Hay Fever

Where I live, each season is as pronounced as a taste – spring most conspicuous of all. After the interminable winter months we spend under thick grey tapestries, where it grows dark not too long after lunch, everyone emerges in a collective, annual rite. The first day of sunshine beckons the people forth almost as if they had been hibernating, as if there were a shared consciousness at work.

Here are Robert and Emily walking. I call to them from my balcony. They smile and wave to me. That pretty blonde girl who lives in the rose-petal house just across the road is out for a run with her dog. She doesn’t know me. I could try to catch up with her, crack a witty joke, pretend I’m out for a jog too, but I’m not like that. A team of cyclists whizzes by, all dressed in azure spandex, color of the sky above us. It won’t be long before the snowcapped mountains, backdrop to the village, lose their white crowns. The air still bites.

I try not to daydream, but I’m idling out on the balcony and the dishes are piling, the laundry machine is on its rinse cycle, swinging its load around furiously, and I’m losing faith in myself. In spite of this, or because of this, I daydream. Swallows fly overhead too fast for study, spring’s first butterflies flutter in pairs like leaves tossed into the air in a whirlpool of wind. A couple houses away, a woman is beating the dust out of her rug. I know it sounds like a vulgar metaphor. Yes, it’s time to beat the dust out of our rugs, like the birds, the amorous butterflies – so long, celibacy! I daydream about that girl. We could braid each other’s hair, have coffee together in the morning, paint our nails in pastels in honor of the new season.

From Andy’s tangerine-colored house, in front of mine, drifts music by Stravinsky, as it does each day. If I go down to the middle floor I’ll see him in his studio doing some sort of adagio. I think that’s what it’s called. He’ll stop by later as he always does, unless I go over to his place. We would make the perfect couple, artists of hyperactive immune systems and cabinets decked with antihistamines and esoteric literature.

The laundry machine kicks itself into its final, erratic stage. I descend the spiral stairs and what was a single, chaotic noise splinters into two distinct ones. There’s someone banging at the door. I look through the peephole. It’s that girl. The pretty blonde girl. I open the door to see her dog too, staring at me and panting.

“Ah, so you are home!” she says.

Her eyes are the same shade of robin’s egg blue as the sky. Her smile is wide and whiter than white.

“I was out on my balcony. Have you been knocking long?” I ask.

“I started out soft, but you didn’t answer.”

“Most people would have left,” I say.

“You’re worth the wait.”

“What can I do for you?”

“Just dropping by! To see how you’re doing.”

She hasn’t blinked. Her dog hasn’t moved.

“Have we met?” I ask.

“Silly, we’re neighbors!”

She takes my hand, examines it.

“Lovely hands, but that’s a winter shade and you’ll be needing to change it now, you know,” she says seriously.

“I suppose.” I withdraw my hand, looking at the ruby red polish from last week’s charity event.

“Robin’s egg blue, perhaps?” She smiles.

“Brunettes are better in jewel tones.”

“Nonsense!”

Andy appears behind her, coming up the walkway. They seem to recognize each other.

“Here’s the name of the medicine I was telling you about. Non-prescription too!” she says, taking out a piece of paper from her carnation-pink sports bra.

“Oh, right. Thanks,” stammers Andy, nodding, brown hair sticking out from under his grey hoodie. I notice his voice is stuffy already.

“You can pick it up anywhere really.” She giggles. “They even have it in hardware stores!”

“Interesting,” he says flatly.

“Everyone uses it. Especially now that spring has come. We know better now, you see. Prevention is the best cure.”

*

Spring has most definitely come, hard and loud. You can hear the birds even over the sound of traffic. We’re lying head to head, Andy and I, under the meager, cotton-candy pink shade of a blooming tree. He sighs often.

“She’s nice, in any case,” I say.

“A little too nice, if you ask me.”

“What’s all this talk about some medicine?”

“Allergy medicine. It’s supposed to be really effective. I’ll give it a try. First few days of spring and I’m running like a faucet.”

“Poor Andy.”

“It’ll be your turn soon.”

“How’s David?”

“He’s okay. He started taking it a while ago. Prevention is the best medicine and all that.”

“Does it work?”

“Yeah,” he exhales. “Didn’t know the side effects included rethinking your romantic inclinations.”

“Oh, Andy…” So that’s what was wrong. Things were supposed to be going great between them.

“It’s okay. What do they say? The best way to get over an old boyfriend is to get under a new one, right?”

“A handsome guy like you has his pick of the litter. Don’t despair. Tell me how practice is coming along.”

“As well as your work is coming along.”

I sigh. “The well is dry.”

“Inspiration here is hard to come by.”

“Perhaps we could write a ballet about a girl who’s a little too nice.”

“Or an allergy medicine that rids you of your vice.”

“Poor Andy. If only it were a vice.”

