Months after that, I would receive a letter from NIH. The letter would say, among a lot of other things, that the vaccine had worked, and that somewhere out there, a sixty-eight-year-old molecular biologist named Dr. Joe Cohen was a very happy man, having spent twenty-four years making the damn thing work.
And I would be told I was the third person in the world to be immune to malaria as a result of the vaccine. And upon reading this I would feel nothing.
It took twenty-four years, I thought, to create a vaccine that could prevent a parasitic disease from killing over one million people a year. And now it was swimming in the veins of a twenty-three-year-old man in Texas who didn’t really want to be alive, anyway. I would go on to lose my temporary invulnerability to malaria, would lose my best pick-up line (“Hey babe, I’m, uh, immune to malaria”)—would again be wary of mosquitos.
Some kid in Africa would go on to let a white man inject a clear fluid into his bloodstream. And maybe he wouldn’t understand that it would save his life from the greedy bites of tiny insects. But now he would go on to grow up into an adult. And though he wouldn’t ever have to face malaria, he would feel something else instead. And if I could, I would tell him that the pain never goes away—it just disappears from time to time. But when it is gone, this whole thing is worth it, maybe.
And maybe he would blink. And maybe he would shrug. And maybe he wouldn’t give a fuck either way.