The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. — Dorothy Parker
‘Huh. I never thought about it like that.” The others paused in a conversation they were having about cocktails and looked my way. I pointed to the giant book on the table before me. “Nit-picking is actually picking nits. And nits are lice eggs. Ew.”
“Did I call it or did I call it?!” said Kimberly. She rose from her seat, sashayed to my side, and turned to show me her back. “Go on, pat it,” she said. “I totally called it. I knew you’d dig this book.”
“You were right,” I said, patting away. Satisfied, Kimberly went back to her seat. My eyes returned to the glossy pages of Disease: The Extraordinary Stories Behind History’s Deadliest Killers, the book she’d set before me earlier in the evening. “American lice — rife but nice?” I read aloud. “I like that they’re getting all poetic with it. But anything described as ‘feeds on human blood’ gives me the willies.”
David glared at Kimberly in the most playful way a glare can be and said, “Thanks a lot.” He turned to me and said, “Now are you just going to regale us with tales of disease and pestilence?”
“You don’t find any of this interesting?” I asked. David said no with a shake of his head. “Haven’t you ever looked at horrific photos of medical maladies online? Skin diseases? Deformities?”
“Not intentionally,” said David.
“Then there’s something wrong with you,” I said, despite my awareness that my curiosity for things that make me go ew was definitely more wrong than David’s disinterest in disturbing imagery. Still. Inquisitiveness is human — we’re seekers by nature. How else can I explain why I’m so fascinated by the bizarre?
The internet makes it so easy to satisfy my morbid curiosity. Once, during a routine morning surf through bookmarked news sites, I came across an article about a little girl with “mermaid syndrome” (she was born with her legs fused together). The article did not answer all the questions it raised, so I set about searching for more information. First, I looked at images — diagrams, X-rays, and photos of other babies with the rare congenital defect. Then I searched for specifics. What causes it? Decreased blood flow from the lower aorta in utero. How does the plumbing work for a “mermaid”? One hole for digestive tract and genitals. After uncovering each new detail, I took a moment to ponder the tribulations of the impaired.
As I continued to gawk at photos, I contemplated the word “defect” and all of its implications. Flawed, inadequate…a glitch in the system. The result of something gone wrong. My search eventually led me to images of a young Indian girl who was born with eight limbs. I shuddered as I read about the “headless conjoined twin” growing from between the girl’s legs. I was horrified and mesmerized at this anomaly and found myself thinking about the other person that almost was and the potential consciousness that had been “absorbed” by the stronger sibling.
In the little girl’s culture, she is viewed as holy. Hindus apparently see human oddities as reincarnations of various gods, whose many limbs and eyes are regarded as assets. This girl was seen as the four-armed Vishnu. More recently, a child born with two faces and four eyes was considered to be a reincarnated Ganesha. I went through pages and pages of Google images to see every possible angle of those faces, wondering if all eyes blink at the same time, if both mouths eat, and if that weird dimple between the two faces was the absorbed one’s belly button.
When I gaze at pictures of mutants, I can’t help but appreciate my own normalcy and the reality that I am a by-product of a bazillion serendipitous flukes. The fact that I came into this world with the right number of limbs, that everything’s in working order (give or take a few glitches…such as impaired vision), is sheer luck.
With mutations or descriptions and photos of death and disease, it’s not that I want to look — it’s that I can’t not look. Even more intriguing than the symptoms of murderous epidemics is how small are their causes — it’s the flea that carried the bubonic plague, the mosquito that carries malaria, the louse that carries typhus. And the real killers — the viruses and bacteria being carried — are even smaller.
“It’s terrifying but also cool, you know?” I said, closing the book and returning my attention to the table, or, more specifically, my drink that was on the table.
“No, I don’t know,” said David.
“I think you do,” I said before uttering the one word I knew would silence David and prove my point: “Cirque.”
We’d just gone to see Kooza, the Cirque du Soleil show currently set up in Del Mar — David had delighted in the terrifying-but-cool aerialists. “That’s not the same kind of ‘terrifying’ you’re talking about,” David said.
“Oh, yeah? What about the contortionists?” I was referring to the act that had enchanted us both, in which three spandex-clad women flowed over and around each other like golden liquid. “They had to be born with some kind of abnormal flexibility or double-jointedness or something,” I said. “I guess they weren’t terrifying so much as cool, but still — they classify as human oddity, right? And you enjoyed watching them. And those guys in that wheel-of-death thingy? That was totally scary. Your palms got wet, but you couldn’t look away, could you? Face it,” I said, “weird shit is fun to watch. It’s different than our day-to-day. Anything that makes us go ‘wow’ is entertaining.”
David grabbed the book and opened it randomly. “The feet were monstrous, covered with thick, yellowish crusts disposed in scales separated at intervals by deep ulcerated furrows from which oozed fetid, aqueous pus.” When he’d finished reading the passage aloud, he looked up and settled his eyes on Kimberly. “See, I could have gone without knowing that,” he said.
“But then you never would have known the side effects of elephantiasis,” I said, peering over his shoulder. I made a mental note to search for pictures of elephantiasis.
Kimberly smirked at her husband Shawn, who, if his silence was any indication, had chosen to go Swiss on the issue. “I called it, didn’t I?” she said to me.
“Oh, yeah,” I responded. “You done good, girl.”
David threw his hands up in exasperation and reached for his drink. “Just don’t read any more of it to me,” he said. But his request must not have registered because within moments I was pointing out the horrors of cholera and thanking my lucky stars that I have access to clean water.