I sneeze into my forest green handkerchief.
“God bless you,” replies the boy sitting next to me.
As I return the handkerchief to my jacket pocket I turn towards the boy slightly and nod my thanks. He doesn’t deserve a verbal thank you just yet. The boy is Caucasian, about eighteen years old, and I peg his height at about 5’6” and his weight around a buck twenty. Height is harder to guess than weight when you’re looking at someone sitting down, but I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s become a sixth sense. Well, my seventh sense if you count my ability to recognize even the slightest semblance of bull****.
I scratch my nose with my left hand, but my nose doesn’t itch. As my pointer finger scratches the bridge of my nose, my middle finger is placing black pepper on the inside of my nostrils. I put down my hand and study my watch, breathing out of my mouth until exactly a minute and a half has gone by.
I strongly inhale through my nose and the sensation is immediate, like gnats flying around in my nasal cavity. I scrunch my up my nose, close my eyes, and let another sneeze wail.
“God bless you.”
That’s two ‘God bless you’s. “Thank you,” I say. He’s earned it now. 34% of all people will respond with a ‘God bless you’, ‘Gesundheit’, ‘Salud’, or at least say something after someone sneezes right next to them. It’s more of a reaction than an actual thought, and I don’t thank people for natural reactions. When a doctor tests your reflexes he doesn’t thank you when your leg kicks out involuntarily. The second one is a choice. Subconsciously your brain expects the person to sneeze again, so you’re ready for it and actually decide whether or not you want to say something. However, if the sneezes are more than four minutes apart the brain gets bored and forgets about it, so saying ‘God bless you’ becomes a natural reaction again; that’s why I use a minute and a half between each, just to be safe.
People who only say it the first time are not to be trusted. They lead you on, pretend to be there for you, but where are they when you sneeze again? They’re long-gone and there you are, unblessed and alone in a new apartment that seems hollow all of a sudden, even though it’s full of fancy-looking couches that are stiff as hell while a little poodle you didn’t even want in the God damn first place barks its peanut-sized head off.
I shake my head a little and try to forget about Andrea. Back to work. I lift my hand to my nose again and go through the same old ruse. Another one and a half minutes of breathing through my mouth. The second ‘God bless you’ was quiet, barely audible; I’d bet my life savings that he won’t say it a third time, if there was anyone to bet with. I take another look at the kid with my peripheral vision. His jeans are tight, his off-white button down shirt is tucked in, and his face looks like an unfinished connect-the-pimples puzzle. Jesus, I bet you could bounce a quarter off his gelled red hair. Hell, it looks like you could drop a bowling ball on his head from ten feet up without a single follicle slipping out of place. Fifteen seconds left. He won’t say it again. The first time was a reaction; the second time was out of expectancy. Nerdy guys don’t usually offer a third ‘God bless you.’ Maybe they’re afraid it might blow up into a whole conversation.
I breathe in deep. There’s a feeling of dust bunnies dancing around in my nose and then another loud ‘choo.’
Silence. I knew it. I fold up my handkerchief and put it away.
The bus stops and the boy stands up to get off. I get off with him so that I can get on a bus with people who haven’t been watching me sneeze for the last five minutes. I notice that he’s up to my shoulder as we stand next to each other as we wait to get off the bus. 5’6”, damn I’m good. I almost want to ask him how much he weighs just to see if I can go three for three. I get off the bus and sit on the bench hoping someone will sit down next to me so I can test someone else.
I slip my Trapper Keeper out of my back pack. I know, call me sentimental, but I’ll be using this Trapper Keeper until it falls apart; and even then, only if it’s irreparable. I flip to the page marked State College, February 5th and write 18-M-C-5’6”-120-xxo. Each x marks a ‘god bless you’ and each o is for when someone ignores me. A girl walking by sneezes twice. She’s a squeaker.
There are four kinds of sneezers: choo’ers, squeakers, rapid-fire sneezers, and repressors. I’m a choo’er. During my research I’ve found that choo’ers are the most common; nothing extraordinary, just a plain and simple convulsive expulsion of air from the mouth and nose. Then there are the squeakers; they’re the people whose sneezes sound like a mouse who just had its tail stepped on. I haven’t been able to find a common characteristic amongst the squeakers. When I’m done with this study I’m thinking about starting a new one to see if squeak sneezes are genetic. Rapid-fire sneezers can belt out anywhere from ten to thirty sneezes in about twenty-four seconds. If you ever meet a rapid-fire sneezer who doesn’t cover their mouth, run for the hills or put on a poncho. Last but not least, you have your sneeze repressors. They’re the ones that do their best never to make a sound because they’re afraid sneezing might make others think worse of them. I haven’t tested it myself, but from what I hear, repressing a sneeze can create a ringing noise in your ears, or even tear blood vessels or muscles in your head. Too dangerous for me, thankyouverymuch, I’ll stick with my indistinct choo’s.
Andrea was a rapid-fire sneezer. I would try to match each of her sneezes with a ‘God bless you,’ but she would always outpace me. She would always joke afterwards and yell at me for not being able to get enough ‘God bless you’s in, she said I owed her . For the first nine months that we lived together I thought it was cute, but then I started my research.
The Pennsylvania State University sociology department employed me to conduct a year-long study regarding people’s responses to a sneezing stranger. If the study produced significant results they were going to fund a nationwide study, and they hinted that a full-time sociology position might be available afterwards. That’s when I started noticing that Andrea wouldn’t even give me a second ‘God bless you.’ What the hell is that? I’m supposed to spend the rest of my life with this woman? You think she’ll take me for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health, and love and cherish me 'till death do us part, if she can’t even say three little words the second time I sneeze? I decided to give it a week before I broke up with her, I thought the study might have just been messing with my head. I found Steve’s wallet under my bed the next night. Steve’s a squeaking ex-friend of mine.
