I switched off the light in my office and headed, thankfully, for the elevator. As usual, I was almost the only one left at this hour. Not that I minded; the office at this hour was blessedly quiet.
As I approached the elevator hallway, I reached in my pocket for a tissue. As always, at the end of a long day, a slight tickle had started up in my nose and I anticipated that I'd be sneezing before I got to the subway. When I started working here, it quickly became clear that I'd have to add the air in this building to the long list of things I was allergic to. At first, I was almost incapacitated by sneezing fits throughout the day, but working here long enough had had a kind of homeopathic effect on me, it seemed. Now I was usually able to hold off my allergy symptoms until I got home, but on longer days they tended to start sending out notices before I left the building.
I hit the button and kept searching in my pockets, but surprisingly there wasn't a tissue to be found. Usually I keep a stash, for obvious reasons, but perhaps I'd used them all up.
The doors opened, and I got in, hitting the lobby button. I opened my bag and rooted around, as the tickle was gaining strength and I'd be needing a tissue sooner than I thought, probably by the time I left the building.
The elevator dropped only one floor before stopping. The doors opened and someone got in, punching the already-lit lobby button as the doors closed again. I didn't pay much attention, involved as I was in searching through my bag, until the person spoke.
"Looking for something?"
I glanced up -- and nearly did a double take. It was the guy I kept hoping I'd run into in the elevator, but so far never had. A blush tried to creep up my neck, but I held it back. He'd called one day about a week ago, and left a message, but I had been out of town. That was why I was here so late tonight, finishing up on everything I'd missed.
"Hi!" I said, feeling guilty even though there was no way I could have called him after coming in at midnight last night. "I got your message, but I just got in from a business trip."
He shrugged, smiling, seemingly unperturbed. "That's all right. I was thinking it would be worth the wait."
I smiled back, even though I was starting to feel apprehensive. Every time I saw this guy, I was sneezing out of control from one thing or another, and more and more I was beginning to realize that this meeting might not be so different. The slight tickle was definitely blossoming into that unmistakable warning sign, and to make matters worse, my sinuses were still irritated from the long plane trip the day before. I was sure I could stave it off for a bit longer if I had to, but it wouldn't be easy.
"If you --" I started to say, but was interrupted by the elevator jerking to a stop, with a suddenness that made us both totter for a moment. I looked up at the numbers, but none was lit.
"Oh, great," he said, also gazing up at the numbers. "Not again."
"The elevator's done this before?" I asked.
"Yeah, I was stuck for a little while about a month ago. It's no big deal, the guard downstairs will get the signal and they'll fix it."
"Oh, good," I replied. I wasn't really worried about the elevator, since he didn't seem to be, but I was starting to turn my attention to my nose, which was tickling more and more insistently. I thought about giving it a good rub, but knew it could make the urge even stronger, especially if the attack to come was a bad one. So I swallowed, hard, and tried sniffing as quietly as I could to stop the itch.
We stood there in not-quite-awkward silence, and all I could think was that if the elevator hadn't gotten stuck, I'd be outside by now, unworried about who was hearing me sneeze. As it was, I could feel my nostrils quivering as I concentrated harder and harder on holding back the sneezes that were threatening to come out. My eyes were watering by now, and my nose starting to fill up. I gave a sniff that was unexpectedly much wetter than the others had been, and he looked over.
"You all right?" he asked in a friendly way.
I nodded, not trusting what would happen if I said anything. I saw him take in my watering eyes, and with a sinking feeling I realized he knew exactly what I was feeling at that moment. Strangely, though, just like the other times, he seemed neither annoyed nor embarrassed by my predicament, like most people usually were after listening to me sneeze a few thousand times.
"Something in the elevator?" he continued. Even more strangely, he actually sounded interested.
I opened my mouth to answer, but a sudden twinge in my nose made me inhale sharply instead. I swallowed again, fighting it off, and said, "No, it's the whole building. I spend hehh...hehhh!" The persistent urge threatened again, and I could do no more than gasp shallowly for a moment. "I spend too much time here and I start --"
As if to illustrate what I had been about to say, I broke off again and inhaled shakily. The sneeze built to a climax and I was in its grip, closing my eyes and fighting with the inevitable. Finally, I realized there was no way I was going to win this battle. I gasped with a high-pitched sound and sneezed violently, feeling the spray in my hand. I inhaled and sneezed again, then a third time, a fourth. The sneezes became progressively wetter as the tears clogged my nose, and they took longer to get out. I would pause after each sneeze, taking in breath, feeling the next one build inexorably, unable to open my eyes or do anything but wait until I sneezed again.
