As I sat stroking the ears of Fellini, my friend’s cat, I didn’t notice anything wrong at first. Perhaps a twitch in my nose, a tingling behind my eyelid. I continued to drift my fingers through Fellini’s mocha fur, circulating more tumbleweeds of dander upwards.
“Holy Hell, your eye!” My friend gaped at my face as if I were in a horror movie. A quick mirror consult revealed angry red welts lining the underside of my eye. I picked up Fellini, sneezed seven times in a row, then announced to my friend:
“I think I’m allergic to something I ate.”
We pondered the various delicacies consumed since my arrival, and settled on pizza-flavored Combos as the culprit. By now, my face had the droop of a House of Wax victim.
“Yes,” I snuffled, as Fellini nuzzled my chin, “it’s definitely the Combos.”
Through the changing seasons, things escalated to where I couldn’t open my eyes at all. My contact lenses sat unworn in their case, swimming in their saline bath until they dissolved from ennui. My nostrils became chapped and raw, until I resembled an immunodeficient coke aficionado. A perma-wad of phlegm lodged in the back of my throat, regenerating each day to give my voice that sexy post-nasal rasp that boys found so resistible.
I experimented with over-the-counter antihistamines the way an art student might dabble in mind-altering hallucinogens. Zyrtac, Claritin, Allegra: placebos, the whole lot of ’em. In desperation, I consumed several tablets of Benadryl one Thursday. I woke up on Saturday afternoon in a pool of my own mucous, with no recollection of the past 40 hours.
On the plus side, I was able to pass off countless other ailments as “allergies.” I’m not sobbing at the beginning of Pixar’s Up, I’m allergic to the mold on the theater seats. Please keep making out with me; my blistered tongue has nothing to do with herpes simplex. And no, I have no idea where you can score some coke; why would you even think that?
Finally, I took drastic action: I set up a consultation with an allergist. The day of my appointment, I waited in an office surrounded by wheezing and puffy-eyed nine-year-olds, and scanned the Highlights magazines in the hopes of finding a Sherman Alexie story. When my name was finally called, I met with Dr. Rejos, who rolled up my sleeves and wiped down my arm with alcohol.
“We’re going to inject you with a little bit of various toxins and check back in 20 minutes. If there’s a raised bump by the injection site, it means you’re allergic to that particular thing.” This process gave me newfound respect for the test subjects throughout history who agreed to have polio and ebola enter their bodies in order to change the world. I was proud to join the ranks of those brave pioneers as my bloodstream was flushed with kitten fur.
Up one arm went nuts, eggs, shellfish, wheat, and bee venom. Then back down with four different kinds of trees, pollen, and animal dander. As I watched the red bumps surface, I thought, “That’s okay. How often do I come in contact with oak trees, anyway? I’m a city girl.”
Then my other arm, infected with dust mites, weeds, mice, and mold began to swell, and I knew there was nowhere to hide anymore. I was literally allergic to everything (“Not everything,” the nurse smiled. “Look! You’re not allergic to cockroaches.”)
I went to Dr. Rejos every two weeks for my allergy shots. “This won’t hurt a bit,” he reassured me, while stabbing me with a needle so sharp I felt it would poke out the other side of my bicep.
“Okay, that’s the first one.” Dr. Rejos stroked my arm in a gesture I assumed was to soothe me, but was really to wipe away blood. “Three more to go!”
I left the office with swollen, purple blotches below my shoulders, debating if having coke-nose was better than having heroin arms.
“See you in two weeks,” Dr. Rejos called after me. “Stay away from tree nuts. And,” he winked at me, “never date a smoker.”
After several months, my symptoms began to change. No longer did I give off the impression of having daily pinkeye. I could enter a public park without feeling like I was coughing up steel wool. And I could pet animals again without my lungs retracting against my rib cage, which was good news for Fellini, but bad news for my pet cockroach, Skitters, who lived under my stove.
It would be a few more years before anaphylaxis really entered the zeitgeist, but my ailments existed in a time before peanut butter was separated from schools the way church was separated from state, before gluten became as feared as DDT, before restaurants had to reveal the ingredients of their “secret sauce.”
My allergies were not life-threatening, just life-encumbering; my purse didn’t contain an Epi-pen or I.D. bracelet, just a single crusty tissue and an empty bottle of Visine. I would never own a pet, or spend much time outdoors. I would most likely never date that cute bartender who smelled like Marlboros and definitely owned no fewer than three Golden Labs.
But I was one of the lucky ones, something I reminded myself as I chowed down on a Snickers bar while waiting for my hay fever to lift.
(This article first appeared in the November 2017 issue of Funny Times)