Part III: If I Could Only Breathe

“Mom-mmy, Mommy, Mommm-mmm-y!”

Mom took me to my horseback riding lessons. After, we would go for soft serve chocolate ice cream. It’s our favorite.

“Mommy!!!!!”

Her smile is the last thing I see at night. She moves in close to me with the sweet smell of her perfume surrounding me. Then mom pulls the sheets tight around me, cocooning me in my duvet. Once I’m tightly wrapped, she tries to plant one hundred goodnight kisses on my cheek. I always stopped her at fifteen. When I was little, I always let her go to one hundred. But at some point, I didn’t. I was too cool to have my mom smother me with all those kisses, even though no one else was there.

I don’t know why I stopped her.

“Mommy!!!” I scream through blurry eyes. I’m too frightened to turn away from Momma’s pale white face for fear I’ll never see her again. But at the same time, I don’t want to see her like this anymore. I want to see her smile.

“Alvina, Alvina, Alvina….”

I blink at the man’s voice who knows my name. I don’t know who he is.

Now, he’s dragging me away by the hand from momma.

“Mommy!” I hiccup through my tears. Drool escapes from my lips. My nose drips onto the carpet where my wide-eyed mother lies.

“Alvina, baby,” the man’s voice cracks apart like soil does in summertime when it hasn’t rained for several weeks.  The man’s lower lip trembles. I feel his hand shake inside of my hand. Small streams of water fall from the corners of his eyes.

How did I not know who the man was?

“Daddy!”  I shout as fear and comfort collide together inside of me. I thought I was alone. But now that I know he’s here, I’m relieved and yet, even more frightened at the same time. Daddy’s arms wrap around me and he lifts me up. I drop my head onto his shoulder and bury my face into the space between his neck and shoulders.

I’m being carried away from mom.

“Do you know how long she’s been like this?” a man asks who wears a paramedic’s uniform.

I blink at him. When did he get here?

Daddy places me on the ground. I stand beside him not quite certain what else to do. He continues to hold my hand. It’s comforting. But it doesn’t feel quite right. We never hold hands. It’s mom’s job.

I know this is bad.

I’ve got nothing else to do, so I stare at dad’s face. Water drips from his nose and he wipes it away with his free hand. Dad’s eyes are red. I hear him say, “I don’t know. I found her like this. I was working late.”

“What’s your wife’s name?” a bald paramedic asks with dark brown eyes and bushy eyebrows.

“Be-Beth,” Dad says stuttering.

Dad never stutters. He owns his company, and he says: he’s the man in charge.

I take a deep breath in and summon all the strength I have inside of me. Daddy needs me to be brave now. I squeeze dad’s hand so he knows I’m still here. Nothing is worse than feeling like you’re all alone.

Dad’s eyes glance down at me. His face contorts in a twisted expression of emotion. Water pours from his eyes, over his lips, and out his nose all at the same time.  His breath is laboured as he sobs for a few seconds.

From where mom is I hear, “Beth, can you hear me?” a dark haired woman paramedic asks.

I notice that at some point the paramedics moved mom to a stretcher and they’ve placed an oxygen mask over her lips.  As they wheel her past me and dad, her eyes roll over to where we’re standing next to a policeman.

I don’t remember seeing the policeman. Where did the paramedic go? But he’s the bald guy with bushy eyebrows. He wasn’t a paramedic. He was always a policeman. How did I mix up their uniforms?

I can’t believe I was upset over a grade earlier today. Stupid history test.  One grade. I can’t believe a few hours ago, that’s all that mattered to me.

My lower lip begins to tremble. But when I look up at dad, I stop it.  I notice dad’s calm now too.

“Come on, Alvina. Let’s find out what hospital they’re taking your mother to,” Dad says as he fumbles for his keys in his pocket.

We walk behind mom with our hands clasped together. Dad’s focused on mom. My eyes flip over to the window. Outside, I see the twenty acres of woods my parents own. I search there for one second of peace in the leafy branches. Because when I’m upset, it’s where I always go.

Through the window panes, I see a faint outline of a woman. The woman has long dark hair, and wears a plaid shirt, and blue jeans.

There, Gudrun waits, for my return.

Part II: If I Could Only Breathe

Part II:

What a mess.

Beth was always a slob who never took her domestic responsibilities seriously. But then again, she never took anything seriously: not cleaning our home, not as my wife, or our wedding vows. Selfish. High-maintenance. Drama Queen. Those are the best words I can think of to describe my “beloved”.

“Beth?”

Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Gulliver’s Travels, Outlander, 50 Shades of Grey, The Alchemist. Her books are recklessly spread across the floor as if she’s had a temper tantrum and tossed them across the room.  That wouldn’t bother me if it were just her stuff. But my reading material is twisted together with her garbage: The Wealthy Barber, MONEY Master the Game by Tony Robbins, Losing my Virginity by Richard Branson to name a few.  I’ve never realized until now how different we are.  I’m made of the real stuff. I work hard to get things done. Beth is all about the fluff.

“Beth?” I say more impatiently. My wife dislikes me. But she normally at least shakes her head with annoyance in my direction when I say her name. Or for that matter, ask her any question.  I stop. Not one muscle flinches from her body. Not one hair moves on her head.

It’s quiet.

If there’s humming from the lights, I don’t hear it. If there’s a fly bumping along inside of a light fixture, I don’t hear that either.  My fists open and close. Trying to do what? Pump fuel to my heart?  I don’t know. Why am I panicking? I’m sure she’s fine.

“Beth, stop playing games!” I shriek at her uncontrollably. Her body is spread out on the multi-coloured Persian rug we purchased from Turkey a couple of years ago when things were still good between us.  There’s no response from her.

Weird.

My heart thumps like lightning does igniting fear in me.   I stumble over our books that impede my way as I scramble to Beth’s side.

“Beth!” I scream. My hands shake her limp body.

Wide-eyed, terrified eyes peer back at me. Beth’s skin is blanched like chalk. Her eyes remind me of a woman I pulled from a car at an accident a few months ago. It was the same night that Beth told me about her affair with Ross.

“Beth, hang on!” My voice shakes with terror as I fumble for my phone. It tumbles out of my hand and lands on The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness. I grab my cell and punch at the keys mumbling, “Goddammit, it’s three numbers! How can dialing 911 be so difficult?”

“Momma!” Alvina screams as she enters through the wooden doors of the den.

No, no, no, no! Alvina, don’t see this! “Alvina, please stay back, honey!” I bellow to her.

Like mother, like daughter, she disregards what I’ve said. Now, she’s sobbing while holding Beth’s hand looking up at me with tears galloping down her round cheeks as her lower lip trembles whimpering, “mommy, mommy, mommy…”.  I could barely stand to see Beth’s wide, terrified eyes staring back at me. To see Alvina, my only daughter, like this –

“Police, fire, ambulance?” a controlled voice says through my cell phone.

“Ambulance!” I shriek.

If I Could Only Breathe

Part I:

Beads of sweat gather on my temples. I take a big gulp of air trying to fill my lungs. It’s absolutely useless. I’m no better off than I was before.  Desperately, I form a fist and place it over the left side of my chest. After a few minutes, I begin to pound at my breast with what I think is quite a bit of force. But as it turns out, it’s only a gentle thud.

Then my arm sweeps across the end table knocking it, and the books that were there, onto the hardwood floor.  My eyes are wide. I’m helpless. I can’t move. As I gasp for more air, my mouth is moving, but no words come from me.

I’m trying to prevent something from happening. But I have no idea what that something is.

Gretchen & The Red Ford Mustang

Flickers of white light crackle all around her body. Then sunshine warms her face. The landscape before her reveals green meadows, and some distance away, are white cliffs carved along the shoreline. A bird soars above the water, hunting.

Darkness descends.

A porch light switches on revealing a woman with blonde hair. When she turns around, Monica knows her name. Twenty-one year old Gretchen brightly smiles at her with beer-laced breath. Peter wobbles to his red 1969 Ford Mustang and reaches for his door handle. Once the door is open, he throws himself into the driver’s seat.

I want to say something. It doesn’t feel right.  Maybe they should stay? Or maybe Gretchen should just stay? But who I am to argue? They’re both adults.

The Mustang screams to life with a thundering noise, and then the King’s, “Jailhouse Rock” engulfs the air. Headlights shine light on the trees, but they are merely shadows of what I can see in daylight. The tree shadows remind me of a graveyard scene. I don’t know why.

Gretchen bounces into the passenger seat. She rolls her window down, and I notice she’s re-applied her red lipstick for Peter.  Joyful and giddy, from the booze and her man, she beams at me. After years of trying to catch Peter’s eye, she’s finally leaving with him!

Why should I say anything? She’s an adult, capable of making her own decisions. Besides, I tried to talk to her, and she said Peter was fine.

