Sarah Rogers Breathe In
I can’t get up. I mean, I could if I wanted to, but other than that, I can’t at all. My backside is glued to this avocado-colored tiled floor and I’ve pulled my wet thighs together and fastened them with my imaginary belt. I don’t care that my jeans are starting to feel itchy because, well, damp denim itches. I’ve taken all of the pictures down and I have put all of the letters away, but I still hear his knock on the bathroom door. I still hear him asking if this is it, are they coming? Is it time? I live in a haunted two bedroom apartment where he should be standing in the foyer but he is not. He should be holding our ready-packed bags, anxiously waiting to drive me, but only my bag sits on the bed. I’m ready to go. Truth be told, I should be grabbing said bag and packing up the car. I should have dialed Mami and Papi and Tio Louise, but I just can’t move. The belt won’t loosen. My eyelids have weights attached to them and I can no longer prop them up. Exhausted from holding myself at bay, I let go just one more time. Just one more time, and then no more.
It was before CDs had truly made their debut, and we didn’t have cell phones. We met on one of those hot Laredo nights where the only thing beautiful is the treeless sunset. We were having a carne asada because it was Friday nights and if you didn’t host or go to a carne asada on a Friday night, you weren’t Mexican. We were mostly lying to ourselves anyway because I was born in Eagle Pass and my parents were both from Brownsville, but I guess being a 15 minute drive from the Rio Grande made us feel Mexican enough. That night, however, we had a real-life Mexican there. My Tio Louise’s wife’s cousin had a son (that’s how Mexican families were – all mixed
up, and all related) who was visiting them for one of his holidays at the University in Mexico City. I was already seventeen and a woman at that. Mami always said that I tried to grow up too fast but I told her that it just happened that way no matter how hard I wanted it not to happen, which was a lie, by the way. Anyway, his name was Paco and he was twenty years old, making him charming enough for me already. I put on my best jeans and blouse and slicked back my hair in a bun, making sure the black shone so that he could see his reflection if he wanted. I imagined all of the ways we would fall for each other. He would take my hand and breathe, “Hola, señorita. Mucho gusto.” At that moment, I would entrance him with a gorgeous smile and we would be lost forever. I could not have been more wrong. Paco was not the Zorro I’d dreamt up. He was a little short with light skin and high cheekbones. He parted his hair too far over to the left and his shoes were completely ancient. I found out that he was studying to be an engineer and then I knew it was over. Taking a deep breath as he talked to Papi, I ate my fajita in silence. I was now much more anxious to get to Josefina’s house and hang out with my friends. Earlier today, I told her that I may be a little late and I might bring a guy with me. Oh, the confidence I’d had to believe that this smooth, suave man I had made up in my mind would sweep me off of my feet and then follow me to my high school best friend’s house to watch a Friends marathon. A couple of minutes later I found out that I didn’t have to worry because Mami had already invited him when she found out that he loved Friends. What young Mexican man likes to watch Friends? Evidently this one, and he was signed up to come with me. Needless to say, the suaveness I had imagined was completely missing. It was missing throughout the whole dinner and continued to make no appearance at Josefina’s house. He was easy to ignore, as he’d brought his own book.
