My girlfriend Hayley is a wheezer.
I can hear her hacking in the other room; the slight, high twang punctuating each burst like a round being fired into the wall between us.
It's not asthma, she tells me, she just wheezes sometimes.
Hayley says she's not like the fat little children who collapse on the schoolyard grabbing their chests and sobbing. Her name is not the kind you hear over the loudspeaker intertwined with sirens, a ring of concerned legs around that motionless thing.
She litters our apartment with those red plastic elbows, the cold metal canister peeking out the top. Hayley doesn't want me to look at them, but she's not a very clean person, so the whole thing is a little pointless. I still trip over the piles of sweaters and socks, the papers in sliding stacks, the books left with their spines aching. And my traitor eyes, whenever I hear a whisper of it, jump to those forbidden boroughs, analyze the inhaler topography, searching. We haven't lived together long enough for the range of blind spots to have kicked in.
I do my best though. I'm adapting. I have become hyper-aware of wheeze inducing circumstances. As a normal breather you don't notice these things, but the average day is potentially full of a thousand little minefields: a crowded street, the exhaust from a bus, the fumes from a gas station, a kitchen's seared smoke, a friend's cigarette, open spaces, blooming flowers, candles, perfumes, dust, food, exercise. I jump in; I shield. I caution and advise.
When I see one of these risks looming, I can feel myself tense up, while Hayley barrels through, oblivious to the warning signs. With only a few months of being wheeze-friendly, I have learned all the risk factors, while she, snapping at the air like a starved animal, seems to have learned nothing.
I took her to an allergist—it was what the Internet recommended. She wasn't sure about it, but I was optimistic. Luckily her proactive health insurance covered that sort of thing. Tucked deep within the corridors of the rickety hospital, we made our way to the Allergy Clinic, stopping in front of a large red door. Security guards and women in wheelchairs passed by us continuing down the narrow hallway. “26-23” was stenciled in a peeling white on the glass outside the room, matching the numbers we had seen on the website map.
“I guess this is it,” I said.
Inside to our left a low counter extended down the wall, behind which a handful of women in scrubs sat barking at one another. A man in a drooping brown hat pushed past us, unapologetic, as we stood unsure in the doorway. Sidestepping, we followed his example, ignoring the nurses and turning into the waiting area. We stepped around the scattered blocks that littered the floor, picking our way towards two of the gummy tweed chairs that lined the room.
Across from us, a bald toddler clad in some sort of plastic headgear leaned dangerously from side to side as he pounded from one end of the room to the other. His weight seemed to be all in his head; each time he wound up, his neck began to list downwards, his arm dragging off towards the floor. He didn't appear to belong to anyone.
Hayley pulled her legs into the chair, tucking them underneath her.
I could tell the man in the brown hat was growing nervous. He winced with each of the toddler's turns, but did not take his eyes off the child.
Several someones, despite the sign, were yammering on their cellphones at full volume, but there was a distinct repetitive sound cutting through the rest. The noise began softly at first, and it took me a moment to distinguish it from the ticking of the clock that hung over the hallway to the exam room. As the sound grew louder, I turned to find the man in the hat tapping his fingers against the wooden armrest of the chair next to him. The light drumming turned to a resolute pound, vibrating the line of chairs next to him, and sending the metal bars buzzing. When I glared at the man his green eyes widened, but he only increased his tapping. Next to me, Hayley smiled nervously, wheedling away at her nails.
“Thank you,” she said, gesturing about her. “Sorry.” We continued to wait.
The toddler waddled by and, leaning too far off to the right, made a desperate grab at my knee for support. He didn't even look at me as he mashed my leg with his pudgy fists, just thrust himself off in the opposite direction, continuing on in his drunken stumble. The man in the hat blinked.
A hollow thwaaap of chipboard on chipboard brought the room to a sudden halt, eyes rolling towards the bank of desks. An obese nurse in Snoopy scrubs had shoved herself off the desk and into a standing position, grabbing the board and its curling bloom of papers as she did so. The nurse studied these, scratching her hairline with the mangled end of a ballpoint pen. After a few misfires fell limply on the anxious room, the woman called out Hayley's name, putting the emphasis on all the wrong syllables and garbling her words as though they had passed through some poorly functioning machinery. I wondered if this was a game the nurses played, like the voiceovers my coworkers and I had staged late nights on the hardware store' PA system. She didn't appear to be smiling.
Haley looked at me, shrugged, and got up to follow the woman. The two faded down the hallway at the nurse's slow, tilting pace.
Without warning, the man in the brown hat rushed from his seat to the counter, grabbing the arm of the strange toddler as he did so. I could see a red flush spreading from the man's neck to the downturned ends of the bucket hat at his hairline.
“WELL?! Is he coming or what? We've been here longer than—”
The cornered nurse spoke quietly in reply, pitching her voice low to prevent it from carrying to the other patients. The other nurses gathered around her for support.
“HOW LONG AM I EXPECTED TO JUST WAIT HERE? I—
“SURE, YES. YOU PEOPLE ARE ALWAYS SAYING THINGS LIKE THAT.
“WHAT? NO! This is UNBELIEVABLE! I mean REALLY!
“Well fine, but DON'T think that this is okay! It's not!”
The man stood at the counter for a moment more. The nurses' impatience was clear. All I could see was the back of his head, but I could tell he was trying and failing to appear authoritative. The toddler—who had been leaning as far away from the man as possible, straining towards gravity, attached only by the coarse hand on his wrist—slipped free. The impossibly acute angle of the child's body with the waiting room floor collapsed. There was a thud and a crack as the toddler's chest and then head hit the floor.
