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Holding My Breath
I was no extraordinary diver. But some things are more important than fear, I guess. That’s what I told myself as I rubbed the damp cement with my toes, the smell of chlorine seeping into my nostrils. Chlorine was poisonous. Why was it in the pool? I stood still, as though the infected water below me might poison me the second the top of my hair was submerged.
I’m going to faint. What will everyone think then? I took a shaky breath and stepped into thin air, standing like a soldier at attention as I fell through the atmosphere. The rippling surface under my feet rose to meet me, I felt my body slipping into the water, and as quickly as I could blink, I was in it. My limbs flailed as if of their own accord, only to meet watery resistance. Bubbles spurted from my mouth like a song.
“As soon as it’s safe, don’t hold your breath,” she had told me.
I had come to my grandmother with my dilemma the previous week.
“They want me to jump off the diving board,” I had said with the sort of solemnity that one talks about hurricanes or a terminal disease. In coming years I would look back and shake my head, almost laughing at how seriously I had taken everything. Well, not everything. Only the things that didn't really matter.
“Well, then that’s what you have to do,” she said.
“But that's scary! Have you ever seen a diving board? It’s like fifty feet high!” Offended that she would side with the swimming teacher over her grandson, I turned to leave.
“Wait a second, Kevin. This won’t do.” I perked up a little.
“Just don’t hold your breath,” she said. I stared at her.
“Grandma, I’m going underwater.”
“Yeah, so before you dive, be sure to breathe easily, and after you go under, try to exhale once it’s safe.”
“How does that help?”
“Kevin, one thing you need to learn is that your brain is smarter than your body. You need to train yourself to be able to do what you want to do.” I opened my mouth to remind her that I did not want to jump off the diving board, but she held her hand up and kept talking.
“When you’re scared, your body gets ready to run away and protect yourself, and sometimes you forget to breathe. But if you make sure to breathe easily like you do normally, your body will start to realize that you’re going to be okay, and you won’t be as scared anymore. Try it at your next swimming lesson.”
I don’t know why I believed her; biology meant next to nothing to me then. But I wanted it to be true, and so it was.
Satisfied, I turned to leave the living room. On my way, I saw my parents sitting on the couch watching the news. Videos of a plane colliding with a skyscraper were being played over and over. It looked like something out of a movie. My father’s eyes were wide; my mother was blinking back tears. I wanted to ask them why they were so upset over something fake. They had told me lots of times that movies weren’t real, so I didn’t need to be scared of things in them. They sat on separate sides of the loveseat, my father slouching with his arms folded in front of his chest. My mother’s hands were in her lap, holding each other, as though they could somehow comfort each other.
If I only I had been old enough to understand.
For months after, after being put to bed, my sister and I could hear yelling from the kitchen downstairs. Dishes breaking, stomping through the house, and sobbing made up the soundtrack of our family life after nine o’clock, one of the only times when they didn’t think we could be able to hear. They seemed to forget that we were still in the same world – only so many feet away, in fact – and we were just as real as they were. On nights when it was particularly bad I would crawl into my sister’s bed. For her benefit, I always made sure to sleep turned away from her. That way, she didn’t know I could hear her shaky breathing. I hoped her tears drowned out the sound of my own.
During those nights, I couldn’t think of anything to do but grip my own hand so hard the skin grew tender, and when I would look at myself while I brushed my teeth in the morning, there were streaks of purple bruising where I was too scared to let go.
The yelling continued until both their voices were maimed, and one night, I heard my mother’s hoarse voice scream something unintelligible before slamming the door. My sister and I crawled out of bed and watched that voice pull the blue Honda out of the driveway and speed off our street. I knelt on my bed, peering over the window sill, waiting to see the headlights illuminate the pavement once again. My sister waited with me for a while before going back to bed, but I stayed there until my hands went numb from the drafty window and my cheeks, once slick with salty tears, had become dry and crusty. The birds had begun to chirp and the horizon was stained with streaks of pastel colors before I realized that my sister knew something I didn’t. The blue Honda never pulled back into the driveway.
