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Struggling to Breathe
Slipping on my new Sperry topsiders, I felt that familiar dread creep slowly from the pit of my stomach up to my throat, where it formed a lump that refused to budge, no matter how many times I swallowed. My mother saw me swallowing frantically.
“Rosalind, are you okay?” she asked, coming over to me. She must’ve been pretty worried, because she used my full name, something she does only when she’s concerned or angry. Everyone, and I mean everyone, calls me Rose.
She looked at me, and caught my eye. I turned away, because it would let the lie come out easier.
“Yeah, Mom. I’m fine. I’m sure it’s just first day of school jitters.” I replied, feeling guilty, but knowing it was for the best.
She stared at me for a minute, and I could tell she was trying to gauge if I was telling the truth or not. But I sensed a shift in her eyes, and I breathed a quite sigh of relief, as she had chosen to believe me.
“Okay, Rosy Posy! Since it’s the first day of school, you know what that means: picture time!” She said cheerfully, if a tad fakely.
I rolled my eyes affectionately at the use of my old pet name, and then forced a smile on my face as my mother took out her camera.
“Oh, honey, you look gorgeous!” My mother said, her eyes starting to well up as she took the picture. I went to go grab my backpack, but then my mother’s voice stopped me.
“Don’t you want to see the picture?”
Of course. Every year since kindergarten, I had rushed madly over to the camera to see how the picture had turned out.
“Oh, I had almost forgotten!” I said, and plastered a grin on my face as I turned around. But, there was no way I was going to look at that picture. It was a reminder to me of who I was before; but who I wasn’t anymore.
My mother held out the camera for me to see the picture. I stared blankly at it, and then something caught my eye. I looked about the same from last year, I noticed in surprise. My hair was still long, brownish-goldish, and straight. Although, my sense of style had evolved, I noted with a grin, scanning my skinny jeans, topsiders, and blue- striped white oxford over a white tank top. Compared to last year’s ensemble of jeans, sneakers, and a worn out giants tee, I was doing better.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a mark on my neck, just where it connects with my shoulder. Anyone else would have brushed it off as something on the camera lens, but I knew the truth.
I ran upstairs quickly, telling my mother I needed my jacket. Instead, I ran to the bathroom with my concealer, and layered a huge amount over the burn on my neck. What else would I expect to happen after attempting to curl my hair this morning with such shaky hands? Dropping it on my shoulder certainly was painful, but it hurt a lot more now that I was touching it. But I couldn’t tell my mother, or let her see it—she’d think I was having a relapse, when I’ve never even recovered in the first place.
I ran back downstairs, and my mother smiled.
“So, Rose, I’ll drive you today, and you can drive yourself the rest of the year if you want?” she asked.
My lungs immediately clamped up, and I struggled to breathe. My heart started to pound, and my stomach somersaulted round and round.
“No!” I inwardly screamed as I struggled to regain control of my body. “Not today!”
Then I remembered that she said, if I want, and suddenly the panic attack stopped.
“Oh, but Mom, I love having you drive me!” I said, as I prayed to god that she hadn’t seen me struggling to breathe.
“Aww, Rosy Posy! Of course I’ll drive you then!” She said, and carried on walking to the garage. I assumed she hadn’t seen me, and I calmed down, and told myself I would stay calm for the rest of the day, no matter what.
That thought dissolved out of my head as soon as I saw the car waiting in the driveway. Instead it was replaced by memories that I thought were banished. They squirmed around in my head, invading every corner, inducing panic straight away.
I tried to use one of the tecniques the therapist had taught me, “Picture a calm beach, with waves gently lapping on the shores. Now lie down, and breathe slowly, feeling the smell of salt water go in and out of your nose. “The therapist’s signature nasally voice rand in my head.
I’d never really liked her that much, but I pictured the beach anyhow. Getting into the car, buckling up, and driving to school. The whole time, I pictured the beach. Calm and serene, just like I wish I could be. How I used to be.
Getting out of the car, I waved goodbye to my mom.
“Good luck, Rose!” She called, and blew a kiss. I smiled, and then turned around so she wouldn’t see the tears gathering in my eyes. I bumped right into Anna Anderstan.
