Morning Breath was the first themed series The Troubadour published after it relaunched in the fall of 2015. In February 2016, we published new nonfiction piece on romance every Thursday, including a piece by former Wall Street Journal writer Paul Glader. Read them below:
When Allergic Reactions Become Part Of The Enigmatic Relationship Fabric
by Paul Glader
Sitting in a crowded, darkened theater watching The Imitation Game just after Christmas in 2015, my wife and I were transfixed on the clever dialogue between Alan Turing and other characters trying to break the Nazi’s Enigma machine. Then my wife started breathing heavily and muffling her coughs.
“Are you OK?” I said, leaning over and offering her a sip of my Diet Coke.
“I think so,” she said, looking unconvincing as she tried to will her allergic reaction away.
We tried to think of what might be triggering the reaction (she is allergic to tree nuts and shellfish). Was the popcorn bathed in peanut oil? Was someone munching mixed nuts nearby us? Did somebody sneak in a shrimp cocktail in their coat?
“Let’s go,” I said, seeing her condition worsen. As we excused ourselves and tried to tiptoe out of our row, my wife’s arm clung to my neck. Her slender limbs moved sluggishly, like a robot with weary batteries. Patrons seemed annoyed, then puzzled, then concerned. One woman hopped from her seat to help. At this independent theater – Cinema Arts in Huntington, NY, -- the main exit required us to hobble my wife down around the front of the screen and past the entire 300-person audience.
As we did so, I recalled my wedding vows (delivered by my father, a minister) to love “in sickness and in health.” I also thought of the various dates that had been ruined by these allergic reactions and in a growing assortment of locations: New York, Greece, Italy and Spain. Murphy’s Law seemed to apply: The odds of an allergic reaction happening (and happening without us having an epinephrine auto-injector such as an EpiPen, inhaler or antihistamine such as Benadryl on hand) seemed to coincide with romantic occasions.
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America says allergies are the country’s most common, yet often overlooked, diseases that affect roughly 50 million, or 20%, of Americans. And 15 million Americans have food allergies according to the Food Allergy Resource & Education. Roughly 4.1 million children, 5.6%, reported food allergies in 2012 according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. While food allergies are more prevalent in children than adults, my wife and other adults with her condition face severe (and sometimes fatal) anaphylactic reactions. Such reactions make up 200,000 ER visits each year. And it’s something that’s become part of our relationship.
When we first started dating, Eleni had an allergic reaction to nuts while we were at a park in Brooklyn. A few months later, she reacted to an unseen shrimp while we dined with my Swedish cousins at an Asian restaurant in Manhattan. The next year, she nearly passed out at a West Village restaurant because a waiter accidentally dropped a hazel nut in her soup.
After we were married, we moved to Berlin for two years and her allergies went Trans-Atlantic. Our daughter was born abroad and we took many small trips as a family. During a summer visit to Venice in 2012, we were enjoying a perfect Sunday afternoon stroll on nearby Murano Island, where craftsmen make famous glass chandeliers. We ordered gelato from a vendor, asking for one with “no nuts.” The request apparently translated wrong because the woman gave us a cone of Hazelnut-infused ice cream, a fact we realized only after my wife ate most of the cone and was stumbling out of a cathedral. To make matters worse: we had switched diaper bags that morning and didn’t have my wife’s medication.
Seeing no drugstores nearby, I walked Eleni to the nearest café. The owner’s face turned grim as he explained he had no medications and that drugstores and doctors’ offices were closed on Sundays. Older women in the café, dressed in their Sunday best after morning mass, grew worried as the man called an ambulance. Turning around to check on Eleni, I saw her resting on a red bench seat along a wall. The Italian women fanned her with dishtowels. As her eyes tried to roll shut, I stroked her hand and said, “Up, Up, Up! Don’t sleep!” Seeing our 4-month-old infant daughter riding on my chest in an Ergo baby carrier, the Italian grandmas became more dramatic, making signs of the cross, folding their hands in prayer toward the heavens and speaking verbal supplications to the Almighty on our behalf.
The ambulance arrived, pulling up to the dock right outside the café. It was a speedboat. Medics guided us on board and whisked us back to the main island ER. There, we saw other tourists who had collapsed from heat exhaustion. As the ER staff gave my wife an IV, I realized my chest was soaked. Amid all the excitement, my daughter had made a major, diaper-defying pooh in the Ergo carrier. A nurse gave me a separate room to handle that emergency. Five hours later, the ER handed me a bill, which totaled only Eur 27. We walked out and, chalking one day as a loss, continued our vacation.
