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If there was anything I always thought she resented about me, it was my callous indifference about my own inability to breath. That’s just the way it is, I told her, but nothing to her was the way it was. No one thinks about breathing unless they really have to, I tried to explain. ”That’s just what’s wrong with the world,” she’d say.” And if you really loved me . . . then you’d think about it,” she added breathlessly. “Dyspnea,” I said to her. “Yes?” she asked. “What if I told you . . . that at this very moment . . . I too. . . couldn’t breath?” “Please . . . don’t . . . mock me,” she said. What did I have to do to convince her? Hook myself up to a respirator? Yes, I think. Perhaps one day, when we’re very old, in the final act of love, Dyspnea and I can unhook our respirators together.
I wondered what this woman would think of being so immortalized , to be lusted after by the living and to be haunted by the dead.
Then again, maybe she was right. Maybe I stopped breathing just to get laid. I wouldn’t put it past me. Not the way I felt about Dyspnea. With each woman there was always a different approach. A woman called me a pig once because I wouldn’t go out with her cousin who I said was a dog. I lost my head, that’s all. But no, she kept insisting I meant what I said. Believe me more than once I have looked at myself like women must look at me and I have turned away in disgust. But still I have tried and Dyspnea knows that.
I returned to her apartment the next day just oozing with oxygen as if nothing ever happened. The last thing Dyspnea needed, I realized, was a boyfriend who couldn’t breathe either. And that whole morning I read poetry to her, trying to match the slow rhythmical cadences of the poems with her own measured breaths. “Your breathing is like poetry,” I told her and she liked that.
Dyspnea is good for me. She has slowed down my life which I have needed. She has made me think about things now before I do them. There are many past threats I have not gone through with. I have not quit my job. I have not pursued the woman who keeps giving me looks in the café at Barnes and Noble. No, instead I have lain with the deep, rasping silences of Dyspnea’s breathing and I have found peace there.
On Thanksgiving Day we went to Dyspnea’s parents’ house. Her father carved the turkey and looked right at Dyspnea the whole time he did it. Nowhere on his face was to be found the look of forgiveness. Ted being dead there was not much in her father’s mind to be thankful for. Her mother put some stuffing and cranberry sauce on a plate and placed it in front of where Ted would have been sitting. There were no turnips on the plate. “Teddy doesn’t like turnips,” her mother said as if Ted were still alive and had stepped out for a moment. There was complete silence during the meal except for Dyspnea’s treacherous breathing.
What had comforted me before now frightened me as if each of her breaths were the ticks of a time bomb. Something terrible was going to happen tonight, I thought to myself as her mother went off to get dessert. It was pumpkin pie, my favorite. Ted’s still full plate was taken away and piled up with the rest of the dishes. “He eats so little these days,” her mother said. “And believe me it’s starting to show,” she added. “The kid’s got a lot on his mind,” her father yelled at her. They had both gone mad. We who were still living received less attention than he who was dead but maybe, I thought, that was good. Barely having touched my pie I got up from the table without being noticed and walked towards the bathroom. I could not touch the pie. It seemed to me a pie of death, as if it had been sliced and served by and for the dead. From that day forward I was never to look at pumpkin pie quite the same way again.
On the way to the bathroom, I turned into Ted’s room instead. It looked again as if he were not dead but had stepped out for a moment. His bed was not made. His TV was on, playing a tape of car crashes but at such a low volume one could hardly hear the sounds of the crashing. On a night table near his bed, there was a photo of a high school football team and I recognized Ted from other photos I had seen around the house that night and in the photo he was the only one not wearing a helmet. On the wall over his bed was a calendar of naked women which was stuck on September five years ago the month Ted was killed, and I imagined it would be stuck that way forever long after that naked woman was dead. I wondered what this woman would think of being so immortalized , to be lusted after by the living and to be haunted by the dead. There were other photos of women as well in various stages of dress, but there was no indication of who they were. His various conquests perhaps.