Useless Information

Cath UK

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I sometimes believe that our innate capacity for retaining useless information is what makes the human race stand out. Consider the elephants, who with their legendary memories are able in their old age to find a watering hole which they might have visited only once in their youth. Then consider the average man, who can no more remember to put down the toilet’s seat after he is done using it than the average woman can remember that a secret is not meant to be repeated. Let’s just say that on the memory front, the elephants have us beat.

But useless knowledge is altogether different. Most people hear or see loads of unimportant things that they will be able to remember for the remainder of their lives. Generally, the more useless these pieces of information are, the better the chance of remembering them. I myself have memorised dozens of useless facts and statistics.

To illustrate: American couples have sex on average two point three times per week.  But did you know that the average man takes two minutes and thirty seconds of sexual stimulus before reaching orgasm? I’ve always thought that Dame Nature has quite the sense of humour, given that it takes the average woman twelve minutes of such stimulus to come. Unsurprisingly, a whopping thirty percent of women have never had an orgasm. (I do not believe that men are entirely to blame for this.)

When I was a teenager, someone once told me that seats in fast-food restaurants were designed so that they would become uncomfortable after seven minutes. This was, my informer said, precisely the amount of time needed by the average American to consume one standard hamburger, helping of fries, and soft drink. Beyond that, the customer would be needlessly consuming space that might be put to more lucrative use. Thus after seven minutes spent in your average fast-food restaurant, you are no longer desirable. (Then again, if you spend too much time eating fast food you tend to be less desirable in general.) The seat that seemed perfectly moulded to fit with your expanding contours suddenly begins to feel hard, uncomfortable, and restrictive. Before you know it, the powers of marketing, ergonomics and production engineering have come together to expel you and make room for the next billion to be served.

Only I’ve just arrived.

I am precisely twenty-seven seconds into my allotted period of comfortable seating when I see an average American male walk in. Like ninety-four percent of the world’s population, he has dark hair and dark eyes. He appears to be of average height – the male average is just over five feet and seven inches because there are a lot of short Oriental men out there – and his features are regular in a way that make him casually good looking. Watching his trim body slide neatly into the moulded plastic chair across the row from mine, I find him pleasing to look at. There’s something friendly about the tousle of his hair and the unconscious smiling curl of his lips. In fact, the only thing that does not seem imbued with gentle symmetry and general pleasantness is his nose. It’s just a bit too swollen and red to allow unselfconscious handsomeness to be entirely his.

In the back of my mind, I am aware that I only have six minutes of comfortable sitting left.

The man unwraps his blueberry muffin and takes the lid off his Styrofoam cup of coffee. Then he stops, looks up in the air for a few seconds, and brings his hand up quickly. Were it not for a muffled “Utcch!” sound, he would look as though he’d just punched himself in the face. He stays like that, body tensed like a balled fist, and I forget my French fries altogether.

“Utcch! Htcch! Tscchh!”

The man relaxes, opens his eyes, and turns his attention back to his muffin. Thirty-four percent of Americans suffer from allergies, and it appears that I am lucky enough to be sitting right in front of one of them. I affect nonchalance as I take a bite of my virgin hamburger, steering my eyes away from his face, sliding them down the graceful curve of his neck.

The man pours the contents of a small container of milk into his coffee. He stirs it, then stops mid-swirl. He turns slightly as his face contracts, and “Utchhooh!” sneezes directly on top of his muffin. It would be comical if it weren’t so… mesmerising. He doesn’t realise that a fine mist is settling on top of the baked blueberries in his treat. He is already winding up for another sneeze. This time, his hands leave the Styrofoam cup and he covers his mouth.  A distinct “Hurtch-ooh!” comes out, the first syllable forceful yet contained, the second one almost a pained sigh. A shiver runs through me when his eyes open; I hadn’t noticed it before but they seem irritated, glistening with whatever it is that is troubling him.

He clears his throat and again turns his attention back to his food. Somehow the chair beneath me feels harder than it did when I sat down, but that can’t be – I’ve only been here two minutes. Then I realise that it’s not the chair’s stiffness that’s increased but mine, and I force myself to relax so as not to draw attention to myself. My hamburger tastes like cardboard. Will the man sneeze again? He seems to be deep in thought as he stirs his coffee with a little brown plastic stick. I stare at him, aware that I shouldn’t, unable to stop.

