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Breathing In The Universe

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“I’ll call you when I’m dying and want someone to write my interpretation on this screwed up world. Then I’ll tell you the hundreds of things I kept from you and the rest of them.”
- Michael


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He enjoyed the Simpsons. They were a nice break from his usual routine. The way the
family took life in reminded him of his life in New York, as short as it was. Now he was in

New Zealand. He wasn’t impressed by the epic movie, nor had he heard good remarks from his

newly acquired friends days before, and after. The after, consisted of the two days following the time they

spent at the fair. He wore a blue Red Sox shirt to the fair. He’d had the shirt for

almost two years, but he wasn’t even sure whose name and number were printed on the back.

He was not sure why he went to see the movie that Friday. Maybe it was because his

brother was leaving for college in a few days, and spending time with him seemed vitally

important. Or maybe it was because he didn’t want to stay home and become so bored that he’d

actually pack his bag for school, which didn’t start for almost three weeks. Or maybe he was

neutral about the outcome of going to the movie, not sure if it would change his life much.

But he went without really thinking whether or not he wanted to go, just like her.

He wore a white lifeguard shirt with a red cross printed across his chest. He had never

gotten used to the contrast between his dark, matted hair, and the straight, white shirt. He wore

tan shorts, his skin color carrying through from his hips to his ankles.

He glanced in the full body mirror, fogged with summer heat. He drew big X’s over his

eyes in the fog. He drew a rope from his neck to the corner of the mirror. He hung his head. On

the other side of the mirror, he was truly hanging from a noose.



-Did everyone have parallel universes in their mirrors, or am I one of a few who are

extremely screwed? he thought. He looked at himself again. - One of a few. he walked away.



He thought about the color of his shorts while he closed the door to his room and began

down the narrow hallway lit by florescent bulbs. The color continued all the way to his ankles,

where his feet contrasted against the prematurely sun damaged skin. The two skeleton feet were

almost always covered by his black Adidas, the ones he used for JV track. He refused to own

two pairs of sneakers that could be used for the same thing, so he didn’t wear the spiked shoes

like everyone else. But according to his previous coaches in New York, the school's track team
coach would regret kicking him off the team; he was one of the best runners in New York.
When he had still lived there.

He glanced up at the flickering bulb above his head. He hated this hallway. It didn’t

blend with the rest of the house. It stuck out. It was too modern, the exact opposite of cozy,

which defied the rest. If he stood in the hallway for too long, he’d have strange thoughts. He’d

sleep downstairs on the couch sometimes. He never told anyone about these thoughts.

Downstairs his brother was poking at the pasta they had eaten for dinner almost two

hours ago, his never fully-satisfied hunger taking over his low capacity of common sense.



-When Stephen was removed, God created leftovers, and the mouth of the heavenly food

disposal did open.- His imagination said without warning. He snickered.


“What? What’s wrong with me?” Stephen said, his voice bloated, food falling from his
mouth. “What did your insignificant, psychotic mind tell you this time?” He never took his

brother seriously. Stephen was the only one who could call him psycho and not offend him.

Although to himself, he wasn’t psycho, he was just a teenager who had a vivid imagination and

let it get a little carried away. Consider this, have you ever for even one second, contemplated

suicide, or thought about what it would be like to die? Of course. You were a teenager once.

‘Satire’ was almost too perfect of a description of Stephen. He could make their

querulous clown fish blow one small bubble from its puckered lips.

“Oh, nothing. You wouldn’t think it was funny,” he said this while he scanned the living

room for his sneakers. He found them behind the TV, one of his fathers attempted jokes.

“Come on, Mike, tell me. The way you narrate everything silently is completely un-

psychotic.”

“You just called me psychotic, you hypocrite. And no, I’m not going to tell you, because

you don’t need to know what I’m thinking. I’ll call you when I’m dying and want someone to

write my interpretation on this screwed up world. Then I’ll tell you the hundreds of things I kept

from you and the rest of them.” As he said ‘them’, he spread his arms out to indicate that he

meant everyone. Even their fish. He sat down and started to tie his shoes. He laughed silently at

the conversation they were having. He hadn’t thought about what he would do to make up for the

time he spent every week just talking to Stephen.