A similar tragedy struck a year later as we visited San Sebastian, Spain. During a walk across town, a cold front caused us to pop into the beautiful Hotel Maria Cristina for a drink, a snack and to get warm. Eleni ate one potato chip from the snack tray and realized that a peanut had fallen into a curl of the chip and she had accidentally bit into the peanut. We rifled through our bags and, again, realized the allergy kit wasn’t there. So I sprinted down the hallway to the front desk, asking for an ambulance. As I ran back, I saw my wife crumpled on the floor. Another couple in the lounge area was nervously watching over her and our baby, who was sleeping in a stroller.
Within minutes, we were in the ambulance again and heading to a hospital. This time, my 1-year-old daughter was cognizant of the danger, worried about the sirens and nervously uttering a new word: “mamma!” Again, the disaster was averted and my wife was OK. But that was not the last.
Eleni had to go to the ER in Athens, Greece, later that year while visiting friends. In 2014, she had an allergic reaction as seafood smells wafted the Chinatown section of Washington DC as we walked to meet friends for brunch. (We spent the day at an ER in Foggy Bottom instead.) This past fall, Eleni was supposed to meet me in Manhattan for a fancy fundraiser dinner. I was looking forward to the event (got my dress shoes shined that morning). We had a baby sitter lined up. Then I got a call that my wife mixed up a peanut butter spread with a soy butter spread at home and was in the ER. Her friends came to watch our daughter until I could get a train home. No dinner at the University Club for us to hear investor Peter Thiel speak that evening.
Eleni even developed new, serious strains of asthma in the last year, causing several more trips to the ER. We were not sure what was the cause: Pollen in the air? Faulty car air conditioner? An heirloom Greek, shaggy rug in our living room? Bedroom furniture from IKEA? The possibilities drove us nearly bonkers. In the end, the doctors said it was just a new, wild case of Asthma. They assigned her a large Ziplock bag full of asthma medications. We’ve learned to use them and manage her condition.
When these setbacks strike, my first concern is for my wife’s health and safety. But, once that is established, I have to admit, it’s hard to hide my disappointment. I’m a person who prefers to be on time, to stay for the credits of a film, to see all exhibits in a museum. The idea of skipping an event or missing a vacation is depressing. I get bummed when plans go awry. But, in retrospect, the allergic reaction dates remain some of the most memorable and, even, comical in the rearview mirror. What’s the old formula that time + pain = humor? I don’t wish that on anybody. But I also accept that they are part of the fabric of our relationship. And I realize they cause me to loosen up and accept that plans get twisted sometimes.
As we walked out of the movie in December, I ran through scenarios of what to do next. I tried not to badger myself about us forgetting her meds. I also kind of wondered when we would get a chance to see the rest of the film. But, mostly, I just wanted Eleni to be OK.
“Should we go straight to the hospital,” I asked.
“No,” she whispered and wheezed. “Just take me home. My inhaler and meds are there.”
The gentlemen working at Cinema Arts, sprang into action and got a coffee from the concession stand (which limits the effects of asthma and allergies) and checked to see if they had an antihistamine (they did not). They did give us free make-up movie tickets, including one for the Good Samaritan woman who skipped the movie for 5 minutes to help us. We used the coupons recently to see the film, Trumbo.
A manager, John, waited with Eleni while I ran to pull our car up to the front door. We thanked him as I picked Eleni up off the bench and shuffled her out of the theater. I took the stylish purse out of her weak hand and slung it over my shoulder. “Now that’s love,” John said.
Before we drove away, my wife buckled her seatbelt and I leaned over for a kiss. “I love you more than any movie,” I said. And, even if we never found out how Turing broke the Nazi’s Enigma machine, I meant it.
Glader is an associate professor of journalism at The King's College in New York City and director of the McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute.
The table was full of Monopoly money, Natty Lite cans and powdery white specs of cocaine. I sat on my boyfriend’s lap in our friend Tom’s basement. It was 2 in the morning and it was my turn. I rolled a six, passed GO, collected $200, bought a house on Baltic Avenue (my boyfriend’s property) and slobbered “Happy Birthdayyyyyyyyyy babe.” It was his 18th and the night before I left home for my first year of college. I hated the word "babe," but I chose it anyway because the thought of leaving him made me feel lost and halved, like a dog chewing up a Beanie Baby in an abandoned park.
The next time I rolled, I landed on St. Charles Place, another one of my boyfriend’s properties, and owed him $18. He smiled, the illocution of which (I thought) was “pay up bitch.” I handed him 18 Monopoly dollars and reminded him that I had more American dollars to my name than he did (it was true; I worked part time driving a van that summer), which initiated a night of confusion, shame and violence for both of us.
