Sabrina watched the third-floor window of the row house where she once lived. Maybe she would catch a glimpse of Paul today. The window remained empty, the white curtains unfurling in the wind. A gust of cold air cut through the warm breeze, a warning of winter’s coming.
She let the people dressed In the blacks, browns and taupes of professionalism stream past her. Her neck hurt from straining to see if he was all right. Once she saw him, she could go home, a twenty-minute bus ride away sitting next to a homeless man who used the two-dollar bus ride as a day’s warmth.
Just a year ago, she had stood inside these windows, smoothing her tablecloths and putting away glasses. Her Matisse prints had hung from the walls, entirely too delicate and artsy for Paul’s heavy black leather couches. Now she wished that she hadn’t tried to make him exchange the overstuffed dead animal skins for something more elegant. Maybe it would have helped just a little.
* * *
It had started with a few red spots on Paul’s skin.
Fifteen minutes after he came home, bumps started to spread from his chest down his arms and legs. “Probably just something I ate, I tried this vegan cheesesteak today, what an oxymoron,” he said, stuffing some chips into his mouth.
Sabrina ran her fingers down his chest, feeling the small protrusions. “Maybe you need someone to take care of you,” she murmured.
He stopped chewing and smiled. “Maybe I do. Can I get a sponge bath?”
She tilted her head, smoothing his collar. “Only if you say the right things.” He did.
* * *
Over the next week, the bumps faded. He blamed it on the vegan cheesesteak. The memories of the angry red spots disappeared from their consciousnesses, a lesson learned—don’t eat oxymoronic sandwiches.
One morning, the bumps returned, redder and bigger than before. Each one rose so high that she felt like she was touching a soccer ball. A large red spot lay the middle of every bump. The crimson spread past his collar, which was buttoned up all the way.
“Paul, look at you. I’m calling the doctor’s office,” she said, phone in hand.
“No. It’s probably that damned cheesesteak still in my system. I have to work it out.”
“Paul, don’t be stupid. You ate the thing a week ago.”
He flung open the medicine cabinet. Mascara tubes, lotion bottles and deodorant cans tumble out, spilling out on the bathroom sink, casualties of some unknown war. “Goddamn it, where’s your powder thing? I need to cover this up. I can’t go into work like this. Mark’ll think I have fucking AIDS or something.”
The bright bathroom lights made his bumps look even redder and angrier. “This is exactly why you should go to the doctor. Just call in sick,” she said, crossing her arms.
He leaned over the bathroom sink. “It’s not that easy, Brina. A management spot is opening up in a few months. If I take a single day off right now, I’ll look lazy. Fucking Oscar will jump all over this.”
“Jesus Christ, Brina. We need this promotion so you can quit that shitty paralegal job, okay?”
She stared at his now-pale face in the mirror.”That’s not fair, Paul,” she said, her voice inching higher.
He averted his gaze and his shoulders sagged. “I’m sorry. I’m just—well, the hell if I know. I just don’t want to go out like this. Please, Sabrina. Just let me go to work in peace.” His eyes rose to meet hers.
She shoved past him and reached into the medicine cabinet and tossed a small plastic compact into the sink. “It won’t match. I’m darker than you, but it’ll neutralize the redness a little.”
* * *
She sat at the foot of the bed, watching Paul lying in bed with his eyes closed. Bumps dotted his chest and torso like phantom creatures living under his skin, ready to burst out of his body. Before her eyes, one emerged, angry red and nearly vibrating.
She swallowed her horror and reached out to touch his arm. “Please don’t. Your hand’s too hot.”
She retreated, putting both of them into her lap. Holding herself still, she told herself not to touch him as he lay in bed, twitching.
He managed to get an appointment with a doctor on a Saturday morning, but now he dabbed her powder on the rash every morning before work. He came back from the doctor’s office, his lanky hair hanging in his face. “She wasn’t sure. Said that it was hives. She told me to go see an allergist. The next appointment’s in three months.”
“So what do we do until then?” she asked.
“Dunno. They’re not sure if it’s allergies or not and it’s not that severe. So, nothing, I guess.”
* * *
She sat in the dark room, the laptop’s blue-white light turning her skin ghostly pale. She scrolled through dozens, if not hundreds, of websites extolling the virtues of antioxidants, juice fasts, gluten-free diets and acupuncture. She watched documentaries discussing the health benefits of veganism and yoga.