“Come on you squirt of a human, tell me your unknown secret, for I am the true holder of

the word truth.” Stephen outstretched his arms just like Michael a few moments ago. He couldn’t

help imagining his brother wrapped in a white sheet with one of his mom’s gold-leaf china

plates behind his head. They both laughed while Stephen stuffed his over sized mouth with more

pasta. Although it didn’t suit him and his football playing body, Stephen was determined to

become as famous as William Shakespeare, and he wanted to write like him too. That was what

Stephen considered his ‘droll Shakespeare’.

“And besides, it’s obviously about me, so I have a right to know.” he was already

stuffing his face again. He ate like a Hummer.

“Well, all I really said, or thought, was how it would be when you go to college, and I

think I said something like ‘when Stephen left, God created leftovers, and the mouth of the

heavenly food disposal did open.'” Michael looked at his tying job. Stephen burst at the seams

laughing, food flying in all directions. A few pieces fell off his lips onto his forearm. Without

even looking down, he grabbed the pieces and put them back in his mouth, still laughing.

Michael didn’t find his statement any more humorous than before, but was laughing

more so at his brother, who would need CPR soon.

“You’re the most creative, sick genius in the world, Mike, you should be going to

Wooster instead of me. I mean you don’t look the part, but that doesn't matter. Where are you going to college anyway, Harvard?” He looked at Michael, still chewing.

"You're the most creative, sick genius in the world, Mike, you should be going to Wooster
instead of me. I mean you don't look the part, but you could get into any college you wanted
with that statement right there" He took another bite, "Just walk right through the front door and
state that like you mean it. Where are you going to college anyway, Harvard?" He looked at
Michael, still chewing.
"I don’t know, I’m only a freshman, depends on what I really get a liking for by the time

I’m a senior." He slid back into the coach, leaning back, bouncing slightly as he hit the cushions.

"Well, I," said Stephen, taking a mouthful the size of a fist and pointing at him, “think you
should go into the fortune cookie business. You sort of have a knack for it.” He swallowed hard

and took another over sized mouthful. “Well, what do you say?”

"Forget about it, let’s go to the movie." Michael stood up slowly, and walked out the door.

“Hey,” Stephen said, filling his mouth again. “Mike, do you know where the hell this

place is?” He shoved four more bites into his mouth and headed for the door.

“No,” Michael shouted from the driveway.

“I guess we’ll find it eventually,” Stephen said, getting into the driver's seat of the ancient

Station wagon they bought when they moved to New Zealand. Michael put his hands on the

passenger door. He looked inside the car at Stephen.

“I do know that it’s not far,” Michael said through the window, smiling. He took his

hands off the car and started walking.

“Now we’re walking?” Stephen grunted, getting out of the station wagon, slamming the door with a joking attitude. Stephen waited for an answer. “Damn, you’re persistent,” he called after Michael, and started jogging slightly to catch up.

“Come on, it’s good for you. And you’re on JV track with me. Or were,” Michael called over his shoulder, only to realize that Stephen was right behind him, his slightly raised voice unnecessary. Feeling a little ashamed, he said quietly, “And besides, you wouldn’t have been able to find a parking place anyway.” Stephen fell in step next to him, laughing. Something about Michael always made him laugh. He shook his head and put his arm around Michael. Stephen’s large football body was complemented against Michael’s frail, but muscular arms and frame.

“I’m going to miss not having you to talk to. You’re the best little brother I’ve ever had,” he stammered with sarcasm.

“I’m the only one you’ve ever had.” Michael elbowed him in the ribs hard enough to make him squeal, taking his arm from around his small shoulders. They walked in silence. The only noise coming from either one of their mouths was the sound of phlegm rising in Stephen’s throat, and being launched ten feet.

Out of the blue Stephen barked, “ And buff up a bit, you make me look too good.” They looked at each other and smiled. “ No wonder you’re still a virgin.” Michael stopped smiling.

“That’s not funny.” Stephen was ignoring him. He was laughing so hard at his own joke that he had to stop walking and gasped, trying to fill his lungs with enough air to breathe. Michael kept walking, trying to keep a straight face, but the corners of his mouth were slowly sliding up his cheeks, making dimples come into place. A few moments later, he was laughing just as severely as Stephen, unable to hold it in. He too had to stop walking to catch his breath. “That took you a while to think up.” Michael couldn’t even suppress laughter long enough to state it. He began spitting like a hyena again.

Michael walked the few steps back to Stephen and waited till he was sane enough to move. He didn’t know what to say at times like these. They fell back in step together. Stephen patted his back sending him shouting forward, almost unable to catch himself. Stephen was what you could call a ‘gentle giant’.

