My first date with Adam was in my second year of college. It wasn't a date, really. More like a "Hey, Sandra, I'm grabbing a bite. Wanna come along?" But if you're a girl deep in the clutches of a crush, such an invitation trumps Prince Charming pulling up in his gilded carriage.
We went to a popular cafe known for cheap Mediterranean food served from behind a counter.
"Can you find something here?" Adam asked.
"Sure!" I said brightly. "I love this place."
Actually, I'd never eaten there. I'm fatally allergic to foods most people take for granted—dairy, beef, eggs, cucumber, cashews, and more. Once Adam was out of earshot I fired questions at the cashier. Were all the salads pre-sprinkled with feta? What oil was the falafel fried in?
Risk was not an option: One wrong bite could give me a stomachache—then stop my breathing. But as my romantic life was often tested by allergies, I didn't want Adam to think me fussy. Since childhood I've had to be on patrol for dangers in my environment. As a result I am responsible, extremely attentive to detail...and something of a self-righteous nag. While near-death experiences might seem to trump all, it was my personality, shaped by a lifetime of avoiding danger, that worried me.
I settled on garlicky hummus—an unfit prelude to a kiss. But I soon had much bigger problems.
Bubbles. I tried to ignore the sensation of pockets of air rising from behind my sternum, working their way painfully up my windpipe, popping, rising again. I felt weak. While Adam made small talk about movies, I faked a cough, bringing a hand to my mouth so I could swallow a Benadryl from my purse. It was all I could do to stay upright, nod, smile, swallow, smile again.
When I'd asked about "dairy" in the pita, the server had neglected to mention goat's milk. Forty minutes passed in a blur as I tried to keep the date going, pushing hummus around my plate as my body shut down. I walked Adam to the library, waiting until the doors close behind him. Then I stumbled to a phone booth and called an ambulance.
I've always been quick to hide a reaction if I can get away with it. There's a world of difference between having someone care about you and forcing him to be your caretaker. Besides, allergy attacks aren't pretty. A reaction is no dainty "spell" that leaves me dabbing at my mouth with a handkerchief. There will be gasping and sweating and retching. Putting on lip gloss before a night out, I never know if the night will end with a kiss—or mouth-to-mouth from a paramedic with halitosis.
Eight years and several breakups later, Adam and I once again sat down to eat. A few bites into my salad, I felt that familiar tickle. I nibbled on another leaf or two, then pretended I was full. As Adam walked me back to my place, my mask of composure slipped. I slowed, then staggered.
"Let's get home," I said. "I need to get home."
Once in the door, I ran to the bathroom, hunching down as my guts roiled. Adam waited outside. Every few minutes he would call in, "Are you okay?"
I heard the question, but couldn't muster a response. As sometimes happens with bad reactions, a surreal image rose up in my head. This time it was my breath as the bow on a violin, being drawn back and forth. Back . . . forth . . . back . . .
Keep playing, I thought hazily. Play.
That was when the bathroom door nearly jumped off its hinges as Adam busted in.
"GET OUT," I hollered, yanking up my underwear. Relieved that I was conscious, Adam quickly stepped back and closed the door.
Later, after the EMT team had come and gone, Adam wrapped his arms around me.
"Do me a favor," he said. "Don't die."
My posture stayed stiff. I was mortified at the view he'd gotten.
"Sandra," he said. "You have to understand. I couldn't tell your mom that I let you die alone—and on a toilet."
That was when I knew he intended to stick around. Yet even when we were ready to try living together, he wasn't prepared for the thousand minor hassles of living with my allergies.
"Did you get all the eggs off that plate?" I'd say to Adam. "You kind of have to scrub before you load it in the dishwasher, or else they get baked on."
"Um, can you throw away that expired milk? You know I can't touch it."
Though all young couples struggle with housekeeping, my allergies leveraged every concern into a litmus test. Do you love me? Then rinse out that glass. We broke up for the typically complicated reasons that young love ends. But at times I couldn't help but think that he wanted a girlfriend, not a mom.
I used to think the ultimate challenge to a man's affection would be seeing me in the messy, scary grip of a reaction. But the true measure of a relationship is these everyday trials of trust. With Adam and boyfriends since, I find myself constantly quizzing: You washed your hands, but what about your beard?
I have to believe there is a man out there whose diligence will let me be swept up in the moment—who will let me reclaim the spontaneous, lovestruck teenager I never got to be. When he leans over to kiss me in the morning, I won't have to ask if he's had cream in his coffee.
Sandra Beasley, Crown Publishers, Random House Inc.
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. Reprinted from Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales From an Allergic Life
Copyright © 2011 by Sandra Beasley. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.