Nobody’s smoking

“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?

9 responses to “Nobody’s smoking

  1. I’m sorry to hear that you suffer from asthma in this way. Having allergies to substances that are frequently present in one’s environment can be emotionally exhausting. I understand grumpy.

    Although I don’t have asthma, I am extremely sensitive to smoke of any kind and to perfume, both of which result in severe headaches for me. I also get excruciating three-day headaches if I have even the slightest exposure to book mold — a odd fate for someone who loves libraries and used book stores and friends with extensive book collections.

  2. i go through this with wheat and soy. i’ve just had the most miserable day because of hidden soy in rice crackers of all things. i think there are a lot of folks like us, big sensitivities to things that seem like small things to others. i’m sorry you have to thru what you do . . . it does seem obvious, doesn’t it – that if you’re coughing, there’s smoke. your lungs are the litmus test . . .

  3. Oy, that’s awful.

  4. am: Oh, that’s awful. My problem is nothing compared to yours. I can’t imagine being allergic to book mold. Old books are so beautiful. At least I’m allergic to something I don’t like anyway!

    Luckily more and more places are smoke free here. I’ll never forget the Azores last summer, though. I was there the last year of public smoking (it was banned Jan. 1), and the smoke was awful. I couldn’t eat out, couldn’t even go in a lot of supermarkets, couldn’t walk down the sidewalks in some of the towns. It was a wonderful trip, but I wished they’d banned smoking in public BEFORE I went over there!

    Kate: Thanks for visiting and commenting. My mother was terribly allergic to soy for years before she figured out her health problems, and hidden soy is a huge problem in a lot of foods. Luckily in Ireland when we were growing up, most food was unprocessed and very plain. Soy wasn’t that common. Here in the U.S., I think it’s everywhere. I’m so sorry you have to deal with that — and wheat too. Ouch.

    I do think people without sensitivities are really unaware of how difficult they can be to live with. I know people don’t mean to be dismissive, but they are sometimes. If they can’t smell it, then somehow or other they don’t understand how it can be bothering me. Oh well. It’s WAY better than it was three years ago, and for that I’m grateful. πŸ™‚ I hope tomorrow goes better for you.

    Dale: πŸ™‚

  5. TK, you’re a lot more restrained than I would be. After hearing “no one’s smoking” and time and again proving that wrong, my stock answer would be (in as snarky a tone as I could muster): *Clearly* someone is!

    Good luck with it all.

    Do you have problems in the laundry detergent aisle at the store? I get dizzy and nauseous from the smell there, every time.

  6. Hi Elsie: I do have problems in the laundry aisle, and in the wood section of home improvement stores (from the stuff they use to protect the wood, I guess), and in furniture stores if the furniture has been fairly newly varnished. Luckily I always buy “Seventh Generation” cleaning products, which are in their own aisle with the organic stuff, so I don’t have to go into the laundry aisle too often. It always amazes me to see people breathing in strong perfumes or cleaning products or (gasp!) smoke, and not having any kind of a reaction. But then again, this asthma was reincarnated about four years ago after decades of dormancy. And when I was a child, it was far milder — mild enough it wasn’t diagnosed. So I guess for most people it really isn’t an issue. I do like hearing of others who have problems with such things though because it makes me feel less alone. (I’ve always gotten headaches and mild nausau from smoke and strong smells, but usually was able to avoid the trigger or put up with it in small doses without others having to be aware of it). This cough-variant asthma is another matter!

    Maybe I need some snark in my life! πŸ™‚

  7. You’ve every right to be grumpy! I don’t know where we can send smokers to smoke, but I sure wish there was a place. Smokers tend to think they “have a right”, but they seem oblivious to the fact that they are forcing all those around them to smoke against their will.

    Apartment buildings are awful – as smoke travels very well through electrical outlets and those plumbing gaps under sinks. Never mind how many times a week, or a day, I have to vacate my lovely spot on my deck where I may be enjoying a book, or my container gardening because the person below me comes out and lights up a cigarette.

    You have my sympathies! And a healthy dose of snarkiness to boot – much needed, it seems, since so many tend to look at us like we’re just making it all up.

  8. Stella: My neighbors in the condos where I live are smokers. While the smoke doesn’t travel through the walls or vents, if I leave my windows open it gets in when they’re smoking outside. I’ve been woken many times from a deep sleep into the middle of an asthma attack at 4:00 a.m. when my neighbor is smoking before work on her patio. I’ll have to get up and shut the windows. Very annoying, since I like having my windows open. It’s really frustrating that smokers end up infringing on our moments of peace and relaxation! I do think that most of them simply have no idea how pervasive smoke it, or how unpleasant and dangerous for some of us. My state is finally smoke-free in public places — and oh, how nice it is!

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