A short story about a reaction.
“No, it’s Harvest Berry. good guess though.”
Victor hands the small cup back to me, a lavender colored scoop of ice cream I recently purchased from a food stand, one of the many occupying this parking lot. I admired its form for a second, smooth, creamy and crystalline, it glistened in the sun beaming down directly overhead.
They gave me the tiniest plastic spoon to eat this ice cream with, a size most places reserve for samples. I take the tiny spoon and scrape off a tiny spoonful with it, pulling it onto my tongue, savoring it like I’ve seen taste testers do in videos. I make a mouth motion that supposedly airates the ice cream such that it covers all 4000 taste buds and it creates a satisfying smack.
“I can definitely taste something…root-y. I think if you told me this was purple yam flavored I’d believe you.”
We make our way through the crowds and I have to look back occasionally to make sure Victor is still tailing me. It was just raining an hour ago, which I had hoped would mean fewer people but that didn’t seem to be the case. That and the fact that Seamless was delivering food from Smorgasburg (a portmanteau of Smorgasbord and Williamsburg) for one day only, meaning that there should have at least been a few dozen Brooklyn-ites who opted to forgo joining in the mass migration from the Bedford Ave Subway to the chaotic writhing mass of foodies that inhabit this parking lot on summer Saturday afternoons. But even Seamless’s hyper-local marketing stunt didn’t seem to cause a noticeable dent in the fair’s attendance; if anything the delivery startup’s red-shirted liaisons and smocked delivery-boys-for-hire were even more noticeable as Victor and I finally found the exit, in front of which they were frantically scrambling to get orders together.
After a few blocks south I stop eating the ice cream and stare at it. “I think I’m allergic to something in here.” Victor is unsure how to react, but he manages an “uh oh”. I can feel an itch in the back of my throat, and that’s the first sign. Squinting at the now melting pile, I make out some conspicuous speckles. Could those be nuts? Or am I seeing things? I play back the memory of ordering in my head. No asterisks next to the name of the flavor. How could Harvest Berry have anything but berries in it?
I toss the ice cream in a corner garbage can and assure Victor that all this is just a mild inconvenience. My mouth will get irritated and maybe a bit swollen but nothing more. Uncharacteristically, I don’t have Benadryl on me, but I’ll take some when I get home, along with a nap, and I should still be able to make it to my friend’s birthday party later. “I’m more upset at the fact that the medicine will make me drowsy”, I tell him, although I’m saying this more for myself.
This is how it usually happens after all. Living my whole life with a nut allergy I’ve become finely attuned to certain flavors and sensations that telegraph a reaction. I move fast at the first tingling or slight irritation that hits the roof of my mouth, discarding whatever is on my plate or in my hand, and if necessary popping the Benadryl I always carry around with me, a pink pill ever at the ready, the small lump a permanent fixture in my wallet.
Though for all the years my malfunctioning immune system has kept me vigilant, it’s never gotten too out of hand. At most it’s puffy lips, rashes on my neck. Mild inconveniences rather than emergencies. In no situation would my throat close up or my eyes swell shut–nothing that would require a visit to the hospital or even the use of an EpiPen, a device that though my mother insisted I carry on me at all times, I was rarely truly equipped with.
Because of this I tend to be (or at least, to act) lax about my food allergies. Never panicking, constantly casual, I’ve learned to shrug off reactions from people who, upon hearing I’ve ingested something potentially toxic to me, widen their eyes and scramble like jets, readying themselves for whatever emergency-number-dialing or epinephrine-injecting they foresee in their near future.
Victor asks me to show him around the neighborhood because he’s moving here in a month, and I point out all the restaurants and bars and stores and the place where I get my hair cut. The itchiness is on my tongue now, and I can feel that my throat is a little tighter when I try to clear my congestion, a congestion which I have just noticed. I have to stop for a tissue but there’s nobody home at M Noodle Shop, “which has great pan fried noodles and also it’s open really late”, I say to Victor. I’m not sure if he notices me struggling with my tour guide duties while simultaneously dealing with a sudden onslaught of mucus settled deep within my sinuses that I’m trying to evict like a delinquent tenant. And without tissues, the mucus, like the tenant, has nowhere to go.
A few blocks later, on the corner of Metropolitan and Lorimer, I stumble into Bagelsmith and grab a fistful of napkins, thankfully available from the counter, and then hastily wish Victor goodbye in front of the Subway. I blow my nose, a temporary reprieve, and attempt a few coughs to loosen my chest. Victor wishes me well until next time, either still oblivious to my predicament or politely ignoring it. At this point the thing that’s killing me more than the reaction itself is that I can’t be more hospitable to a friend I want to hang out with.
