Before a Sneeze | Mark Lindsay

There is this Italian caffé and bakery near our home. I'm not much for pastry, Italian or otherwise, but come Christmas I always buy a panetone. It is my firm belief that the panetone at this bakery is the best outside of Italy. It's not a traditional Milanese panatone as it is flecked with rich, dark chocolate. But the chocolate is used with good sense and I like it. Every year I look forward to eating it on Christmas morning. And I look forward to the ritual of going to the bakery and buying it.

This year I got sick the week before Christmas. It was a nasty head cold with remnants that I still feel as I write this. I'm fine now but last week I wanted to tear out my eyeballs, rip off my nose, and bury my head in a pail of sand. The worst of it was the sneezing fits that ended with cramps deep in those muscles that help you breathe. Stuck in self-pity, I lay on the couch for a week, buried in crumpled tissues. I was keenly aware that I was running out of time. It came down to two days before Christmas and I had no panetone.

At the last minute I finally felt well enough to leave the house and not infect the entire world with my head-filled misery. Still bleary-eyed and red-nosed, I went to get my panetone—hardly a Norman Rockwell, Christmas moment—though my nose did resemble St. Nick's.

Getting out of my truck I looked at my miserable reflection. I seemed frozen in a perpetual pre-sneeze moment. The sneeze never came. I must have been feeling slightly better because I made a picture of myself. I figured I'd want to remember this moment when I felt better.

Usually I can smell the bakery before I actually see it. This time I smelled nothing as I walked in the door. My panetone seemed waiting for me, a singular monument atop the counter. The woman said it was still warm from the oven. I asked it was the kind with the chocolate shavings inside. She nodded.

By the time I got back to the truck my pre-sneeze face had relaxed. It would be a subdued Christmas, spent mostly on the couch with a cat or two and a box of tissues. But, on Christmas Eve I ate some chicken soup and on Christmas morning I had my panetone. I think I ate two giant slices. Maybe I had a third. The chicken soup didn't do me much good but I do believe that the panetone finally cleared my head. Since then I've been fine.

Happy New Year to everyone!