“Paul, come here! I think I found something,” she said, her eyes still fixed on the glowing screen.
“What?” he groaned from the couch. He kept the lights off so he wouldn’t get headaches.
“I found an acupuncturist. He looks good.”
“Acupuncture? That sounds like voodoo science to me. I don’t like needles.”
“I hear they can do miracles. Change people’s body chemistry. It’s amazing.”
He sighed so deeply that it almost didn’t sound like it came from him. It sounded like it came from beneath Paul. “I don’t know, Cricket. I really hate needles.”
“They’re tiny needles. They won’t hurt, promise.”
He put his arm over his eyes and said in a muffled voice, “Okay, give me his address and number. I’ll do it.”
He went to Mr. Hsu the following week. As he opened the door and letting in a icy gust of wind into the apartment, he shuddered. “You didn’t tell me that the needles were so long.” He rubbed his arm. “It was all right Mr. Hsu said that I had too much fire. I don’t even know what that means. I’m not complaining too much though since the hives are going down.”
For a few days, he was back to his smooth, pasty self. Then the hives crept back a week later, redder and larger than ever.
* * *
Nuts, gluten, soy, pesticides and dairy became personas non grata in their kitchen. Sabrina stood in front of the fridge, wishing for some cheese sticks encrusted with almonds. Or some pizza with pine nuts, tomatoes and basil. She squeezed the rough plastic handle of the fridge and wished that she could just pick up the phone and order pizza like they used to.
Sometimes, when Paul wasn’t around, she would walk twelve blocks to the best pizza place in the city and order a few slices of its famous cheese pizza. She closed her eyes as she ate, letting the grease drip down to her chin. The two tears running down the cheek made the pizza too salty.
They had gone on their first date there.
* * *
“Caa—nt brea—the.” She woke to the muffled, strangled sound. In the dark bedroom, she could only see the vague outline of his head. “S—Sa…”
A shadow flailed near her hip, grasping at the air. “Paul! What’s wrong?” She reached out to the shadow. Once she made contact, it felt … wrong. It felt puffy, swollen, flesh engorged with some liquid. The sounds of sputters and coughs came from the shadow’s vicinity.
“Paul! Talk to me!” she cried, shaking the large mass of flesh that didn’t feel like Paul.
He didn’t move. “Get ha—alp,” he rasped.
She flung off the sheets and flipped the light switch. Light flooded the room and she backed up into the corner.
His forehead and eyebrows were thrice their usual size. His eyelids were so puffy that his eyes were now slits in rising dough. His fingers were overstuffed sausages about to burst open.
“Okay, okay. I need to call—no, no. It’d take too long. We need to go somewhere, yes,” she stammered, not sure who she was talking to. “Doctor, no. They’re not open now. Hospital. Yes, hospital.”
She thought that his rasping sounded encouraging, so she pulled on some sweatpants. She tried to dress his heavy body, but only managed to get one arm into his shirt. Through some miracle, she got the pants up the entire way, and had to be satisfied with that.
Stumbling down the spiral staircase with him leaning on her, she hoped there would be a cab at this hour. Paul mumbled something that sounded vaguely like “green peas hell.”
Despair hit her when she managed to get him to the curb. The still and silent street was dotted only by motionless orange lights. The damp chill of the early autumn morning descended on her, chasing away any lingering warmth from the bed. Paul moaned and sagged, leaning harder on her. She almost collapsed under his weight, her flip-flops sliding out from under her. she prayed for someone, something to save them.
Two bright white lights appeared, blinding in the distance. She laughed and felt like she had called Jesus on a direct line and he had actually answered. She waved at the cab.
As the cab screeched to a stop, its rear tires hopping off the road. The dark-skinned man inside looked at Paul. “He okay?” the driver said in a heavy Haitian accent.
“No, not really,” she said.
“That’s rough. Sorry, lady.”
She tipped Paul into the cab, hoping he wouldn’t smash his face, but he just flopped onto the seat. “The nearest hospital, please.” She was proud of herself for keeping her voice halfway steady. She inhaled the cab’s stale air and held Paul in her arms.
The driver grunted and pressed the gas pedal. She almost hit the partition as the cab sped east toward the Pennsylvania Hospital. Going to the oldest hospital in the country almost made her feel better as she held Paul’s head on her lap.
