I Plead the Fifth.

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No, not the constitutional right one. The disease one.

Fifth Disease.

Little kids get this from time-to-time, where it usually goes by the name “Slapped Cheek.” Sounds cute, right? Almost like something every child should want to have.

As an adult, I might argue they should tweak it to “Mule-Kicked Cheek.” That would make me feel a little better about being knocked sideways for weeks by something that is best known for adding a touch of color to 2nd graders’ cherubic faces.

Allow me to elaborate —

“Really? ‘Slapped Cheek’?? Isn’t that, um like Chicken Pox or a paper cut or something? Have you tried a couple of those Gummy Bear vitamins? Maybe the grape-flavored ones? I bet that would take care of it, and maybe a nice glass of warm milk.” (This might be followed by a pat on the top of my head.)

See what I mean?

That’s how the cocktail conversation goes. (If I were actually up to going to any cocktail parties or even to a single cocktail hour. Or cocktail half-hour, even.)

I need something stronger, more impressive-sounding, more awe-inspiring, to explain my slight Quasimodo hunch, quivering upper lip and pained facial expression in these moments. I can’t have Mrs. Jones going home to Mr. Jones and reporting that Keir’s little cheek was apparently slapped, the poor thing, so Keir said he won’t be able to go on that bike ride with you next week. And he just can’t bring himself to meet you and the boys for that drink tonight, either.

Danger. Danger. Danger. Very real jeopardy of transgressing Man Rules due to this thing, and having to endure the consequent hazing (of the emasculating variety) for literally years to come. Maybe for the rest of my life.

Envisioning how this scenario might play out (poorly for me), I might try to turn things around:

Well, it is, apparently a disease, after all.” I lean in slightly towards the ear of my cocktail party partner, maybe even a bit of Dudley Moore jauntiness now perceptible in my slightly arched eyebrow, my lips pushed out a bit for emphasis. I re-take the upper hand with this. Now not merely cheek-slapped. Now wracked with pain by a disease!

And, what’s this? Look how nobly I manage to keep the beast at bay, while my body is being absolutely ravaged by this insidious force inside me. Now my Quasimodo tilt takes on the air of a swagger. A Civil War General. With a slight sway when he stands due to the remnants of a cannon ball still lodged in his hip. Yet still able to regale the room with war stories, one after the other, those around him doubled over in raucous laughter. And all this while the courageous, war-worn General manages to spill not a drop of his julep. Probably has one of those decorative field swords right there hanging at the ready, too.

Yeah, that’s me.

Until one of two things happens: First, my confidante effects a stage whisper, “a DISEASE?!?” The entire party then turns EF Hutton-style directly towards me. The grotesque figure standing center stage, all hunched over and feverish-looking. My attempts to backpedal, to sugar coat, to assure my listeners, “Oh, I’m l-o-n-g past the communicable stage,” — both a complete waste of time, and completely stripping myself of all that imagined battle-field glory.

Knocked right back down to “you know, the guy whom somebody slapped.” Now with the appropriate response, “Well, he probably deserved it.”

I am pretty sure this is how infamy of the variety that haunts generations is born. Of these moments.

On the other hand, if by some strange twist of fate, my cocktail companion does not recoil in horror at my admission, if he or she returns my sotto voce with their own sotto voce, there is another scenario that plays out:

“Oh my, a disease! You poor thing. But you seem to be so “chin up” about it. So much courage, you, even to be here.” I begin to hear the triumphant, Civil War-era battle hymns, faintly, off in the distance. Puff up my caved chest a bit. I may just be able to salvage some dignity here after all. Things are looking up!

Or not….

“If you don’t mind my asking, what disease is it that you suffer from, kind sir?”

“Well, it’s called Fifth Disease.”

And the vinyl record scratches loudly to a sudden halt. The room falls quiet. I catch a faint whiff of disgust in the air.

No one gets medals, wins awards, is the subject of glowing press releases or the recipient of honorary degrees, for finishing fifth. Fifth! How serious could this “disease” truly be, if it not only lacks a “real” name, but it’s only the fifth disease?? Four other, far worse maladies stand in line in front of it!!

Probably I couldn’t even get a military draft deferral by scrawling “Fifth Disease” onto my clipboarded GI paperwork. And I would have to write the words in, rather than check a corresponding box off for it. There are only four boxes for the first four diseases. Mine, the fifth, doesn’t even merit its own box.

So at this point, I quit. I toss my drink over my (good) shoulder, and march towards the exit careful not to make eye contact with any other guests. Defeated, but almost oblivious to the defeat since the mind-numbing aching in my shoulder has just taken hold again. The guests’ last view of me is vigorously shaking a plastic bottle of Advil into my mouth like Tic-Tacs, in a blind and wild search now for my heating pad.

I plead the Fifth.

Thanks for reading.

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