After seven or eight sneezes, I stopped, eyes streaming and out of breath. The tickle had receded somewhat but was still there in almost full force, a feeling I knew well. This was going to be a bad attack, just as I'd suspected, and the last person in the world I wanted to witness it was stuck in an elevator with me.
But when I chanced a look at him, there was only a pleasant look of sympathy on his face. "Bless you," he said.
"Thak you," I replied, hearing the congestion in my voice as well as feeling it in my nose and throat. I sniffled several times, wishing like hell I'd gone back to get a tissue while I was still near my office.
"This happens to you every day?"
I turned away quickly and sneezed, hard, and then again. When I was pretty sure there wouldn't be a third, I turned back. "Only when I'm here longer than usual."
"Is it late?" he asked. "People in my office tend to hang around later."
"I'm usually the last to go."
He began to say something, but I heard only his voice, not the words, as the familiar sensation began. A warm prickling spread through my nose quickly, then receded and focused on one specific point. The tickle was impossible to ignore or stave off, and as it intensified, I tried to warn him. "Ahhgahh...sahhh -- sorry -- heh!...hahhh..." Unable to speak anymore, I drew a long, shuddering breath and began sneezing repeatedly. It was a long series of short, wet sneezes, my "hallmark" sneezing fit. I would sneeze several times in a row, feeling my breath growing shorter and shorter, until I had to gasp in as much air as I could before the sneezing started again. I knew better than to pinch my nose and try to hold them back, but I cupped my hand as tightly around my nose and mouth as I could, feeling my body shake with every sneeze.
This went on, as I knew it would, for a while, my stomach muscles growing sore from the efforts, until it slowed and I was able to grab more breath between sneezes. I was too embarrassed to look at him, so merely concentrated on the floor, sniffling and trying to eliminate the constant tickling.
"You must wonder --" I began as a twinge surprised me and I sneezed before I could quite raise my hand to my face; I had been wiping the fine spray surreptitiously on my bag. I sniffled again and continued, "whether you're ever going to see me whed I'b...huhhh...huh-huh-huhh!" Another agonizing second passed as the tingling grew quickly, and I was frozen, my eyes half-closed, my hand at my face. Finally the tickle exploded, and I sneezed uncontrollably, bending almost double. I could not even take a breath before letting loose a second sneeze that seemed to tear through my stomach and up my throat before exploding out of me. I inhaled shakily, and finished in a weak voice, "...dot like this."
As I sniffled miserably, my head pounding dully and my sinuses burning, I snuck a look at him. He was smiling that strange smile, full of sympathy and kindness but also something else I couldn't define. "I hope for your sake I do, but I wouldn't worry about it if I were you," he replied.
"You're always so nice about this," I murmured, trying to recover my breath.
"I'm sorry to see you suffer like this," he answered immediately. "Does it get better later on?"
"Yehhh..." I began before the tickle returned in force, and I had to exhale, then gasp in a quavering breath just before it backed off again. I sighed in temporary relief. "Yes, it usually gets better af...ahhh...ahhhh!" The urge grew again suddenly, taking over my breathing, and just as I was about to let the sneeze out, it receded, leaving me stuffed and sniffling. "After I've bid hobe a while." I couldn't bear to look at him as the tickle returned, even worse this time, and I began a series of short gasps as it reached its peak...and went away completely.
I opened my eyes cautiously, sniffling hard, coughing a little. "I hate it whed it does that," I griped, mostly to myself, sniffling again. "I'd rather sneeze my head off."
He opened the control panel of the elevator and looked around, then pushed a red button. An alarm rang briefly, startling me a little, then stopped. He smiled apologetically. "In case they haven't gotten the signal or something. You probably need some fresh air."
I inhaled to answer, but before I could make a sound the tickle exploded in my nose and I sneezed roughly, bending double and spraying my hands. The sneeze took most of the wind out of me, and I had to breathe a few times before answering, "That bight be good." I could hear how hoarse I had become from all the sneezing. But by this point I was pretty much past caring how I sounded, as all I wanted was to get home and lie down.
He jabbed the button again, holding it for a longer blast, then released it. "That ought to do it. The building isn't that big."
I kept sniffling, embarrassed by the noise but more embarrassed by the thought of my nose running everywhere. When that ever-present urge began to surface again, I acted without thinking out of sheer weariness, and rubbed at my nose violently. The tickle did go away, but I held my breath, knowing that sometimes it stayed away, and sometimes it came back even worse. There was no telling what it might do, but sometimes holding my breath helped keep it away.