It’s all right. He isn’t noticing me. He has over five minutes of comfortable seating time left, but it’s not his posterior that’s giving him trouble. He needs to sneeze again and it’s obvious. We’re both acutely aware of how shallow his breathing is, of the irritation that flickers on his face, and of the way he keeps rubbing his reddening nose with his palm. It’s only a matter of time before the next explosion. I can feel my pulse speed up and my crotch tighten. I cross my legs and pretend to look out the window over the allergic man’s shoulder.

The man gives his nose a good rub and snuffles. He breaks off a piece of his muffin and opens his mouth, ready to pop it in, but just before he does, all hell breaks loose.

“Uhsshoo!” It’s a violent sneeze, but curiously quiet. His head snaps down quickly, his mouth just missing the muffin piece held in his hand. “Uhsshh!” This time his hand jerks, and I can see blueberry-speckled pastry flying to the floor with a trail of crumbs behind it like an edible comet. “Uhshhh!… Uhsssh!… Ursshhhooh!… HUSH-ooh!” He is peppering the air with sneezes, with only the pause for one breath in between. His face is a picture of allergic hysteria, powerless against what is manifestly a monstrous tickle in his red, tortured nose. His eyes snap open just for a second as he gasps for air, and then shut again as he reaches up to cover his face with his hands. All I can see are his eyebrows, arched all the way up, as he presses his upper palms to his nose in an attempt to stifle further sneezes: “Httchh! Tsshhh! Tttchhh-ckssshh-cksssh!”

“Oh gawd,” I hear him mutter, his voice cracking on the second word, and then again, one last tired-sounding “Hittchh!”

I only have four minutes of comfortable seating left. I take another bite of my hamburger. I’ve seldom felt less like eating. With each sneeze, I felt something like a low-grade electric buzz in my lower body. I’d give anything to be able to touch myself down there, but then, even in this age of freedom of expression, some things are not tolerated in public places. (An approximate, and ironic, sixty-nine thousand Americans are arrested each year and charged with public exposure and indecency.)

The man takes his hands away from his face and tries to sniffle, but the attempt is stymied by congestion. I am innocently staring at my hamburger, as though I haven’t been gorging myself, as though I haven’t noticed his cringing embarrassment at losing control of his nose in front of me… and the half-dozen other diners (curiously all old women) scattered throughout the eating area, none of whom appear to be aware of his little production.

Of course, there’s no reason why they should – first, he is being discrete about it, and secondly, most people don’t care about this kind of thing. Only seventeen percent of the adult population admits to having a sexual fetish. Moreover, seventy percent of people with fetishes are men. As for a sneezing fetish, well, nobody’s been obsessive enough to put a figure to that: if they had, I’d have remembered such a piece of (useless) information. But if I had to guess, I’d say roughly one individual in ten thousand exhibits this peculiar trait. I don’t know whether the unfortunate allergy sufferer in front of me would find this comforting or not.

I observe him as he reaches for his coat, which he’d settled on the back of his chair. For a moment I worry that he is leaving, but his hands only fumble through the left pocket until he finds what he’s looking for: a crumpled, obviously well used white square of fabric. The man snatches the handkerchief and brings it to his nose, where he pauses long enough to deliver a heartfelt “Cksssh!” into its welcoming expanse. Then, he grips it firmly in both hands and tries to force air out through his congested passages. It’s difficult, but at length he manages, soaking the fabric into translucence. Delicately, he wipes at his nostrils, which are now looking redder than ever. Poor thing. He does seem quite miserable.

I realise that I’ve finished eating my hamburger and that I have something like two minutes of comfortable seating time left. My fries are mostly cold now, unappetising, but I force myself to eat them, slowly, feeling the greasy mush trickling down my throat. I help it along with a cool sip of Diet Coke. I haven’t ever enjoyed a fast food meal quite like this one. My nether regions are feeling quite plump themselves; I uncross my legs and then cross them again, enjoying the friction. It’s all I can do not to squirm in my seat.

To my disappointment, the man’s blowing his nose seems to have helped him feel better. He puts his handkerchief away, gives his itchy nose another good rub, and now begins to attack his muffin. A minute goes by. I’m amused at the speed with which he does this, as though he thinks he might not get a chance to eat it later. I’m thinking (hoping?) that this is indeed the case. As soon as it’s gone, he’s done no more than take an experimental sip of his coffee when all of a sudden worry steals across his face. His brown eyes widen and he gives his nose another rub in that same curious palm-up way of his. He seems thoughtful, faraway even. Then, he gives a sigh.