“I know … it’s just that sometimes I wish…”

A long silence passes between us. Neither of us feels the need to fill it.

*

I can hear Stravinsky a little more clearly today. Maybe it is the breeze that carries the tune better to my window. It’s a shame about David. He seemed quite the gentleman. It wasn’t meant to be. I’ll cook Andy dinner tonight. The supermarket is a little ways down the road. As I walk downhill, I feel the breeze creep up under my light lavender linen skirt, reach down my shirt. The air is filled with floating white fluff. A bee whizzes under my nose. A series of ten to fifteen sneezes awaits me. I blow and dab at my nose once they subside.

The supermarket is quiet, save for elevator music that floats through the shiny white-tiled confines of the store. The chicken breasts and thighs are voluptuous under their laminated packaging, pristine and perfect. Plastic. The produce is as varied as the rainbow: deep purple eggplants, oranges the color of Andy’s house, shiny tomatoes fit to burst, blushing ripe mangos, bananas the color of her hair. I don’t even know her name. I eventually pass through all the aisles, the subtle way they force you to, like a lab rat, when I notice on one of the shelves, stocked to the brim, is Aeros-nix!, the new allergy medicine everyone is using.

For those who have tried everything! Do your allergies interfere with your day-to-day life? Do they make your friends, family uncomfortable? Have you desperately reached for countless so-called solutions? Does nothing work? Try Aeros-nix!, guaranteed to be the permanent remedy to your pesky allergies!

Permanent?

The permanent remedy to your pesky allergies!

I think something of that strength would necessitate a warning, or a prescription at the very least. It doesn’t even explain how it works. Well, I steer clear of $19.99 fixes.

*

“Satisfied?” I ask him, voice already nasally, eyes itchy.

Andy mops up the last of the chutney with a piece of bread and puts it mouth, eyes closed, a smile stretched over his closed mouth.

“Your cooking has always been an intensely pleasurable experience. This time no less.”

Dinner was bland and flavorless. The produce isn’t what it used to be. All glitter and no substance. I begin gathering the plates for washing. He rests his hand upon mine.

“Please allow me. It’s the least I can do to thank you for such a lovely meal.”

“Be my guest.” I relinquish the chore to him. “I’ll go put my feet up.”

I fall back onto the sofa in the TV room, folding my skirt between my knees, and watch Andy. He looks nice in his canary button-down shirt. He’s clean-shaven. Not one almond-colored hair is out of place.

“I see you’re not exceptionally downtrodden at the turn of events?”

“I assume you mean David. No, not at all.”

I remember when it used to be Davy he would say.

“It’s better this way,” he says. “Easier.”

“Take some of that allergy medicine yourself?”

“As a matter of fact, I have. You should try it. It really clears your mind.”

“Why should I have my mind cleared?”

“Well, you’ve been having trouble with your work haven’t you?”

“That’s normal.”

“Allergies are … normal I suppose. But they get in the way.”

“I must admit, I’m not sold on a miracle cure for $19.99.”

“Mine have all but cleared up,” he says with finality, wiping his hands with the dishtowel before throwing it over the faucet. “How do you like that?”

“That your allergies are gone?”

“No, silly, that your kitchen is clean!” He sits down close to me on the sofa.

“You keep this up and I may get used to it,” I reply, giving him a friendly push on the chest.

“I see no harm in that,” he puts his arm behind me. “I could get used to this.”

“You always eat at my house.”

“You look especially lovely tonight.”

“It’s the mango chutney,” I say, feeling queer and queasy.

“No, it’s you.” He’s looking straight at me.

If there’s one thing that Andy isn’t, it’s penetrating. And it’s not a vulgar metaphor, either. He isn’t sharp and calculating and devious. He’s relaxed, open, cool, easy, spend-Saturday-in-a-hoodie-and-sweatpants-watching-TV. But his gaze now cuts through my corneas like laser eye surgery. It isn’t even that his body is too close. We are close friends. But it’s … predatorily close.

“I could get used to all this,” he says pointing up and down my body.

“My, my, don’t we move on quickly,” I laugh, uncomfortable.

“If you think about it practically, there is no reason we should not be together. We have everything in common.”

“Fate’s cruel joke,” I smile. “Well, I can see clearly now that you haven’t moved on at all. This breakup is warping your mind.”

“You can think whatever you like. You know where to find me,” he says before kissing me on the cheek and leaving with his lime green sports coat over one shoulder.

*

The days seem to be a loop. I’m out on my balcony again. I can see the cyclists in the distance. They’ll fly by in a moment and I’ll catch a word of their breathless conversation, but … they don’t say anything. All at once, they raise their right hands in the air and wave at something in my direction. At me? I start sneezing. They laugh and just as soon, they’re gone.