“Hey Rose!” She said, and smiled at me.
“Hey, Anna. Good summer?” I asked with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.
We made small talk for a few moments, until I felt a tug on my backpack. I turned around, and saw it was my best friend, Lauriston. I waved bye to Anna, and then hugged Lauriston.
“Hey! You look soooooo tan!” She said to me with a huge smile.
“Not as tan as you!” I smiled back.
“What have you done all summer, besides missing your best friend in Barbados and neglecting to write her any letters longer than half a page?” She said, laughing.
“Oh, you know, swimming, hanging out, therapist’s offices, hospitals....” I trailed off as I saw her smile disappear.
“Ohmygod, your parents found out?” Lauriston suddenly lost all of her trademark confidence, and she started to look a little different. Her makeup seemed garish, her tan fake, her hair too blonde, her shorts too short, her tank top too tight, and her espadrilles too tall. Right before my eyes, she transformed from my beautiful best friend to a promiscuous girl I didn’t even recognize. But then I blinked, and she returned to her normal self.
“No, of course not!” I replied, and her smile returned.
“Oh, good. No one besides us and McKayla know, right?” She said nervously.
“And Chris,” I reminded her. How could she have forgotten Chris? I certainly hadn’t, as much as I had tried to.
“Oh, and him.” She said.
Just then, the warning bell rang, and we went our separate ways to out lockers. I puzzled over Lauriston reluctance to talk about what had happened. In all the letters I sent saying anything about it, she ignored me entirely and only talked about the, and I quote, “Omg, such hot guys here that are sooo tan and sooo gorgeous!”
Maybe she wasn’t really who I thought she was anymore. Or maybe she had changed over the summer, like I had. But I was sure of one thing. She wasn’t the same Lauriston who was with me that night.
I stared at the paper placed on the desk in front of me.
“No, this can’t be happening.” I muttered quietly. McKayla walked into the classroom, late as usual.
“Haaaaaay!” She squealed, and teetered over in stiletto riding boots that she had paired with skinny jeans, a vintage band shirt, and a blue blazer. Her artificially colored red hair bounced around in carefully constructed ringlets as she sat down at the desk in front of me.
“Why the long face, sweetie?” She said, pouting playfully. I used to find this expression of hers funny and cute, but now I’d started to find it obnoxious. I mean, she knows what happened at the beginning of the summer. She knows how it messed me up. She knows all of it.
“There’s a problem with my schedule,” I said, pointing out the one class I never wanted to see on it.
“Driver’s Ed? But why, boo? Don’t you want to learn how to drive?” She giggled.
I stared at her. Was she not there when it happened? Of course she was, I was sitting right next to her. So why is she being so oblivious?
“You know why.” I said, fixing her with a stony gaze.
Her bubbly aura faded, and a nervous shine appeared in her eyes.
“Rose, you haven’t told anyone, have you?” she asked my in a barely audible whisper.
Why was everyone asking me this? Did no one care about how I was feeling after what happened? How I had been living in hospitals and therapists offices the past 3 months? And all they cared about was not being caught? These were the people I called my friends?
“No, of course not.” I said, not looking her in the eye. But not because I was lying. I was telling the truth. But it was because I couldn’t bear to see the relief that flooded her face, exactly like it had on Lauriston.
Walking in the hallway, towards the office, smiling faces greeted me from all directions.
“ROSE! I’ve missed you so much!”
“Hi, Rose! Ready for volleyball tryouts?”
I smiled at everyone and responded appropriately, but inside, I was growing jealous by the second of all of them. When was the last time I had been that carefree, that open, that happy? When was the last time I didn’t have to fake being all of that?
Well of course, it was 3 months ago.
It was all Chris and McKayla’s fault. Well, no, it was partly my fault too. And Lauriston. Maybe if I just hadn’t...
But before I could ponder this, I reached the door of the office, and I pushed it open. Maryanne, the secretary, smiled.
“Rose Montgomery! How lovely to see you again!” She smiled.