I watch the car backup, go forward, and then it races into the darkness. Red tail lights flicker at me. They seem to be saying with each pulse of red glow: you need to stop, STOP, STOP THEM – NOW!!

Gretchen’s ivory hand is out the window flapping from the car. A back hand wave, she signals to me, a final farewell.

The Sum of All Parts

I prop myself up on my elbow leaning heavily into the mattress. A second later, I slump down onto my bed as if my elbow were a car jack hoisting the rest of me up, until some malicious person came along and kicked at it, and the whole car came crashing down. It’s important to fix the wheel, because without it, the car won’t roll.

My head and right hand dangle over the edge of the bed. Eyes glaze over staring at a mixture of clothes littered on my floor: blue jeans, black and grey dress pants, a rainbow assortment of long-sleeved blouses, and rock t-shirts. Too weak to stand, too exhausted to sit up, and I can’t do anything about the mess. The pungent smell of three day coffee-booze mixture envelopes my nose. Here I lie, helplessly stuck gazing into the pile of too many unwanted clothes, while my aged favorite drinks that no longer smell the same, conspire to offend my olfactory senses. A burning sensation begins in my chest, spills into my throat, and spreads so far it pushes into my ears.

Who knew burning could last so long?

Light

In the darkness below her winged bird there are flickers of white dots here and there.  They may be a street light, the eyes of a car, or perhaps the larger patches to the west are an illuminated soccer or baseball field. If it’s one of the larger baseball games – those who attend might be able to get a mustard drenched hot dog and some fizzy beer that tickles their noses.

A drink would be good right about now. 

Through the window she glances at red lights pulsing back and forth signalling a sister plane is close by, although, not that close. It only seems like it is. In truth, she knows the plane is quite a distance apart. Or so, that’s what someone once told her.

She wonders if there’s another person who looks through their small round window and sees her, and if they wonder the same thing she does. The question: where are all those people going?

Are they going to tropical destinations, where they can get pineapple drinks adorned with little umbrellas that signal the commencement of a vacation?  Or is there a sombre individual who is wedged in his cramped seat wearing a starched white-sleeved shirt, black pants, and jacket hunched forward with his laptop perched on his fold-out tray table? It would be a last attempt by a businessman to complete some final work before he lands and attends his next big meeting.

Then again, she wonders why there’s an assumption by her that other people are travelling for enjoyment or money. There might be another reason: a loved one who is newly diagnosed with some disease and family and friends, in a show of support, flock to them to lift their spirits. But for some passengers on those flights, they may already travel with red-rimmed eyes and dark clothes so they may say their final farewells to someone special they have lost. You miss the little things: the tilt of their head when they talked; their hand clapping when they spoke with excitement about something; or perhaps an annoyance you never thought you would miss, such as the way they never let you get a word into a conversation.

The small things. Dots. Flickers. Ended. Before we even realize it.

But not everyone is lost when faced with a grim prognosis. She knows this to be true. Sometimes surprisingly, and to the delight of family and friends, a loved one will rally back from sickness that forced them into hospitals with white scratchy linen sheets, and ammonia-scented rooms, where clipboard-carrying doctors  dispense medication in the hopes of saving a person’s life.

And it works.

Sunshine returns.

Light carries us home. With lights on cars, boats, and planes it helps the pilot avoid disaster. Then there are beacons of light from lighthouses and red dots from airport runways that helps Captains navigate and bring passengers and crew back to land safely. It’s as if those signals of  light are waving an exuberant hand saying, “Come, this way!”

Among the red blinking lights in the darkness around her, there are smaller dots of white.

Stars, fixed and steady, illuminate the darkness and were the first navigational system that ships used as their compass to bring them to a selected destination. But a miss calculation on the part of the crew would bring them somewhere completely different.

Suddenly – there’s a shuddering, followed swiftly by a red flash! She jolts from her seat. There’s a faintly heard sound of twisting metal as air rushes and howls around her. Foolishly, she always believed in the last few moments of her life there would be a serene darkness that would descend. It would be as if death’s hands would wrap themselves tightly around her throat squeezing out her last breath.

The greeting of the explosion of brightness reminds her of the energy found in parades with thumping marching bands, comical clowns, and bedazzled floats draped heavily with white, orange, purple, and red flowers.  It’s an intense last spark, a final hurrah! It’s as if the spark were attempting to ignite one more time, with only the last embers of a tired flame. In that final burst of energy, of light, it ends.

Ruins

There’s no wall where one should be and the roof is missing.

