from The Texas Review 39 (1 & 2) Spring/Summer 2018
Melissa always said she was terribly allergic to mustard. She claimed she’d go into anaphylactic shock if she swallowed even a single seed. She always carried an EpiPen, and at every restaurant she’d ask the server to check with the kitchen to make certain there was no mustard in anything she ordered. The server would say, “Sure,” and Melissa would say, “Good, because if I eat any mustard, I could die. I could die.” And the server would say, “Yeah, I’ll ask,” and Melissa would say, “Thanks — because I don’t want to die.” As our relationship passed the one-year mark, I got tired of hearing the same strident spiel every time we went out to eat. Did she always have to be so dramatic about it?
The answer, I’d learn, was yes. At the rehearsal dinner for a good friend’s wedding at a fancy New York restaurant, Melissa went through her usual mustard routine, and the server assured her there was absolutely no mustard in the salad dressing. “I don’t even think there’s any mustard in our kitchen,” she said.
Melissa ate some of her salad, asking after the first bite why it was spicy. Fifteen minutes later, her tongue began to swell. “I thig there wath muthard id the thalad drething.”
We staggered into one of the single-person bathrooms, and she collapsed onto the tile and pulled her EpiPen from her purse.
“Can you do it?”
“Oh, I don’t… I think you should do it,” I said.
“Come on, I need you to do it.”
“I don’t know how.”
“Just stab me in the thigh.”
An EpiPen looks like an extra-thick marker, but when the tip strikes the flesh it retracts around a syringe full of epinephrine. I held it over her leg, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was terrible under pressure. What if I missed? What if I stabbed too hard and it went into her femur?
Fed up, she snatched it from my hand and jammed it into her leg right through her tights. She passed out for a few minutes, and then faded in and out of consciousness for the next two hours. I sat with her on the bathroom floor, leaving only to bomb terribly in my toast for the groom. She made a full recovery, but our relationship never did.
Over a decade later, I was a better, more mature person, married to a different woman whose leg I would totally stab in a second. My trouble began with a swollen scrotum. Over the course of a morning, that elastic bag — nature’s thermostat! — grew heavy with fluid, and grew, and grew, first to the size of an orange, then a grapefruit. In the mirror, looking right at my own worried face, my penis rested atop it like a pumpkin stem. Naturally, I worried. I asked why. Spider bite? Food allergy? Nearly three decades of excessive masturbation (just as Johnny Dangerously predicted)?
For two days, I iced it, took ibuprofen to reduce inflammation, and tried not to move around too much. On the third day, Karen, my wife, said it reminded her of those hopping balls with handles that we rode as kids. I decided to call my doctor.
I hadn’t called before then because almost everything goes away on its own, and I was a shy thirty-nine-year-old. I’d rather be uncomfortable and anxious for a few days than have to tell the receptionist the reason for my appointment is “mysterious testicular swelling.” Also, calling would lead to making an appointment, which would lead to having to keep the appointment, which would lead to dropping my pants and showing the doctor the abomination of my ball sack.
As expected, right after I made the call the swelling began to subside. No need to make a jock strap out of a hammock or ship myself off to the Atlanta Genital Institute, which, it turns out, doesn’t exist. By the end of the week I was back to normal. I went to the doctor anyway, let him have a look and a brief palpation. He shrugged and studied my face for a minute, leaving unspoken the obvious question: “Did you just want someone to fondle your balls for a minute?”
I tried to forget about that awkward encounter and enjoy my renewed ability to cross my legs. For a couple of days my penis looked huge, but then I went back to taking my health for granted. I only notice that I feel good in retrospect, like, at the moment, a few weeks later, when I woke up with a tingling, itchy left foot. It swelled up like a sausage, and I couldn’t walk on it for a few days. I iced it, elevated it, and took ibuprofen. Again, four or five days later, everything was normal.
Then the same thing happened to my other foot. Then, itchy, red, swollen right hip. Then, left elbow, heel of right hand, with swelling stretching up to the thumb.
I read whatever I could find on the Internet about my symptoms. One forum for “sudden unexplained swelling of hands feet lips wrist” had twenty messages to a page for eighteen pages, and no answers. There’s so much suffering in the world that we don’t have any idea about until we get a taste of it ourselves. But thanks to the Internet we can all find the sub-culture built around our ailments. And there will always be someone somewhere who’s got what we’ve got, only worse. It’s comforting – or depressing.