To the non-connoisseur, his sigh would be just that. But there is a depth and urgency to it that tells me otherwise. I think this is one of the most attractive parts of a sneeze, the full-bodied emptying of the lungs that precedes a desperate gasp for air. It’s a breathy kind of sigh, tinged with certainty and the inevitability of expectance: to me, an unconscious lover’s promise. The man gives that sigh, and then does not immediately draw breath. He expels air, and then freezes for a second, his face immobile though his eyes blink rapidly twice. There is, I notice, teary fluid sticking to his long lashes. A moment later, he looks pained as he rushes to get in the air he needs. His brown eyes slide shut and his nostrils widen; his upper lip curls in a sneer. He doesn’t even have time to bring his hands up before two sneezes escape, harsh and brittle, “Ckshh! Tssschh!” They snap his chin down to his chest. Sensing more, he grabs for his handkerchief, but it is once again nestled in his pocket and two more choked “Huh-cksshh! Cksssh!” sneezes have time to burst forth before he realises he’s not going to make it in time to catch the flood that promises to follow.

Instead, he settles for bringing his hands up to his face to cover his exploding mouth and nose. I am disappointed; there was something so thrilling (so awful) about his expression. The tortured way his lips were drawn apart, his eyes were blindly shut, muscles in his cheeks working. His eyebrows were drawn, then coming down again with each sneeze, each blast of air expelled with furious insistence from mouth and nose. I don’t know what it is that’s making him sneeze, but it’s obviously potent. I do the cross-uncross thing with my legs again in anticipation, desperate for friction, any friction that could bring me some kind of relief. I can tell just by looking at him that this fit is going to be as bad as the last one… or maybe even better.

My allotted time during which my plastic moulded chair remains comfortable runs out. In spades. I can’t help it. I am now officially wriggling in my seat like a little girl who needs to pee, barely remembering to keep my movement at a minimum so as not to draw attention to myself. Fortunately, the man in front of me is noticing nothing except the burning flare in his sinuses. It appears to be a truly horrendous tickle, judging from the mask-like expression of agony on his features. He lets his hands drop – yes! – and rears his head back.

Time stops.

I can actually see chords standing up on his neck, outlining the allergic frenzy in which he is caught. His mouth is agape, the little white row of his top teeth catching the light. Something sparkles near his right ear and I realise that a tear has coursed down his cheekbone. His nostrils are flared, huge, two miniature manholes in the middle of his face, drawing in air to fuel a massive sneeze or several. He makes a small sound in the back of his throat, “Gluck…”  it sounds like, and I can see his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. I would give my soul for a camera to be able to photograph this second, the hideous beauty of a man totally caught in the thrall of a truly gigantic sneeze.  He is a caricature and he is stunning. The tickling itch seems to mount and mount, contracting his features until he seems so tense he might crack; I see his hands clench spasmodically, twice, and then reach up to grab the table top for ballast. His head is now so far back that if he were to open his eyes, if he could open his eyes, the world would look upside-down to him.

My wet sex gives a slow, grinding clench as time once again begins its forward crawl.

A huge, nearly silent intake of air is followed by a body crunching: “HURRSSHHOOH!” It is so loud it is nearly a scream, a complete contrast to the man’s previous embarrassed efforts to keep his sneezes quiet. He’s done well to grab a hold of the table in front of him – I believe the force of his explosion might have been enough to blow it away. Now, all chatter in the restaurant has ceased. The staff, the old women, and myself all find ourselves utterly absorbed, collectively agape in watching this man fall to pieces. “HURRRSSSSH!” he roars again, and I see a cloud of spray land on the table in front of him. “URRSSSH!  HURRRSHHH! HURRSHHHOO! URRRSHHHOOO!”

His table jerks – hell, the whole restaurant jerks – with every sneeze. On the sixth loud explosion in this fit, two things of importance happen. His coffee cup is knocked over and I experience my first spontaneous orgasm. People’s hearts beat at a rate of 180 beats per minute during an orgasm, and they burn roughly six thousand calories per hour. In one series of spasms, I’ve consumed every calorie contained in my meal. And it didn’t even take me twelve minutes to get there.

