I wanted to start this "the rhino lowered his head and charged, barely missing my leg as I pulled myself up into the baobab tree..." Or maybe "the gun was shaking in the addict’s hand and I read in his crazy, glassy eyes that no matter what I did, he was going to pull the trigger..." Sadly, my near-death experience involves a cough drop. Not even a poison cough drop, or a high-velocity cough drop launched from a fiendish machine. It was one of the flat, mediciny kind of cough drops. It happened after the man who would be my husband went away.
I met my husband at high school. We were supposed to be the adults, which was why we did things like fuck on the teacher’s desk and make out in his car, a decrepit Chevy far more wretched than anything a student would ever drive. I had this skirt which was long and voluminous, and had a front snap closure all the way down. It’s hard to imagine a skirt like that if you’ve never seen one, but once you can imagine it, you can see how that would be convenient for away from home fucking. It was an 80s version of the zipless fuck--the quick-release skirt. During school hours, we would send the kids back and forth between our classrooms with little gifts. He would tell a student, "Take this pen to Ms. Lake." He sent a little note that read, "This is my favorite pen because it writes so smooth and black." He made it sound like an innuendo. And I would send him a wrapped chocolate chip cookie with a gold star on it.
We fucked a lot that summer, at my place, at his place, at the nice Victorian where I house sat for a dog, two cats and three birds. We had no definition in our relationship. He resisted it, and while I knew we were in love, it didn’t matter yet whether he knew it. He said he wasn’t, that in fact he was in love with someone else, but he spent four nights a week with me, the sex was hot, and we were great friends. It looked like love, even without the label. I’ve always been one to accept the good things that come to me, without looking them in the mouth.
Fall semester, I got hired for a tenure track position and he got stuck with subbing. No one likes subbing, even me, and I was unbelievably good at it. Subbing is all about maintaining discipline, which you do by outwitting the kids, because you’ll never out-muscle them. I had some breakthrough moments when I was a sub, due to my ability to connect with young thugs, but my boyfriend found this gig where you never teach, you just ride herd, extremely boring. So when he saw an ad for a job teaching English in Japan, he applied for it. He gave up his apartment and moved in with me while waiting for his Japanese work visa. I got used to having someone in the house. It felt like nesting.
Then he left, and the apartment was really, really empty. When the neighbor came up the stairs, I would perk up like a dog, then remember that he was thousands of miles away. I missed him terribly, but I was luxuriously alone in my chic little apartment. It was the loveliest place I’ve ever lived. It was in the back of the building, on the garden side. I loved the expansiveness of the view into the neighbors’ gardens with their trees as big as anything in Golden Gate park, and the bougainvillea-covered ruin of a windmill two houses down that remained from when the block was a farm. You can still find these relics in San Francisco. I loved the way the windows were placed for cross-currents so it never felt hot, the way the rooms fit me perfectly, the open-plan styling that meant the place felt so much bigger than its three rooms. There were no halls, no doors, just an expanding loft-like space that terminated in the sun-drenched bedroom.
"You live in a glass house!" my mother said, her yet undiagnosed dementia turning her speech into a more eccentric version of her old, carefully colloquial, unaccented English. "You shouldn’t live alone. You could die here and nobody would know it!" I knew my mother well enough to follow her line of thought. Someone would see into my room and decide to kill me. The body would be discovered eventually because of the smell. I hardened my mind against the image. It was very important to me to be on my own.
A few days after her visit, I came down with a vicious cold, a hazard of being a school teacher. Schools concentrate germs. I had more colds that year than I had had in the previous ten. The night of the killer cough drop attack, I went to bed around 11:00, and woke up at 2:00 a.m. with a fever and a violent cough. I drank some water, and popped a cough drop in my mouth to relieve the scratchiness. Fever made me drowsy. I decided to sit up for a little while and suck the cough drop. I slipped down between the covers. I’ll just lie here with my eyes open, I thought, until I’m done with the cough drop. I’ll just stay awake with my eyes closed.