I tried antihistamines. I switched soap and laundry detergent. I saw an allergist. She thought maybe I’d developed a sudden allergy to nuts, and she gave me the scratch test, in which they prick your back with every possible allergen and then watch what happens to it. Though it felt like a colony of fire ants were feasting on my flesh, the test was inconclusive. The allergist told me to avoid nuts and shellfish, keep a food diary, and keep an EpiPen on me at all times, just in case.
While the nurse showed me how to use the pen, I considered another, more mystical cause of my swelling: karmic retribution for my cowardice on that bathroom floor with Melissa all those years ago.
One Saturday morning a couple of months after the first incident, Karen was out, and I was home working when my bottom lip began tingling. In the next few hours it blew up to Nutty Professor proportions. It was like a beached whale that I had to keep covering with lip balm to keep from cracking open. Sitting on my bed, I prepped the EpiPen. Just taking it out of its plastic case sent my heart racing. I reminded myself to breathe, sent a heartfelt, telepathic apology to that ex-girlfriend, and stabbed myself in the thigh. It hurt. There was a little blood when I pulled the needle out. I felt shaky and cold. I took a little nap/passed out, but when I woke up the lip showed no signs of deflation.
Finally, Karen came home. Her initial reaction was to burst out laughing because my lip looked so obviously CGI. But then she felt pity and remorse for laughing, and she gently touched it and said we were going to the hospital.
When I walked through the double-doors with my hand over my mouth, the receptionist looked up and asked how she could help me.
I took my hand away, mumbled, “I’m having some swelling.”
“Oh my God!” she cried out, and actually scooted back in her chair even though there was a glass partition between us. “Can you breathe? Your throat isn’t closing up, is it? They’re going to want to get you right in!”
We’d barely sat down in the waiting room before a nurse took me back to get hooked up to a Benadryl IV. Every few minutes a different nurse or doctor peeked in just to get a look at the freak. The Benadryl was as useless as the EpiPen, but it helped me escape into sleep. Maybe I dreamed of flying, climbing high into the sky by flapping my lower lip. They kept me overnight in case the swelling spread and blocked my airways. And then, everything was fine again, for a while.
A few weeks later, I woke up with a hugely swollen upper lip and right cheek. I looked unevenly doughy, like Vincent D’Onofrio’s alien Edgar in Men in Black. Karen didn’t find it funny, even for a moment. I stabbed myself in the leg again, held the pen there for ten seconds, and then — still the worst part — pulled it out of my leg. And then I stabbed myself in my other leg. Though I was acting purely out of self-preservation, I felt heroic. Maybe I could survive in the wild if I had to, using a needle and thread and some gunpowder to sew up my lacerations and cauterize my own shrapnel holes like Rambo. Ramboically, I grunted and lay back on the bed.
The double EpiPen had no effect, so we went back to the hospital. Again, they kept me until it was clear the swelling would get no worse and my airways would remain open. While I sat there, my face hideously deformed, I felt a strange peace. Maybe it was the intravenous Benadryl, but I was sure this, like the other incidents, would be temporary. Little things drive me crazy, like getting cut off in traffic or being told to “trust the invisible hand of the market,” but now I accepted the weird doings of my body, which had betrayed and frustrated me so often since puberty. If I live long enough, this body will continue to betray and frustrate me in ways I don’t want to think about, and eventually it will just wear out completely. What good comes from worrying about it?
The doctors had no idea what caused these swelling incidents. Then, about a month after my double-EpiPen experience, Karen’s mother mentioned that a friend of hers had said my story sounded like what happened to her father. His problem had been an allergy to ibuprofen, or to some ingredient in the pill’s coating. This made sense. I took a lot of ibuprofen for back pain, and tooth pain, and general achiness. I’d even taken it to stop the swelling it might have been causing. We knew I definitely didn’t have a nut allergy, because Karen realized she’d been accidentally cooking our weekly stir-fry in peanut oil the whole time, but those dinners never coincided with a swelling episode. I presented the allergist with the ibuprofen theory. “Well,” she said, “that would explain the ineffectiveness of the EpiPens and antihistamines. No NSAIDs from now on.”
That was two years ago, and since then I’ve only experienced the usual pain and suffering that come with settling into middle age. The only abnormal swelling around here is in my heart, due to my ever-deepening love for Karen and triple cream cheese. But I try not to worry, and to notice those beautiful moments when nothing hurts. Everything’s going to be fine until it’s not. Maybe then I’ll come back as a right whale. They’ve got the biggest balls on the planet.