“Promise me this Mike: that you’ll have or have had a girlfriend when I get back.”

“Ha. No promises, but I’ll try.” Michael was nervous.

“Well maybe you’d have one already if you didn’t do that weird thing where you um...”

“Analyze them,” Michael finished for him.

“Yeah. I mean I guess it’s okay if you want to do that, but you shouldn’t run away when you find out you’re right about the person, which you almost always are. Where do you get that ‘analyzing power' from anyway?”

“Our great aunt had it too. Ever wonder why she never got married?” Michael thought about his life fifty years from now, most likely single.

“Wow, I never made the connection.” Stephen took his two pointer fingers and pushed them together, making fusing sound effects. “Put one,” holding up his left pointer finger, “ and two,” holding up the other, “ together. Makes sense.” He coughed slightly. The fresh air was too rich for their bland city lungs.

“I guess I’m just as obsessed as she was about it. So you could call it an obsession,” Michael stuffed his hands into his pockets, clenching his newly clammy hands into fists. He was nervous, it was readable through his action. "Just like you and eating."

"That’s quite true." Stephen said, belching. Michael could smell the regurgitated food in the air almost instantly. Michael could see the beginning of the paved road. He thought about how pavement was suffocating the planet, depriving the large mass of its water. He looked up at the stars and thought about what might be holding them back.





-Us. We’re holding them back. He thought, - the living hell we’ve created for ourselves has painted over them, holding back their beauty. He stopped looking at them. -so this is depression. Here I go narrating again, another screwed up habit.-



He looked over at Stephen who had put his hands behind his head, and was sighing, "This is the life," he closed his eyes, only to trip on the edge of the paved road. Michael smiled, dimples blotted on his cheeks.



-Maybe bipolar... - he thought.



"You’re gonna come visit me, right?" Stephen had a way of saying things so they didn’t sound like ‘breakers’ of awkward silences.

“I guess I could waste my money on that, yeah.” They looked at each other.

“Thanks.”







The movie theater was warm, heat radiating from the numerous bodies. They paid for their admission outside, entering upon the snack bar. The line at the bar was short, but Michael’s stomach was still full from dinner. Stephen was eying the arrangement of sweets and popcorn sizes. He looked at Michael.


“I forgot my wallet.” Michael was looking around as he said this to his brother. Stephen noticed Michael’s eyes fix on someone. Stephen shuffled behind him and looked in the same direction, finding the target. Stephen smiled, and shuffled back to his side. Acting natural, he walked past Michael, elbowing him gently in the rib. He walked into the seating area of the theater, through a small door covered with a black cloth.


Michael stopped staring and headed after his brother through the door and into the true theater. He found his brother already seated, more than halfway down the aisle, sitting in the last seat of the row. He slid into the next seat. Stephen began to laugh quietly, but enough so only Michael could detect the teasing note.


“Good choice,” Stephen said


“I wasn’t... it’s not what you think... I ...,” he couldn’t think of a way to explain it, let alone think about it.


“Just admit it. You were gawking. I wouldn’t be surprised to see drool coming from that corner of your mouth.” He jabbed Michael’s cheek.


“Fine.” He looked over his shoulder, scanning the seats. She wasn’t hard to find, the theater was basically empty except for them. She caught his eye, looking away almost immediately. Her hair was wet.



- I wonder... I bet- but he cut himself off. He wasn’t going to analyze. Not her.
“At it again, are we?” Stephen’s false leprechaun voice made him jump. Michael turned around in his seat, facing the screen. Stephen laughed, louder this time.
The movie began with a click from the projector.





Michael stood the moment the movie ended. He punched Stephen’s leg. He jolted awake.

“Is it over yet?” he yawned. He outstretched his arms, one hitting Michael in the stomach. Once he realized where his hand was, he made a fist and continuously hit Michael in the stomach, making machine gun noises as he did so.

“Yeah, come on, let’s go.” Michael walked into the aisle. Stephen stood up and followed him. Michael needed to be right on time.

It worked beautifully. She stepped right in front of him after he had stopped, and invited her to. She smiled not showing her teeth.

She nodded toward his shirt saying, “Nice shirt.” Her voice wasn’t high like all the girls he knew. Her voice was subtle, almost monotone, but not quite. She turned and headed up the aisle. She was wearing a small wool vest over a red sweater, and black boots. Her jeans had no markings on the pockets, and were torn around her heals.

