my body, the immense willpower required to move were symptoms of the laziness that comes with too little sleep. Nothing else.
It couldn’t be anything else. I wouldn’t let it. I refused to even consider the possibility.
The end of the week emerged from a haze of hot days and leadened limbs. I don’t remember a thing about the final presentations, the goodbyes. I don’t even know who I said goodbye to. Bailey? It’s all fuzzy faint images—a photograph of a distant planet; smears of black and gray. I recall greeting my parents and climbing into the car. The thermometer that beeped in my ear; the ridiculously high number. “Pneumonia,” the doctor said. I still laugh—I’d managed to get pneumonia in 105-degree weather during the hottest week of the year.
They made me drink a thick liquid the color of a caution sign that tasted strongly of oranges. I had to stay in bed for days. It helped, but months passed before the rattle in my chest went away.
I still think back to it sometimes. Not the pneumonia—it and its later reincarnations are long gone by now. The denial. The unshakeable belief that everything was okay, despite all evidence to the contrary. I was able to ignore my own body. Every warning sign went unregarded; anything that didn’t fit with my version of reality could not be real.
Reality, as it turns out, is subjective. The truth is only what I choose to believe.