“Hi, Maryanne! Umm, there’s a problem with my schedule, and I was wondering if I could switch out of one of my electives?” I asked hopefully.
“Which one?” Maryanne asked.
“Drivers Ed.” I said, crossing my fingers.
Maryanne clicked a few times on her computer, and then looked apologetically at me.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Rose, but we’re so overcrowded this year that the only elective with any space is freshman art, and you’re a sophomore, right?”
I nodded mutely.
“It won’t fit in to your schedule, then, I'm afraid. “ Maryanne said.
“Oh, um, well, thank you for your time.” I stuttered helplessly as I walked out of the office.
“Wait, Rose?” Maryanne suddenly called, and I raced back in. Maybe she had found a way to save me from the torture of Driver’s Ed.
“Excuse me for prying, but why do you not want to take Drivers Ed? Don’t you want your permit?” Maryanne looked at me.
I blinked, taking in what she was saying. Was she asking me how I felt? Something only therapists had done over the past 3 months? Oh, how I wished I could tell her the truth, the whole story, of what happened that awful night. I mean, it was all embedded in my memory, every last detail, so why shouldn’t I tell her? I could finally let the truth out, and get rid of some of the guilt on my conscience. Oh, how good it would feel to tell someone... but no. I couldn’t do that. Too much was at stake, for me, and for Lauriston and McKayla. And especially Chris.
So, I merely responded, “Oh, I'm just not really into learning how to drive anymore.”
What an understatement that was.
6th period rolled around all too quickly. I thought about cutting class, but then I decided going wouldn’t be as bad as my mother asking questions I didn’t want to answer. So I gathered up all my courage, and walked into the Driver’s Ed classroom.
The walls were lined with diagrams of cars, naming all the parts we would need to learn how to drive. The familiar tightness in my chest appeared as I sat down at the desk closest from the door.
“Hello, all. I am Mr. Armstrong, and you will spend a wonderful amount of class time with me this year, as I prepare you to enter the brilliant world that is driving.”
“Oh, yes, definitely brilliant.” I muttered underneath my breath.
“I agree.” A voice says from next to me. I turn, expecting to see one of my friends, but instead, I see Marcus Mercer. He’s laughing, and his smile is blindingly beautiful.
Woah, where did that thought come from? I asked myself, shocked. I had been friends with Marcus in middle school, but once we got to high school, I’d never seen him at all. And now here we were, sophomore year, and I was admiring his smile.
“Ha, do you not like driving either?” I asked with a smile, all my previous anxiety dissipating away.
“No, I love it, I'm just admiring your sarcasm.” He replied with a grin.
I smiled. As he turned back to the front of the classroom, I admired his chocolate brown hair, and I marveled at how much taller he had gotten since 8th grade. His muscles had gotten bigger, too, I noted with a smile.
I caught myself. No, he was my friend! I told my brain. You can’t think about him like that, it’s just wrong. But as he turned around and smiled at me, I thought, was it?
That night, I lay on my bed. As soon as I finished my homework, I took out my MacBook and opened the browser up to Facebook. I hadn’t been on since before the night that everything happened, and I had a bunch of friend requests and notifications.
As I clicked through all of them, accepting, denying, commenting, and liking as fit, a chat message popped up. I looked down, and was surprised to see Marcus’s name!
“Hey” read the message.
I panicked on what to reply. Hey, with one y, or two y’s, or three? Or maybe hi? No, that was lame. Why was I worrying about this? He was just my friend, and nothing more.
“Heyy :) “ I replied back.
We ended up talking for hours, about everything. We hadn’t talked since 8th grade, so we caught each other up on everything that had been happening in our lives. He was on the football team now, he told me proudly. And I told him I was on newspaper and the volleyball team. Then, he asked me something odd.
“do you have a boyfriend?” he typed.
“umm... lol no” I replied, too shocked to reply anything else.
We continued to talk after that, and I asked him about his summer. He told me funny stories of him and his friends over the summer, and how they had gone bridge jumping every day. But, then he asked me something that I just couldn’t bear to answer, or even think about.
“how was ur summer? do anything fun??”