My boyfriend, who I’ll call A, pushed his Monopoly dollars off of the table and said he didn’t want to play anymore. Tom and I looked at each other from across the table while A kept his head down and snorted a line. “You’re being a chick,” Tom said. He wore a lacrosse pinnie. A threw me off of his lap onto the floor and called me the "C" word and started to list “more appropriate measures of wealth.” They were all ridiculous and included the amount of weight he could bench press. Because I was disoriented and extremely high, I forgot about all the times he made me make his bed after sex and his fear of heights and eating egg shells and became jealous.
I was crying pretty forcefully when I picked up my keys and threatened to drive home. It was raining outside. He told me to “knock myself out,” so I did. I rolled down the grassy hill that was Tom’s front yard and climbed into the driver’s seat of my Subaru. After driving for about four minutes, I pulled over in the middle of the expressway and put my hazard lights on. All of the cars seemed to be passing by like rockets and I curled my knees up into my chest in the backseat—the side furthest away from traffic. I figured he’d call me soon and he did. He said, “Where the hell did you go? I want you back here. I’m sorry. I really mean it.” I said he had to come to me.
He appeared in my rearview mirror running and, mistaking him for a homicidal stanger, I grabbed pepper spray from the glove box. He tapped on my window and I sprayed it on the glass in front of his eyes. I came to recognize him, so I dropped the spray. I made him sit in the backseat when he finally got into my car because his clothes were wet from the rain. “Sorry about the spray,” I said.
I drove my car back to Tom’s house, saw Tom sleeping on his couch in his basement, and had sex with A underneath Tom’s pool table. It smelled like grass and rain. We were looking at each other apologizing the whole time. I thought about the fact that he just ran a mile in the rain to rescue me from rocket traffic, the funeral we had for a dead squirrel my dog killed in my backyard, the Christmas tree Pandora bracelet charm he bought me, the time he drove twenty minutes to fill up my gas tank in a blizzard, and the times he let me pick the movie.
We stayed underneath the pool table hugging. After about five minutes of silent hugging, he told me that he thinks about Topanga from Boy Meets World when we’re having sex. I laughed so hard that I was choking on my own spit. Tom’s dad woke up, came down into the basement, saw us naked underneath the pool table, put his hand over his eyes, said “Get out of my house,” and I punched A on the right side of his face.
I could tell it hurt because he spit out a tooth and his eyes were red and watery. He threw my shirt at me and said, “C’mon.” He left his tooth on a dresser. We drove to Burger King and shared a large Sprite in the parking lot. Third Eye Blind was playing on satellite radio. At around 6 AM, we fell asleep in the backseat. He kept his arm around me while we slept so that I wouldn’t fall on the floor in between the front and back seats.
Three years later, I broke up with A in his doorway while his parents watched from the couch in the living room. If I ever see God and he asks what I have to say for myself, I'll probably tell him that I get why he's disappointed but, from a human perspective, it's very confusing what exactly we're supposed to love and how much we're supposed to love it. I understand now that drugs don't love me and that the feeling I felt toward them wasn't love. But people are different--even if A is by all accounts a huge jerk, he is still a person and he still needs love. It's very hard to love a person like him. So I guess I would apologize to God for trying in my own fucked up sort of way.
by Maxine Webster
I was nineteen when I lived in Japan. I was on a six month service trip living with eighteen other people in a tiny house on the outskirts of Tokyo, and somewhere between orientation and the last lunch of ramen noodles, I made a close friend.
We were both young with no real responsibilities; two people from opposite sides of the globe who bonded over a few similarities, but mostly over differences. Him, the tropics; me, the north. Him, music; me, tone deaf. Him, sincere; me, sarcastic.
The mornings in Tokyo were freezing and our house didn’t have heating. We ate the same breakfast every morning: a fried egg with two slices of white bread and apricot jam.
One night we borrowed bicycles from a neighbor and ventured off with no idea where we were going. We rode under bridges and along small, man-made bodies of water, exploring the narrow, concrete maze that is Tokyo. Several times I thought we were lost, only to realize he knew where we were. At one point we had to walk the bikes up a steep hill; after he had made it to the top he turned around and, noticing I was struggling, walked halfway down, took the bike from me and walked it the rest of the way up, saying nothing. I have no idea how he navigated a foreign city without a map.
We spent New Year’s Eve in a vacant subway station blasting LMFAO and displaying every stupid dance move we knew. The only people we saw was a group of thirty Nepalese tourists who joined our dance party for one song. I couldn’t label what we were, just that we were more than friends but not in a position to be dating. I constantly dreaded the end.
I applied to University while I was in Asia. I had always dreamed of studying in New York, but the idea of living so far away from him was difficult. In a moment of honesty, he admitted to me that he hoped I didn’t get in so I could move to his country instead.
But I did get in. And with the understanding that our lives were going in different places (literally and figuratively), I moved to New York shortly after returning from Japan.
