So many people have asked me about the story that I finally simply complied and went to work writing it up. I hope it does justice to the event. If not, I suppose you'll just have to stop bugging me and go straight to Alicia with your inquiries.
I came down with a cold the day before it happened. Normally, my colds aren't very bad, just a bit of coughing, a few aches, and an annoying perpetually-running nose. I came home from a long day of work and settled down into my living room chair with a warm cup of tea. I was exhausted, and by the time the tea was finished, I could barely keep my eyes open. So I changed and crawled into bed, falling asleep in mere minutes. The reason I mention that my colds aren't usually at all bad is because it wasn't until the second day of having this particular one that, to my disappointment, it turned out this one was.
I didn't realize it until I was on my way to work the next morning, and greatly in need of a few tissues. My perpetually running nose had transformed into a perpetually tickley nose. I suppose this would be a good time to mention that I cannot stand to sneeze. Just the mere thought of it drives me crazy. It's not so much that I hate actually sneezing, I just don't like to do it in front of people. And I have no idea really about when or how it came about. Perhaps there is something in my English upbringing that made me that way. Or perhaps just something about my nature that makes me dislike losing all of my strength and composure and coming to pieces in front of others the way I do when a sneeze escapes me.
So you can imagine the torture the morning ride to work must have brought me. I take the subway into the district every morning, and it's busily packed full of people of all sorts. Stuffy businessmen reading the paper, laughing young men and women on their way to classes as Georgetown, classy women in scarves and suits, blue-collar workers in overalls or rags. There are people with walkmans, briefcases, backpacks, suitcases, and packages. I gave the car a glance, then settled into one of the few available seats, beside a woman with headphones on and a purse in her lap. It was a good choice, as she could not easily hear my almost constant sniffles, several of which were unfortunately so loud as to cause a few looks towards me. Just what I loved: attention.
FILL YOU IN:
He gets to work and takes a tour group around, trying to hold back his sneezes the whole time.
I could feel it coming even stronger, and I did all in my power to resist it. The sensation seeping once again into my nose, my face, my chest, my whole body. In desperation, I rubbed my nose, trying to be discrete, trying to keep to the script. "Next we… will move on… to… to…" but it was no use. In last resort I held my breath, clenched my teeth, and pinched my nose shut. Catching the one woman's eyes, I thought to turn away, to the side. Without being able to stop it, I closed my eyes and prayed that they weren't all watching. My shoulders drew up and forward as I bent at the waist a bit, pinching my nose shut still as the agonizing sneeze struck. "Mm-pfftt!" Which seemed to echo in my ears, my nose stuffed and on fire at the same time. I opened my eyes, sniffed as quietly as possible, and turned back with a brave face on. "Sorry."
One woman was opening her mouth, perhaps to 'bless' me, but I would have none of it.
"Next we move on to the mammals. Follow me, if you will." My nose was running, almost visibly now, and I made to scratch my nose, though I really rubbed against it, trying to clear it a little, though without much success. Luckily, I managed to get through the mammals and dinosaur exhibits before the ever-present light tickle in my nose become stronger again.
FILL YOU IN:
More of the same, still doing the same tour group
"huh-pifftt!" I gasped for breath after, head reeling from suppressing the force of that sneeze.
"Bless you," I heard one woman say, and felt my face flush.
"Thanks," I whispered just loud enough to be heard, and quickly resumed my talk."
FILL YOU IN:
He finishes and heads back to the main desk to sign out.
"Excuse me… oh, are you heading home?"
I nodded. "Yes, but sniff if you would like any information, that's what the desk's for. And tours will…" drat! It was back. "Will… will be running until fuuhhh…four to… to…" I struggled to get it out. "to-day-eh-hehPFFT!" That one had been so strong that it still rang in my ears. I had been lucky to catch that one in time to stifle it. Hopefully she would overlook it.
She hadn't, and I felt horrible.
"Have a bit of a cold there?" she asked, much to my dismay.
"Uh, no, it's just dust," how was I supposed to answer?
"Dust, hmmm?" She seemed suspicious, but sweet.
"Yeah. These museums sniff you know."
"Oh, yes… I see."