My sister wouldn’t go to bed before two A.M. for years after Mom left. I would lie in bed, listening to TV infomercials or reruns of cartoons she and I used to watch together when we were younger. Sometimes I could hear soft sobbing over the sitcom’s laugh track, but it was difficult to tell if it was her or the TV, so I stayed in bed.
I myself was perfectly capable of sleep, but the loneliness in the room we shared was suffocating. When it was too much for me to handle, I would roll my Superman blanket around my arms and slip into the master bedroom. I would spread out my blanket on the shag carpeting and curl up on the floor next to the king-sized bed where my father slept alone, just to hear him breathe. Eventually he whisper to me.
“Get up here.” And I would pick up my blanket and spread it over the two of us, and listen to our steady breathing synchronize, and the discomforts that had followed me from my bedroom dissolved like the tablets of baby Tylenol my mother used to give me.
I was eleven when my dad told us he was getting remarried. She was a red-haired secretary at the law firm across the street from where my dad worked. She would go to my soccer games sometimes, and afterward she would drive me to Dairy Queen for a chocolate-dipped ice cream cone. Sometimes in the evenings she would watch medical dramas at our house because she didn't have cable, and I would sit and watch them with her. Not because I enjoyed the shows – I understood the appeal of a medical profession less and less the more I watched them. But I liked her. So I sat with her through the lonely process of watching the patients on TV heal.
On the wedding day, I watched the chapel fill up and tried not to fidget in my tux. The ceremony was about to start when my uncle, the Best Man, tapped me on the shoulder.
“Your dad’s gone.”
Well, go find him, then, I thought. But that’s not what I said.
“He left. We can’t find him. Where would he be?”
In the bathroom? I didn’t see what the big deal was.
“Come on,” he said. “Come with me.”
I thought my uncle had some master plan figured out. Maybe we were driving to a secret hiding place where Dad never thought we’d be able to find him. But instead, my uncle drove to our house and unlocked the door on the passenger side where I was sitting.
“Go talk to him for me.” I nodded like I knew what he meant.
I found him in the kitchen sitting on a barstool, drinking a can of Pepsi. Soda has always been an uncomfortable drink in my mind, because of my dad. I had found the remains of a pack of Sierra Mist in the trash the night after my mom left. Today it was root beer. He liked the carbonation. He said it made him feel like a kid. I didn’t understand why he would ever want to feel the way I did.
I wanted to yell at him, but I didn’t know what to say.
“You know that’s bad for you, right?” He looked as though he were suppressing a laugh.
“What is?” he said, as though humoring a small child.
“The sugar,” I said, pointing at the can.
“Well, you could be getting married instead.” He stared at me with heavy-lidded eyes, and for a moment I thought he would yell at me. His mouth twitched, and he took another sip of root beer before he opened his mouth to speak.
“I just can’t do it, Kevin. I can’t risk it again. I can’t put her and you in the same position as last time.”
“But you won’t. It won’t be the same as with Mom.” He flinched at the mention of her.
“No one can promise that, Kev.” I stared at his shoes, the black rented dress shoes that he’d scuffed, probably carelessly walking up the front porch steps. He kicked them off a little more violently than was necessary, and I watched them roll across the carpet before coming to a reluctant stop. He crushed the empty Pepsi can against the granite counter, and the noise seemed to awaken something inside me. I wanted to yell at him, here, in the same kitchen where two marriages had been ruined. He tossed the crushed can into the garbage and looked at me with bloodshot eyes. His face was covered in scruff. He looked like a teenage boy who had been dumped on prom night.
“Well, that’s that. Go tell your uncle so he can spread the news.” I swallowed the words I really wanted to say and nodded the way I imagined a good son would.
There was a truck next to my uncle's car when I stepped outside. It was my grandma's. She and my uncle were both silent. They seemed to know what message I had been sent to deliver before I even opened my mouth.
“The wedding’s off,” I said. My uncle nodded, obviously trying to hide his surprise. My family was never good at hiding emotions.
“I…I guess I’ll go tell everyone,” he said. He backed out of the driveway and drove down the street. I was left alone in the driveway with my grandma. She held her arms out and I ran into them, unsure why I was crying.
