Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Out of Season

I can't breathe; doesn't anybody care?

By John Bridges

JUNE 15, 1998:  I had a summer cold last week. It was a cold not even a mother could love. It was a cold not even a mother, if I still had one, could possibly have cured. It was 84 degrees outside, and the humidity was standing at 97 percent. It was not a time for chicken soup or a Ben-Gay chest rub.

It was not the sort of cold that prompts people to say, "Could I maybe get you something from the grocery store?" I could sneeze seven times in a row, cough up bloody gouts into my handkerchief, and blow my nose into a wad of public-rest room toilet tissue, and still nobody would say, "Don't you think maybe you should check with a doctor?" It was not the sort of cold that ever prompts anybody to say, "Are you sure you'll be all right at home all alone tonight?"

It was the sort of cold that gets absolutely no sympathy from anybody. It was the sort of cold that strikes no fear into anyone's heart. Clearly, it was not passed along by some 2-year-old in an overheated daycare center. Clearly, it was not likely to cause some 7-year-old named Tiffany to miss her baton-twirling class. It was the sort of cold you can have while wearing a swimsuit and a pair of Velcro-grip sandals. It was the sort of cold you can have while drinking a pi-a colada. It was the sort of cold you can have while working on a tan. It was the sort of cold that allows the payroll office to ask, "Do you want to take these as sick leave or vacation days?"

It was the sort of cold that elicits absolutely no curiosity, no comment, no compassion from anyone. It existed, apart and unto itself--a raw, undramatic dripping at the back of the throat, followed by a few dank, rotten night sweats, and a couple of days during which I was unable to breathe through my left nostril--but it was really nothing worth talking about. It was not a winter cold, the sort of cold other people catch and pass along to one another. It was not the sort of cold that leads people to eat herbs and squirt salt water up their noses. In the lunchroom, I could say, "Eif goddis relly aufful hed ding," and the only response would be, "You gonna eat all of your fries?"

It was not the sort of cold that leads people in accounts receivable to say, "Hey, I just got over that. You oughta try chewing some zinc." It was, instead, the sort of cold that leads people in the accounting office to say, "Hey, you still got the purchase order book?"

It was the sort of cold that inspired neither terror nor tenderness. It was, in short, the perfect illness for a 48-year-old single man. A week ago, I had a temperature of 101, and I still got no pity. Nobody asked, "Do your eyes always have those funny veins in them?" Nobody considered wearing rubber gloves. It was hardly worth having a fever at all.

That is why a summer cold holds its own special horror. It brings back mid-July days when you were trapped in a bedroom, lying in front of the window fan while other children played Roy Rogers in your backyard. It reminds you of the anguish of lemonade, searing its way down over your tonsils. It reminds you of the moment when a filthy, crew-cut boy named Jimmy Fred knocked on your back door and said, "Mrs. Bridges, can we play with John Auston's bicycle?" It reminds you that your mother said, "Well, of course, Jimmy Fred. I can't imagine why not."

If you have enough summer colds, you finally learn there's no point in complaining. You learn that, if you want to attract any real attention in the middle of summer, you have to get ringworm. If you want any sympathy, you have to break a leg.

When you're 7, a broken limb means you get a cast that other kids can write on. When you're 48 years old, it means other people offer to push your grocery cart. Sometimes, they even buy you a drink. When you're 7, a good dose of ringworm guarantees that other children will not ask to borrow your bicycle. When you're 48, it means other people will not ask if they can have a bite of your fries.

These are the right sicknesses of summer. They would be wasted, hidden under sweaters and overcoats. They have a sense of community about them. They cry out for tank tops and shorts and bare flesh. They suggest a life of activity and communion with nature. They have grisly, unignorable symptoms. They justify sick days about which nobody ever asks questions. They leave fiendish, unmentionable scars. They can be talked about months later, even if people do not want to hear about them. They have about them a certain sense of theater. People remark on them, even if the remark is only, "If you don't cover that up, I'm going to be sick."

But a summer cold is simply there at the back of the throat, seeping and draining but not impressing anyone. You wonder, in fact, if it really exists at all. You wonder if, perhaps, the administrative assistant is right when she says, "I don't know. Sounds to me more like ragweed." You wonder if, perhaps, you are slowly going mad.

You think that, perhaps, if you had someone to share this cold with, you would be somehow vindicated. You would be able to say understanding, commiserating, comradely things--things like: "I know. It's the swallowing, isn't it? The way the back of your throat feels like a piece of ground-up chicken meat." "What? Of course I'll turn up the air-conditioning. When we get it down to 62 in here, those sheets won't feel one tiny bit damp." "Oops, I forgot to tell you about the sherbet--it feels like broken glass going down."

If you had the chance to say those things to a person--a person who really needed to hear them--a dose of Nyquil in the middle of August wouldn't seem such a terrible price to pay. Living through that kind of summer might prepare you for any kind of melancholy autumn, any kind of winter filled with ice storms and gloom. It would be nice, after all, on a hot summer's night to have someone to share the Comtrex. It would be reassuring to know that someone trusted you when you said, "Honey, I don't know if I'm in the mood to grill weenies. My sinuses are feeling kinda full." It would be comforting to know that, no matter what your inner anguish, there would be someone willing to believe in you, to love you in a way not even a mother could love.

On the other hand, you could always break a leg.

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