I was already rubbing at my nose, a very intense tingle in my nostrils. "ehh…" I pinched my nose shut, in vain attempt at holding it off. But it was too powerful. "uhpffft! Piffft! MmPhuhh!" I gasped for breath, leaning against the information desk for support. I figured I owed her an apology for that, at least. "Excuse me," my voice sounding weak and rough, and I swore to myself for it.
"It's quite alright. It's a good thing you're heading home, then."
I shrugged. "I'm not looking forward to the long ride home on the metro."
"You're taking the metro? Where do you live?"
I hesitated a moment. Then finally, "Right outside Pentagon City."
Her mouth hung open. "Me, too! Hey, um, I realize I'm being forward here but would you care for a lift home?"
I shook my head. "No, thank you. I'll be fine."
"But I'm going that way," she insisted sweetly. "And I wouldn't mind in the least."
She seemed so innocent and sweet in asking that I couldn't resist. "All right."
"Good!" she exclaimed. It was then that I thought she might have some designs on me, but I couldn't tell what. I finished signing out and turned, introducing myself a bit more formally. "I'm Benjamin Jones."
She laughed. "Alicia Jones."
I laughed back, eyebrows raised in surprise. "Well, I guess if we get married we won't sniff have to worry about changing names, hmm?"
It made the laughter die down a bit… and I could have hit myself for saying it… but she nodded. "I guess so."
Her car was parked a block or two down. She had a friend who worked at one of the motels in town and since he had no car, let her park in the deck in his spot. Quite convenient, really. After dealing with the cards, we cleared the garage, and headed to the inner loop of the beltway, which was surprisingly quiet for a Friday.
"So," she said, once we were on our way. "Your accent… are you British?"
"Formerly," I told her. "Moved her just last year from London."
"Oh! That's exciting! I've never been across seas. What's it like?"
I sniffed, wondering if the tickle in my nose would continue to behave through the entire car ride. "It's beautiful. Much like DC in a way—always something going on. I came over here for a research position in the museum, and do tours a few days a week in addition to support the… the rent."
I nodded. "Dust must… be lingering." I flared my nostrils and swallowed hard, clenching my teeth. The feeling backed off.
"Mmmhmm," she replied, flipping on her blinker to get into the right middle lane from the left middle.
To distract her from the current topic, I tried my usual tactic. "So tell me about yourself."
She shrugged, looking over at me with a quick glance. "Not much to tell, really. Single, went to Georgetown, work at Whitman Walker Clinic—I've always lived around here."
I smiled. "My work keeps me rather busy. But sometime I might like a tour of 'around here.'" Had I just said that? It was her sweet charm wearing through. Though I did want to repay her for her kindness.
"I'd love to."
The tickle returned and I went to work against it. As oddly comfortable as I felt with her, I was not about to let her see me sneeze if I could help it. It was bad enough that the stifled ones caught her attention so much. The full blown ones would certainly embarrass me to no ends as her eyes stared into me. So I rubbed violently at my nose, holding it at bay. It gave me a chill and I shivered, brining my coat tighter around me. I could see she had the heater on, but it was doing little on me for some reason.
"Really, I know parts of DC that most people don't even know exist. I'd love to show you around, what have you seen out—"
Honestly, that's the last thing I remember her saying. I suppose I might have dozed off, and to this day Alicia claims that I passed out, but either way, when I opened my eyes, I was tucked into my bed.
At first, I was completely alarmed. I'd heard the stories of stalkers. Albeit that they were usually men stalking women but this was a country I was certainly still only getting used to. I sat up, scared, panicking, but found my head spinning.
She walked into my bedroom a moment after, with two cups of tea. "Oh good! I was getting worried. You passed out in the car and I had to check your license to see where you lived. I tried waking you a hundred times and finally just pulled you up the stairs and got you into bed. I hope you don't mind. You look… um… unsteady about it." She left a cup on the nightstand and backed up. "Forget the tour if you wish. I'll leave right away—"
"Stay," I blurted out, wondering why on earth I'd said such a thing. I'd had such a warm feeling about it, even through the fear. I could only speculate then as to what the feeling meant. Now, I am certain I know what it was. "You've been so sweet to me. Please stay and have a drink." I noticed my accent was running rich, as if I were talking to my parents. I very rarely spoke with such a strong accent unless conversing with them or someone with an accent a hundred times stronger than my own. I coughed and made quick use of the warm, soothing tea. "But I would sniff like to… to know… sniff…" I stopped, putting down the cup and rubbing at my nose. The feeling was back, strong. After a few minutes of controlled breaths and otherwise uncomfortable, embarrassing silence, I settled back down.
