I can’t get a full breath. No matter how hard I try.
And I do try.
The stale air I sniff stops in my throat. Something traps
it there. I wonder, will I choke? I battle for more air.
But I cannot access it.
I want, I need, I crave,
just a breath.
When I was eight, my mom was arrested for trying to sell cocaine to an undercover cop during one of her dancing shifts. I had seen drugs before, in her room and in the bathroom. Though I was only a kid, I knew what they were. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew.
One day I saw white powder on the mirror that sat flat on my mother’s dresser. “What’s this?” I asked, knowingly circling my finger through the crumbs of powder.
My mother was nervous. “Oh, it’s from when I get out of the shower and put powder under my arms.” She walked to the dresser and placed herself between me and the dresser. She pretended she was fresh out of the shower, and with a forced smile, made the motion of applying powder to her underarms. I was judging her. Dark lipstick filled in her thin lips. Eye-shadow masked her eyelids, though it couldn’t mask the hollowness inside her eyes. Her perfume was too strong. Her jeans were too tight.
“Oh. And what’s this?” I said, moving to her bedside table and picking up a short straw.
She laughed, insincere. “Me and Tommy play jokes with that.” She took it from me. “We use the little straw to drink from the little shot glasses.”
“Sounds fun,” I said, even though it didn’t. Not at all. I left the room.
The day the police officer came to arrest my mother, Prescott and I were sprawled out on the living room floor, playing with our extensive collection of fast food kid’s meal toys.
A forceful knock sounded from the front door, the door we never used, the door with the numbers 1-1-6 on it. Alarmed, I got up and opened it. The intruder was tall and his uniform, neat and blue and formal, looked official. Whatever reason had brought him to our apartment couldn’t be a good one. Either he didn’t notice or he didn’t care that I was only a child. He flashed his badge, blurted out some police jargon I didn’t understand along with my mother’s name and pushed his way inside though I hadn’t even stepped out of the way.
“Um…Mom?” I yelled upstairs. “Someone’s here for you.”
The cop waited to take my mother away until my father came for me and my brother, Prescott. Prescott continued playing with his toys on the floor. I envied him his naïveté that day as I would so often while we were growing up.
Dad sometimes took us to visit Mom in jail. He told us that she was in the hospital, but there was no fooling me. I understood what happened the afternoon my mother was taken away. Dad knew I knew the truth, but he wanted me to pretend I didn’t, for Prescott’s sake. Maybe for Mom’s sake too. But I knew if our mother were in a hospital, she wouldn’t have to spend time with her children in a supervised room. She wouldn’t have to let a guard examine the pictures her daughter drew before she was allowed to hold them, either.
“Thank you for calling Woodbridge Dodge. How may I direct your call?”
“I need to speak to my Dad,” I said, out of breath. “This is an emergency.” I was seven years old, speaking in a loud whisper. I sat upstairs on my mother’s bed, the phone shaking in my hand.
“OK, Corinne,” the secretary said, recognizing my voice. “I’ll get your father right away.”
Instantly my father was on the other end of the line. I pictured him perched on the edge of his desk, customers waiting beside a car he was in the middle of selling. In my mind, he was dressed in a neatly pressed suit, wearing a bright but tasteful necktie, running his fingers through his thick brown hair.
“Baby, what’s wrong? What happened?”
The sound of his voice was my OK to cry. Tears started falling, dripping from my chin. “Daddy,” I rambled, not remembering to breathe. “Mom and Tommy were fighting and Prescott got hurt. He’s bleeding very bad, Daddy. He’s not OK.”
My father tried so hard to keep me calm. “Where did Prescott get hurt? Tell Daddy.”
“In the face, Dad. With a phone. In the eye.”
“OK, Corinne, I want you to hang up now. Daddy will take care of everything. I’m going to call an ambulance and I’ll be there as soon as I can. You don’t have to worry.”
I hung up the phone and walked across the hallway to the bedroom I shared with Prescott. I picked up our cat, Fluffy, and hugged her. Resting my head against her body, I listened to her purr. “Fluf-Fluf, I’m scared,” I said. “You stay here. I don’t want you to get hurt too.” I kissed her nose, placed her back on my bed, then tiptoed down the stairs, back to the chaos.
I slouched in the doorway, leaning against the archway that separated the dining room from the kitchen. Prescott screamed, holding his hand to his face. My gaze was fixed on the little circles of bright red blood that dotted the white tile floor. My mother flailed about the kitchen, her arms raised above her head as she charged toward her boyfriend.
