FROM 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, 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.
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.
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.
What was it like to be Ted, I wondered, so I got out of my clothes, inserted my body beneath the rumpled covers, and proceeded to watch the car crashing. Just then his mother walked in. “Go to sleep now, Teddy. It’s very late,” she said. “And please Teddy,” she added. “Lower that TV. We can hear it all the way at the end of the house. I said nothing. Besides, I knew I couldn’t make it any lower if I tried. And then, of course, there was his father popping his head into the room. “Look, son,” he said, loud enough to hear him at the end of the house, “you stay up as long as you like and if you got a girl under the bed, that’s fine too. Your mother’s a light sleeper, otherwise, I’d join you.” “Sure, dad,” I told him. “You know I share everything with you, don’t you?” Then he laughed, a terrible devious laugh as if we shared some terrible secret together. I no longer felt I should get dressed and take Dyspnea home, but for some reason I felt stuck there, as if I belonged.
Suddenly, this had all become mine. The bed, the car crashing video, the pictures on the wall, the imaginary girl under the bed, the mother and father and most of all Ted’s nakedness. And then, she came in. Even in the darkness I knew it was her. After all, I recognized the breathing. No one else breathed as loudly and as lovely as Dyspnea. She was coming to me. She wanted me. “Please,” she said and then I waited as her wheezing blended into the soft, distant undertones of a car wreck. “Please . . don’t,” she pleaded. “Why not?” I asked in a voice I could not recognize which may very well have been Ted’s, and she said, “ come .” and then she said, “into ” and then she said, “my ” and then “ room, ” and finally “tonight” and then I put it all together-”Please-don’t-come-into-my-room-tonight.” And then I said, “And if I do?” just like Teddy would have said and she said, “I’ll . . .scream.” “I’ll. . . scream.” But she couldn’t scream. Ted knew and I knew she couldn’’t scream and yet she felt compelled night after night that Ted had been coming into her room to warn him nevertheless, a warning he probably laughed at, and then I too began to laugh, to laugh uncontrollably just like Ted might have done. But she stood there and with all the breath she could manage, she kept repeating, ”I’ll . . .scream.” ”I’ll. . . scream,” and then she turned to walk away and I knew what Ted would do next. I knew everything, I knew that she never tried to warn Ted at all in the car that night, but instead grabbed the wheel herself and steered the car into the oncoming traffic so that she and Ted might die and their parents would have to spend the rest of their lives together alone.
So now, knowing everything, I got out of bed, put my clothes back on, turned off the TV, ripped the calendar off the wall and threw all the photos of all the women I was too ashamed to look at into he garbage can at the side of the bed. Yes, I decided, we would go right home and work on her screaming. This would at least be a start, I thought, in a world where there is so little air.
Poem For A Friend In Prison:
by A.D. Winans
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