"Benjamin, if you'd rather I go… I see you're not comfortable and you do seem to be ailing a bit…"
"I'm fine," I snapped back, without wanting to. This was a horrible start to a friendship. The girl had been so nice to me… but something about the cold just wouldn't let me be civil. "But why are you sniff being so… so nice to a stranger… sniff!"
She shook her head. "If I told you, you'd think I was silly."
This peaked my curiosity. "Please?"
She sat down on the edge of my bed and sipped her tea. "Do you believe in love at first sight?"
"I'm not sure," I told her truthfully. "I never have before today." I noticed, then, that we were both speaking in whispers, our eyes locked.
"Neither did I," she said, tearing her eyes away from mine and dropping them to the floor nervously. "Maybe I should just go."
"No, please stay."
"If you're sure…"
I nodded back. The tickle returned quickly, and I knew I would have not even the time to pinch my nose shut. But I did manage to raise my one arm and bury my nose into the crook of my elbow. "ummuphh! ummph! ummphchuhh!" a triple that I felt horrible embarrassed at. I suddenly wished that I had asked her to leave.
"Bless you. Dust still lingering?" she asked pointedly.
I nodded. "Yes. Sometimes it tends to do just… ehhh…just thahhhh—" quickly I raised my elbow up again, muffling the sound of my powerful sneeze. "uhpumph! humph!"
"Bless you," she said again, making me feel horrible. Why did she have to watch? Why did she have to stare so?
I sniffed, finding that my nose was running now.
As if knowing the same, she leaned over and brought the tissue box over, handing me one from it. I accepted, my face flushing red, and wiped my nose on it, terrified of blowing. That certainly just was not done. Sneezing, perhaps, if it could not be helped. But blowing my nose in the presence of a woman? Especially one as sweet and kind as she? No, I could not do it.
As if sensing this as well, she stood up. "May I use your bathroom a moment, please?"
I nodded, extending a finger. "Dowd de hall," I said, nose running, tissue held securely in place to hold it back.
"Thank you," she said, leaving at once.
With her gone, I gave a great sigh, dissolving into coughs from it. I blew my nose one, two, three, four… eleven, twelve times before I heard her footsteps approaching. With a quick swipe, I cleared off the bed, the tissues falling to the floor or into the trashcan.
It happened when she sat down on the bed again. She opened her mouth to speak, as did I, but what came first was the thing I had been dreading the whole day. A strong, wet, loud, "HUH-UHHSHHEUUSHH!" of a sneeze. It made my body shake, and rocked the bed, too, and had sprayed freely in front of me in all utter rudeness and shame. I quickly grabbed a tissue and held it to my nose, pinching it shut to hold back the tickle that threatened another few.
"Goodness! Bless you!" she said, watching me with those eyes that were both sweet and invading.
I wanted to answer, but in all honesty I could not get my mouth to move. I felt beyond horrible about the whole thing. I closed my eyes, trying to figure out what to do next.
I felt a cool hand on my forehead, and then her soft voice said, "You have a fever!"
I shook my head. "Dust…" I tried to assure her as my eyes closed despite themselves.
"Cold bug," she replied as a cool washcloth wiped my forehead. So that's what she'd been doing in the bathroom.
"Sniff! Aller… gies…" I muttered, feeling absolutely exhausted but struggling to stay awake, "…dust…"
She made no reply, or if she did, I did not hear her; I was asleep again.
She took care of me that day, and that whole weekend. In her hovering, she came close to trying my patience any number of times, but at each, she flashed me that sweet smile of hers, and gave me such reassuring and soothing touches that I could do nothing but let her hover. She brought me tea, she brought me eggs and soup, she brought me orange juice and cough drops, she brought me ice cream with extra chocolate sauce, and she brought me tissues. And she slept on the floor, in a sleeping bag, waking to my every call, taking care of me better than my own Mother would have. I missed having someone there for me, I missed feeling dependent, feeling cared for, feeling loved. And when it was all over, I asked what I could possibly do to repay her kindness. With a smile and a kiss to the cheek, just before she turned on her heels and left giggling, she whispered, "Marry me."
And so, many months later, I did.