Breathing by Ross Rader
Why is this so hard to tell you? It’s not embarrassing.
You inhale. You exhale. And that’s it. There’s nothing very complicated about breathing. But still, I forget.
I used to have control. Every morning, I did my breathing exercises. I took twenty deep breaths so that my head felt like it had detached from the rest of my body and everything was wooly with haloes. Then I took twenty quick breaths.
I’d just graduated from Swarthmore and was living back at home, where every morning, someone had forgotten to breathe and nearly died.
At Swarthmore, everyone called me Crawford, because of the mole on my face. But at home, my name was Jackie, and sometimes I forgot. “Jackie,” my father would say after I’d given him CPR, “thank you.” And I’d look at him, confused, until it registered that I was Jackie now, and not Crawford.
When my mother died three Christmases ago, carrying plum pudding to the dining room table, she returned a very serious woman. She started wearing her hair in a tight bun. She refused to wash the dishes without yellow dish gloves. She was very particular about the laundry, folding it in neat little squares like phyllo dough.
I had a job interview at Y.I.A.A. (Young International Artists’ Association). It was my fifteenth job interview since I’d graduated.
The closest I’ve come to truly dying was when my car slammed into a thick oak off of Woodtick Road. I was nineteen.
I didn’t get the secretarial position. I didn’t even get a second interview.
I went home and lay on the couch with the lights off. That’s when the burglar broke in.
The burglar was young. A boy not much older than my brother, who was sixteen at the time. He had a soft, pale face that reminded me of Boursin. He was scared and I knew that he knew that I knew that he was scared. So I told him to scare me.
Let me finish.
He took out a gun, but it looked silly in his shaking hand. Still, I told him to shoot me.
You know what’s sick? After the accident, I fantasized that maybe I’d be paralyzed. I played out my life, imagining myself in a wheelchair. Coasting down ramps at Long John Silver’s. A ride attendant cradling my crippled body onto a rollercoaster.
Pity, that’s what I wanted, just for a brief moment, in someone else’s mind. You know?
Don’t say anything.
Okay, so he fired, but the bullet sank into the wall behind me. And I pitied him because he was such a harmless boy. His innocence was beautiful. I asked him why? He said that he’d died and since he’d been given a second chance, he wanted to lead a much different and exciting life. And I knew exactly what he meant, except that I’d never died.
Then he cupped his shoulder. “It hurts,” he said, like a little boy who’d just pushed a little girl onto the ground and knew that he was in trouble. “It hurts,” he said, so that I’d forgive him for putting a hole in the wall.
I helped him rob the house.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Felix,” he said.
“That’s an unusual name,” I said, knowing that he’d lied.
I handed him a Baltimore News Babe Ruth baseball card from my father’s collection.
“Are you sure about this?” he said.
“Yes,” I said, dropping my mother’s Golden South Sea pearl necklace into his hand.
I started whistling and he started whistling too.
And when we’d finished robbing the house, I made coffee, and we sipped it slowly.
I called him a liar, insisting that he’d never died. I thought he might cry.
“I’ve died,” he said. “I’ve changed,” he said, “Give me another chance.”
I don’t know why he wanted to prove me wrong so badly. He didn’t know me, I didn’t know him. We’d never seen each other before, but still, he wanted to prove to me that he could die and that he could do it right then and there. And I was surprised.
I drank my coffee and watched as he lay on the kitchen floor and stopped breathing. “Talk to me,” I said. “Tell me what’s happening,” and he said, “My lungs burn and everything’s purple,” and I envied his senses. His lips turned blue and his mouth grew lazy and dangled just so I could make out his blue tongue. My stomach tightened. He died with his eyes opened. I closed them before I started the CPR.
I’m letting you know what kind of monster I am.
I don’t know why I egged him on.
When I went to breathe into his mouth, into his lungs, there was nothing. And I gasped, and coughed, and I clawed the kitchen floor. I kicked the kitchen table legs and I threw up. And I struck his chest and I struck his sternum, so hard, I heard it crack. And he returned to me, crying.
That’s it. That’s the first time I forgot to breathe and I was twenty-three.
What happened afterwards? I helped him up from the floor and excused the mess. He made his way to the door and said he didn’t want to steal anything anymore and shoveled everything that we’d gathered earlier into my hands.
Before he left, I asked him if he was alright, and he shrugged his shoulders and looked at me with his teeth clenched, “I guess,” he said.
He left and I knew that he’d returned as a different person. He’d go home and take long quiet baths instead of showers. He’d study a page of text for hours, memorizing the number of syllables in each sentence. Or, he’d listen to the first thirty-seconds of every song, but never more or less.
When control’s lost, it’s replaced by remorse.
I’ve forgotten to breathe many times since then. You can say that I’ve willed this kind of absentmindedness, and maybe I have. I don’t know.
What will you call me after I’ve died for the first time? Jackie or Crawford? Then, will you tell me the story that I’ve just told you?
Take in my changes and convince me that I haven’t changed at all.
Ross Rader lives in Pittsburgh, PA. His work can be found in WordRiot, Elimae, and Twelve Stories.