By Isa Hopkins
I am nine years old, a star student, not terribly popular, in the fourth grade, standing in front of the class to begin my report about Nebraska. I have an odd affection for Nebraska, although I have never been there. I’ve been coughing a lot lately, and I clear my throat to begin but the only sound I can emit is a deep bullfrog croak.
Everyone in the class bursts into laughter, long and loud, and I stand alone.
It is my freshman year of college, and I am sick. I don’t cough as much now as I did when I was little but it still comes sometimes, and this time it happened after a miniature purple plastic inflatable bong proved an insufficient filter for my lungs. I can feel it in my chest, a solid morass of sick, the thing that’s causing all this trouble moving up my windpipe. When I finally cough it out into the sink it is beige like a discontinued M&M, half an inch in diameter. It is so obscene against the porcelain that I call my friend in to come look before I rinse it away.
It takes almost thirty seconds to fully dissolve, and I stick to hookah from here on out.
I am fourteen years old, just beginning high school and attempting to craft a new and more rebellious identity for myself. I wear overlong jeans covered in chalk-dust and combat boots and a necklace made of paper clips, and inject “fuck” and “shit” into conversation as frequently as possible. Kurt Cobain has been dead four years but still I carry the torch for grunge.
I research carefully all the accoutrements of this new identity and strive to acquire them; I listen to the right music, watch the right movies and TV shows, draw the right kind of disturbing pictures. I appear apathetic but really I’m trying very, very hard. I decide to take up cigarettes, to complete the image, but every time I try it ends badly, an embarrassing and extended coughing fit.
I will never be as cool as I want to be.
It is the seventh grade; Mrs. Lewis’s class. It’s the middle of autumn, just at the inflection point of temperature change that always alights my airways. Most of the class is distracted, group work, and the volume is sufficient that my coughing is not widely noticed, unheeded by those across the room.
My chest is suddenly lighter, and those across the room do notice when something wet and strangely opaque lands on Brian J’s desk. I look away hurriedly, feign innocence, but I’ve been coughing up weird shit for four years now and they know where it came from.
Chronic tracheitis, the ear/nose/throat specialist told my mother and me. I was nine years old; the appointment was made after the Nebraska incident. Sleep with a humidifier in the room, she said, and just cough all the phlegm out. There’s nothing we can really do for you medically, she said, but the condition should lessen once you hit adolescence.
She was not wrong; when I was in grade school and junior high the coughing was a constant from September to April, pulmonary reprieve granted only in the sticky Midwestern summertime. People who heard me on the phone thought I was a sixty-year-old pack-a-day smoker, and people who heard me in person thought I had the croup. It lessened in high school, though; the coughing came in fits and starts and seemed to occur only in conjunction with logical antecedents—a cold, a cigarette. The slide from autumn into winter was always the most prone time of year, but beyond that fraught seasonal navigation I no longer had much cause to pay close attention to what I coughed up, to note whether it was dun or neon yellow or white, stringy or solid, all that impolite body-knowledge that only sick people and doctors can appreciate.
Most people do not like to talk about it, but I can read my spit like tea leaves.
I am sixteen years old, at a frat party in Pittsburgh. I earned my cred with the frat boys by swigging Jack Daniels from the bottle before I even got to the front door but now I am with my own friends, a circle of us standing in the backyard. Most everyone has a red cup in hand and a pipe is passed around. These are my summer-friends, and they have no cause to know how hard it is for me to inhale anything.
I light the pipe; it is my first time trying marijuana. I suck longer than I need to, an immense hit, always trying to prove myself, and I manage to hold the smoke in my lungs just long enough to impress everyone before the coughing begins.
It is fourth grade again. We have put the humidifier in my room; every night I replace the water and fall asleep to its whine. It helps, I suppose, at least as much as the cough drops that I am constantly sucking down, but each time I go to bed I am still racked with tremors and phlegm.
My parents are already stressed over other things—my mother has leukemia, is in and out of the hospital, and my father’s employment is tenuous. I could make my way through their delicate world quietly but for my cough, and it is my father’s voice that I hear.
“Stop coughing, goddamnit!” he shouts into the darkness. “Let us get some goddamn sleep!”
Then: I cough.
I can’t help it.
I try to form words, to apologize, to explain, but find my throat too raw for the effort.