It is hard to capture the intensity of a sneeze. A moment of such brevity. An instant of powerlessness, of blindness, of being consumed by an involuntary action. A sneeze is honest. It is definitive of a person.
And there is such a wealth and variety of sneezes. The low sneeze, the high-pitched sneeze, the violent sneeze, the timid. The hand-covered polite, the unshielded ignorant, the head-jerking, the full-body-lunging, the quick, the drawn out, the snot filled, the spit covering, the phantom; and no matter what type it may be, a sneeze has the capacity to demean all of us from any noble or mighty pretensions.
If a human is more than a body, if it is possessive of a mind and an intellect, then a sneeze dispossesses us of the mind and renders us creatures. A sneeze humbles the soul. It transforms us into beings of instinct, returning us to our nature; even if for only a fraction of a second. It would be hard for a man who sneezed too frequently to excel in a dignified society. He would be tainted by an aura of the uncouth, of the unseemly, of the uncivil, as well as that of the ostracised, the sick, the contagious.
It is for this reason that I have begun to think I will never exceed what I am already, for I am a man who constantly sneezes. I have pockets stuffed with tissues. I have cabinets loaded with antihistamines (boasting the full range of active ingredients with complex names such as Diphenhydramine and Chlorpheniramine), alongside multiple brands of decongestants and saline nasal sprays. I have hypoallergenic bed sheets, sweep my house dust free every morning and evening, have as little contact with pets as is feasible, and still I keep on sneezing. I joke that I am allergic to life, making light of my predicament, but there is a truth to this humour that concerns me. Could it really be possible for someone to be allergic to living?
If ever a case study for suffering such a syndrome was needed I would like to present myself as the ideal candidate, for the sneeze, although the most obvious, is only one of the ailments this allergy causes me. An allergy to life, it would appear, gives you an aversion to living. It breeds a nature of inactivity that has cunningly and imperceptibly crept upon me, and only on reflection can I see how simple it was for me to be tricked and deceived. And although it is easy to call a man a fool for doing something when you have the benefit of hindsight, there is no better word I could label myself with than a fool for missing and wasting so many liveable opportunities. One of the great pains caused by my allergy is regret, and none is sharper or more prominent than the regret I have over Olivia.
If it was hard for me to capture the intensity of a sneeze, it is almost impossible to express how I felt with Olivia. She did something that called to the animal innateness within me, exposing a truth that hadn’t been seen before. It was like a joy that tickled me into ecstasy, and I was powerless.
And, in what is probably the wonder and trickery of life, is a thing that we hope for, but struggle to believe; that someone we care for could feel the same in return, and yet with Olivia it was true. We were equal in our attractions and affections. We rendered each other omnipotent and helpless in like-for-like measure.
It is possible that our romance has become idealised in my memory, with the tendency to edit preferably, rather than honestly, giving a greater shine to what the reality was, but it is no delusion to believe that my time with Olivia gave me the greatest enjoyment of my life. I do not wish to dwell on this, however, because the story of our time together is one that rarely differs from many romances, and it was only in our own private tellings that it seemed significant and fantastic. Instead, it is the story of how my affliction led to the demise of this union that I wish to focus, how my unique disposition reduced me into the limited man that I am today. It may be somewhat belated, but I intend to stage a sort of rebellion against this cursed body of mine and claw back a little of the possibility that could and should have been mine. Through writing I will become a man of action once again, and fight off all bodily revulsions that are induced by me living. And yet, even with these intensions I ask you to please forgive me for the sparsity of my narrative, for as I write I am becoming captured in bouts of sneezing fits that tempt me constantly to quit, that pressure me to give in to the calm and comfort of doing nothing, and I am ashamed to confess that there is a weakness in me that wants me to succumb to these demands. Such is the severity of my condition that I am laboured in writing each and every sentence.
But let us not linger on my current predicament when there is a story to be told.
I was not always a sneezer. Though most allergies are inherent from birth mine seems to be one that has developed from perpetual contact with the allergen. In what I assume to be a first, through the simple act of being alive I have developed an allergy to living. And this affliction developed as, of course, it had to, when I was happiest, with Olivia.
It was our third summer together, and Olivia was making plans. She was always optimistic in our future, inspired by the possibilities presented and craving action. Olivia, being the person I had fallen for, was proactive. To her there was always something to aim for, something to want, something to achieve, and she was driven to always be doing something towards these targets. At the time I was the same, which had made us compatible and complimentary. But this was a summer of change, and whilst I was succumbing to my new affliction, Olivia was going through a transformation of her own.
For Olivia the act of doing started to become a necessity. She couldn’t be at ease without knowing that we, as a couple, were advancing. There was a checklist of targets we had to accomplish during our life together, and ticking them off was her way to feel satisfied. This was her drug, and as with all drugs there was a physiological reaction induced. In Olivia’s case it was a calming effect, an assurance that she was working towards her plans. But once you have a way of inducing a desired feeling it becomes difficult to stop repeating that process. And so, as I began to develop my affliction, Olivia was becoming addicted to living.
