ROM THE FIRST DAY I KNEW HER SHE HAD TROUBLE breathing. “I like you... a lot,” she once said to me and then was completely out of breath. What was funny was that she came from a long line of long-winded people, people who barely took a breath between words, who spat and drooled rather than hold back a single word. They were suspicious of other people who took deep breaths. Needless to say, Dyspnea was a problem for them, not to mention a constant embarrassment. “Spit it out, already!” her father would shout at her, but instead she just choked on whatever it was she was trying to say or swallow. They took her to doctors, but the doctors only gave her pills that made her breath easier not faster. Then one day she was in a car with her brother Ted who was driving and at one point during the ride she said, “Ted, we’re going to . . . be killed!” But by the time she got the whole thing out, he was already dead.
She, however, lived. To regret it, of course. She saw it coming all right, saw the car coming right at them which for some reason Ted, the driver, never saw. But they never once blamed his vision, only her breathing. After that, her family hated her. Ted had been drinking, she wanted to tell them. Ted drove like a maniac even when he was sober. Ted wanted to crash. Ted wanted to kill both of us she wanted to tell them, but it just couldn’t come out. First, she needed a receptive audience. People who really wanted to know the truth. Next she needed the space. A good physical distance between her and them, just enough to have enough oxygen to say everything she had to say because most of the time they took away what little breath she had and sucked up what little oxygen there was in the room. And most of all, she needed silence. As much silence as she needed she had to have. And this was something they just wouldn’t give her. She was just a girl and she knew that was a disadvantage. This too was connected to her weakness.
“Ted, we’re going to . . . be killed!” But by the time she got the whole thing out, he was already dead.
Ted, who was a boy, never had trouble breathing. If anything, he breathed too well. He got all the breath, they’d say, and she got all the looks. But looks weren’t enough. In fact, they were very bad. She seemed to them like a defective doll with a run down battery that wasn’t worth replacing. Girls liked silence. That’s what they thought. “I hate silence,” her father once told her. “It shows weakness and deceit. It’s left-wing and atheistic. It makes my skin crawl.” And while she was trying to collect enough air in her lungs to disagree, Ted said, “You know what, dad?” “What son?” his father asked him in a kind of deathly anti-silent roar. “Whenever I’m with a girl, and she doesn’t say anything, I feel like I’m being castrated.” The father laughed and she thought she had finally caught enough air to scream but all she could manage was a long, painful hiss like a punctured tire. The mother, probably at the end of her rope by now, turned to her and said, “If you don’t start breathing right, no supper!” So she was forced back into her room where she practiced breathing in front of a mirror.
For the most part, Dyspnea and I have good times together. I don’t mind the silence, not really. Sometimes we sit in the park and all I hear are the birds chirping, the leaves rustling, and the measured railing of Dyspnea’s breath. “Just don’t think about it,” I tell her. “I don’t and it just comes naturally.” And then she looks at me as if I too have betrayed her and she says, ”If. . .I . . . don’t . . .think . . . about . . .it . . .I’ll . . die.” Yes, of course, I think. And she would too. How quickly those of us who can breathe forget. When I take Dyspnea into my arms, I feel her resisting me, struggling with all her strength to push me away. I assume I have taken her breath away and leave it at that. But it’s more than that. She looks at me as if I were just another man trying to destroy her and begins to cry. I leave her apartment and when I hit the night air, suddenly, I too have trouble breathing. Sympathy breathing, I think. As I head into the subway my wheezing grows worse until I can no longer separate its sound from the sound of the train heading towards me. It all seems so helpless. Should I leap? I wonder, or just buy an inhaler. Why do anything rash? Why wait till things get worse? So many questions, I think. So many questions and so little air to answer them with.