By Andrew Martin
Do not cough. Do not think about the tickling little wisp of cotton fluttering in the back of your throat. Do not breathe deeply, because oxygen gives life to the spark. Do not roll over, even though your back is sweaty and your sheet is wrapped so tightly around your foot it’s like a tourniquet. If you cough, you will hear Dad’s voice like a Mastiff bark from downstairs. If you cough, you will hear creaking floorboards as Dad rounds the base of the stairs. Imagine instead orange medicine, tucked in a wooden kitchen cabinet, down the stairs, away from this cramped room you share with your brother, with lines spiderwebbing across the cracked plaster ceiling overhead like lightning bolts. If you imagine the smooth, citrusy elixir gliding over the back of your raw throat, maybe you won’t have to climb down from this whining, box spring mattress and step down those creaking, fragile stairs. Maybe you won’t have to wake Dad, who has a hairpin trigger on sleep. When the tickling builds to a crescendo though, you do cough, and you do hear a rising groan from downstairs, like a dozing guard dog growling at the sound of an intruder.
Do not fidget, no matter how much it tickles when the razor trims the hair on the back of your neck. Do not squirm. The hairdresser warned you that she will snip your little ear off if you wiggle again. You’re ok. Mom is right there, next to the other moms in this JC Penney hair salon that smells like red Starbursts. She is reading USA Today and waving away the clouds of hairspray that are currently tickling your nostrils and esophagus and chest.
Focus on the springy plastic of the bus seat rumbling beneath you. If you cough or shiver or think about how soaked your armpits have become, the teacher will turn this bus around and you will not be allowed to come on the field trip to the Children’s Museum. Think about the cavernous IMAX theater that awaits you, and the greasy slices of cheese pizza on paper plates, and the water clock, tall as a skyscraper, that is filled with bubbling, colorful liquid. Think about the T-Rex skeleton. Think about how your mom’s station wagon could fit in her chest cavity. It is spacious and clean in there.
Shawn is sleeping. He stayed up until 3 a.m. playing Dota on a PC he built himself. You do not know him well yet, and though he leaves piles of clothes like cow pies across your small IKEA carpet, and his Jimmy Johns sandwich is unwrapped and currently attracting fruit flies on his desk, he is all you have in this new place, where meeting people feels like learning a new language. Climb quietly down your loft ladder and pour yourself a teaspoon of orange nectar. Sip it. Feel it tranquilize your jumpy neurons, scrub the grimy folds of your anxious mind clean and pink. Examine the droplets on the plastic cup, lit by the misty morning light coming through your dorm window. Cough once. Hear Shawn stir. Cough again. See him pull his pillow over his head.
You’re going to disrupt the ceremony. You can cough in Jamaica, on the beach, next to Cora, the woman who is now your wife. The first time you met, she said she heard your cough from across the bar, and that it sounded like an exotic bird squawking in the jungle, and you snorted so hard into your rum and Coke that it sprayed little red droplets across the bar counter, and she literally fell off her stool laughing.
The baby’s finally asleep.
The Grinch is playing on TV, and Cora is playing blocks with Elle on the clean carpet of your new home, and this recliner is molded like marshmallow around your tired body. And here, if you need to cough, you can do it, because to Cora and Elle your cough sounds as natural as a bird in a tree. Protected by these walls, cluttered with family photos and posters of places the three of you have visited – Zion, Yellowstone, the Space Needle – your coughing is both loud and silent. Your coughing here is both warmly welcomed and beautifully ignored.
Here. Imagine the looks on the faces of everyone in the paper goods aisle of this Ralph’s Grocery if you were to cough right now. Coughing is an admission of guilt. It always has been. You should not be in public if you have a tickle in the back of your throat. That is what Dr. Fauci says every evening on the television. But Dr. Fauci doesn’t understand that your wife can’t drink coffee without creamer and your daughter won’t eat hot dogs without ranch, even if it is a once-in-a-generation pandemic. Plus, you want some Mini Powdered Donettes. So grab some hand sanitizer, even if they only have the stuff that smells like vanilla schnapps. Then grab a container of orange cough medicine, the brand your mom used to keep in the wooden cabinet in her tiny, cluttered kitchen. Shake it, listen to it slosh. Then get back home and cough all you want. Cough, cough, cough. Cough in the place where you feel whole and free.
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Andrew Martin is a writer living in Indianapolis, Indiana. His work has appeared or been shortlisted in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Craft Literary, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and elsewhere.