She gave the cab driver a ten-dollar tip for an ten-dollar ride. He grinned a bright white grin, mumbling his thanks in French.
A blur of white and blue uniforms descended on them, shouting orders that she didn’t hear. All she heard was, “Ma’am, you need to let go now. He’s in anaphylactic shock.” She didn’t know which face the voice was coming from. When she looked down, she saw how her fingers were sinking into Paul’s flesh. With a deep breath, she released him to the barking voices, seeing the marks that her fingers had left on his shoulders.
A few hours later, she heard, “Ma’am, you can go in now.”
He still looked like a lump of raw dough sitting on his bed. His eyes peered out from between slits, followed her as she came in. “Thanks, San,” he croaked. “They said that you saved my life. Got me here just in time.”
“I almost didn’t. That cab—I should’ve called a cab.”
“We made it, that’s all that counts,” he said, pulling her hand toward him. She inched closer and thought, This is what Paul will look like when he’s seventy. Now that the swelling had gone down a little, his heavy lids and puffy forehead only looked like a face of an old man swollen from a long and harsh life. She wasn’t sure if she liked the old man Paul.
“So, what did the doctors say?” she asked as she draped her arms around him. The heat of his skin almost made her recoil in surprise, but she forced herself to remain still.
“They say it was an anaphylactic shock. They’re sending my blood for some tests. They think it’s something like compound allergens. It’s insane. Nobody in my family has allergies. Nobody.”
“Are they doing anything for it? I mean, you couldn’t—”
“Yeah, they’re giving me steroids.”
“You can’t take these! I’ve read about the side effects. Your dad had diabetes.” She clasped her hands together. “It causes high glucose levels. You won’t be able to sleep. I’ve read that juice fasts help. Maybe you can—”
“No, please, Sabrina. Not more of this. The new-age shit isn’t working. I gave up beer and pizza, but look at what happened. Enough is enough. The steroids are working.”
Under the puffiness, she could see the bluish tinge under his eyes and the way that he blinked slowly at her. “Okay. We’ll wait for the test results,” she whispered as she laid her head next to his.
* * *
Two weeks later, the test results came back negative for common allergies. Paul didn’t have a reaction to pollen, peanuts, soy, gluten, oak, birch, pine, or dust. The strongest reaction he had was to cats, but he only registered a 0.07 on the test results. They didn’t have pets. So, he kept on taking two tablets of prednisone every day.
At first the nighttime twitches had been mild, more like tremors than convulsions. As he swallowed more pills every morning, the tremors grew into spasms. His entire body would go rigid and then his arms would fly out, pushing her off the bed.
“Stay still, for God’s sake!” she shrieked, jumping out of bed.
“What? I didn’t do anything!” His voice was groggy with sleep.
“You shoved me off the bed, you moron.” She grabbed the pillow. “I’m sleeping in the living room.” A fresh bruise was blossoming on her arm. After two months of the steroid regimen, bruises covered her arms.
“I was sleeping!”
“You still pushed me off!”
She gasped for air as she slammed the door behind her. She hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in months. Despite Sabrina telling herself that the pushes and punches weren’t his fault, they hurt just the same. At this moment, she didn’t care whether he meant it or not. Pain hurt, regardless of explanations and excuses.
Even though the loveseat was too small for her, it was a flat surface that didn’t move every few moments. She threw the pillow onto the loveseat and curled up. As her breathing slowed, she wondered if she wanted him to come and sweep her back into the bedroom or let her have a good night’s sleep. Her question remained unanswered as she drifted off to sleep.
* * *
Nobody found the culprit, despite sending vials of his blood to dozens of labs all over Philadelphia. She had stopped reading the test results. They all said the same thing: statistically insignificant or no response to potential allergens.
Every day, Paul took big, white tablets of prednisone with his orange juice. All of the side effects that she had read about crept up on him.
Pockets of fat hung around his collarbone and stomach. He replaced all of his 32-inch waist pants with 38-inch ones. He stopped shaving, letting his beard hide the slow spread of heavy jowls that made him look closer to fifty than to thirty.
In August, he finally got an appointment with Dr. Kimberley Brenner, the leading autoimmune researcher at University of Pennsylvania. A last-minute cancellation left a spot open for him. They sat in Dr. Brenner’s office, the walls bare except for three small photographs of sailboats.