As the message popped up, my brain recalled up images of the summer that I cared not to ever think about again. Flashes of that awful night played on a never ending loop in my brain, and the room started to spin as I gasped for breath. This was the worst panic attack I had ever experienced, definitely.
A second chat message popped up from him as I tried to regain control.
“haha too many illegal things to type over the internet? You know, anything you say will be counted against you in court ;)”
Oh god, I thought to myself. He’s way too close to the actual truth, even if he’s just joking.
“g2g bye” I typed out as fast as I possibly could, and then closed out of the browser quickly. I hated to take the risk of hurting his feelings, especially when he asked if I had a boyfriend, which gave some indication of him liking me.
“No, I’m over analyzing this. I need to breathe. “ I told myself out loud as I opened the door to the little balcony overlooking the flowerbeds in the back yard.
The night air was chilly and brisk. The wind slipped under my sleeves and sent a shiver down my spine as I leaned over the balcony and took a big, deep breath in. The panic I had felt earlier drifted away, and I sat down on the wood floor of the balcony. I leaned through the door to grab my camera, a Canon Rebel that had sat untouched for a while. I lost my passion for photography a while ago.
I switched the camera on, and the first picture that came up was one of me and Lauriston from that night. We looked so excited, so grown up. It was so weird how much things had changed just a few hours after that.
I pondered throwing the camera off the edge. I didn’t need any more reminders of that night; flashbacks and panic attacks certainly were enough. Instead, I adjusted the lens as I focused in on my feet. I pressed gently on the button, and a soft light erupted out of the flash, illuminating my toes and turning them yellow.
I went back inside, and grabbed my MacBook off of the floor. I plugged my sim card into the adapter, and waited for the picture to load.
As it popped up onscreen, I examined it. It struck me that my feet looked unsure, almost tentative, like they didn’t know where to go.
I opened up my browser again, inspired. I went to my tumblr, and opened up a new picture post. I attached the picture, and then typed in a caption.
I don’t know where to go
Who to tell
Who to trust with my secret
The guilt is eating me slowly alive
And I don’t know how much longer I can take it
I clicked post, and felt a lot better. Maybe taking pictures was another way to cope with all my panic attacks, I thought to myself as I tagged the post as secrets and guilt. If I had to tag my life right now, that’s what I would have chosen too: secrets and guilt.
The next morning, I woke up, and decided to look at tumblr to see if anyone had liked my picture. To my utter surprise, it had over a thousand likes and tons of people had reblogged it. I felt pride well up in me, a preferred change from dread, which seemed to be my body’s everyday norm. As I got dressed for school, I unconsciously dressed all in blue again. I wondered why, until I remembered that blue was Marcus’s favorite color. I blushed, and the pink color of my cheeks clashed with my outfit horribly. I couldn’t think of him like that, he was my old friend, since second grade. He was still my friend today, even if I wanted him to be more.
My mother smiled at me as I came barreling downstairs.
“Honey, time to go!” She said, smiling.
The car ride over wasn’t as bad as the day before. I pictured the beach again, but this time, Marcus and my friends were with me, and we were having a barbeque. In my daydream, Marcus walked over to me, and smiled.
“Hey, Rose. You know, recently I’ve begun to feel something else for you. Something like-“
“Rose? We’re here now!” My mother interrupted.
I sighed. What was my mind going to have Marcus say? Something like… love? I shook the thought out of my mind as I jumped out of the car. I walked over to the doors of the school, and scanned the crowd for Lauriston. I spied her, and began to walk over there. Before I could call out to her, though, I bumped into a t-shirt clad male chest.
I looked up. The familiar smell of Drakkar Noir drifted up my nose as I saw the chiseled cheekbones, and then the beautiful gray eyes. Chris.
“Oh,um, hey Chris.” I said awkwardly. Is there any other way besides awkward to talk to your ex?
“Hey, gorgeous.” He smiled.
I wasn’t expecting that, since I was the one who smashed his heart into a million pieces when I broke up with him at the beginning of the summer. He sent me tons of hate via Facebook after that I had only just seen yesterday. But how could I have stayed with him after what he did on that awful night?