And then we were in her car, driving away. I didn’t ask where we were going, but I could tell this was one of those drives without a real destination, one of those drives people went on when they needed to create the illusion that they were going somewhere with their lives. It took me a long time to realize what I wanted to say, and even more to muster up the courage to voice it.
“Why couldn’t he go through with it, Grandma? Why couldn’t he just deal with it and go through with it?” It was hard to breathe.
“He was hyperventilating this morning, Kevin,” she said, as though that was a good reason. I felt like I hated everyone. I knew that was ridiculous, but I convinced myself that it was justified, good. She caught me glaring at her while she was checking to see if she could change lanes.
“We can’t always push unpleasant things away, Kevin. Sometimes we need to understand them first, even though it hurts. …Even though sometimes it means pushing away people we care about instead. Sometimes we need to hold our breath.”
“But you told me not to! Remember when I was little and I didn’t want to jump off the diving board and you told me not to hold my breath? He’s just scared, Grandma!” I tried to open my car door, forgetting that the child lock was on and that we were going sixty miles per hour on the freeway. “Grandma, turn around! We need to go tell him! He needs to marry her!” She put a hand on my shoulder. I wrestled with the door handle.
“Calm down, Kevin. If he married her today, he would be taking the easy way out. Sometimes we need to get to understand why we are where we are before we start moving somewhere else. Do you understand?” She glanced at me quickly before returning her eyes to the road. I didn’t understand. I started to cry and tried to breathe quietly enough for her to not notice that I was trying hard not to ever hold my breath.
She pulled into the parking lot of an ice cream shop and held my hand as we walked in. I would have minded, but there was something cathartic about the friction between our two palms. I ordered peanut butter fudge in a waffle cone.
“New flavor?” I shrugged, hesitated, and then nodded. I felt something unpleasant in my throat, as though I had taken a big bite of something that didn’t want to be swallowed. She smiled, ordered a strawberry sundae for herself, and we sat side-by-side in a booth, slowly eating the frigid treats we had been given. I almost started crying again, but the tears were gone by the time I had finished licking the sticky remains of the ice cream off my fingers, like a kid.
My father never remarried, and the red-haired woman never came to another one of my soccer games. My sister left for college, and my father and I lived alone in solemn silence, as though our home was a funeral and the guests refused to leave.
Was this how normal people lived? I often asked myself then.
I finished high school with passing grades, the only honors class I enrolled in being English. I learned to love writing; the security of being able to carefully plan every word over and over before anyone but me would be allowed to read them was exhilarating. It almost pained me to even let myself read them, but I hardly counted. I was a mouse, not a person.
Once I almost sent a short story I wrote to a magazine to be published, but just as I slipped the sealed envelope into the mailbox, I found myself paralyzed. I left the typed manuscript in the sealed envelope and tacked it to my bedroom wall, a constant reminder that I was too scared.
I wrote my way through college, and eventually I earned my degree in Medical Practice, more to prove to myself that I could do it than anything else. Despite the frigid economy, I found a job at a small private practice within a few months. To celebrate, I took a few of my friends to dinner at a restaurant we often frequented, sandwiched between a dry-cleaner and a laundromat. Our waitress was a girl named Katie. Halfway through our meal she stopped to check on us, and we ended up talking during her break afterward. She was a marine biology major, just out of school. She had swam with sharks and played with whales. The day I saw the light in her eyes as she told me her stories, I knew.
A year and a half later, we were walking together along the beach, our fingers laced into one another’s. The weight of the small box in my jacket pocket might as well have been a live animal; I was struggling with it so. I could feel my heartbeat accelerate until it reached a sprint, and my breathing quickened. I caught myself and inhaled slowly, taking in the sweet scent of the ocean and her perfume, smiled, and breathed out easily. This was not a place to run from.
“Yeah?” I lowered to one knee, still holding her hand. My heart seemed to obstruct my breathing. The light of the ocean shone on her features, and I couldn’t help but smile. I opened the box.
She said yes.
I am not extraordinary. But some things are more important than fear.