It’s important to note that this was a time in my life in which I was actively questioning everything I had thought to be true about my allergies. In middle school I had an allergy test administered that was supposed to confirm (or debunk) many of my suspicions about what I could or couldn’t eat. The test, not an uncommon one for people like me with numerous medical sensitivities, involves being pricked lightly by an array of needles dipped into various substances; their tiny points penetrating not deep enough to draw blood but just enough to deposit a small amount of the allergen in question underneath the very first layer of skin. After being poked with about 30 of these, dots arranged in a neat grid across my arm (which are then numbered for reference), I sat in the doctor’s office, fighting an epic battle of willpower against my urge to scratch, while welts and rashes slowly expanded, conquering more and more territory across my arm, until half an hour passed and the doctor came in to measure the results.
I was tested for lots of stuff: fish, fruits, pollen, cats, dogs, dust, bees. Species of tree that I can’t remember the name of. And pretty much all of them tested positive, to varying degrees. But the worst of the lot were the tree nuts: cashews, hazelnuts, almonds, et al. The doctor told me she’d only seen a few people react as badly as I did.
After that I went through my life religiously avoiding nuts. I wouldn’t even touch food that had touched nuts. I would turn down suggestions to ‘just pick them out’ or ‘eat around them’. I denied myself countless cookies, chocolates, and sweets. And Nutella. I didn’t–couldn’t—even eat Nutella.
I was doing well until my sister started baking macarons. Made with almond flour, for me they were Schedule I controlled substances. Top of my list of contraband. But they were so irresistible I figured I should try and see whether or not I would react. I had heard stories of allergies going away after puberty. What if I was secretly missing out on them the whole time?
I started with a nibble. I gave it a 5 minute break, granting me some buffer time to allow reactions to manifest. Most times if I react to something I feel it within a few minutes. But after nothing happened, I took a bigger bite. Then a bigger one. Eventually I had eaten a whole one, and then two, without any adverse effects. The next morning, I woke up alive. Finally, a victory.
As Victor descends into the subway I turn and walk briskly towards home. I’m 10 minutes away. My face is falling apart at this point: blowing my nose provides only temporary relief, and the itchiness has spread to my lips and the roof of my mouth. Not unusual for minor allergic reactions. What’s unusual is the sweating. I’d been out in the hot sun walking around but this was more than I could ever remember sweating before; more than hiking around perpetually humid, sparsely air-conditioned Manila; more than the one ill-advised Soul Cycle class I was egged into participating in as a work bonding exercise.
7 minutes towards home now and I pick up my pace. My chest tightens. This is officially more than a minor allergy. I’d already lost the ability to breathe through my nose 3 or 4 blocks ago, and my panting had since become loud and labored. The steady unceasing flow of air in and out of my mouth starts to dry it out. Somewhere in my brain a neuron snaps at my salivary glands telling them to kick production into full gear. I feel a drop of sweat roll down the back of my neck.
5 minutes from home and my whole body is itchy now. When I sweat, this is normal for me: my eczema is easily irritated and I used to like to joke that I was literally allergic to exercising. But this is no normal sweat, no normal itch. I can feel hives on my neck as my fingers dig into it. Every coordinate on the surface of my skin is sounding an alarm.
3 minutes and I wonder if I look as bad on the outside as I feel on the inside. Briefly I imagine how people would react if I popped into a random store, winded and drenched, lips swollen and eyes red. “Can someone call 911?”, I manage to say before collapsing. I scrub the scenario from my mind. That’s not going to happen. I take comfort in the fact that at least I still have the ability to dial my own cell phone.
The last time I had a reaction this bad to anything it was fish. Seafood is a whole other classification of food I am forever relegated to watching other people eat. As a child, when I was experimenting with foods and discovering my allergies, I have distinct memories of sequestering myself in a room upstairs while my grandmother was frying fish in the kitchen, for even the fumes proved to be triggering for my lungs.
In March of 2015 I was attending a wedding in Singapore, my girlfriend Flora’s cousin, and while I was for the most part unsure of what to expect out of the whole experience the most surprising moment was sitting down at the reception greeted by a menu comprised almost entirely of sea critters. Scallops, fish grilled and steamed, and shark’s fin soup, which despite its dubious ethicality, Flora suggests I try. It’s going to be illegal soon.