While the allergic man is still not done, the tickle in his nose appears to be abating. The sneezes that follow become increasingly quiet and controlled: “HUSH-ooh… URSSH-ooh! Ckshht! Ckssshhh! Huh-cksssh!” He has time to breathe between them now, expression still pained but no longer quite so desperate. As everyone continues to watch, there even begins to be a few seconds’ pause between them: “Cksshh! … Tsschhh!… Huh-tscchh!…”

Finally, like a toy winding down, he slows and then stops. He opens his eyes and blinks, wetly and slowly, like a man awakening from a nightmare. He gives a muffled groan, then wipes his allergic tears away as best he can with his moistened hands, signalling the end of the fit. This has an effect similar to that of an announcement over the restaurant’s PA system. (“Everyone please resume your conversations – the customer in the corner has now terminated his amazing allergy attack. We repeat, the incredible sneezing attack is now over.”) The old ladies begin chattering again, and the staff ostentatiously busy themselves as they clean counters and prepare more fries. As for me, I’m blinking too, not quite believing that I have actually just come in my seat.

I eat my last fry, and drain my Diet Coke. The man in front of me is quite red now, though I’m not sure whether it’s embarrassment or the result of the intense physical workout he just got from all that sneezing. He’s wiping hard at his nose and face with the handkerchief he’s managed to retrieve from his pocket. When he catches me looking at him, his eyes dart away and he mutters, “Sorry ‘bout that…” in a congested voice.

I feel terrible. I notice that the lower legs of his pants and his shoes have gotten sloshed with his spilled drink. He looks pitiful sitting there, all messy with snot and spit and coffee. Combine that with the allergic tears smudging his cheeks and he looks like a young child in an adult’s body. My heart goes out to him.

“You look like you could use these,” I say picking up the stack of napkins I’d picked up for finger wiping purposes. I walk the five or so steps that separate me from his table and help him to pick up the coffee that is dripping down from its surface.

“Thanks,” he nods, still painfully embarrassed. He plucks a napkin from the bunch I’m holding out to clean himself up. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to, uh, disturb your meal.”

“That’s okay,” I say, smiling too brightly. “Thirty-four percent of Americans suffer from allergies. It’s unfortunate, but it happens all the time.”

“Ah,” he says, unconvinced. He clears his throat, then gives a congested snuffle. His hands are busy using what’s left of my napkins to pick up the last of the spilled coffee. He doesn’t get up, nor does he meet my eye. “I just feel so uncomfortable.”

And then, like an idiot, I say: “That’s because you’ve exhausted your allotted seven minutes.”

This time, he does look at me. “Huh?”

I explain about the seven-minutes-before-the-restaurant-wants-you-out theory. For the first time since he came in, I see the man begin to smile. Encouraged, wanting him to feel better, I start randomly telling him more of the stupid facts I’ve picked up through the years: that we swallow an average of seven spiders per annum, that ninety-nine point five percent of Americans purchase toothpaste on a regular basis, and that it is impossible to sneeze with your eyes open.

“I’ll have to try that one out sometime,” he says quietly.

He still lets out the odd, stifled little sneeze (eyes closed), but the storm has passed and we can both sense that his allergic reaction is fading. I’m dying to ask him what caused it, but of course I don’t. Instead, another statistic comes into my head. It flows off my tongue with exceptional grace: “Did you know that forty-seven percent of Americans claim to have met their future spouse in a fast food restaurant?”

The man stops and looks at me, his eyes amused. “That seems kind of high. Is it true?”

“Well, no,” I grin. “That one, I just made up.” It’s my turn to redden. I can’t believe I just said something this weird. “Then again, you don’t always have time to make an impression in seven minutes, do you?”

I did,” he says, and the self-conscious way in which he smiles gets me. I mean really gets me. I could jump his bones right now, if I weren’t experiencing severe tachycardia. “I’m one of, what was it you said, thirty-four percent unfortunates?”

The thought: “Maybe, but I’m one lucky girl in ten thousand,” floats into my head, and I say: “I don’t suppose you’d maybe like to go for coffee with me somewhere?” Then, looking down at his shoes, which are still studded with droplets of spillage, I add: “Unless you’ve had enough for one day.”

“No, that’s okay,” he says, and sniffles. “I’d love to.” His look of surprise is charming.

I take his hand and tell him, “Did you know that twenty-eight percent of people go for coffee on a first date?”