“I see that your reactions are marked as idiopathic,” Dr. Brenner said, leafing through the thick pile of papers. “They also did a large array of tests. Even sugar, but…” she frowned, “they didn’t test for the humanoid A-35 enzyme intolerance.”
“What’s that?” Paul asked.
Sabrina stared at the photographs, wondering if they had been taken in Maine or North Carolina.
“It’s a discovery of mine.” Dr. Brenner’s eyes sparkled with excitement. “You see, a small percentage of the population secretes a particular type of enzyme. An even smaller percentage is highly intolerant to this enzyme. These intolerant people, after interacting with someone with the aforementioned enzyme, will exhibit symptoms similar to allergies. This could be one of those cases.”
“You mean—humans can be allergic to each other?” she whispered.
“Well, that’s a bit of an oversimplification. But, for most intents and purposes … yes, it presents like allergies.”
“But—what do they do if this happens?” he said, glancing at her.
Dr. Brenner shrugged. “Avoid prolonged contact with any enzyme-producers. People with an A-35 intolerance can tolerate short exposures, but not prolonged, intense exposure, such as living with an A-35 enzyme producer. Sexual intercourse with producers is strongly discouraged.” The doctor’s eyes flitted to Sabrina’s, who was holding her breath. “Or people can continue with the steroid regimen, but I recommend against such an action due to the long-term side effects.”
Paul slouched in his seat, staring at his hands, which lay over his paunch.
“Will you test for it?” Sabrina whispered.
When nobody moved, she thought that nobody had heard her. After a moment, Dr Brennan opened a desk drawer with a sharp click that made her jump. “I can test you for the enzyme right now, but we’ll need to test Mr. Doyle’s blood sample for A-35 intolerance.” She held up a swath of paper and an eye-dropper bottle. “Ms. Lee, it’s a simple swab test to see if you are an A-35 enzyme producer,” Dr. Brenner said, nodding at Sabrina. “Please put out your hand.”
She hesitated, then extended her hand. Dr. Brenner squeeze an eye-dropper bottle, liquid falling on a strip of paper. With a motion so swift that she barely felt anything, Dr. Brenner wiped her hand with the wet strip and then waited. Everyone watched as the paper strip slowly turned deep blue. Dr. Brenner nodded. “Yes, you’re positive for the A-35 enzyme. Now we just need to test Mr. Doyle’s blood.”
Paul sat there, staring at the blue paper. “So—I’m allergic to Sabrina?”
“It’s more of an intolerance than an allergy and we don’t know that for sure, Mr. Doyle. I’ll have the results in a few days. For your safety, I recommend limiting your contact with Ms. Lee, just in case.” Dr. Brenner glanced at the clock and rose to her feet. “Thank you for coming in. My office will call you within two business days.”
Sabrina didn’t feel Dr. Brenner gripping her hand in an overly firm handshake, nor did she feel her feet as she walked into the elevator. Paul and Sabrina stood at the opposite ends of the elevator in silence. She kept her eyes fixed on screen that counted down the floors, pretending she didn’t notice him leaning away from her.
* * *
He stayed in the apartment for three hours, his leg bouncing as he sat at the kitchen table. She felt his eyes on her as she moved around and found herself always taking the furthest spot from him.
“I need to go to work. Big project due soon,” he burst out suddenly, gathering up his things. The door had closed before she could say anything. She exhaled, surprised to find that she was relieved at his absence.
“He’s not allergic to me,” she whispered to herself over and over again. After fifteen minutes of insisting that Paul did not have an A-35 intolerance, she inhaled and started to fold the laundry.
She lay in bed, staring into the blackness as the clock said one-fifteen in the morning. She listened to his soft footsteps in the living room then she heard the loveseat squeak as he climbed onto it. She never heard the bedroom door open that night, or the next two nights. And she always breathed a sigh of relief at the silence when he fell asleep. At least, she wouldn’t hurt him this way.
* * *
“Hello,” he said into the phone. She stood in the kitchen and turned off the water so she could hear. “Yes, I’m Paul Doyle. Do you have the results?” He paused. “Hmm-mm. I see. Was it confirmed, then?” Then there was a longer pause and she could only hear faint buzzing noises from the phone as he had turned his back to her. “Okay, okay. Thanks for calling.”