The shark’s fin soup was viscous and salty, and tasted less like fish than I expected, or at least, it didn’t taste the same as fish smells. After a half a spoonful I took the customary 5 minutes. But after the requisite waiting period passed with no signs of itchiness I felt comfortable trying a little bit more. There was no irritation, no swelling. I looked around in disbelief. First almonds and now fish? Could I be free of the prison that was my perpetually allergic body?
Course after course I at least managed a nibble; more than dipping a toe in the water but still not fully submerging myself. I nearly finished the soup. I had a slice of fish, and a small rubbery piece of a scallop. Flora was nervous, but like me she held onto a shred of hope. If I could pull this off it would be revelatory.
A few hours in, during a bathroom break, I noticed a small lump on my forehead in the mirror. I thought nothing of it – if this were a reaction it was purely cosmetic. There was no itching, no swelling, and it wasn’t anywhere near my lips, throat, or mouth. I felt perfectly fine. I went back to the table and partied through the rest of the evening. Afterwards we went back to the hotel and I changed out of my suit and crawled in bed for a nap.
I woke up dizzy and feverish, sweat pouring and temperature blazing. The lump on my forehead had grown into multiple lumps, spread across the side of my face and head, quite itchy now, hot and red. I could stand, but barely. Flora was concerned. I shotgunned some Benadryl down my throat. “I’m fine,” I assured her. “I’m just still allergic to fish.”
Finally inside my apartment, I huff up the stairs. I can’t tell if my chest is tighter than before because my allergy has gotten worse, or because I’ve expended so much effort nearly running home. In my room I hurriedly identify three targets: my backpack, my pencil case, and the power button of the air conditioner. Desperately groping inside my bag for my inhaler I pull it out and pump twice and if you could scarf down things other than food that’s the phrase I would have used to describe it. I take a moment to appreciate how quickly albuterol works and how apt the term “rescue inhaler” is. My chest is looser now; I’m no longer wheezing but still breathing heavily. I can feel my heart pounding against my chest from the inside, an unrelenting acceleration.
My pencil case, much to my dismay, does not have Benadryl in it. I had bought a whole box a few months ago and somehow managed to lose it. I had kept a single pill in here for a while as a cautionary measure because I could always count on having pencils on me, but sometime last year I noticed it was expired so I tossed that pill aside apparently without providing a replacement. Without Benadryl in my wallet or my pencil case I anxiously scour the room. When I finally find it my fingers are trembling. I fumble at the foil and plastic and it opens but drops on the floor with a skitter. Picking it up and swallowing it without any water, I feel a wave of mental relief wash over my body, although not yet a physical one. Benadryl, unlike my inhaler, will take a while to kick in.
I collapse on the bed. I grab a towel to wipe myself off but any contact with blankets or pillows just causes that area of skin to sweat more, and to itch more. I’m constantly scratching, my hands like firemen responding to a never ending series of five alarm blazes, getting there just in time to put the fire out before getting the call that there are two new disasters; and one in the place where they had just been. My hands start to cramp from the pressure on my muscles to keep my fingers in a clawed position. I take this as a good sign that I should stop.
I’m dizzy now, and nauseous. I can’t throw up, but I try, hoping that the final step to true relief is to completely purge my body from what is from its perspective, poison.
When that fails I lay down on my bed again, my AC doing its best to keep my sheets dry from perspiration, and I pull out my phone and google the ice cream vendor. On the results page my eyes fixate on two words that seem to fill my entire field of vision, though in reality they are only a few pixels tall. “Dairy Free”, the page proudly proclaims. Gears spin, puzzle pieces click together, and in exasperation I let out a long drawn out obscenity. Dairy Free means that it wasn’t ice cream with nuts in it; It was practically a big scoop of cold, concentrated nuts, folded in with some binding agent to make it resemble cream, with a few berries tossed in. Putting aside my indignation that that kind of information should be on a sign somewhere, and remembering that I really need to rest, I do what I always do when I need to sleep: I get out my phone and open Reddit.
The front page today has a thread inquiring about our scariest theories. At the top is a comment that opines as follows:
Each time we encounter a situation where we may die, we continue on in a parallel universe where something happens that prevents our death. But we die in the original universe. Essentially, our consciousness lives on by transferring itself to a parallel universe where we continue to exist, so we effectively live forever.
I can only read a few more responses before I fall asleep.