“ Look, Chris, it’s nice to see you again, but I really have to go.” I couldn’t get tangled up in anymore lies involving him. I had to stay strong. I turned to walk away.
“Rose, just hear me out!” His voice rang out behind me, pleading and sad. I pondered over what to do. But then I saw Marcus a few yards off, his face full of concern, staring at me. I had made up my mind.
“Goodbye, Chris.” I said without turning around. As I walked towards Marcus and smiled reassuringly, I felt a blast of warm breath on my shoulder.
“Have you told anyone about what happened?” Chris whispered into my ear. I shivered.
“No,” I breathed.
“Good girl.” He said, and I felt his lips on my neck. I shrugged him off, and walked away without a single look back. Marcus smiled at me as I came over.
“Hey, Rose.” He grinned widely.
“Hey, Marcus!” I said, brushing all thoughts of Chris away.
“Was that Christopher Loren? Was he bothering you?” Marcus said, his face becoming serious. I smiled. Did I detect a hint of jealousy? Was it possible my daydream was coming true?
“Just my ex. Don’t worry, I’m over him.” I said, trying to be subtle about the hint I was trying to give him. I guess it worked, because he smiled at me.
“That’s good. Want to walk with me to homeroom?” He asked me, albeit a bit nervously.
“Definitely,” I said, grinning from ear to ear. It occurred to me that this was the first time in a while I had truly been happy. As we walked down the hallway, I thought that it might be nice to stay like this forever, especially when Marcus reached for my hand.
I walked into Drivers Ed, slightly less nervous than the day before. First of all, Marcus was in that class, and after holding hands with him in the hallway that morning, I felt safe around him. And second of all, Mr. Armstrong wasn’t here, so most likely we could just talk during class.
Marcus waved at me, and I smiled wide as I took the seat next to him. He opened his mouth to speak, but the substitute beat him to it.
“Hello all, I am Ms. Burgund. Today, we will be learning about the Air Bag system of the car, something that’s crucial to know about if you are a young driver like you all will be. For example…” Her voice trailed off as she noticed me.
I was breathing frantically as memories rushed around in my head that I wished wouldn’t. My heart pounded so loud that I thought it was actually going to leap out of my chest. My legs shook as I stood up. I seemed to be going crazy, with panic attacks all the time now, I thought as I ran out of the classroom and into the hallway. I leaned back onto a locker to stable myself, and burst into tears. I just couldn’t take it anymore. None of it. The guilt, the lies, the secrets, the panic attacks, everything.
About a minuite into my crying, I felt a hand on my shoulder, I looked up, and I saw Marcus through my tears. I smiled weakly as he offered me his hand. I took it, and stood up. He looked me in the eye, and then he did the most unexpected thing.
He kissed me.
His lips were soft against mine, and I kissed him back for all it was worth. His mouth tasted like chocolate, and I smiled as we broke apart.
“Oh!” was the only thing that came out of my mouth as he smiled at me. He brushed my hair out of my face, and then gently used his finger to wipe my tears away.
“Now that we have that out of the way,” He said, grinning, “You want to tell me why you ran out of class crying?” His face turned serious again.
“Well, it’s a really long story,” I began, not even hesitating this time. The truth had been hidden too long, and there was no other person I wanted to tell more than Marcus.
It all started on the last day of school. I was walking in the hallway with Lauriston, laughing and celebrating the fact that we had survived freshman year. As we rounded the corner, I spied Chris, my new boyfriend of 2 weeks.
“Hey!” I cried as I ran up to him. He kissed me, and I hugged him. McKayla came running up to us.
“Haaaay guys!” She cried excitedly. “Party at my place tonight. You in?”
I looked at Chris. He nodded and smiled. I looked at Lauriston next. She smiled.
“WE’RE IN!” I giggled.
Lauriston and I rushed home. We got dressed in our coolest clothes, feeling so grown up and popular. I even remember the outfit I put on: a black tank top with gold sequins, skinny black jeans, and high black strappy heels. Lauriston did my makeup, and we both squealed and took lots of pictures to post on Facebook later.