White clouds of breath dance in front of me. It proves my existence – even if no one else sees me. Wind lifts my hair stretching it out in all directions as dampness envelopes me. It causes a tingling sensation to creep slowly down my back. My shoulders roll forward and I tuck my tummy. It’s as if my body believes if it recoils, it may escape the cold and dampness.

My eyes search for something.  Against a tumbling wall, I see a place where I might take shelter for the night; the dilapidated remnants of a fireplace.

I step lightly over a broken wooden chair moving in the direction of the square enclosure. For a moment, I imagine parents and children gathered around a yellow-orange fire in that spot where they would talk, laugh, eat and sing songs. But I wouldn’t know anything about that. I’ve only seen it in movies.

The warmness of the imagined family heats me from within, and fends off the dampness and cold. It even works a little to stomp out the pain in my belly from not eating for a few days.

I tuck myself into the fireplace, peel off my jacket, and stretch it out across my body. Above me the man in the moon winks at me, and he, my only friend tonight, watches over me as my eyes slowly close to the world around me.

What I Meant To Say

“Why did you say that?” He asks abruptly.

“Say what?” I ask casually as I flick my hair back in annoyance. I push my hip out a little and rest my hand on it.

I refuse to back down.

He’s not going to win this time.

My eyes skip across our shared home. Behind my husband is a photo of us at the San Diego zoo last year. His arm is lovingly draped over my shoulder. White toothy grins are splashed across our faces. In the photo we stand at the front, and in the background is a panda bear. He is reclined against a tree and leisurely chews on a stick.

Another photo of us on our wedding day is proudly displayed on our fireplace mantel. The sun was warm that day even though it rained on us. My mother said to me, people say if it rains on your wedding day, its lucky!

I huffed. I pushed my drenched veil back as black mascara ran down my face. I snapped at her, I think that’s something people made up recently, so when it rains on your wedding day, you don’t feel like your marriage is doomed from the start!

“Why did you say that?” He annoyingly asks a second time.

He shifts uneasily from one foot to the other while staring down at our ceramic tiles.

Nothing screams lack of confidence, than a person who refuses to make eye contact. It’s one of his less appealing habits that he displays from time to time. When we’re having a fight like this one and he does it – it will push me a little further to say things I don’t mean.

My face twists. Thanks to him, I’m certain every one of my wrinkles is visible. I probably look like a Bulldog.

“BECAUSE IT’S TRUE!” I explode with rage.

“So, what you’re saying…. is that because I don’t do the dishes, it means I don’t love you?” He asks incredulously.

His uneasiness has disappeared. His eyes stare at me. It’s as if he’s trying to break my will with that “look.” He’s challenging me.

Stubbornly, I refuse to budge.

“Yes!” I scream.

“And…I NEVER DO THE DISHES?” He asks in a raised voice as the words splinter apart near the end.

“YES!” I counter his dramatic tone.

Even as I answer the last question, I know it’s an exaggeration on the back of a small version of the truth. It’s like on our wedding day when I declared, our wedding is ruined! Look at my hair! And your suit! We look like drowned rats!

Our wedding wasn’t ruined. White linen was draped over the tables and chairs. Red rose petals were scattered across each one of the tables. The centerpiece was made up of a single red rose surrounded by baby’s breath. The rose produced a sweet smell whenever you came close to the table. Beside the vase, was a single candle that created an even more romantic and calm atmosphere.

My new husband at the time, stood before me. His black hair glimmered from the dampness as water droplets slipped down his forehead and cheeks. He took one hand and pushed his hair back. Then he said something, and I started laughing. Something about how he wished I had worn a white t-shirt….

“I have to go to work.” The same man announces as he grabs his lunch bag with one hand, and pushes his tie to the side with the other.

I stand there motionless.

I won’t move.

Not a muscle.

My mind scurries around grabbing together the facts as I know them to be true.

I want to say: I’m sorry. I exaggerated. But really, when you said you do JUST as much as I do, was that the truth?  I know you’re tired, and you’re working a lot. I know my job’s not going well. I know you’re worried about money. I know I’m worried about my sister.

Let’s start again.

Instead I say in a miserable, dismissive, I-don’t-care tone, “FINE.”

He’s standing at our front door. He places one hand on the doorknob and swings his head in my direction. His eyes linger on me for a few minutes too long.

I always give him a goodbye kiss.

Not today.

He won’t win.

The doorknob turns. He swings the door open, disappears through it, and slams it behind him.

Once the echo of uttered angry words stops, and the ringing sound of a slamming door ends, quiet descends.

In the kitchen, I stand, alone.