She squeezed the dishrag harder. “So, what did they say?” She wished that her voice hadn’t gotten so high-pitched, but it was too late.
He glanced at her, but stayed in the far corner of the living room. “I’m positive for the A-35 intolerance.”
She blinked rapidly. “Oh,” she whispered.
He stood in the corner of the living room, wedged between a chair and the loveseat, the furthest possible point from her that was still in the apartment. She just stared at him, feeling her chest rise and fall as she focused on her breathing.
The man in front of her looked like a stranger, not the man she had dated for three and half years, nor was he the man she had made promises to. She squeezed her eyes shut, hoping to find the old Paul when she opened her eyes. She didn’t. Instead of the smiling, carefree brown-haired man who liked to play basketball on weekends and discussed philosophy as easily as he talked about reality television, she saw a sallow, paunchy man who only chased promotions and never read books.
She turned to the sink and started to scrub the pans that she had already cleaned. “Sabrina…” he said, but his words faded away.
Exhaling and inhaling in rapid succession, she stared at a smudge on the pan. “I’ll move out by the end of the week,” she said, her words sounding distant and tinny.
“Sabrina—damn it,” he said. “I—”
She waved him off. “It’s okay. It’s fine. It’s—well, we weren’t meant to be, were we?” She giggled a little.
“What?” she snapped.
“I … I could…” he left his words drift off.
She knew what he wanted to say and knew her response. He knew her response, too. Silence followed.
Drying her hands, she blinked, trying to cool the burning behind her eyes. “It’s fine. I don’t have much. I’ll be out by Friday.”
He looked up. “But I don’t—I don’t—not like this.”
She clenched her hands. Something in her was fraying and she didn’t want him to see it snap. “There’s no choice, is there?” she snapped.
“Maybe I should leave.”
“I can’t afford the rent here. I may as well leave now.” She turned into the bedroom. Before she closed the door, she heard him say, “I’ll stay with John until after—”
She clicked the bedroom door shut and held her breath. She didn’t release it until she heard the front door close. When the apartment went silent, Sabrina crawled under the covers, fighting the sobs that wanted to be released. Finally, with the blankets all around her, she allowed the sobs to rise up from her chest. The sobs wracked her lungs, making them ache. Once the sobs receded into hiccups and wheezes, she sat up and felt the stillness around her.
“Damn you, Paul! Only if you weren’t allergic!” she screamed into the empty apartment. Nothing moved. Then she whispered, “Damn me.”
She twisted the thin ring with the cubic zirconium off her finger and threw it onto the floor. It shimmered under the overhead light, lying in a corner surrounded by dust mites and crumpled paper. Grunting, she crawled on the floor, picked it up and put it in her pocket.
* * *
Now, four months later, she stood on the sidewalk, staring up at her former home. Everything about the windows looked just like she remembered: the translucent white curtains, the white trim and the wide window sill.
John had told her that Paul fumigated the apartment to get rid of all traces of the A-35 enzyme. Her chest felt tight and raw, either from the wind or everything else. As the sun sank past the buildings, the wind blew harder and colder, making her nose run.
A light flickered on somewhere in the apartment, illuminating the window. A tall shadow appeared in front of the light, Paul’s shadow. The hunched shoulders and paunch were gone. Paul Doyle now stood as tall and trim as before. She could almost see him smiling. He was all right, she told herself.
She gathered her coat’s collar at her neck and was about to turn to leave, but another shadow appeared next to Paul’s. A smaller, feminine shadow. She let go of her collar, letting the cold seep in. Paul’s shadow bent down and the shadows became one.
She almost stumbled onto a small poodle, who yipped. “I’m sorry, I—” she mumbled to the dog’s owner.
“Watch it!” the owner hissed as she dragged the dog with her.
Her eyes returned to the window, the two shadows were still one. Finally, they separated and disappeared into the apartment. Getting colder by the minute, she stood there long after the shadows had disappeared.
Finally, she started to walk. “He’s okay now,” she whispered, letting the wind carry the words away.
With a sharp inhale, Sabrina kept walking down the street. The orange street lights flickered on as she turned the corner. Her hand slipped into her pocket and gripped the ring there. “Good-bye,” she said as she took it out. She let it drop down the storm drain. It skittered all the way down to the murky waters underneath, where it was carried far, far away.
© Cristina Hartmann