When Chris came to pick us up, we raced out to the car. I hopped in next to Chris, and rolled the windows down. Since Chris was a year older than me, he could legally drive, just not with that many people in the car. But he didn’t care, and neither did we.
We got to the party, and Chris immediately headed for the beer laid out on the tables outside. Lauriston followed him, but I stayed behind. I didn’t think drinking was such a good idea. I mean, I was only 14, about to turn 15.
I hit up the dance floor instead, dancing around to California Gurls by Katy Perry, one of my favorite songs of all time. McKayla appeared and joined me, and we got a crowd around us.
One of the members of the crowd was a drunken Chris, who had guzzled 5 beers in a record 10 minutes. After a while at the party, he got bored, and told me he was leaving. Of course, I said I would go with him, and Lauriston agreed. I mean, he was our ride.
McKayla inexplicably followed us into Chris’s car. Since Lauriston had drunkenly yelled, “I call shotgun!” I piled into the back, and McKayla followed me. We buckled in as Chris swerved the car put of the driveway and into the road.
“Um, Chris, are you sure you don’t want someone else to drive?” I asked tentatively as we raced through a red light. I clutched nervously at the seat as Chris ignored me and pulled on to the freeway. We raced along in the dark as I closed my eyes tight, hoping it was just a nightmare. But then, as if in slow motion, I heard a crash, then a bang, and then screams all around me as I went flying. My seatbelt jerked me back into my place, and I fell against McKayla.
Dazed, I looked up. The airbags had inflated, and I vaguely saw Chris and Lauriston in the front seat, looking confused and worried. Then I saw a car smashed to pieces in front of us, and I pieced two and two together.
“We crashed,” I mumbled. Chris looked back at me, and so did Lauriston.
“We have to leave the scene, now, or we could get arrested.” Chris said briskly, opening his door. I stared at him, dumbfounded.
“But we should own up to it, it’s our fault!” I protested. All three of them glared at me, and then got out of the car.
“Come on,” Chris said, as they all three of them started to walk away. I got out of the car to follow them, but then I saw a shape slumped on the ground. I gasped as I realized it was a person. A person from the car we had hit.
I knew what I had to do. I raced over, and saw it was a man. I checked his pulse, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I found it was still there. I went through his pockets to find his phone. I pulled it out, and iPhone, and I hastily unlocked it. Thank god he didn’t have a passcode, I remember thinking.
I pressed 911 into the keypad, and pressed call with shaky fingers. Once someone picked up, I said, in the deepest voice I could manage,
“Hello? I’m on the I-95 highway at around exit-“ I looked around frantically. “Three, and I’ve just been in a car crash. I think I’m about to pass out, please send help!” I then ended the call, hoping I had done the right thing as I put the phone back in his pocket, and ran to catch up with my friends.
When I arrived home that night, after walking for a mile in heels, I snuck up to my room, locked the door, and burst into tears. How could I do anything else, with such garish scenes playing around in my head from the crash? I eventually went to sleep, but only form utter exhaustion.
Marcus stared at me as I finished the story.
“But what does that have to do with today?” he asked me, looking utterly confused.
I sighed, and continued on.
“After that night, I broke up with Chris. But then, I started having flashbacks everyday whenever I would see a car, or see anything that reminded me of that night. These led to panic attacks, and I spent the whole summer trying to get rid of them. I ended up once or twice in the hospital even, from not being able to breathe. They called it “panic- induced asthma”. I called it just plain old scary.”
Marcus stared at me.
“Rose, I can’t believe you never told anyone that. Not even your mom?” he said.
“Well, I told my mom and my therapists I was having panic attacks, but I didn’t tell them why. You’re the first person I’ve told.” I smiled.
“And that’s because…?” He smiled even wider.
“It’s because I think I might really love you, “I replied cautiously. “You’re the only person I can trust anymore, and you made me happy again after months of being guilt-ridden and miserable.”
“Well,” he replied, “I’ve liked you since fourth grade, so this is a dream come true for me.”
I grinned, and kissed him. His lips still tasted like chocolate, and for that, I smiled. Finally, I was happy again.