On my way home from school, I stalk the family pharmacy between the bus stop and my rented rowhouse in Stoneybatter—an “up-and-coming” historic neighborhood in Dublin, Ireland, where Wi-Fi networks are random strings of characters, Patti Smith’s Just Kids is coffee table décor, and cafes serve flat whites in company with meat pies. Manor Pharmacy, marked with the gothic font of a gold-embossed Holy Bible, is ground floor in a multi-use building with a mosaic of ruffled pigeons for a roof.
Every so often, the air force of birds launches a Blitzkrieg operation, diving down as if dropping bombs from a low-hanging helicopter, then swooping back up as they cross the wide-set street, dispersing across a swath of rooftops, poles, and powerlines, wind shuddering in their wake. Years later, a building resident who feeds the flock will be tried for violating a Sanitary Services act, causing a nuisance to the community. The rats of the sky, their droppings and decomposing bodies attracting the rats of the land who scavenge for items to shred into fluffy nesting material; the human residents who abstain from hanging their damp linens and garments on the line, adverse to sacrificing their possessions for the prosperity of future generations of vermin.
I hang back, across the street from Manor, pacing, until the birds bomb the street, in synchronized succession, and it’s safe for me to make my move, beelining toward the clearing. The door jingles behind me, once securely inside, as if Rudolf had forgotten his sleigh ornaments, and the shopkeeper repurposed them. Grazing the shelves, taking stock, I collect two boxes of bandaids, one fabric and the other plastic, in case my adhesive allergies act up selectively. The plan is to wrap one bandaid around the crook of my unseasoned thumb and another around the distal knuckle of my middle finger, to prevent blisters from forming under the friction of finals, the precipitous incline of writing demands. Like when you buffer your feet before sliding them into leather sandals, after a winter of wool socks and slippers.
Looking alongside the sleep aids, nasal decongestants, headache remedies, elsewhere, caffeine pills do not materialize. NoDoz is caffeine precisely measured: 200 mg packed into an innocuous white caplet, for med students in a grind, insufferable Type As. Ensuring uniformity in the one aspect of sleep-wake over which we have some control—sleep deprivation accepted as inevitable, an occupational hazard. Store brand would be fine too, only less recognizable. In Ireland, sometimes medication poses incognito, obfuscated by a pseudonym. Generic acetaminophen, for instance, is “paracetamol.” The brand Vivarin is to be avoided if possible: its taxicab yellow circles mimicking the expression of forty pearly white smiley face emojis, a sea of seething suns reeking of mockery.
“Excuse me, do you sell caffeine pills?” I ask the woman behind the counter, out of ideas, leaving the bandaids next to the register for check out.
Instead of pointing me in a direction, she interrogates, “What do you need them for?”
I’m confused as to why she’s confused. Caffeine seems self-explanatory. The bandaids are what I’m using for a non-traditional purpose, as finger prophylactics.
“I don’t drink coffee,” I say. “And soda is unhealthy.” That seems like a prudent answer?
“But pills can have a much stronger effect than coffee,” she concern-trolls me. For fuck’s sake. Imagine if there were a human barrier to pressing ‘A, 2’ on a vending machine, Coke bottle nosediving from the rack, a bit shook up.
“It’s just that, actually, I don’t have a colon.” I try to justify why I would need such a thing, why coffee doesn’t suit, as they say here in Ireland.
“It’s the same effect as coffee but coffee’s too harsh for my intestines. They’re shorter… my anatomy…” It would have been like I’d ordered a pour through instead of a pour over—in one hole and out the other. Sit back on a toilet, relax, and sip a cuppa. But I spare her the graphics, an ETA of intestinal transit time. Where MTA stands for mouth-to-ass.
“It comes out quicker. Beer and coffee, I just can’t…” I jibber-jabber, grasping to sound responsible.
“How many of these do you intend to take at once?” The counter woman grills me. Where were you between the hours of…
“Just as much as one cup. At very most, I only ever take two in a day. So just like two cups—I’m a med student,” I plead. Did you know that caffeine competitively inhibits adenosine, a neurotransmitter that acts as a central nervous system depressant? So it doesn’t wake us up, so much as stop us from getting drowsy. Fun fact!
“Oh, so you know the effects?” Yeah, like I’m gonna fucking AFib myself. Cocaine and champagne for breakfast, study breaks… Give me a break.
“No, I only meant to explain why I would need caffeine.” As if regular people don’t drink coffee. Take coffee. Use it. Whateverrr. Take as needed. Changing the verb and decoupling it from the microfoam heart-sipping, Bon Iver-listening culture doesn’t make it devious.
“Just one minute,” she stops me with her pointer in the air. Like an air traffic controller with an orange vest of authority. “She’ll have to consult with you about any other medications you may be on,” she motions behind the plexiglass barrier toward the filling pharmacist.
Finished with the counseling session, goods stuffed in my backpack, I walk back toward the door, thinking about how absurd it would be if a liquor store clerk hassled me, then acted as if I were some goddamn prodigy for knowing what alcohol did. The pigeons are back on my side of the street, but this time I don’t loiter, worried the Debbie Downers will think I’m up to “no good.” As if wrecking one’s body for a career is an inherent good, but lingering on a street corner is somehow suspect. I open the door and make a break for it. The sleigh bells jingle behind me.
K. Gene Friedman is a high school dropout with an invisible disability, working as a sexual and reproductive health care provider. A native New Yorker, she lives in Philadelphia. Her words are forthcoming in Expat Press, and her chapbook Foreign Body is being published by Future Tense Books in May 2022. You can find her on Twitter @ValleyGirlLift.
featured photo by K. Gene Friedman