A tale of sex, chronic illness, and a giant dog suit.
By Litsa Dremousis
I ran my fingers through his brown, shaggy fur and his whiskers tickled my lips as we kissed. Then we burst out laughing. “Let’s get out of here,” Keith said, brushing aside one of his floppy ears. “We look ridiculous.”
Keith and I had blithely flirted since college and now, many years later, we were both single and making out in the kitchen at our friend’s Halloween party, not far from the Seattle campus where we’d first met. For reasons unclear, Keith was dressed as his roommate’s dog, complete with slippers resembling paws. Knowing my dislike of Little House on the Prairie, my friend had dared me to dress as Laura Ingalls Wilder. “You don’t have the guts to be Half Pint.” She goaded until I found myself in braids and an ankle-length skirt. My Doc Martens doubled as the boots one might wear to stitch gingham and bake squirrel pie.
Keith had downed a few beers — at one point he performed a “pet trick” by scratching his head with a paw-like foot — but I was sober. I have CFIDS, an illness like MS in many ways, and rarely drink because booze intensifies the symptoms. So we agreed I should drive and were soon at my place, which was closer and lacked roommates (or pets). Once in my room, we tore at each other’s costumes. Sure, our attraction had combusted but, also, the prospect of a giant hound taking Michael Landon’s little girl did nothing for either of us. A reassuring thing to discover in a new sexual partner.
Keith was jovial by nature and we enjoyed a playful compatibility. As we had sex for the fourth time, he yelled, “I think I’m having a seizure!” I cracked up, assuming he was teasing. When he began violently jerking up and down, I realized this wasn't mere flattery. I suppressed an urge to lose it, rolled him onto his back, and called 911.
"911, Police and Fire. What's your emergency?" the dispatcher asked.
"My friend's having a seizure," I said as I shoved pillow between Keith's head and the wall.
"Do you know what might have prompted it? Does he have a history of seizures? Were any drugs or alcohol involved?"
"He had a few beers hours ago," I answered. "But we've been having a lot of sex." I thought I heard her snicker.
"What's your address? We're sending an ambulance."
I told her and lodged another pillow underneath Keith's head, attempting to prevent a concussion. His eyes looked faraway and glassy, and when I said his name, he was unresponsive. Blood and saliva dribbled from his mouth. If I believed in demonic possession, I would have sworn he was now Satan’s hand puppet. (But if I believed in demonic possession and such, I wouldn’t have been having unwed Halloween sex with a semi-drunk college pal in the first place.) Keeping an eye on Keith, I managed to pull on jeans and a sweater.
When the paramedics arrived, they expressed immediate concern that Keith had seized so long. I don’t recall how they stabilized him, but I know they administered oxygen shortly thereafter. Then one of them asked me, "Where are his clothes? We need to take him to the hospital."
"He doesn't live here," I replied. "All he has is his dog costume."
The paramedic contorted his mouth. He seemed to be stifling a grin, which made his partner smirk. Like teens giggling at a great-aunt’s funeral, they knew their behavior was inappropriate and this only made it harder not to laugh. One, then the other, began chuckling and couldn't stop. I was horrified. — until I started laughing, too. Rarely has a date’s semi-consciousness been a good thing, but fortunately, Keith remained propped on my bed, oxygen mask secure, oblivious to our impropriety.
As we wiped our eyes, one of them asked, "Do you know which hospital his insurance covers? Where should we take him?"
I called his close friend, Jack, who had also been at the party, for the pertinent information and gave him a truncated version of events. He lived nearby and rushed to my place while the paramedics reassembled Keith in his dog costume, thoughtfully omitting his whiskers and ears. They lifted Keith onto their gurney and wheeled him to the ambulance, evoking curiosity from my neighbors, who had woken to sirens this morning. Jack offered me a ride and we followed Keith and the ambulance to the hospital several miles away.
“I hope he’ll be okay,” I said. “One minute he was fine and the next he was convulsing. It came on out of nowhere."
Jack was equally concerned, but unsurprised. “He shouldn’t have been drinking last night. He knows this can happen."
“Keith only had two or three beers. What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Sometimes it can trigger his symptoms. You know he has epilepsy, right?”
I’d had no idea, and wouldn’t have just watched him drink if I’d known. “No, why didn’t he tell me?”
As we drove, Jack explained Keith’s symptoms and that he was self-conscious about revealing them, particularly to women, because there were so many myths surrounding epilepsy. Jack was protective of his friend’s vulnerability.
Unbeknown to me, Jack had also called Keith’s mom, Mrs. Crutcher, before departing for my home. I realized this when she ran up to Jack and me as we entered the emergency room on the heels of Keith and the paramedics.