There was a thrill in moving to the city. That first month I made a handful of new friends, got a part-time job and adjusted to the ebb and flow of the city. While I was proud of myself for flourishing in a brand new place, all I had to do was see a couple on the subway and heartbreak would come flooding back. It angered me to think I had wasted time and energy and emotion on something that never materialized. None of my successes seemed to matter at the end of the day. I have never experienced a single year so equally characterized by thriving and pain.
Four years later, the friendship only exists in flashbacks, small lessons learned through heartache, infrequent Facebook messages, and the realization that everything I experience becomes a part of who I am. Although there is little to show from that friendship other than what I carry from it, perhaps the weight of those things is a normal part of life. And maybe the burden will be useful to me one day.
I received a message from him a few months ago. Through a chance encounter, he recently met the only other person I know from his country. They have since moved in together with a few other people. I still don’t know what to make of it other than acknowledge that the world is impossibly small.
Despite the recent coincidence, I have no idea if I’ll ever see him again. I’d like to see what four more years look like on him, but maybe seeing him would only wash up memories of loss.
Despite the rare, uncomfortable feeling of missing someone I only knew for a moment, I’m happy we were friends. If our worlds met again, I hope I could convey to him the grace and kindness equal to what his friendship meant to me four years ago in Tokyo.
Astrology For God Fearers
by Lauren Schuhmacher
In Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character, Alvy, tells Annie (Diane Keaton) that he loves her, but he says it like this: “Love is too weak a word for the way I feel. I lurve you. You know, I loave you. I luff you. With two Fs.” Alvy is compelled to literally make up a word for how he feels for Annie; “love” just isn’t going to cut it.
For some reason, language isn’t powerful enough when it comes to love. Something about love is too elusive to be put to words; it never quite comes out comprehensively, and so romantic poets wrote what they did and Woody Allen made up a word. That love is so hard to talk about makes it unquantifiable, and this aspect of romance is deeply distressing to those of us stuck in a culture obsessed with personality typologies and data categorization. What do we do with something that we can’t talk about adequately, let alone quantify?
My middle school youth group pastor had some thoughts to share on this topic. He argued that it is important not to casually throw around the phrase “I love you,” that the value of the words could wear off, and it’s trite to apply it to anything (or anyone). Be careful, in other words, and don’t give away your love too easily, or the person who deserves it might not hear you clearly enough, he said. You might have to make up new words for the person you love later. Be afraid of language and its limitations. If something is hard to talk about, simply don’t, in other words.
The language of love is a very popular Christian culture topic, as it turns out. Consider, on the opposite end of the spectrum from my youth group guru, Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, and all its iterations (The Five Love Languages “of children,” “of apology,” “of appreciation in the workplace,” “of teenagers,” “singles edition,” “men’s edition,” “military edition,” and “the love languages of God”). This is an attempt to categorize love and make it accessible through language, and it makes sense in the context of the ever-popular Myers-Briggs categorizations. We live in a world clearly compelled to categorize everything, even ephemeral things like personality and emotion. It’s like astrology for God-fearers, where our signs aren’t determined by our birthdate, but by inputs into a multiple-choice test.
We are all about trying to decode those things that can’t be said. We have a strong interest—as Christians, as Americans, as millennials, as humans—in categorizing everything. The youth group pastor of old categorized love as something to withhold until you’re “ready” (really, what does this mean?), and Gary Chapman offers five distinct categories of love languages. Yet, I’m unconvinced that either of these metrics actually helps us accomplish an understanding of why love is elusive to language, and they certainly don’t give us a realistic framework for dealing with what love is.
Love doesn’t belong to the realm of quantification, or to categorization. To try to decode romance does everyone a disservice. We’d do better to simply be in love than to see if our Myers-Briggs are compatible, or to unravel our own love languages with the help of a book clearly intended to just sell copy after copy. It is as silly to compare astrological signs as it is to work within Christian-condoned typologies, simply because all of these things miss the point: love is bigger than our arbitrary distinctions, and we have no business subjugating it to patterns in the stars or patterns in our personalities.
It isn’t even right to make up a word for it, as Alvy does for Annie. The motivation behind that scene gets at the truth, which is that love is too elusive a thing to capture in a word. This is the same reason the youth pastors of the world declare to be careful how often we say “love,” as if they could fix the inadequacy of language by simply charging us to preserve it. The truth about love and language, as it turns out, is less neat than either of these solutions imply. We neither need to be quiet about love, make up new words to talk about it, nor try to discover what our own secret love language is. We just need recognition, in a data-obsessed world, that this one thing doesn’t get to be quantified, or reduced to language. It just gets to exist.
Thumbnail image by Evelyn Stetzer.