“Look what you did to my son!”
The fighting continued, punches and screams and slaps and kicks.
I took two slow steps into the kitchen, my eyes still on the floor. I grabbed Prescott’s hand and squeezed it. “Don’t worry,” I whispered. “Everything is going to be OK.”
In the midst of a typical fight, Prescott climbed onto a stool in the kitchen and reached for the phone on the wall. My mother must have threatened to call the police on her violent boyfriend, and though only three and a half, Prescott sensed the routine: Mom and Tommy fought and then the cops came. The week before, Mom thew a frozen steak across the living room at Tommy and hit him in the nose. This time, things were worse than that. Prescott had reached for the phone and Tommy, enraged, grabbed it and ripped it from the wall. Tommy lost his grip on the phone and it smacked Prescott in the face, hard.
An ambulance arrived before the screaming stopped. I knew it would. The one certainty I had back then was the reliability of my father.
One Sunday when I was nine years old, my father took me out for ice cream. We were heading back to my mother’s house in his car. The summer sun was setting and the air conditioner was on full-blast. I tried to scrape a chocolate ice cream stain from my purple terry-cloth shorts. My father was unusually quiet.
He turned off the radio. “I have to tell you something and I want you to promise not to be scared,” he said.
“OK,” I said, becoming scared.
“Daddy is sick,” he said, adjusting his sunglasses. “I have bad blood.” He reached for my hand. “The doctors aren’t sure what this means, but I probably won’t be around as long as I’d like to be.”
I didn’t look at him. Fidgeting, I switched off the air conditioner and turned the knob to open the automatic sunroof. I inhaled fresh air.
“But you’re gonna go to college and become whatever you want to be. You’ll make Daddy proud. I know that. I’m just not sure I’ll be there to see it.”
I felt the pressure of tears forming. “What’s the matter with you, Daddy?”
“I have a very bad virus.”
“Like a cold?”
“No, much worse than a cold, sweetheart.”
I looked at my father and watched a tear fall from behind his sunglasses. But he sniffed hard and wiped his face with his forearm.
I didn’t ask how he got sick and I’m glad I didn’t, because had he told me, my image of him may have changed, and I couldn’t have afforded that back then. I put it together on my own though, a few years later. For a long time I tried to believe he was one of those freak dental or blood transfusion accidents. But one summer, needing to understand, I rode my bike to the library to research AIDS. It wasn’t long before I felt grounded enough to ask my father how he became infected. Though I knew in my stomach what he would say, I needed to hear him say it.
We were sitting on the couch in his apartment one weekend, watching a movie we rented. “Daddy, you’re still sick, right?”
He looked at me, startled. “Yes, Corinne. I’ll always be sick.”
“How come you’re sick, Dad?”
He paused the movie. Then, thinking about what to say, he looked at me for a long time. “Daddy made some mistakes awhile ago. Nobody’s perfect, right?”
I had thought he was. “No, I guess not.”
I could tell by the way his voice shook that he was trying not to cry. “Well I was stupid and I did drugs with someone who had the virus. And I got it.”
I didn’t say anything for a long time.
“Don’t do drugs anymore. OK, Dad?”
He hugged me. “I won’t baby, I promise.”
I believed him.
To the backdrop of a hard steady rain the other night in yoga class, I meditated. I was on my back, twisting my hips to the left and then to the right, watching the raindrops bounce off the studio’s skylight. Breathing deeply, I closed my eyes and felt a distinct hollowness. From an ache in my hip, I experienced a sudden rush in which I felt estranged from everyone in my life and perfectly afraid. I welcomed the feeling, twisting deeper, exhaling into the stretch. Then one insignificant tear formed in the corner of my eye. It lingered, refusing to fall. I welcomed its warmth. Although part of me wanted to stand up and stomp my feet and beg this tear to finally fall, I didn’t. Instead, I kept breathing.
When class was over, I left quietly, before anyone else. I meandered through the rain without opening my umbrella, wearing just a tank top and yoga pants and slip-on sneakers. I accepted each cold raindrop as it pounded against my bare skin. I stepped in puddles on purpose, embracing the discomfort with jealousy, wanting so badly to come undone, to have a release the way the sky just had.
I want to usher air in and beg it to stay.
I want to reason with it
But that doesn’t work. I’ve tried.
I gasp, loud and desperate. I struggle for air.
Fighting to find breath, I force one labored breath,
Somehow, I keep breathing.