I couldn't watch the man's face. I didn't want to see what he saw as the inevitable tears cut across the waiting room mumble. The man scooped the child into his arms and walked back to his seat as the prolonged sob began to stutter, to drip like a leaky sink into the silence. The kid's mouth moved frantically on the useless air his eyes wide. His tiny, sweaty palms pushed, flashing scarlet, limbs floundering. The man in the hat put his hand on the kid's chest and looked him in the face, repeating something softly to the child. He was counting, trying to slow the infrequent burst of air that rushed in with simian shrieks.
My hands were slipping off the armrest's polished wood.
The noise settled. An inhaler was produced and the child's rigid body began to relax. The man was wiping the child's face with his sleeve; the helmet's edge kept slipping down against his hand.
He caught me staring and looked back.
“Just wait till you have one of your own.”
Ten minutes later, Hayley was back standing in front of me.
“Well, it's like you thought,” Hayley said. “They think it's allergy induced.”
“I don't think so. But they told me to sit back out here. I think I see a different doctor next.” She looked at me expectantly. “Sorry.” She stared at me with watering eyes. I stared back, and after a moment she turned to sit next to me. A few minutes later her name was called again. She was gone longer this time.
The waiting room slowly filled and emptied like a strange tide, hauling in the wordless flotsam of the Oakland streets. An Asian family sat against the wall across from me, motionless in their line of flu-masks; three generations unyielding in their stasis, broken only by the infant who, sitting in what appeared to be its oldest sister's lap, occasionally thrashed its legs and tossed its head, trying to dislodge the elastic band that I could see digging into it's fleshy cheek. My skin began to itch.
I tried to remind myself why I was there. This was an important gesture.
The man in the brown hat had at some point snuck out with the toddler, and I was beginning to feel as though the nurses were eyeing me apprehensively. Maybe I had misunderstood, and was supposed to meet her back at the car. I checked my phone; the time stared back at me messageless. It wasn't like she really could have gone anywhere without me anyway.
As I sat there, a door creaked open and rushing after it came the choking sobs of a woman. I jumped out of my chair. It was Hayley; I knew the sound. A few people looked up at me, perturbed. There was no movement from the nurses' bench. No one went in or came out of the exam rooms. I was attempting to gauge what might stand in my way when the Snoopy nurse caught my eye. The nurse shook her head and I, feeling childish, fell back into my seat.
“Check it out,” Hayley said when she reappeared.
“Are you okay?!” I grabbed her by the shoulders.
“Sure,” Her eyes were dry. “Fine. But look.”
She held out her forearms towards me. The numbers 1–24 were written out in two sets of parallel lines, crawling up the inside of each arm like a boring connect-the-dots. As I looked closer, each number revealed a needle hole encircled in a pale, raised halo. She waved her tentacled arms like she meant it, the lines of suckers held up to the light. Hayley laughed.
“Creepy huh? Apparently I'm not allergic to anything. They shot me up and waited for me to keel over, but,” she looked down at her arms, “I seem to be fine. They said I'm free to go. ”
“But you take allergy pills.”
“Yeah, I know. It doesn't make any sense. “
“Didn't they say anything else?”
“Not really,” she shrugged. ”It's just some weird thing like I said before.”
“You'll take your inhaler now, right?”
“They didn't mention it.”
That night as I rolled over in bed towards her, Hayley pulled away, beginning to cough and splutter. This happens and happens and happens. I changed my angle, running my hand over the base of her back in small soothing circles. She lied still breathing her creaking breaths as my fingers worked. She twitched then began to follow the movements of my hand with her frantic nails.
“Shit. I'm gonna wheeze,” she teared up. “Fuck!” She slammed the nightstand with her fist, sending a paperback and some used tissues splashing to the floor.
After a bit she drifts off with nothing but a hollow catch in her throat to linger. I am left awake with the sound of her ragged breathing echoing against my chest.
I do things I can't explain. Sometimes they just happen, and you find yourself poised, as if you had planned it all along. You stand over her. You watch her eyes bulge and that little v of skin between her throat and chest shudder and snap. She is a restless air cavity, as thin as paper. She is clawing at her chest, scratching deep red lines. You realize that you reek of smoke, that the bar and the people and the street were full of it, that as soon as you came home and tried to grab for her, even her limbs, heavy with sleep, would choke with it.
Holding her wrist you can feel her pulse. It is right there up against the surface. The tighter you squeeze, the louder it gets, like it is trying to escape, to fight you off. But she is not even looking at you. Her eyes have gone glassy and she stares off at some lost point, sunken into the deafening world of her own breathing.
“Sorry,” she says.
She grabs her inhaler but the strain of holding her breath makes her shake. She breathes the air out. “Sorry,” she says again. “I love you.”
You feel something strange in your throat, tightness around your eyes, something gathering at your brainstem. You stand there like an idiot fighting through it. And then you are outside. You are wrestling your sweatshirt off and stuffing it in the cans by the street, the smell of week-old garbage mingling with your smoky clothes. You flip the lid back up and walk, not back inside, but down the dark tree-pocked street. You walk fast and hard like you have somewhere to be.
I do my best, but she rarely wants my help. She just wants to lie there, and tonight I don't push the point. She doesn't need me pawing at her as she struggles along. But I love her; I want her. And there Hayley is, right next to me, warm and silky and mine. She is stripping off her clothes now, not for me, but because she says the fabric itches too much. She does not look at me, but still it hurts.
“I'm sorry,” I say as I feel myself grow hard.
She doesn't seem to mind too much, and sometimes I've done it right alongside her, her eyes pressed tightly shut as we focus on the rise and fall of her chest. She says she doesn't care, but it doesn't really work for me.
So I leave her in bed as I lurch to the next room, aching. I can still hear her struggling for air. I'll go back in soon. My back up against the wall that separates us I try not to think, not really even to feel, just to get it over with, this stupid endless need.
I'm not sure what else I can do.