As you may imagine a conflict of interests was emerging, but it did not cause our demise quickly. No, there was nothing that struck with the harsh, sharp, brevity of a sneeze. These things took their time, prying us apart piece by piece, slowly and irreparably.
And so it began.
In the act of living we also perform the act of dying, for every action requires a choice, and in choosing one option we are rejecting another, killing off numerous possibilities of our future. Because of this it was cowardice that first seized me, for I began to find the process of making a decision impossible. It was like I was facing the choice of who to murder. Like my every act was accountable to the fate of all around me. And this was at a time when Olivia was craving more and more action. She expected decisions on how we could achieve her plans, wanted to know how we were progressing, and I began to resist anything definite. Olivia was talking of marriage and houses and promotions and I was struggling to engage with any of these subjects. Olivia was in perpetual motion and I was stationary.
So the first symptom of my illness was indecision, and as a man who had considered himself thoughtful, and who therefore placed value upon his opinions, this was an unsettling experience. As my affliction progressed I found that I would agonize over such trivial questions like they were life-dependant, making my once outward confidence seem shrivelled and worn. This weakness soon spread from the big discussions to the banal and mundane. No longer able to choose which meal I wanted in a restaurant, no longer able to decide which film I wanted to watch at the cinema, no longer able to say which outfit I preferred on Olivia; I was losing influence on the world around me. And without influence the world can quickly lose interest in you. I was becoming boring.
Then came the second of my plagues, after indecision came indifference. When I had everything that it seemed I had wanted, I no longer seemed able to care for it. Let me be clear, when I say I became allergic to life I do not mean life as existence. I mean action, and life is an activity requiring constant motion. It is part of human nature to seek advancement, change, development, but with my growing indifference I no longer felt the desire for improvement, and started to avoid anything that required a greater expulsion of energy than I was already using. I became lacklustre, fatigued. I can’t blame Olivia for becoming frustrated with me. She was making plans and working for a future and I was finding each and every discussion or plan or ambition of hers wearisome.
And then I began with the sneezing.
For Olivia I think the sneezing may have become a blessing, after all sickliness is not renowned for its attractive quality, and in time I think this may have made our eventual separation easier for her, but at first the sneeze was nothing if not a burden for both of us.
When my sneezing fits struck I began to showcase the full repertoire at my disposal, including the embarrassing and repulsive. And with no traceable cause that I could link these attacks to they always arrived unexpectedly, often publicly. At first I thought the cause would be simple. Hay fever, dust, a pet allergy, but nothing seemed to fit the pattern of my outbursts. All I knew was that they seemed to strike inappropriately, often when I was in the process of doing something productive. I began to suspect that my body was inhibiting me, degrading my good intentions, and there’s only a certain amount of tolerance a person can have towards embarrassment. Because of this I became resistant to any activity that could make me susceptible to another snotty, demeaning, outburst, particularly in view of other people. Therefore I was either the lover who didn’t want to do anything, or I was the lover who in sickness had become ugly. I would not have blamed Olivia for leaving sooner. Instead she persevered, and refused to give up on me.
But we were such a pair, doomed by our antonymity. Me being allergic whilst Olivia seemed be addicted to living. Being with Olivia I was swallowed up in everything that antagonised my nose. It was only a matter of time until the threshold of my immune system was broken and my body’s reaction became something larger. As the cold of our third winter began to reflect our intimacy I found myself waking in fevers of sweat.
And then the cracks in our relationship began to rupture and the bond that had joined us for the past three years crumbled. We started arguing. It was never over anything major, but our frustrations were finding faults in the pettiest of things as an excuse to be released. And in these squabbles it became easy to lose sight of what we once saw; the people we fell in love with. And love, despite the common conception, is not blind. Love is honest. It is there or it is not. And when our reactions to life had taken hold, her addiction and my allergy, we became shaped into new, incompatible individuals, and all that was left was the time for a confession.
‘This isn’t working.’
It was Olivia who spoke. I didn’t disagree.
In her absence my deterioration took its full effect. I shrunk to the ineffectual nobody who writes this story today. In the time that’s passed I have neither sought after nor taken any opportunity to advance or change my life. And I can sense that you may think my tale is a trite excuse for what could simply be labelled as laziness, that I have made a large deal out of an incredibly improbable theory, that it would be ridiculous to claim to have an allergy to living. You are entitled to your opinion but I am adamant that this is the only justifiable reasoning by which I can explain what happened with Olivia.
And though, when Olivia left, the sneezing did diminish, it never stopped completely. And while it is true that I don’t have a life that appears to be worth living, hermitting in abstinence, I still have some comforts with the little release I’m afforded from my pains. But then, as I write, and become mobbed by my ailments, as I sweat and I sneeze and I itch and I choke, I am led to wonder whether any life that is worth living is a life made of comfort? Whether any love that is worth having isn’t a labour to keep?
But here, true to form, is the point where I must now quit, you see my body hungers for the peace of inactivity. And so I will return to my humble existence, holed up in my simple routine, hidden from the demands of ordinary life. I have no ambition. I have no accomplishments. I am nothing. I’ve already gone. My significance can be defined in the brevity of a sneeze.