There are some weeks when I think I’d rather get malaria than get the chalky malaria pill stuck in my throat again. It is, quite literally, a bitter pill to swallow. A year later and it’s still my weekly reminder of last Christmas. There’s no pill to help me forget that.
Last Christmas I had malaria, and yes, some days the heartache seems more painful.
I was putting my microbiology degree to good work at a clean-water project in a remote village in southern India. The Doctor worked at the local clinic. He’d grown up in the village but had left to go to school in London. After a few weeks of my being immersed in work, a stomach bug sent me to the clinic for cipro. After the weeks of cultural isolation I clung to someone who spoke English so well and knew some of the same pop culture references as me. And who seemed to have a never-ending supply of gin.
It’s easy to romanticize India. Sultry, spicy food eaten with your fingers. Air thick and heady with incense. Swirling colorful scarves. At a Diwali party The Doctor and I snuck off to a private corner of the garden to make love in the glowing flashes of the fireworks, not needing to be quiet because the bangs and pops of the firecrackers drowned us out.
The Doctor lived with his parents and a large family so he always came to my small house. We holed up for hours, days when we could, naked, sweating under the mosquito net. Drinking scalding hot ginger chai with such a bite it made my nipples tingle. Cooling off with slices of fresh, sweet mango, smearing the sticky juice on each others’ bodies and licking it off.
I’d had affairs like this before and I knew it was a bad idea to get attached but I was falling hard for The Doctor. For Christmas I was going to surprise him by telling him I’d extended my contract in the village for another few months, followed by a permanent position in nearby Mumbai so the affair could continue.
I planned a small Christmas Eve party for my Indian coworkers and the small number of expats around. I did my best to create the cookies and hot cocoa from my childhood. Christmas music flowed from the small, tinny speakers connected to my phone.
That night I felt unusually warm but I wrote it off as my small house being too crowded combined with having drunk a little more gin than usual. It wasn’t until The Doctor commented that I didn’t look well that I realized I’d had a headache for several hours. The last thing I remember is the music pounding loudly in my ears as I fainted into The Doctor’s arms.
I woke up in an unfamiliar bed, sweating under a crisp white sheet, blinded by bright sunlight. I heard a familiar male voice speaking hushed English with an unfamiliar female voice. Through the mosquito net I could make out other beds. My whole body ached. I closed my eyes. The voices came closer.
“Ms. Johnson, are you awake?” It was The Doctor’s voice, but why was he so formal? My eyes fluttered open. The Doctor stood over my bed. A pretty blond woman who I’d never seen before stood next to him.
His voice always soothing. “You have malaria. You’ve been in hospital here for three days.”
I raised my head and opened my mouth, but too weak to make a sound.
“Shhh, don’t try to speak,” he said. “Let me introduce my wife,” he continued, indicating the blonde next to him. “She arrived from London last night.”
I sank back into my pillow, allowing the fever and aches to swallow me, preferable to the feeling of pain in my heart.
It’s Christmas Eve again. I’m in Mumbai, staring at the malaria pill in my palm. I’ve had to take one every week. I always gag on it. I haven’t spoken to The Doctor since I was released from the clinic, fully recovered. From the malaria, at least.
I hope it’s not too late for this particular prompt from Exhibit A’s AWESOME CHRISTMAS EROTICA meme.