The Sick Room: Port Moresby and Me

In a third period class about the Cold War, Gorbachev’s birth-marked head nodded on the projector, and I started to feel sick. My sweatshirt was too warm. I pulled it off and tried to keep watching. Maybe it was the stress of the end of a term at school– my junior year.

A little queasy, I skipped lunch to read Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky (1949). It was my mother’s copy, and I could tell that she had loved it. It was worn and yellowed at the edges. I liked the premise of the book well enough, a couple wanders through small towns in the Sahara after the First World War, but there was also something inexplicably mystical about the story.

The couple, Port and Kit Moresby have an intrusive third friend, Tunner, whose constant misunderstanding of the reasons for their traveling irritates them to no end. But Tunner spends most of the book away from Port and Kit, and soon I realized that the third character in the book was really the Sahara. Bowles does a remarkable job of teasing other characters – the innkeeper, a French military official, a mother-and-son couple – allowing them to talk and act for just enough time to make you think that they are important, then whisking them away. The desert takes over in a complete way, even driving Kit to insanity at the end.

My temperature rose and I stopped being able to move well, and so I had more time to read. I left my boarding school and went home. At the same time, something curious was happening: Port was getting sick too. At first, Port’s illness hides behind his nihilistic comments, but it builds, and eventually is unmistakable as an illness. 

Kit cares for Port as the story charges on, and my mother took some time off work to do the same for me: spooning me ice and trying to give me something to eat despite my protests. One afternoon, she gave me a lime popsicle, which melted all over my face before I threw it up. My hair grew longer. My face was ragged and unshaved. Port, too, stopped eating and slept all day. I felt like I had a friend, or at least a companion, who was available on my nightstand.

Eventually, I had to stop reading. I was jaundiced — my eyes and skin yellow with undiagnosed mononucleosis. I was shuttled from a town hospital to a larger one in Boston, because their clinic would be better for my failing liver. I slept on the little bed in the emergency room for a few hours, waiting for a doctor. It was three in the morning, and all I could think about was Port.

In that less-than-rational mindset, I began to tie my future to Port’s – in no small part because I felt a connection to him that I was uncomfortable acknowledging. Port’s bad days looked like mine: wandering without purpose around new places, forgetting to pay attention to others, scorning the unabashed fun of tourists in favor of some pretentious “insider” view. Port and I shared something neither of us wanted to talk about. And we were at this point together, dependent, sick, unable to read. I weighed 119 pounds on the emergency room scale, failing miserably to fill out my six-foot-tall frame. My arm looked small and insignificant with the IV inside. Port was similarly unresponsive in the rural towns of the Sahara.

I got better, and my parents relaxed. They had been worried, which was remarkable considering that they are doctors themselves. I took eight more blood tests over the next weeks, got a prescription for steroids that made me jump up in bed and write four pages of a paper for that Cold War class, and my skin returned, slowly, back toward its normal color.

And I started to read again; Port’s and my fates diverged. Port got worse. He started to hallucinate. He was dehydrated. Kit gave him milk, but it was too late. There is a strange intimacy between people who suffer trauma together. I had to put the book down when Port died a few chapters later – I had lost a friend.

I think that it is fair to call The Sheltering Sky my favorite book, though I have many of these. But I have never shared such a strong physical connection with a text before. The words, while they were humming along, struck at deep places within me — at fear and anger, at faith and prayer, at health and at sickness.

Back at school, I was in my girlfriend’s dorm room, staring at her bookshelf. I saw the copy of The Sheltering Sky that I had given to her as a birthday present, just before I had started to feel sick. I thought of Port and wondered whether he had given something up to save me. –Paul Michaud


Paul Michaud is a high school senior from Nashville, Tennessee. He attends the Groton School in Groton, Massachusetts. His work has appeared in Eunoia Review and his high school magazine, The Grotonian.

The Sheltering Sky (1949)
By Paul Bowles
Publisher: John Lehmann
304 pp