I look out over my garden. The swallows are in frenzy, swooping down to feast on the insects below. The weeds have started to suffocate my poor plants like tumors. The poppies have spread like wildfire and the grass looks like the front yard of a hermit, unkempt and overgrown. A file of ants has found its way onto the balcony and is exploring the tiles around my feet.

Downstairs, where I had hoped to displace the stuffy night air by opening the windows, flies have taken up residence. They mate on my kitchen table, rub their hands together like shifty criminals. There is a knock at my door. I wonder if it’s the blonde. I hope it isn’t. My nose is swollen and red and I can barely open my eyes.

“Hope this isn’t a bad time!” says Emily, holding out a basket.

“We brought you fennel!” says Robert, grinning from ear to ear, thumb out like a hitchhiker at his wife’s basket.

“They’re growing like tumors out there,” says Emily.

“We were lucky with the yield so we thought we’d share.”

They look so eager and hopeful. Emily’s blueberry eyes are wide under her brown bangs.

“That’s very kind. Would you like to come in for some coffee?”

They look at each other, heads tilted in amusement.

“We wouldn’t want to impose,” says Robert.

“It’s no trouble,” I say dutifully.

*

We’re seated at the kitchen table. The sunlight is directing a beam of suspended dust particles straight into my eyes. I try to look over or under it, but it’s no use.

“The coffee is excellent,” says Robert, adjusting the arms of the egg white cardigan tied around his shoulders.

I nod, giving a tight smile.

“So … how are your allergies?” Emily asks with the same tone she usually reserves for, So, seeing anyone lately?

“Acting up!” I laugh.

“That’s a shame,” she says, distaste plain on her features.

“There’s no reason you should suffer with it,” her husband adds, offering his masculine practicality.

“I know, I know, the new medicine,” I say. “Everyone’s talking about it.”

He smiles. “For good reason!”

“What can I say? I’m not sold.”

“Your friend Andy is,” Emily says, without missing a beat.

My head has begun to throb. I feel I’m in a haze and Robert and Emily are figments of my imagination.

“I’ve had allergies my whole life. I don’t know if I’m ready to permanently sever with them. They’re like old pals. Besides what are the—”

“Side effects? None whatsoever.”

“There can’t be—”

“It just clears your head,” says Robert with a gesture of his hand, as if wiping away something.

“I’ve taken allergy medicine before.”

“Well maybe you haven’t tried the right one,” Emily says.

“What are you, spokespeople or something?” The question comes out harsh.

They turn to each other and laugh.

“Just looking out for you, love,” says Emily, pity on her face.

Her husband is looking at me the same way.

“They’re just allergies,” I say quietly, feeling cornered and tired.

*

I can see Andy’s bedroom from my own. His light is on. I can see his bed. I can see his naked body on top of hers. I shouldn’t watch, but it’s fascinating, in a scientific way. I’m watching clinically, detachedly. I no longer care for either of them in that way. I realized I didn’t want Andy that way when I was eleven, that I didn’t want her that way tonight. But someone, someone would be nice, I imagine, in this spring, verdant and vibrating with life and love.

Then I think, it isn’t so much love as it is … propagation, excessive and panicky. At night everything is abated, but during the day everything is saying in a shaky, twitchy voice, Come, come on, let’s go, come on, get with it, let’s go, do it, do it, do it, starting with a roar and stopping like a bad driver, screeching and hitting the brakes, strident and alarming. The weeds are asphyxiating my flowers like boas winding around their prey. The birds are massacring the crawling life beneath them, spouting out from the ground like pus from a wound, sick, teeming, multiplying faster than any bird’s ravenous beak can get them, multiplying like cells in fast-motion. The flies are orgiastic, the ants are pushing through the minute cracks in my walls, two at a time, three at a time, four at time, they’re pouring out like liquid. The fruit in the supermarket is bursting, putrefying like rotting flesh. Here, you should try it, says the ivy, crawling up my skirt, between my legs, Try some, go on, come on, let’s go already, get with the program, do it, do it, do it!

“Enjoy the show?”

It’s Andy’s voice. She’s behind him, still in the room, dressing, her yellow hair following her movements. He’s smoking. Andy doesn’t smoke. He dances. He falls in love with business men who can’t light a candle to him, who kick him to the curb when they’ve enjoyed his body, his million-watt smile, the calm he exudes, to go back pretending they’re happy with the lives they lead, lives of statistics and quotas, void of stag leaps and sincere, hopeful, trusting smiles.

“Andy, I miss you.”

“You know, that could’ve been you,” he points back with his thumb, “with me.”

I feel uncomfortable between the legs.

“I don’t feel well.”

I feel like crying in his arms, or just falling asleep in them.

“Careful, you could fall from the balcony. Or you could take some of that goddamn medicine and feel better. All your problems,” he snaps his fingers, “gone!”

