That Awkward Moment When You Have to Cough During Class but You Try to Hold It in Because You’ve Already Coughed Once and Don’t Want to Draw More Attention To Yourself

By Rachel Reyes

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When I feel the telltale tickle in my throat, I want to cry. I thought this was over. All I ask is to make it through fifth-period calculus without causing any incident whatsoever. I’m sitting at my desk in the center of the classroom, surrounded (trapped) on all sides by my fellow classmates, who must surely be watching my every move. This is the worst possible thing that could happen. Instead of tossing and turning from dreams of showing up to class without pants on, I suffer from the absolute nightmare of coughing not once (which is bad enough), but twice during class. I’d rather implode from my un-coughed cough than face the humiliation.

To cough once is embarrassing. To cough twice is social suicide. I will be forever scarred by the traumatic memory of when I coughed for the first time five minutes ago. I’m sure everyone in class still remembers the very moment I opened my mouth and expelled a cough louder than a volcanic eruption, when I tried to cover my mouth with my elbow to muffle the sound, but it was no use, I could feel everyone’s gaze swivel to me for the briefest microsecond, the longest microsecond of my life. How dare she cough, is what they surely thought. So what if it’s cold season? So what if it’s a normal bodily function? Unacceptable. During moments like these, I wish that my entire class and teacher were deaf so that I could cough as loud as I want, as often as I want, without their cruel, cruel judgment.

The tickle in my throat grows talons and claws at my esophagus, threatening to escape. Meanwhile, the teacher writes the Mean Value Theorem on the board, and my classmates face the front, pretending to pay attention but are probably actually thinking about me and how it’s so totally obvious that I have to cough.

And this cough will be worse than the last, I can already tell. Phlegm builds in my throat like lava. My breathing becomes ragged. I can see it now: letting it loose, my body jerking forward in my chair and messing up the ruler-straight rows of desks, flecks of spittle flying this way and that. My classmates, sensing a ripple in the order of things. I didn’t mean to! I’ll want to cry. Conformity is all the rage right now inside these asylum-white walls, and all I want to do is fit in. A second cough will lead to a third cough, and a fourth cough, and a fifth, and a sixth, and on and on until I’m coughing so much I can’t breathe, until I have to stagger out of my desk, expelling phlegm and saliva everywhere, and drag myself on the eggshell-white linoleum tile to the door, where I will curl up and await my social, and quite possibly literal, death.

I can’t hold it in much longer.

I think of my options. I could ask for a hall pass, but that would involve raising my hand and calling attention to myself. Alternatively, I could pretend to have a heart attack and collapse to the ground, but this is also completely out of the question. Finally, I decide to try to drink some water. I know from experience that this will only temporarily drown the urge to cough, but it’s the only option I have.

As I bend down and reach for the water bottle in my backpack (blue, like everyone else’s), my elbow bumps into my textbook at the edge of my desk. It crashes to the ground, and it’s so loud, oh God, why do these things always happen to me, and everyone’s turning to stare again, my face is turning red, I can just feel it. Papers fly through the air, scatter on the floor, and the laughter of my classmates swells to a humiliating volume. They’ll talk about this for weeks. Because teenage minds never forget.

I should have just coughed.

Rachel Reyes