Eau du Swell

Since I was a child, I knew I was sensitive to chemicals—especially soaps and specialty acne cleansers. But it wasn’t until the past three years that I realized I was also sensitive to smells. When I went to a “relaxation clinic” to help with my depression, I learned I was breathing more shallowly than the average human. I pondered this while on my way home, trying as hard as I could to inhale with deep breaths. Walking through the city pavement, I would try to swell my stomach and chest out with air, as instructed, but immediately stop short. I fought and struggled with my body, trying to force my lungs to inhale to maximum capacity. But it simply would not happen. Then while waiting on the busy downtown sidewalk for my bus, I suddenly realized why I breathe shallowly. The smell of the city, particularly exhaust from the cars, greatly bothered me.

I had always instinctively known that smells bothered me and compensated with shallow breathing. But once I knew consciously, I became more aware of the scents around me. I paid attention to any and every non-natural smell I encountered, noting how my body reacted. While fuel exhaust and extremely harsh chemical smells you barely encounter in day-to-day life really bothered me, perfumes seemed fine.

Then one day, while on the bus, a women sat in front of me with a perfume that smelled like any ordinary perfume. Mucus thickly dripped down my throat, soon followed by swelling. I opened the window. My throat continued to swell. I moved to the back of the bus, again opening a window. Suddenly, I was wheezing for air. What the hell was going on? I don’t have asthma! Would my throat keep swelling until I couldn’t breathe? Was I going to die? Was I making a big deal out of nothing?

I didn’t want to be that person who causes a commotion because they’re not quite wired right in the head. I tried to hide my wheezing, hoping that I could make it to my job. With each wheeze, I watched the landmarks pass. But ten minutes away and I felt like I would pass out from lack of air. When the bus stopped outside the mall, I dashed off. Collapsing onto my hands and knees on the sidewalk, I threw up into a drainage grate. I stared down in front of me. The prior night’s dinner and that morning’s breakfast slowly dripped through the grating. People were looking at me at the bus stop, people in cars were pointing. I tried to spit what vomit I could, wiped my mouth on my hand, and stood up.

Away from the perfume, the swelling in my throat slowly subsided. By the time another bus came and I walked into work 20 minutes late, I could mostly breathe normally. At first, I was worried this would be a new way of life for me. But as months passed without incident, I mostly forgot the fear of not being able to breathe.

And then it happened again today. A man came into my office reeking of cologne. He stood inches behind me, talking to another contractor. Suddenly, my head started to pound and my throat began to swell. I waited him out, hoping he would leave soon. And he did. But the lingering cologne persisted in the air. And my throat continued to swell. And the pounding in my headache felt like someone was stabbing my eyes from inside my skull. And then things went black. I woke up perhaps a minute later to find I had not only toppled out of my desk chair, but had projected a fountain of vomit that arched with my fall. A pulp of sugar peas, goldfish crackers, tomatoes, and Odwalla’s “Amazing Purple Superfood” dripped from the ledge of my desk, coated an unused computer monitor, and pooled on the floor near my head.

That time I threw up all over someone’s test I was grading in junior high causing everyone to avoid me for the rest of the year? Yeah, well this was many times more embarrassing. At least in junior high, I had food poisoning. This time I had—what—”cologne poisoning”?