Not this time though. It crept back, burning through my sore nose, forcing my eyes to slowly squint shut, controlling my breath, and filling my sinuses. Finally, with a feeling almost of relief, I gave in and sneezed helplessly four times. Each sneeze was long and intense, pulling out of me with a wet, tired sound, and all I could do between them was breathe in for the next.
By the time this short sneezing fit was over, I was feeling the light-headedness that often accompanied a bad allergy attack. I sniffled endlessly, concentrating on remaining upright and trying to appear as normal as possible, aware of his eyes on me, though not in a cruel way.
"I'll be fide," I said without looking at him, giving a small laugh. "I'b used to this." The tickle spread again quickly, and wanting him not to worry, I stifled the sneeze as it came out, holding it at the back of my already scratchy throat with a wet, muffled sound. It was immediately followed by another, much larger one, and this time I sneezed openly, unable to hold it back.
"You really shouldn't be stifling those," he said.
I laughed, then sniffled hard. "I know, you already told me."
"Well, it's true," he said with a smile.
"Yeah," I replied. "All it does is make it worse anyway."
We stood there for a little while without talking, me sniffling as quietly as I could and trying to will away the persistent urge. Every few minutes without fail I sneezed, either a single long sneeze or two or three at a time, one right after the other. Amazingly enough, my constant sneezing didn't seem to bother him in the least, no more than it had the other times. He seemed content enough not to talk, just to stand there and listen to me sneeze. In a strange way, it was sweet.
Finally, after a particularly drawn-out sneeze, the tickle seemed to die down for a bit. I knew not to believe it was all over, but I breathed gratefully, enjoying the respite. In the silence that followed, there came the clanking sounds of metal on metal, echoing throughout the elevator shaft. We looked at each other at the same time, and smiled.
"The calvary has arrived," he said mildly.
"Not a moment too soon," I replied. He raised an eyebrow, and I realized what I'd just said. "Hey, come on, you know I didn't mean you."
"Under other circumstances I might play dumb," he said. "In this case, though, I'm inclined to believe you."
I rubbed my eyes, which were feeling swollen and sticky. "All I want to do is go home, stick my face in a sink full of cold water, and learn how to breathe normally again."
"I suppose recuperating is a one-person job, huh?" he asked casually. For a moment I missed the implication, then I smiled at him.
"Sometimes I can use some help," I answered, then sneezed suddenly. The effort pulled at my sore stomach muscles, and I dabbed gingerly at my nose with the back of my hand. I sneezed again, not even bothering to try and hold it back.
With a jolt, the elevator began moving slowly downward again. It shook slightly, then smoothed out as it approached the ground floor. He grinned at me, shrugging jauntily as if to say "Nothing to it!"
When the doors opened, I was surprised to think that I hadn't sneezed once on the ride down. As I stepped out into the lobby and breathed a sigh of relief, I realized it was because I had been holding my breath the whole way. Now, however, the tickle in my nose began to grow rapidly, and I started hitching in breaths as he walked out of the elevator behind me.
"I have to...huh-huh...huh!" I began, trying to warn him. "...sdeeze agaid...hehh!!" I sneezed quickly and wetly three times, and when I opened my watering eyes, I saw a portly security guard heading our way.
"Are you folks okay?" he asked as he crossed the lobby.
I pinched at my nose, desperate that I be able to control myself for at least the next few minutes, but the pressure only made me sneeze again, even harder, and then a fifth time. He stepped up beside me as I sniffled and rubbed my itchy eyes.
"A little perfume in the elevator," he said to the guard, who was watching me with concern, by way of explanation. "Otherwise, we're fine."
"All right then. Sorry about that. Have a good night," the guard said somewhat doubtfully, turning back to his desk. I had to laugh a little even as I dabbed at my face.
"So what do you say?" he asked as soon as we were standing by ourselves. "Could you use a little company while you recuperate?"
I felt my face contort into a grimace as that unmistakable urge swept through my nose again, then seemed to take root. The words I was about to speak vanished as I inhaled uncontrollably, taking in several shaky breaths, and my eyes clenched shut as I started sneezing again, one short sneeze after another, gasping in air whenever I had the chance. The tickle barely receded after each sneeze, and wouldn't let up.
After about thirty seconds of continuous sneezing, the fit finally came to an end with one last violent sneeze. I sniffled compulsively and tried to catch my breath.
"Should I take that as a yes?" he continued, and I laughed a little, then nodded.
"It bight take a while," I warned him just before sneezing powerfully yet again. The sneeze bent me double, and I rose wearily to see that warm but enigmatic look on his face. It made me smile in return, although I couldn't say why.
"My car's this way," he replied. "And don't worry about it. Time, I got."
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