Home is gathering dust. A lot more than the usual layer of crumpled dead skin is collecting around every corner because of how much time I’ve been spending indoors lately. Being asthmatic, I have to take this straight razor seriously. I spent the day scrubbing in my bright cartoon dinosaur pink half-mask respirator. The one that I use during fire season when the skies are too grey and chalky for my lungs to manage each summer. I started my dust busting where I always start, for safety, with the kitschy piece of decked-out tin that swings above my apartment’s compact lego kitchen. This dusting routine would take all day, but it really wasn’t so bad, at least, it wasn’t as bad as the time I nearly lost my life over $3.29. It was a sign, it was that metal sign a little over a year ago….
The words were hovering above my head, “FREE BEER TOMORROW,” it announced in mockery of its far less educated theatre-going audience. The white whiskered aging sign was waving at me with a paternal grandmother’s slap-slap; not a punishment, just a reminder to be good, or else. The age of this towering wisdom took me back in a gopher’s retreat, not running, just stunned. How long have you been waiting, my patron saint in airbrushed block letters? Waiting for grease-dust in a not-used-oft-enough kitchen two meters and a bit above linoleum, or perhaps the luxury of chipped tile and blackened grout? Waiting for a cottage to be laughed at by the hot bulbed cheeks of everyone for a summer, then just the one new face that appears every two years, then the dustcover-cold nine months out of twelve, alone? Or maybe you’re waiting for the bitter restauranteur, trying to get back anything, even a smirk, from the customers who take layered and lost hand-darned love off plates without leaving anything but cold cash in kind?
“$3.29 – NEW!” But you couldn’t possibly be newer than I. I wasn’t even shiny anymore. I walked by this shop with its combination of new and old and new left new so long it becomes old, mint condition; I walked by every day on the way to work. Everything must be overpriced in here, I’d always thought. Everything must be worth less than what its worth is.
But I was wrong, because then there’s “$3.29 – NEW!” How does a place like this stay afloat with holes like this? Holes the size of velvet carpet-worthy customers like me? Holes the size of a ten year old’s first strung bow missing the target market? Holes that could be patched for the miser’s price of dignity and a change of gaudy decor? Begrudging self-identified miser myself, I felt poorly. With guilt the shape of a cork plug and bale, I reached up in my best practiced end-of-the-bottle, end-of-the-night, still-got-more-chores laundry line stringing reach. A twist and un-hook, the hanged pirate was free from the forgotten noose. Dust to dust to dusting all around my asthmatic head and shoulders; white and fluffy on my tongue, I was covered in snowflakes that could kill.
“Oh, my goodness! Are you alright?” The short store attendant in black, white pinstriped apron was lily pad leaping towards me. “Ma’am, um, sorry, uh, sir? THEY? You alright, they, THEM?”
It was the pronoun pins and fine stitched, shaking needle precision put into my intentionally androgynous appearance that’d been tripping this clerk up. Mx., pronounced mix, would have done, but even as I curled pill bug-inwards and my lungs flicked every switch in Chernobyl off one-by-one, I experienced a little non-binary gender euphoria. The asthma attack dampened my joy, but what doesn’t an asthma attack soak up? Oh, right, oxygen.
I thrashed. I coughed. I squeezed and wheezed that punctured rubber chew toy in my lungs. I hadn’t carried an inhaler in years, over a decade in fact. I was careful, I was an adult, I was dying in a sun-washed upscale-hopeful knickknack store. A place that couldn’t make up its mind on whether it liked hipster kids or their grandparents more and hasn’t figured out that the former is funded by the latter and the latter have gotten along a lot better with the former for far longer than that little smudge in the middle, because their grandparents like their kids’ kids much more than they ever loved their own kids, so mom and dad aren’t in the will any more; now junior gets the cake! I flung my shoulder bag across the floor from my sprawling on it. The humble double felted bag that the staff knew, that I knew, that they knew, was too expensive to be kept behind a counter where, “all bags must be checked at front desk while browsing this store.” Soap slick, scrub the deck across my bag sailed. The bag they didn’t confiscate on my $3.29 browse because it’d cost too much to replace (forget repairs) even though it really cost me only $15.99 at a thrift store priced by clueless teenagers; like all good queers, I know well how to forge steel armour on a peasant’s budget.
My precious double walled stainless steel artisan-designed water bottle took a ding with a thud as its trend-inflated value hit the hard reality of this downtown converted fruit-packing warehouse’s concrete floor. Some things are thrifted, others are gifts because the genuine article is just too damn rare. Gifts are hard to replace, but I suppose lungs are a silver coated misprint stamp too far. So was my off-kilter spinning, scratching VG+ condition record of a water bottle as it spiralled off the turntable and out of reach. My gasps were getting too comfortable on the same bus ride, sharing a walkman with two headphone jacks, out of town together.
“Oh! Uh, do you need this?” The hapless attendant stepped over my convulsing body towards the unacknowledged felted contraband I’d walked past the front desk brazenly with. The clerk passed me my water bottle, even circumspectly opened it for me. I drank the first drink after leaving everything but gym clothes in my locker all through third period – and not coming to class prepared will get you docked in participation marks, so suck it up, sweetie! I’ve always hated gym class, but I loved that water.
“Should I call an ambulance?” It was the clerk again, hovering over me babysitter-protectively.
“No!” Was all I could gasp from the empty-for-summer school hall stillness on that ghostly floor. I had to wait this out, no insurance, no $79 ambulance trip. It would probably have helped, but I’d waited out worse. Water and patience, poverty’s puffer, would do for now; it wasn’t a full-on attack, I’d live… I was pretty sure of that.
$3.29 + $0.39 in tax. Rung through and rung out. I’d be late for work, but at least I had a better excuse than “slept in and got distracted by free beer tomorrow.”