I woke up suddenly. It took me a second to grasp the situation. I had started to cough. I had gotten as far as the sharp intake of breath that precedes coughing. The carelessly minded cough drop got sucked into my trachea, where it had lodged. I could not cough. I could not make a sound. I could not breath. I was choking. I realized I was in serious trouble. My mother’s voice, reliable, echoed in my brain, "You could die here and nobody would know it."
Choking is not like you think it will be. There is no "gack! gack!" and clutching at your throat. You don’t feel the obstruction. Mostly, nothing happens at all. It’s absolutely silent. You just can’t take a breath. It’s slow. You think, oh, I fucked up and now I’m gonna die. No, from a stupid cough drop? Yes, totally. I sat up and considered what to do, as calmly as one can in that kind of situation. I didn’t run around. Not running around might save me 15 seconds of oxygen.
I reviewed the options. It was 2:00 a.m. I was very alone. I could bang on the neighbors’ door, but the neighbors were porn actors who appeared to be under-resourced in the brain department. I imagined myself doing the universal "I’m choking" gesture and them assuming I was dying to perform a blowjob.
I thought about calling 911. I couldn’t speak, of course, because I couldn’t breathe. I thought about tapping out SOS, but decided that no one knew Morse Code anymore and the operator was likely to keep repeating "What is the nature of your emergency" as my tapping grew weaker. I considered dialing 911 and leaving the phone off the hook, which the operator would interpret as a heart attack and dispatch an ambulance. Then I remembered that in our city, they dispatch police, not an ambulance, when they don’t know what the problem is. I had about a minute and a half to unconsciousness, and four minutes until death. There wasn’t time.
This is the place in these stories of near death experiences where you talk about your life passing in front of your eyes or else you say that, no, your life does not pass in front of your eyes at all, you just think about how you don’t want to die. My brain was on the job. I did not think about my wonderful job, my mother who needed me, the man I loved. I did not think about my 25th birthday party, or the first family vacation when I was ten, or the train ride when I was four. I did not waste time thinking about how sad it was that I was dying.
Instead, every class, lecture, and article I had ever encountered on first aid in general, and choking in particular, starting with the fifth grade, passed in front of my eyes. Thank you, Jesus, for a brain that shows some sense in a crisis.
I remembered that you had to "clear the airway." However, you must be careful not to push the object further in. I imagined sticking my finger down my throat and discarded that idea. That was precisely what you shouldn’t do. I remembered emergency tracheotomies. That was an option. I’m actually capable of imagining such a thing as a self-tracheotomy, but I didn’t have a straw and my paring knife was really an old serrated steak knife. You need a straw and something more closely related to a scalpel than a steak knife.
I remembered the Heimlich maneuver. Could the porn stars next door perform the Heimlich? I would have to show them how and I would run out of oxygen and the last thing I would see before I died would be the blank looks on their attractive faces. Hadn’t I read that you could do a Heimlich on yourself? How? Something about the diaphragm. Pressure inward and upward. Should I throw myself on the Newell post? Run into the kitchen table?
Fuck it. The last thing I did, before I died, was to make a fist with my left hand, rotate it downward, cup it in my right hand, and ram it into my stomach as hard as I could.
Fortunately, my mouth had been open in surprise the whole time, because I forgot that step. The cough drop flew out in a graceful arc and landed three feet away. I stared at it, taking it in. I was pleased, in that way you’re pleased when you bowl a strike or make a successful Hollandaise sauce or park in a really tight spot. Like nailing a moderately difficult physical challenge. I had about half a second to enjoy the sensation of success and then I coughed and wheezed so much that the next five minutes were hardly any better, breathing-wise, than choking had been.
Then I poured myself a cognac, a reliable, non-lethal cough remedy. A while later, after taking a suspicious look around for anything that might strangle me in my sleep, I lay down and drifted off. The next day I felt different. I had saved my own life. You might not want to write a movie script about it, but I would have been just as dead as if it had been a rhino, perhaps a bit more embarrassed, but just as dead. I felt a secret elation as I went about my cool job teaching public high school kids, who, after all, were not nearly as dangerous as a cough drop.