“Nobody’s smoking,” N said. Then he added by way of explanation, “Adah’s allergic to smoke.”
“Something’s setting me off.” I stood up. My chest hurt, I was coughing, and even if I couldn’t smell smoke and nobody around appeared to be smoking, my body was telling me something was in the air. I hate it. I hate having asthma, of being sensitive to chemicals like smoke and perfume and solvent. I hate that my asthma is cough-variant, so it always begins with coughing, which is so obvious and which people don’t quite believe in. I hate that on a lovely warm evening in June I can be sitting outside a coffee shop, watching my friends play chess, and suddenly start coughing, and have to leave.
“Nobody’s smoking,” is one sentence I despise. I’ve heard it so often I’d be rich if I had the copyright on it. But when I stood up and walked away from our table and looked around, I saw a man smoking about 30 yards away, behind a sort of divider, and the wind was blowing in the direction of the chess table. Even if none of us could smell the smoke, my body knew it was there. That’s always the case. Once I walked into N’s house and started coughing. “Nobody’s smoking,” his mother hurried to reassure me. I still coughed and eventually went outside. Then his brother came out, shame-faced, from behind the office door, at the end of the hallway at the far end of the house. “Sorry,” he said. “I was smoking in there a few minutes ago. I didn’t know you were coming over.”
Another time I was sitting on the porch, chatting with N’s parents and aunt, and I started coughing. “Hey,” N’s brother said as he walked around the corner. “I’m not smoking. Don’t look at me!” Nobody was smoking, but I was coughing. A moment later, N’s nephew came from next door. “Sorry,” he said, when he saw me using my inhaler. “My friends are smoking back there.” Then he stopped, looking puzzled. “Wait,” he said. “You can’t smell it from all the way over there, can you?”
“What direction is the wind blowing?” I asked. “I don’t have to be able to smell it to react it. If the wind is blowing it over here, it’ll trigger an attack even if I can’t smell it.” Sure enough, the wind was blowing from the back of the neighbor’s house to the porch where we were sitting.
“That’s amazing,” N’s aunt said. “You mean you’ll start coughing even if the smoke is behind the house and no one can smell it?”
“If it’s in the air and I breathe it, my lungs seem to know,” I said. “It’s a bit absurd.”
What it is is bloody irritating. I was enjoying watching N and J slaughter each other in chess. Actually I love the intricacy of their games. J is rated 1900, so is quite good, and N’s been getting steadily better, so that he plays some quite close games against J, though he usually gets mated in the end game when they’re down to pawns, maybe a piece each, and their kings. This evening we were attended by a couple of young boys who were fascinated with the game. “Can I play one of you guys?” one of the boys asked. “I love chess.” He elbowed his friend. “Watch this,” he said, winking as he sat down opposite J.
J played as he always does, carefully, systematically, as though he were playing a seasoned opponent. Within about two moves it was obvious the boy had no idea how to play against someone with J’s experience. The kid was still gleefully throwing pieces away in anticipation of a grand mate somewhere down the line when J maneuvered him into a trap and mated him. “Oh,” the boy said, looking crestfallen. “You’re good.”
Half an hour later I started coughing as the boy and his friend were playing a game of speed chess under the tutelage of N and J. “Nobody’s smoking,” N said, after a cursory look around. I stood up and walked away from the table, then noticed the smoker some 30 yards away. My inhaler will stop the attacks from progressing into full scale asthma with wheezing and airway shutdown, but it doesn’t really stop the coughing if I’m still being exposed to the trigger, and I couldn’t exactly go up to the man who was smoking and ask him to stop. I did point him out to N, though, in a reflexive attempt to validate my coughing, as I said my goodbyes and left.
I have to admit I’m feeling a bit grumpy, and positively sick and tired of “Nobody’s smoking.” At this point, if I’m coughing, isn’t it obvious that someone, somewhere, must be?