When I was young, I often had difficulty breathing through my nose. It had a habit of getting stuffed up. This worried me a great deal, not because I thought having a dysfunctional nose was a pain to deal with, but because I feared that if I ever got kidnapped the kidnappers would put tape over my mouth to stop me screaming and I would die of suffocation. A tad melodramatic now I think about it, but that was the most worrying thing about having a blocked nose in my youth.
I used to think that my nose problems were simply symptomatic of common colds. I never considered that I may have pollen allergies because nobody really talked about having pollen allergies much. A few kids might have said they had hay fever, but it wasn’t any big deal. It wasn’t something with which I was remotely concerned. Until, that is, I came to Japan.
For a few years after coming here, everything was fine. I got the odd blocked nose as before but I was, I felt, a fairly normal man. I most definitely wasn’t one overflowing with snotters. I could leave my house without fretting about not having enough tissues, and I could kiss people without then having to say ‘Oh sorry,’ while dabbing a handkerchief on the viscous trail that my nose had left on their cheek. Life was fine and dandy until one warm March day someone took the spring out of my step and stuffed it deep inside my nasal cavities. Overnight, my nose became an unpredictable beast and turned me into a disgusting, sneezing, snivelling wreck. ‘What’s your new teacher like?’ people would ask my students. ‘Mucusy,’ they would reply.
And I was. If my nose wasn’t completely blocked it would be gushing rivers of snot or trying to break the world record for most sneezes in a row. It would change between these conditions on a whim. It could be solidly blocked for hours on end and then suddenly decide that whatever it was that was preventing any oxygen from making it up through my nostrils should be flushed out with gallons of cascading goo or rapid-fire nose explosions. I became the sort of man who would make me gag with disgust if he sat next to me on a train.
I spent most of my time teaching with a Kleenex held against my nose and a bin filling up with discarded wet tissues. Either that or trying desperately to prevent a sneeze from coming out because, like cockroaches, there was never just one. Someone once told me that the best way to stop a sneeze is to push on the philtrum – that vertical crease just above your top lip, between the nostrils. This does actually work to some extent. But sometimes you have to push really hard, and the disadvantage comes with the fact that you trade in being an uncontrollable sneezer for looking like a weirdo. I don’t think I helped matters by trying to disguise my technique as a peculiar way of pondering. If my students asked me questions when I could feel a sneeze coming on, I would push hard on my top lip while humming and hawing as though it were a particularly interesting question they had posed. I once turned round after writing on the whiteboard and a few kids’ hands seemed to dart very quickly away from their mouths and everybody looked a bit smirky. Cheeky bastards.
I suffered so for a while, but things came to a head one warm and windy day when I had popped into the local convenience store. I was at the cash register and the clerk had just told me the price when I felt a sneeze coming. I raised my hand and pushed hard on my philtrum while the girl serving me did an admirable job of not laughing at my peculiarity. But she was waiting to be paid and as I stood with finger on lip she pointed to the total on the register and repeated the price. I thought the moment had passed and went to open my wallet. I was wrong, though, and just managed to lay the wallet on the counter and cup my hands over my nose and mouth as I let rip with a stormer. And then I just stood there. It was slimy inside my hands and I knew that were I to remove them I would have to go through the humiliation of wiping away the snotters from my mouth and nose and between my fingers before handing over the money for my purchases. But I couldn’t do that anyway because I had neither tissue nor handkerchief. I had sleeves, but I only entertained that thought for a second. So I stood and looked at the sales clerk from above my cupped hands. She looked at me with an expression of wonder touched by fear. And then, as seconds felt like hours, I said, ‘Sumimasen,’ and ran off to the toilet with my hands still cupped in front of my face and my wallet and unpaid-for goods still on the counter.
When I returned to the register, I apologized and the girl simply repeated the price as if nothing unusual had just happened. I paid and left the shop with a mental promise never to return to that particular convenience store again.
These allergies were pissing me off and I decided it was time to do something about them. I went to the drugstore. The shop assistant asked if it was for a runny nose or a blocked nose. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘both.’ She took me to the nose medicine aisle and suggested this:
And you know what. She has saved my social graces. I don’t know what it is or why it works, but I haven’t snottered all over myself since. And I have overcome my fear of being kidnapped to boot.