It was 6:00 a.m. Sunday and she'd just seen paramedics wheel her son, dressed as a dog from the neck down, into an exam room.
Mrs. Crutcher put her hand on my shoulder. "What were you doing when Keith had his seizure?" Her voice was fraught with motherly concern. A retired Catholic school principal, perhaps she needed to believe that my hair, a rabid post-coital mess, was merely a fashion choice and not evidence.
I bit my cheeks.
"Were you having breakfast?" she asked, hopefully. I couldn't answer. I knew if I opened my mouth, I’d laugh until I choked.
"Yes, Mrs. Crutcher. They were having breakfast," Jack reassured her, in an act of heroism for all concerned.
Then, in the-I’m-glad-you’re-alive-now-I’m-going-to-kill-you gear-shift endemic to parenthood, she asked, “Why was Keith drinking last night? Jack said he drank at the party. Keith knows alcohol can give him a seizure.” With that, she headed toward Keith’s exam room, like a TV detective intent on getting to the bottom of things.
Jack and I looked at each other. “Oh, man,” he said.
“Yeah,” I sighed and we trod toward the waiting room.
The next afternoon, Keith called and asked me to dinner the next Saturday. He was at work, so we kept things brief and neither of us mentioned the incident directly. When he picked me up Saturday night, our conversation was customarily goofy and remarkably free of awkwardness. Because I’d been twenty-four when CFIDS hit and had spent the first four months in a wheelchair, undergoing copious tests and told (erroneously) that might die soon, hospitals didn’t rattle me. I felt bad Keith had epilepsy, but didn’t treat him differently than I had at the Halloween party. If nothing else, I found him cuter in his Levi’s and button-down shirt.
We arrived at the restaurant and after the hostess seated us and the waiter took our order, Keith grew quiet. He cast his eyes downward and fiddled with his silverware. “Can I ask you about what happened last week?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Did you have to clean up anything that morning?”
I responded matter-of-factly. “There was some blood and drool on the pillow-cases and sheets. The paramedics made a bigger mess than you did, though, when they moved furniture around to set up the oxygen tank and gurney and stuff."
“But was there anything else?” By now he was looking at his lap. “I don’t remember anything when I’m having a seizure or directly after it.” He paused yet again. By now it was clear his lightheartedness in the car had been a way to mask his embarrassment.
I knew from experience how annoying it could be to discuss your symptoms. People usually get a panicked look in their eyes and quickly change the subject. I wanted Keith to know it was okay to ask what was on his mind, so I told him so.
Still unable to look up, he asked, “I didn’t shit the bed, did I? Because that happens sometimes."
“No, you didn’t. Like I said, there was blood and saliva, but that was it." To put him at ease, I added, “Don’t worry. You won’t be getting a bill for dry-cleaning.”
He looked up and smiled.
“You know, Keith, you’ve seen me on a cane when my symptoms flare up. You could have told me about having epilepsy. If I think you’re weird, it’s not because of that,” I joked.
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “I’d just like to forget about it sometimes, though. I haven’t been taking my medication lately because it’s been making me sick, so I’ve started having seizures again. It’d be great just to have a beer or two without having it be a big deal.” He grew more animated and his voice was free from self-pity. He wanted to have a brew and get laid without ending up in the E.R. — a universal sentiment if there ever was one.
I empathized. Anyone with a chronic, incurable illness — particularly anyone who acquired it young — will tell you, you can approach your health with fortitude, humor and perspective. And yet, there’s inevitably a moment when you tell someone the facts in an even-keeled way and — kapow! — they freak the fuck out and you end up having to assuage their fractured sense of mortality. Because illness is death’s calling card and you’ve just reminded them they might not live to 105 and die in their sleep. That if it could happen to you, it could happen to them.
Dating and sex are loaded enough without tossing illness into the mix. And of course, getting sick doesn’t supplant the usual crap all of us reveal to a new partner. Keith had his bed-shitting worries, in addition to the stories of unhealed adolescent wounds and colleague grievances that everyone else has.
Keith and I swapped anecdotes about pigheaded doctors who refuse to admit their treatment is incorrect and acquaintances who have a cousin who has a neighbor who has an Alsatian that was cured by bedside crystals and lavender sprigs and who know, just know, you’d be cured, too, if you followed the same course and kept an "open mind." We laughed harder that night than the paramedics had in my room.
After a few more dates, Keith and I amicably fizzled. All we really had in common was our shared experience of illness. It wasn’t enough to keep us together, though, because neither of us defined ourselves by our diagnoses. In this respect, our health was robust.
Litsa Dremousis is a Seattle-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The Believer, Esquire, McSweeney's, the Seattle Weekly and on NPR. She’s currently finishing her first novel. Do yourself a favor and follow her on Twitter.