Everyone Should Cough Into Their Elbows
Note: This piece was originally published in Crab Fat Lit Mag.
Why won’t you just cough into your elbows?”
Dad’s coughs are echoing off the walls again. It’s been two weeks and both of them are still sick. I sometimes hear them in the bathroom at two a.m., phlegm tossing around their throats, while they emit a high-pitched screeching, two gargoyles departed from the grottos of Notre Dame.
“It doesn’t make a difference.”
His voice is exasperated, dry. I think maybe I should offer him a glass of water, but we’re already walking down the street and the lock on our front door takes about ten minutes to open. But it’s not our front door. It’s their front door.
We’ve been away from New York for two weeks now. We found the apartment on one of those websites online (airbnb.com, vrbo.com) where rich investors offer their properties for short periods of time to middle class families who are sick of hotels with sugar cube mini-fridges. That would be us.
Mom likes to cook, especially here, where the cucumbers are more cucumber-y and the watermelons are less water and more melon. Apparently, they don’t put pesticides in any of their vegetables. I wonder if she would move here if she could speak French. I bet she would.
I know I would too. I know that if someone gave me the option, I would move schools, homes and cities. I would get as far away from New York as possible.
I check her blog again, and my ex-best friend’s written some post about how I abandoned her. I want to yell, because she’s lying. Maybe she’s seeing things from a twisted perspective, but as far as I can tell, she abandoned me.
My father is coughing again, coughing into his palm. He’s spreading germs, I think. Soon I’ll be sick too. Why won’t he just listen to me?
But I know it’s not worth saying anything. He just has to figure it out on his own. But I guess I’m like that too.
I think back to 8th grade, when I had that eating disorder. I remember how my usually even-tempered uncle was screaming at me in the Vietnamese restaurant in upper Vermont because I hadn’t finished my curry.
“You’re gonna die!”
“I’m just being healthy.”
I told myself that I was doing it for my health. I ate until I was satisfied, and my body would thank me, but at 89 pounds, a body doesn’t thank a mind that’s supposed to make sure it weighs 104.
I didn’t realize that my healthy weight was twenty pounds above my head.
People kept trying to tell me. My dad would get frustrated and force food down my throat with a slotted spoon, and I’d just skip lunch when he wasn’t there. My mother would offer to buy me ice cream, bags of my favorite ginger butterscotch Oreos, but I’d tell her that I only ate yogurt now. My aunt tried to take me aside, tell me about how when she was sick—like me—her hair started falling out in little tufts like a shedding bunny rabbit. But my hair isn’t falling out, I thought, so I can’t be sick.
At camp my friend Pear offered me some peanut M&Ms, and by the end of the week my body was a silver smiling weight of 102.
Only after I was better did I realize how sick I had been.
Only after I was better did I hear everything people were telling me.
It’s like that with my dad too. Maybe once the virus has passed he’ll think maybe I shouldn’t have been coughing into my hands. I want to think it’s like that with my ex-best friend Abby. Maybe after all her pain is gone and the storm has passed she’ll see what happened. I really hope she does.
I’m reading her blog post, a little personal bit written in scrawled hashtags below empty space (because that’s always how she likes to address things online). She’s complaining that she doesn’t understand and asking why she can’t make sense of everything that happened.
Smart me with a magnifying glass knows that she never will, because she doesn’t want to.
Smart me knows that she didn’t love me, because if you love someone and they’re in pain, you feel their pain.
Smart me knows that if she did love me she wouldn’t have left.
But she did leave.
So she couldn’t have loved me.
We’re walking across the marble courtyard to leave the apartment and my dad has finally stopped coughing. His two-dollar t-shirt is inside out and has a little square white tag sticking out, but I don’t say anything because it’s Monday morning and there’s no one outside except for the two of us.
“How do you feel about going home?”
“I don’t know.”
We don’t go back to New York for another two weeks, so I don’t know why he’s asking. It’s so far away. I also want to ask why he’s calling it home, because my apartment on 108th street feels as close to home as the apartment we’re renting in Paris.
Right now, it’s not my front door. It’s not my coffee shop, my bakery, my nail parlor. Right now, New York is not my city. I’m renting a city from the people who hurt me like I’d never been hurt before. I’m renting my home from people who said they loved me and then didn’t. Right now my home in New York is no better than my apartment in Paris.
We’re crossing the cobblestones to get to the nearest boulangerie and I’m thinking about some distant Bukowski quote about how home is where you feel safe, and I feel like laughing.
I don’t feel safe there.
So it can’t be home.
I feel like I’m a boat on the Drake Passage, tossing among the ferocious waters of my emotions. I’ve got to hold it together. I won’t cry because I haven’t any tears left. I won’t scream because I haven’t any screams left. I won’t get angry because it’s not worth it. I’ve got to make it to the counter of the bakery and live.
My father is ordering two baguettes and one almond croissant in this broken half-hearted French. I think I’ve been writing this way, doing everything this way. I think I’d been walking my school’s hallways in this broken and half-hearted way like part of me is still at home in Abby’s arms. My boat is crossing placid water and I’m so full that I’m empty. I have felt so much that I don’t feel much of anything anymore.
I’m weaving in and out of understanding and drowning, out of sinking and breathing. I’m no better than my father, coughing into my palms.
I’m not learning.
I’m stuck in this pattern of forgetting and remembering and hurting like a dull pitchfork in my side.
I want to snap out of it, I want to get better.
I want to be me again.
I text John, message Harrison. I read two books in two weeks and promise not to think too hard. My skin darkens to a deep mahogany and nails lengthen like Elle Woods. The waters still more. I realize that Abby and I had something pretty but not perfect. I realize that this past year was a painful but necessary pastime. I realize I have grown and changed.
I open her blog, read a post about how she’s starting her own enterprise where she helps protect little girls from bullying. And this time, I don’t get angry. This time, I listen to my own advice. This time, I cough into my elbows.