STORIES : Julie:

Her allergies were really bad that day.

She sat uneasily in the auditorium, only a half-hour into her Introduction to Film and Film Criticism class, and already, she was anxious to leave. Another hour and a half to go. Julie didn't think she would last that long. Already out of Kleenex, but still so sniffly, her nose so itchy. The tickle lingered long into her sinuses, as though they were being pierced by an ice pick dipped in burning hot coals.

And in front of the auditorium, Professor Johnson continued to lecture, speaking of Alfred Hitchcock's "Stranger's on a Train," which the class had viewed last time they had met, which was on a Tuesday, she believed (it was only two weeks into the semester, and Julie hadn't yet memorized her new fall schedule). An hour and a half to go. It seemed as though the class would never end, as though the professor would never be done talking, rambling on about the lighting, the camera work, mise-en-scene. Julie began to believe that she would be stuck here forever, the tickle looming within her nose with the desperate urge to sneeze, yet somehow unable to do so.

Oh God, how she wanted to sneeze...she wanted to so badly!

She didn't want to sneeze, though. It would draw too much attention toward her, particularly in this quiet room, where the only sounds aside from coughs from her fellow students in the background was Johnson's dry, monotonous drone--Al Gore had more personality than her Film Arts professor, Julie thought. She couldn't even make out what he was saying by this point, because most of her attention was occupied with this nearly insurmountable urge to sneeze this dreadful sneeze out of her nose at any costs, but she didn't want to do it because aside from making a spectacle out of herself, which she normally hated doing unless the attention was positive, it might be a messy sneeze, and she had no tissues to wipe or blow her nose with now.

"Um...Chrissy...huh-huh...do you...huh...do you have a tissue?" she whispered timidly, her breathing becoming more and more hitched as the tickle became even more intense.

"Uh...no, I don't, Julie, sorry," she whispered back, frowning. "You okay?"

Julie nodded, grimacing.

She cupped her hands over her face and stifled a sneeze at the last minute: "Ha-KMPH!" then sniffed wetly.

"Bless you," whispered Chrissy.

A few other "bless you's" were murmured in unison from four or five other students sitting around her. She blushed deeply, looking down upon her text book (Bordwell and Thompson's "Film Art: An Introduction: Sixth Edition") over her five-subject spiral notebook, then mouthed off: "Thank you," unsure if they could make it out, and not caring either way.

And in front of the class, Professor Johnson rambled on, completely oblivious to what had occurred.

The tickle lingered on in the back of her nose, no better than before; Julie had some idea that that one sneeze wouldn't be the end of it even before she'd stifled it. Another one would surely follow, and then another one after that, and perhaps yet another.

She rose slowly to her feet, her legs buckling momentarily; she grabbed the back of her chair for balance and then gasped in shock. Professor Johnson's eyes darted straight toward her as she slowly crept to the door, as quietly as possible so she wouldn't disrupt the rest of the class, and more, so she wouldn't draw attention toward herself either. Again, her breathing became hitched. And now her heart was racing as well, as she felt Johnson's chilling gaze beating down upon her.

He had given her the creeps since the first day she had come to class, for one reason or another that she couldn't comprehend; she had even considered dropping out of the class a few times, but declined to do so because she needed the credit for her major. And Julie wasn't one to drop classes unless she was failing them anyway, and that had never been a problem for her.

Julie doubled over with another sneeze, spraying her hands: "HA-SCHEEW!" She cringed as she looked at her hands, now slimy with mucous. Johnson stopped the lecture abruptly, and his eyes, now shrouded from the shadows of this dimly lit room, were pinned to her. The whole class was staring at her; she was now the center of attention, and she felt absolutely mortified, her face blushing hotly. "Oh God...e-excuse me, I...ah-huh...EHHSCHOOO! Oh no...huh-HASCHOOO! *sniff* I'm sorry..." A few of the other students giggled softly. Someone else murmured "Bless you" to her, but she couldn't make out who it had been. Her eyes watered. Johnson said nothing for a few seconds, and then got back to his lecture, unconcerned.

