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Food Fight

SANDRA BEASLEY is working on a book,
SANDRA BEASLEY is working on a book, "Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales From an Allergic Life," to be published by Crown. (Courtesy Author)

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By Sandra Beasley
Sunday, March 15, 2009

Seconds after swallowing the first bite of mango-topped pork, my throat begins to itch. Oh, no. I thought mango was Sandra-friendly. I'd tested out mango-tinis and mango salsa without a hitch. My gut cramps. I unzip my purse, sliver the foil of a Benadryl with my thumbnail and palm the pill into my mouth.

I look to see if anyone at the dinner party has noticed. Will I get to be myself tonight? Or will I be recast as the girl with food allergies?

It's a gamble. A lifetime of reactions to milk, egg, soy and so on has proved my body's limitless ability to spew and mortify. But sometimes I can hang on to my dignity by hiding the attack. On a first date in college, sabotaged by milk-laced pita, I made it through the whole dinner -- waiting until the boy left before calling an ambulance.

I take another sip of wine, testing my ability to swallow. I should have known. Mangoes are in the same family as cashews, which are so deadly that just sitting near a bowl of mixed nuts can cause my lips to tingle. The hostess's poodle noses my hand, and I realize I've fallen silent. I take a deep breath and turn to the playwright on my left. "When did you leave England?"

He answers, but it's hard to focus. This throat itch isn't going away. Maybe I can coat my stomach with something bland, but there's no helpful bowl of pretzels handy. The bread? No, that's from scratch; who knows the ingredients? Broiled salmon?

I get up and serve myself two fillets, then part of a third, eating it with my fingers. My plate is still full of mango and pork. I look like a glutton, but it works. The itch eases.

"So, you live with your boyfriend?" the hostess asks.

"Yes," I say, "Adam. He's a lawyer." I talk about meeting him in college, leaving out that our first date ended with me alone in the ER. I don't want to be Allergy Girl. A girl who once got dumped because her food-critic date realized she'd never share his love of cheese. The dinner party's topic turns to travel, and I remember being in Paris, fumbling to explain to a French chef why he had to change out his knives and clean each pan. Uptight American, he'd sighed.

When it's time for dessert, I ooh and aah with everyone else at the dozen assorted cupcakes, though I can't actually imagine how they taste. I was 28 before someone explained that coffeecake is not actually flavored with coffee. The thin bakery box is seeped through with butter frosting, and as it is passed around my way, I fake digging something out of my purse so I don't have to risk touching it.

The guests all walk out together. I'm so grateful to have held the reaction at bay that I don't even flinch when the journalist's wife gives me a frostinged kiss goodnight. I settle behind the wheel, feeling the kiss-shaped hive begin to rise on my cheek.

As I drive home, I think how much worse it could have been. I can hide hives from a casual friend, but the closer someone gets, the more likely they'll see me at my worst: carried out on a stretcher, tethered to a nebulizer, making the squonk noise that flexes air through my swollen trachea. For Adam, my feminine mystique surely took a hit on the day he busted open the bathroom door, overruling my pleas for privacy during a reaction. "I couldn't tell your mom," he'd explained, "that I let you die alone and on a toilet."

I walk in to find him on the floor, playing Star Wars on Xbox. I lean down for a kiss hello, and he gestures to the open jar of Nutella. "I'm deadly," he warns. After eight years, he has learned. "How was dinner?"

"It was fun," I tell him, "until the reaction." There's no point in pretending. The Benadryl is wearing off, and I feel the return of a tickling in my throat.

"Oh, that sucks." If I'm well enough to talk, Adam knows not to press for details. He looks back at the screen. "Want to watch me kill some Droids?"

"Sure," I say. "If I throw up, it's not editorial." I take another Benadryl, knowing it will knock me out, and curl up in the recliner. They don't show this in the Hollywood romances: how the whooshing of light sabers can become a lullaby. How your true love turns out to be the one you trust to check on your breathing as you sleep.

E-mail: XXFiles@washpost.com.


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