Adverse Reaction

by Faith Gardner

It took Hector seven phlegm-filled days, days he missed work at the department store's cologne counter, before he figured out he was allergic to his own child.

"I see," Cherry said, holding their newborn baby who slept, pink and eyelashless, wrapped in a yellow blanket. "You never wanted him so now you're pulling this."

He tried to tell her it was real, but she threw a rattle at his foot.

"Prove it," she said. "Find a doctor who agrees."

But Hector couldn't. Even the allergy specialist simply blamed the spring, the spores, the mites and mold. It didn't matter when it started, when it worsened. They referred him to a hypnotist-friend who Hector distrusted and quickly quit. Hector went back to work, red-eyed, pockets stuffed with handkerchiefs, and spritzed himself with multiple colognes he could not afford to buy in full. That was the first month. The second month the rashes started.

"What do you mean you can't hold him? That's not why you have rashes on your hands," Cherry said, whispering, for the baby slept in its crib.

He bought creams and ointments, salves and lotions. Slathered, applied, soaked, rinsed, patted dry. Nothing worked. He resorted to borrowing a pair of leather gloves he could not afford to buy from the Men's Accessories department during work hours to hide the hives and flaking skin. He wore mittens at home. Soon his face broke out as well.

"Coward," Cherry cried as she watched him packing his gym bag with his single suit and tie, his toothbrush, various topical creams and allergy medications. "Don't leave us. You say you have to see but you know you're making excuses. These rashes are just excuses."

He unpacked his gym bag and lay next to Cherry. He ran a hand down Cherry's arm and she sighed and let him. She told him to wait, got up and brought the baby to the bed. The three of them lay together in silence beneath a blanket.

"See?" she said. "Not so bad."

That morning the sun rose and caught light on the spare change and the upside down DVDs on the dresser and cast rainbows on the walls. Hector awoke and clutched his unshaven throat.

"What is it?" asked Cherry. "Is it your airpipe?"

He gasped, croaked, got up, stumbled to the bathroom, splashed water on his face, drank from the faucet, squeezed his neck, but no air, no air, no air until it seemed --yes--he was dying. He could hear Cherry's voice as he slumped crookedly against the shower curtain and fell into the dry tub. Hector, Hector, Cherry said. His ears rang, darkness descended on his vision, and then he felt liquid--cold, icy water--being poured on his head from above. A pinhole seemed to open up in his throat and he gasped again, and the world grew light, and his wife was standing over him in her nightrobe with swollen eyes, dripping detachable shower head in hand, shaking her curls.

According to the ear, nose and throat doctor Hector was not asthmatic. According to the psychiatrist, Hector had something very serious-sounding: a psychosomatic illness. He explained this to Cherry and she almost threw formula in his face. She looked weathered: bags under eyes, mis-buttoned flannel nightgown.

"That's a crock if I ever heard one," she said, and mock-gasped. "I have an idea: why don't you take a placebo and make it better?"

He wished it was that simple, he told her, but psychosomatic illness was a mysterious disease.

"You are a mysterious disease," she said, and wept into her hands. "Listen to me, I'm like a five year old. I haven't slept for more than four consecutive hours in weeks. What am I supposed to do?"

At first, when he told her his solution, she silently took the liberty of packing his gym bag for him. But he convinced her to wait for the package to arrive in the mail. Two business days later it did, cardboard torn open, Styrofoam peanuts aflutter, and he put on the plastic astronaut suit and held his baby in his arms for the first time in months; bottle-fed him; pressed his glass helmet against his son's blond wisps of hair, ran an airtight glove across his chubby cheeks, and declared no hives or constricted airways resulted. Cherry emptied the gym bag and returned it to the closet. She stood at the sliding glass window, either star-gazing or reflection-gazing, arms across her chest.

"Change is never what you think," she said.

He spoke, and although it was unintelligible due to the helmet, she seemed to understand. She nodded and crossed to him and kissed the foggy glass covering his mouth. "Oh, Hector," was all she said.

Back in their bed, they silently reconciled. Hector's plastic was cold and it chafed her, but no matter. Heaven to be held tight and to sleep through the night.

BIO: Faith lives in Oakland and has stories in or forthcoming in Word Riot, McSweeney's Internet Tendency and PANK. She also plays and sings in the band Hooray for Everything and solo as Scarlett O'Hara. Evidence of these things can be found at faithgardner.com.