He wanted to take her braid in his hands and cut off the smallest amount from the end without her noticing. She turned around suddenly, coming face to face with him.

He swore time froze. It seemed like she smiled at him for days. But he wanted more. He wanted to know her name, he wanted to know her. He wanted to know what she would say after they had just spent their first full day together. She seemed shy, so the possibilities varied. Would she hold his hand, or only accept an awkward hug at the end? And if he was brave enough, would she let him kiss her? Maybe...

She snapped him out of it.

“Sorry,” she walked past him, and when it was on its back swing, her hand brushed his.



-so this is what true butterflies feel like?- His mind was spinning.



The crisp, fresh air came all around him the moment he stepped outside the door. He breathed in less than 1% of the universe.


“Hey Mike, I think you might just get that girlfriend of yours pretty soon.” He felt his pockets. “Oh shit, I forgot my jacket inside. I’ll be right back.” Stephen turned towards the door, entering the stuffy theater. As he opened the door, Michael heard the theme song of the Simpsons still playing in the background. It ended as the door closed behind him.


Michael wondered why Stephen had to feel his pockets to remember his jacket. Then again, he was Stephen.


He held the half of his ticket in his hand, looking at it. He would keep this forever. As he looked at it, he fell up against the building. The chill radiating from the wall was even better than the air.


He liked the little amount of light there was on the street. This was one thing he didn’t mind about New Zealand: the space. When they moved here two months ago, he thought he’d never get used to it, but, now, he was beginning to think moving wasn’t as bad as it had seemed. It felt like everything was happening, right here, before his eyes.


As he looked around, he noticed someone leaning on the opposite side of the wide entrance. He looked over and saw black boots, catching enough of the light from down the street to make them slightly shiny.


He refocused his eyes across the street, and thought about how one day they would tape their two halves of tickets together, writing this story on the back.


From the corner of his eye, Michael saw someone emerge from the shadows next to her, causing both him and her to jump. By the time she noticed who it was, the boy had his arms around her waist. She put her arms around his neck, as he bent down just enough to kiss her forehead.


His voice was low.

“Sorry I couldn’t come, you know how screwed up that coffee shop is. They made me mop the ceiling because someone forgot to put the top on the blender.” She laughed.

“It’s fine, you wouldn’t have liked it anyway. I fell asleep.”

Stephen walked out the door, one arm still trying to find the armhole. He stopped, and watched the two walk away, the boy’s arm around her hips.

Michael’s heart had sunk the moment the boy had touched the small strip of exposed skin between her jeans and sweater. He stood up straight, the cold wall suddenly not feeling as refreshing as before. He pictured himself in front of the mirror again, except this time he was truly hanging in this world, as well as the parallel universe. His feet were inches from the ground.

He went on tiptoe unconsciously.

“She’ll be back.” Stephen had finally found the armhole and was zipping up his black jacket.

“What do you mean ‘she’ll be back’? Did you see what happened, or were you thinking about what you’re going to eat when we get home?” Michael began to walk in the opposite direction of her, in the direction of home.
“Just trust me, she will. And I wouldn’t mind some more pasta.” Stephen walked next to him, pushing him into the empty street. He felt a heavy rain drop on his shoulder. He looked at the ticket again. The rain began to fall with extreme velocity. “Wow, it’s really raining...” but Michael couldn’t listen. He looked straight up into the rain.
He brought the ticket to his lips, closed his eyes, and kissed it. He looked straight ahead as his arm fell to his side. Then as they came into the light being filtered through the small store windows, Michael glanced into a store, and saw a small old man holding a broom. He was staring right at Michael.

Michael stared back as he let the ticket slip from his fingers and into the street.









One the first day of school, Michael found his home room with no trouble at all, unlike in the movies. He sat next to a girl with brown hair, her fingers wrapped in Gaelic rings. She was rummaging through a white canvas bag with a big sunflower sewn on the front. The petals were falling off. He wondered if she was aware of this.
“Nice bag. Did you make the flower?” Michael was surprised at the low, monotone voice escaping his mouth. Before she turned to look at him or responded, he saw a pair of black boots tucked up under her desk. He felt his heart drop into his bladder.
She turned, her face just as pretty as he had remembered it. He felt his heart thumping deep in his stomach, a sudden heaviness coming over his body. He wouldn’t let himself fall for this again. Her smile grew almost immeasurable, although it was constricted to her pale face, in his parallel universe, it could have stretched across an absolute nothingness. Did she really recognize him? No. Of course not.