Up ahead, just a few feet away, she could see the door. Had she been only a few inches away, she would have probably bashed her forehead against the hard wooden surface thanks to those sneezes of hers. Aside from the pain it would cause, it would have been about a hundred times more embarrassing than it already was now, and she was in some way thankful it hadn't gone down that way. The tickle still pierced her nose, though, and she couldn't bare sneezing a third time in front of all of these people, most of whom she didn't even know too well. She felt humiliated enough as it was, almost naked in front of all these strangers.

She lunged toward the door and ripped it open, exposing the bright light from the corridor outside, which filled the auditorium briefly as she darted through, sneezing two more times as she left the room.

***

As she walked slowly down the corridor, her nose continued to torture her. Julie wished she could be outside, where she could stare up at the sun to help the sneezes along; that always made her sneeze. Yet she would have to be alone, or wouldn't want to bother with it at all. She could do that now, if she wanted, except outside the skys were silver gray and it continued to pour, a crack of thunder shooting off just as she turned left at the corner of the hallway. She could hear the rain pattering on the roof above her and shivered, feeling cold just thinking about it. And feeling cold also had a tendency of making her sneeze...

"HarASHOOO! huh-hehCHOO! *sniff* ah..."

It had felt good to be able to sneeze freely, but it didn't diminish the tickle any. It stayed, a constant, looming threat, and Julie feared that she could sneeze a million times and it still wouldn't get rid of the dreadful feeling.

"Hey, bless you!"

She jumped, biting back the shriek that threatened to launch from her throat as her heart began racing once again. And then she was stopped in her tracks as the man raced in front of her. Startled a second time in as many seconds, she gasped shrilly.

"Hey, sorry, Julie, didn't mean to scare ya," he said, snickering.

"Yeah, whatever...I...ah-ASHOO!" she sneezed, doubling over, and spraying over his jacket. "Oh, jeez...Jason, I-I'm sorry..." And that familiar heat of embarrassment washed over her face yet again.

"Um...yeah, of course you are," Jason said, sighing as he tried to wipe his jacket clean. "Bless you, Julie."

"Thanks," she said meekly, wishing he hadn't said that, wishing he hadn't heard her sneeze, that she hadn't sneezed all over him, and that he wasn't even here to see her in such a state of distress.

"You okay?"

"Yeah...yeah, I'm fine...just allergies, you know?"

Jason nodded sympathetically.

"I'm REALLY sorry about sneezing on you," she bent her head down in shame, still in disbelief that that could have really happened, that she could have lost THAT much control over her allergies. She hated losing control like that, especially around someone else; losing it to the degree she had just done--

"Hey, don't worry about it," he said, grinned, and then laughed. "It's not like your sneeze is gonna kill me or anything."

"Yeah, but still--"

"Yeah, I know, I know, you're allergic by your allergies, but you shouldn't be. I mean, it's not like you can control 'em."

"Well, you don't have allergies, so you wouldn't understand."

"No, of course not," he snickered. "Hey, see ya after your film class?"

"Sure thing," she said, and then walked away.

She had gained another thirty feet, when the tickle in her nose hit again, and she doubled over and sneezed freely and uncovered, watching the spray shoot out of her nose and mouth: "Huh-ha-ISHOO!"

"Bless you, Julie!" Jason shouted from all the way down the hall.

Julie stopped briefly, the awkward feeling returning, feeling awkward, even around Jason, her face blushing even more brightly than before, burning with embarrassment. She said nothing, and continued on down the corridor.

***

The women's room at last. There were paper towels she could use to blow her nose with, as by now it had been full and dripping with snot from all the sneezing she had done while walking down the long corridor. She didn't have to pee; she only came to let the rest of her sneezes out. Here was a place where she hoped she could do so without disrupting class, where it would be much neater, and a lot less embarrassing. She grabbed a paper towel from the paper towel dispenser and gave her nose a fierce blow against the rough surface. It was like blowing her nose with sand paper, but it was still better than nothing and all three stalls had been completely devoid of toilet paper. It felt good to clear her nose and breathe easier once more, but at the same time the rough paper towel made it even more sore than before, and she groaned miserably as she felt the tickle returning to her nose. And as the sneeze came closer and closer to surfacing, she wished more than anything that she could lock the bathroom door.

