They erupt in groups of twos and threes, like a reimagining of the teenaged girl’s bathroom buddy system for substances that irritate air passages. One could count the seconds between their occurrences as though between a flash of lightning and a crack of thunder. While this method proves to be more of a distraction than a measurement of distance, both distraction and distance are necessary.
The listener knows that a cough can be either purposeful or involuntary, and yet each of my roommate’s oral excretions emit the mocking complacence of a bully who targets weakness with uncanny precision. It is a challenge to differentiate the cough from the cougher, and the impulse to give in to irrational hatred for the cougher is pressing indeed, but one must have patience.
The night is a symphony of several singular and variegated cough movements, though they lack musicality. Each cough contains layers of sounds that have never before been documented together. A foot stomping into a glass casserole dish full of hot, squishy lasagna; a baby bird choking on its pre-masticated food; a car colliding with a gigantic Jell-O mold of another car. If nothing else, my roommate must get credit for the incredible variety and scope she expresses.
The sense of randomness is perhaps the coughing’s most striking feature, as it creates tangible, nerve-wracking, psychological anticipation. The coughing will seem to have ceased, though the listener clenches and tenses in anticipation of the next blow, until finally, when the listener has at last begun to feel relief and gratitude for the ending cacophony, there is a sudden explosion of loud and wet eruptions. One might call to mind a study in which one group of mice were given a morsel of food whenever a bell was rung, a second group every other time a bell was rung, and the third group randomly. When the experimenters stopped offering morsels at the ring of the bell, the first and second groups realized this quickly; the third group never stopped expecting food. When my roommate coughs all throughout the night, the listener is the third group of mice. It’s teeth-gratingly suspenseful, and provides further proof that soundtracks are vital to making or breaking the mood of gripping dread in cinema and day-to-day life alike.
Though a gross disgrace to the coughing of the pneumonic plague, my roommate’s coughing sounds virulent enough that the transmission of whatever disease she’s carrying from her respiratory system to mine wouldn’t require fleas to act as vectors. In fact, the cough itself seems just as likely to coagulate, sprout wings, and land on an open wound on my bare arm as I am to ingest an abnormally folded protein from the infected spinal cord fluid of a cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy. With each speck of infected saliva that releases joyously into the shared air, as a horde of sperm swim eagerly to their egg or as Charlotte’s aeronaut spider babies float away into the warm wind, a new urgency is applied to the common phrase “I’m sick to death of her.”