“Yeah, I did. I saw you at the movie over the summer. The 9:15 showing, right? You were the one in the lifeguard shirt, with your brother?” she turned in her seat to face him.


“Um, yeah. I guess it was the 9:15 show. It was such a bad movie.” He didn’t even bother thinking about analyzing her. He didn’t want to think about her and get dragged into orbit around her like before.


“It really was. I mean they should have just showed us an episode that summed it up. It would have been a lot funnier.” Did she just say exactly what he had thought the day after the movie? “I’m-”


“Lindsey Heart?” the teacher at the head of the room said with a slightly raised voice.


“Here. Well, there you go, my name. But you can call me Lu. How about you?” she looked down at his yellow shirt.

“Michael. You can call me Mike if you want to.” she was the first person he had met who hadn’t asked where he was from almost instantly because of his American accent.

“I like it. It definitely suits you.”

“ I think the name Lu suits you as well. Are you a Freshman this year?” he had given up on being sucked in, he was now in a set orbit.

“Yeah. I’m really nervous.”

“You don’t look nervous at all. I feel like I swallowed my heart.”

“ I’ve swallowed mine already, I think I pissed it out too.” They both laughed.




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Epilogue



Who would’ve expected his parents to decide to move to Australia five months into the school year? Everyone. And who would’ve expected Lu to admit a secret love for Michael since the first day of school, even though she had gone through numerous boyfriends? No one.

The two skipped school for the last two weeks before Michael left for Australia, and spent every moment together. On one of these days, Lu was extremely nervous. Bashfully, she held out a ticket for Michael to see. It was her half of a movie ticket, with ‘Simp’ written on it. The she slid her thumb off the ticket completely, showing the full ticket. The other half was faded, with running ink. She explained how her father had seen him drop it, and being the strange man Michael had met, of course he picked it up after he and Stephen had gone. Then he showed it to Lu, saying a handsome young man in a lifeguard shirt dropped it. When she asked, he gladly gave it to her. No one knows how Michael reacted.

When he was leaving, she promised she would come and visit him. Michael hated goodbyes.

Just like she had said, she did come to visit, after an entire summer of working three jobs back to back. While she was there, she told Michael that he deserved the ticket, but he couldn’t take it. He didn’t want to remember that night. Especially when she was so far away.

When she left, she didn’t seem herself. She always had an unconscious sense of the world. And the future.

Michael told her to be careful. He was more aware of it than she was, even though he wasn’t sure what he was aware of.

She died.

Everyone knew how, but it’s not important. Not to this story, it’s not.

At the funeral, Michael spent all his time with her father, who was with the body. The paleness of her skin, it was so natural. Almost like she was always dead, but full of life, an endless amount. Michael was not frightened by this. He looked at her for hours, his eyes never wavering. His focus was broken by a subtle movement of her father. His hand was clasped around a small, black box, on which he had written Lu in white marker. It was a matchbox he had painted black. He stuck his thumb in and slid it open. Inside was the hairpin Lu always wore, made by her father from a paperclip. Next to it was the ticket.

Lifting it out slowly, he said “When she came back, Lu said she wanted to marry you. She said that this ticket,” holding it in his left palm “was something you were afraid of. And that you wouldn’t take it when she offered it to you. But I think now you can handle it. Because to her it symbolized everything in you.” He handed Michael the ticket. “Like you probably knew, she knew what was happening. She spent more and more time planning her next visit. Although she never even once called or wrote you a letter. She was afraid that you would say something about it, and everything would fall, like the domino effect. She knew if she talked to you, she would break down, making herself weak, and then it would come. So she avoided you.”

Michael always carried the ticket with him, just like her. And he never was in love again.



- Author’s Note
I’m doing this for Michael, because he told me that when he was ready, he wanted me to write this down. But only this small part because the rest has no meaning without this short. He told me to come early, because he isn't sure he's going to stay much longer, and he's excited, he can't wait to leave.

With reluctance, Stephen


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“I’ll call you when I’m dying and want someone to write my interpretation on this screwed up world. Then I’ll tell you the hundreds of things I kept from you and the rest of them.”
- Michael





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