To Make Sure She Could Stop
by Michael Don
Did you hear about the woman who couldn’t stop sneezing?
On her afternoon walk through the neighborhood while reading a thick and theoretical book, a ray of sun hit the back of her neck, traveled upward through her skull, across her brain and tickled her nose.
Five doctors, two hypnotists, a visit to her parents’ home for roasted chicken and a rest in her childhood bed, one quarter of a church service at which she was kindly asked to leave. Eleven sleepless nights.
In their own way everyone offered the sentiment that this type of thing would work itself out – she would look back on it as a strange yet harmless episode amidst the stress of qualifying exams, she would probably even laugh about it – but she could sense that many felt she was seeking out attention. Ten years ago, as a high school senior, during the week of superlative voting, she took every opportunity – at lunch and between classes, even when she was called on by a teacher – to mention she was writing a book. It was well known that more than anything she wanted to be a notable person.
I could tell you that eventually the sneezing stopped and the woman went on to live the life she had set out for. Defended her dissertation, birthed two children with sperm from her most compassionate ex-boyfriend, lectured all across the country and even at universities in Southeast Asia where she’d conducted her research. Bought a modest house in an up-and-coming neighborhood. Didn’t praise her daughter for her beauty. Didn’t praise her son for his height. Avoided apologizing when she wasn’t sorry. Had a Wikipedia entry by her fortieth birthday. Infused her children with love, but didn’t treat them as god-like cherubs.
Or I could tell you how it was after midnight and she went for a drive because what else was she supposed to do? And during one of the split seconds when her eyes shut and her head jerked forward, her car dipped off the road, flipped several times and settled at the bottom of a ravine where she was found at sunrise by a crew of construction workers. Before the men found her, she laughed at her feeling of relief; pain shooting through limbs was a welcome exchange for a quiet mouth and nose.
I could tell you she only spent one night in the hospital. Treated for bruises and abrasions, no bones cracked, no internal bleeding, didn’t require reconstructive surgery, didn’t require a wheelchair for several years before she was able to limp around on crutches. Doctors said she was very lucky. But she refused to accept the medical report; she refused to accept that luck had anything to do with anything.
What about the sneezing? What is the scientific explanation?
One of the doctors – a middle-aged woman with high cheekbones, a double chin and wispy white hair – stood by her bed. The woman liked how the doctor resembled her favorite of her mom’s friends, a confident woman with an oddly proportioned body who asked unexpected questions, challenging in content, but friendly in tone. The woman wondered if an anomalous thing happened to the doctor, something to help explain her funny features.
It’s not so much about luck as it is possibility, the doctor said. Take any normal bodily behavior such as sneezing and there is potential for the brain and the physical mechanism that produces a sneeze to lock into a loop whereby the behavior is continuously produced until the pattern is broken.
Then how about a social explanation?
That’s not really my area of expertise, but stress, anxiety, depression – these things can come from social influences and manifest as physical changes. Most physicians won’t admit this, but often the patient has better intuition about what’s happening to their own body than any MD. What do you think happened?
She wanted to sit with the doctor and discuss possibilities, not about her own condition, but what other funny things she’d seen the body do, but the woman’s silence must have invited the doctor to offer a goodbye and good luck handshake, her fingers long and graceful, her palms round and plump. The woman saw little advantage in telling the doctor that she felt her body was asking, if not demanding her to stop working; not so different from her reoccurring daydream in which she sustains a brain injury from being smacked in the head with a detached side view mirror, flying off a speeding car. Promise me no more sneezing and driving, the doctor said as she left the woman alone. Now the woman could hear the patient on the other side of the drawn curtain, presumably an older woman or a young woman with a fading voice, praying.
For a while the woman felt she was on the verge of triggering a perpetual behavior. She found herself getting by, but not without holding her breath and swallowing, crinkling her nose, or biting the insides of her mouth.
Sometimes she poked the inside of her nose cartilage with the nail of her pinky in effort to bring forth a sneeze. Sometimes she would bring forth twenty or thirty sneezes before feeling satisfied. She had to perform this behavior to make sure she could stop it.
Now I could tell you about what happened years later when the woman had a child. She was so drugged up that she forgot she was having twins, and on sight of the second baby crowning, she yelled at the doctors, Hurry up and get a net, they’re gonna come pouring out of me! Everyone laughed, especially the new dad, oh the silly things we say on drugs. The new dad was caught in memory of having his wisdom teeth pulled as a teenager and still high on gas telling his mom that he found a collection of porn in his dad’s guitar case, and his guilt that this reveal had something to do with their divorce five years later, when a third tiny head with a fuzzy tuft of brown hair emerged into the delivery room.
Just get a net, the woman said, calmly and assured.
Michael Don teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is an editor and co-founder of Kikwetu: A Journal of East African Literature. His recent work has appeared in Washington Square, Fiction International, Per Contra, and elsewhere. He’s on the internet at www.michaeldon.net.