I thought it was a pointless study at first, but I swear you can really tell a lot about a person by their ‘God bless you’s. Do you know that people who don’t say ‘God bless you’ smile ten times less than those who do? Three simple words, but somehow it must subconsciously make you a happier person.
The white loop pulls up and college students pour off, all coming back from class. I go to the back of the bus when I get on, if I sneeze in the front of the buses all day the bus drivers will start asking questions. There are two empty seats in the back; one next to an Asian guy with a male carrier bag, the other next to a redheaded woman around my age, maybe about twenty-seven. I decide to sit next to the redheaded woman. Why? Well first of all I’m a sucker for redheads, and when I stepped on the bus we locked eyes for a second and she smiled. Hey, worth a shot, right? Also, the other guy would have been a waste; I already knew he wasn’t going to say anything. You know that people with backpacks say ‘God bless you’ three times more than people with those mail carrier bags?
As I get to her row I look down towards her. “Excuse me, would you mind if I sit here?”
She looks up, and for the first time I see those eyes. Big, beautiful baby blues. My knees nearly give.
“Oh, of course,” she says as she scrambles to grab her purse and scarf off of the aisle seat. I slide in next to her and set my backpack halfway in front of my legs, halfway sticking out into the aisle. I’ll move it if anyone needs to get by.
Well, back to work. I lift my right hand this time to apply the pepper. Another ninety seconds breathing through the mouth. I start to tick away the seconds.
“Insane weather we’re having,” says the redhead.
“Insane weather, huh? Snowing yesterday, sunny and 60 degrees today.”
“Well that’s State College for you,” I say. “We’ll make up for this day with a foot of snow in April.”
The redhead giggles and swipes a few strands of hair from in front of her face behind her ear. For a second I think she’s going to turn my way and say something else, but she turns towards the window instead and seems to be mesmerized with the passing pedestrians. Suddenly I feel the need to make it clear I didn’t need her conversation. I look at my watch; still sixty seconds left. I have to do something. I unzip my backpack and take out my Trapper Keeper to amuse myself with some doodling while I wait to sneeze.
“Oh my God, is that a Trapper Keeper?”
Apparently she wasn’t as mesmerized as I thought she was. I laugh a little, mostly at myself for having the thing in the first place, and then respond. “Yes m’am, a gen-u-wine, bona fide Trapper Keeper. I’ve had it since 5th grade.”
Caught up in the excitement I accidentally breathe through my nose and sneeze. Five seconds too early, but no big deal.
“God bless you,” she says.
“Thank you.” I know I said that first ‘God bless you’s don’t deserve verbal thank you’s, but I was lost in those baby blues.
“You have not had it that long!” the redhead says as she laughs. Her laugh is infectious, I find myself smiling just listening to it. “I had mine in 4th grade and it broke before the year was out.”
“Well it sounds to me like someone needs to learn proper Trapper Keeper maintenance, doesn’t it?” I chide.
“If you don’t believe me, check this out.” I flip open the first folder and peel back the sheets of paper in it so that the back of the folder is exposed.
She leans over and reads the big clumsy letters out loud. “‘Mrs. Rinker, 5th Grade, Dean Phinneas Turner.’ PHINNEAS?” She squeals with laughter. She gets out a few sorry’s between fits of laughter, but they were dying down.
I forgot that my middle name was written in there. Well, I think I just blew this one. She still can’t get over it, but at least she hasn’t turned back towards the window. Well if I’m not going to get a date out of this I might as well get some more data. I ‘scratch’ my nose again and look at my watch.
“That’s the cutest name I’ve ever heard. A bit outdated though.”
It appears the conversation has survived. “Yeah, I know. Well my parents were big fans of the medieval era… and slightly insane.”
“Your parents weren’t the only ones. Well, not the only insane ones, mine didn’t pay any interest to a particular era.” We both chuckle.
I look at my watch; thirty seconds left. “Well this is unfair,” I say. “You know my extremely embarrassing middle name and I don’t even know your first.”
“Oh, very smooth. I’m Emily. Emily Garner.”
We embrace each other’s hand, but don’t really shake. “It is very nice to meet you, Emily Garner,” I say sincerely, and try to smile at her without looking like a stalker-to-be.
Watch check; ten seconds.
Emily blushes slightly as she withdraws her hand from mine and looks down at her lap for a second before looking back at me. “I don’t usually do this,” she began, “but I’m about to head to Saint’s, and, well I know it’s cliché or whatever, but would you like to share a cup of coffee with me?”
Either the floor of the bus was padded or my jaw was soft because it didn’t make a sound when it hit the floor. This beautiful girl just asked me out on a date. I know the guy is supposed to ask but masculinity be damned, I’d do almost anything to spend some more time with that hair and those eyes. I was about to respond, but I caught a glimpse of my watch out of the corner of my eye, and I’m still on the clock. I snort the pepper and sneeze into my handkerchief.
I turn towards Emily, who is looking at me expectantly. She’s silent. No second ‘God bless you.’
The bus rolls to a stop. “I wish I could Emily,” I tell her as I close my Trapper Keeper and slide it into my backpack, “but I don’t think it would work out.”
I can tell that she’s disappointed with my answer, but I can’t make myself feel too badly about it. She broke my heart.