"Huh...huh-huh-ha--"

Nothing. It was stuck. "Come on," she moaned. Julie hated it when the sneezes got stuck, particularly when she was alone as she was now. She looked up at the lights, being a photic sneezer, hoping that they would trigger the reaction she wanted, but to no avail. Flourescent lights just didn't do it for her. Only sunlight had that effect. If only she had some flowers, dust, pepper. Any one of those things and more would've helped the sneeze along, but she was without any assistence now.

She concentrated hard on the tickle, trying to will it into a sneeze. Thinking about sneezing didn't ALWAYS work for her, but she would try it anyway because she was desperate to rid herself of this dreadful tickle, now burning within her sinuses.

She thought of Chrissy, her dorm mate, and how proned to catching a cold she had been, how she always seemed to catch one and whatever other bug might be floating around campus. It was Chrissy's colds that Julie focused on, and how colds made Chrissy sneeze and sneeze relentless. Some of her many sneezes would stuck as Julie's sneeze was stuck now, and leave poor Chrissy in the longest, most tortuous build-ups that seemed to go on forever before she finally sneezed it out and experienced a moment's blissful relief.

And then there was Jason, who was so allergic to the cat that Julie had at home. She remembered how he would constantly sneeze his head off whenever she took him to the house during the summer, how uncontrollably he would sneeze if he so much as looked at the thing. Thinking of this, she would usually giggle, finding amusement in such a big man like Jason, broad shouldered, muscular, six feet four inches, and having such a negative reaction all brought about by a white cat named "Snowball", (her parents named the cat that because it was white; "The Simpsons" had some influence in the naming of the cat as well), but a lot of times she found it really cute as well. Now, however, it only made the urge to sneeze intensify to near insurmountable levels, and she knew that it would come out any second now...

"Huh...huh-ha-GISSHHOOO!"

Yes! Finally! It had come. "Oh God, I needed that!" she thought wildly, feeling another sneeze coming on. Hopefully this one would happen a little quicker this time. If ever there were a time to let them out, now was it, because she was alone, and no one would hear it happen.

It was just as she had that thought that the door swung open.

"Oh no..."

"Julie, are you in here?" someone called.

It was Chrissy. "Yeah, I'm going to the bathroom," Julie called back, sure that her friend wouldn't buy it.

Chrissy came closer, of course, saw Julie, and approached her. "I take it you're going in your pants, then," she replied, giggling.

"V-very huh-hih-funny..."

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah...huh...just fine, I—HIIICHOOOO!"

"God bless you!" Chrissy exclaimed, flinching back.

"Damn allergies," she groaned as the tickle returned. There were more where that came from, of course, and there were a lot more at that. At first, she was hesitant to let them out, prefering to simply stifle them somewhat (she was never any good at stifling huge fits like this would most surely be), or holding them back altogether. Neither sounded appealing to her, and it was only Chrissy that had been present now, not a room full of strangers, like back at her film class. Chrissy knew of Julie's allergies, knew what they entailed...

"Thanks, I--HICHOO! CHOO! ASHOOO! Ugh...these allergies...aw boy...a few more...HARASHOO! ACHOO! IIICHOOO!" *sniff* Oh God...tickle there...one more....HAISHOOOO! heh-heechooo! ISHOO! eeehhchoooo!"

"Bless you again."

"Ugh...thanks, I think I'm done now." Julie grabbed another wad of paper towels and gave her nose a final, thorough blow.

***

"Are you sure you're gonna be okay?" Chrissy asked once they had returned to the class, about to open the door and reenter once more.

Julie nodded. "Yeah, I think I'm fine now." It was the truth. She no longer had to sneeze; her nose was empty, and the tickle was gone. At least for the time being. Chrissy pulled the doors open, and the two of them slowly entered the dimly lit auditorium, where Professor Johnson continued with his lecture.