She opens the door behind him and steps out onto the balcony, wrapping her arms around his naked chest. From the bedroom flies out a black swarm of buzzing insects.

“We would make the perfect couple, you and I, artists of hyperactive immune systems and cabinets decked with antihistamines and esoteric literature,” he says.

*

I went down to the town center today. We carry it too! was written on posters plastered on every storefront, with the Aeros-Nix! logo encircled at the bottom right-hand corner. The potted plants were spilling over with foliage that looked sentient and purposeful, as though it needed to get somewhere, snaking and winding around and over rails, door handles. The trash bins were open-mouthed with their contents, rotten fruit and vegetables, and around them swarmed rapacious insects, big and small. No one seemed to be bothered by it though. I saw a man bite into a big, bright green apple. When he withdrew his lips, maggots were writhing where the fruit had been penetrated.

Either I am hallucinating or I’m seeing what no one else is seeing, which is the same thing. Or not. Maybe radioactive green apples really do taste as good as they look.

*

The whole neighborhood is outside on my front lawn. They’re as numerous as the swallows and the insects.

“We just want to see how you’re holding up!” they say, in one voice.

I don’t know where to run. I’m trapped. Andy is right in front of the peephole. I open the door for a split second and pull him in.

“You have to tell these people to leave. What do they want from me? Why are they all here?” I can hear the panic in my voice.

“They’re good people. They just want to see if you’re all right.”

“They should concern themselves with their backyards, with the trash they’re eating, with the infestation!”

“You needn’t be afraid,” says another voice, a girl’s voice.

It’s her.

“I’m not afraid. I’m angry you’re all congregating on my property. It’s private property, I can call the police on you. How did you get in?”

“You leave the door to your backyard open. As you should. It’s a safe neighborhood,” she says. “Besides, we just want to help.”

I look past her. Andy’s gone. The front door. Oh God, he’s letting them in.

“I want you to leave, do you under—”

“You don’t really know what you want. You can’t be blamed,” she says.

“Andy! Tell them something! Please, for God’s sake—”

“Hold her down,” he says.

They’ve invaded my house like ants. They put their arms on me, dragging me over the island in the kitchen and pinning me down to it. Andy works his fingers between my lips and another man pinches my nose. The girl brings a cup to my mouth.

“Go on, it won’t be but a moment. Tastes good too! Tangerine. Go on. Go on. Do it.”

I try moving my head but it’s no use. There are too many of them. Their hold is firm. She starts pouring the orange liquid in my mouth. They close my jaw. I can’t breathe. I can’t kick out. I can’t move my arms. I can’t move my head. I’ve lost the battle. I swallow.

“See? It wasn’t that hard!”

I fall to the floor and stick my fingers down my throat. They’re holding my hands again. I cry. Why be strong? You’ve been strong for so long now. I can feel them pushing against the doors to my mind, pushing them down, leaving no room for anything else. You’ve been strong. Now let go. That’s it.

“There, there,” Andy puts his arms around me. My head is spinning. I rest it on his chest. I wrap my arms around him and hold as tightly as I can. He smells differently. He smells like nothing.

“What is it that you wanted to say that day, Andy, when we were in the park?” I whisper in his ear.

“What do you mean?” he’s petting my hair, tucking it behind my ear.

“You said, ‘sometimes I wish’.”

“Oh,” he says pensively. “I wished … that I could just stop thinking, you know? That I could stop being different, that I could be simple and not care so damn much. I wished that I could look around and not see, that I could listen and not hear, that I could eat and eat and eat. And all my wishes came true.”

*

The days are getting warmer now. We’re hand in hand, Andy and I, strolling along, stopping to smell the wine-red roses every now and then. They smell so sweet, like cough syrup. I love cough syrup. Here are Robert and Emily walking. We wave. They smile and wave to us. The blonde girl who lives in the rose-petal house just across the road is walking her dog. She’s pregnant. A team of cyclists whizzes by, all dressed in azure spandex, color of the sky above, the color I’ve painted my nails. It’s so bright out. Blinding, actually. I love it when the sun is blinding. Swallows fly overhead and dive into the fields, little kamikazes. We walk past apple trees. We’re lucky. All the apples have fallen to the ground. We each pick up one to eat and dust off the little ants that had been making their meals from them. They’re so soft, like mashed potatoes, delicious and crumbly. I look at Andy and feel at peace. I am consumed by my love for him and haven’t any room for anything else. I feel light and empty, hollow like a balloon, like I could float up there with the cotton-ball clouds, not a care in the world.

Sarah Mills

About Sarah Mills

Sarah Mills is a fiction writer, essayist, and editor. She earned her BA in Italian and French studies from Royal Holloway, University of London and her MLitt in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow. When she isn’t writing fiction, she is writing on socio-political topics for Conatus News and other opinion/analysis magazines.

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