It was the walk home that had won me, or so I say now. I didn’t know it for a good year, though. Josefina only lived three neighborhoods away from me and I never drove, especially since my car had no AC and you could make more cool air by walking swiftly in that heat. We made it about 2 minutes with silence. I was grateful because it was so late and I had about as much as I had to say to him as I did to my mother as a teenage girl. Then, the storm broke. “What makes you feel alive?” he asked. I was shocked. My breath caught in my throat and I ran through my mental Rolodex of how to escape awkward questions asked by awkward people. I got to Z for zilch in a very short amount of time. Evidently, the time was not short enough because he asked me a second time. “What makes you feel alive?” “Well, why do you ask?” Good, I’d dodged it. “Because I want to know.” “Well, I’m not sure.” It was late and I was tired. Paco was leaving in three days and would not die without my answer. I smiled at him and continued to walk. He put his hand on my arm and I did not feel a shock. I did not see fireworks. I only felt his very warm finger press its print into my right wrist and my heart began to move into my throat and beat double time. It was not like one of those movies where beating hearts mean instant love. Actually, I was highly uncomfortable and very still. “You are very alive, Zenia. I can feel it. Right here. Can you?” Thank goodness he was leaving in three days. I pulled my hand away and thought only about how fast my feet could carry me in heels. Goodness, he was weird. What a story this would make for tomorrow on the phone with Josefina. We made it home in record time and right as we got ready to open the door, Paco put his left arm over my right shoulder and his right arm under my left rib and then
pulled. It was quite the impossible hug. I patted his back loosely, remembering my Abuelita telling me that real Mexicans are very affectionate. I think she forgot the weird description of Paco’s affection, but I truly did not want to offend my Tio’s wife’s cousin’s son, even if I would never see him again on this side of the River. Instead of the release button I had hoped to press, my patting seemed to encourage his embrace. “Listen.” He moved his left hand up to my head and gently pressed my ear to his chest. I’ve got to get away! My head kept screaming at me and I could not have listened to anything but my thoughts and his nervously beating heart making time with my awkwardly frustrated one. I pulled away, shoving my hands into the pockets of my folded arms and I did my best frown at him. I did not know whether to reprimand him or just go inside. “I’m alive too, Zenia. I’m alive too. Just like you. Don’t you want to know what makes me feel alive?” “No.” “Are you sure?” “Yup.” “What is ‘yup’?” He spoke pretty good English, but my slang threw him off. “It’s yes. Very yes. I’m very sure I don’t care.” My scowl stayed in place and I marched definitively inside and to my room, ignoring Mami’s questions.
Paco did go home three days later, much to my relief. I did not hate him, but for all his awkwardness, I did not like him either. I did not like him for a very long time. He had repeated his weird question to me three more times before he left and I had absolutely no answer for him. It didn’t matter that he made me think about it an awful lot. It didn’t matter that I started to
wonder what did make me feel alive. I just wanted him gone. For three months, my life went on unscathed by Paco except for the couple of times I repeated the question to myself. When Mami told me that I had a letter from him on my bed, I was as shocked as if the president of Mexico himself had written me. Three more letters came that month. I let them collect and when my curiosity finally piqued at the fourth letter, I decided to read. The letters contained pure daily information coupled with his insights and thoughts. I finally decided to write him back, starting a long line of letter writing over the next three years. Somewhere along the line, the memory of his awkwardness morphed into something I grasped tight in my fist as I fell in love for the first time. I didn’t see him for those three years but we recorded tapes of our voices until they ran out and wrote until our hands fell asleep. The correspondence carried me through high school graduation and junior college and even my parent’s divorce in a way that nothing else could. I truly thought that we would never see each other. We wanted to, but Mexico City was a far way and I was too young to have the money to travel. We had talked about my 21st birthday and how exciting it would be, and he would tease me about coming, which, of course, I knew was a joke. Not only was it expensive, but in all of the letters, we had never talked about how we felt for each other. Our lives had already braided themselves together but we made a habit of avoiding the obvious. In our letters, he’d promised to be there for my birthday, but what unattached man really travels to another country for a birthday party? Well, he did come for my birthday, and that night, he proposed. He was going to move to America so that I could stay close to my now single mother, and we married in June. Life continued, as it does, and time moved. Marriage became a part of me and a habit, and I took it for granted.
Three years later, 43 days ago from today, we were headed to his brother’s wedding in Mexico City. We were mostly going to pick up the heirloom bed from Paco’s mom, or so that’s what Paco said to persuade me to cart my pregnant-with-twins self on that truck ride through hilly, hot, Mexican hell. I was determined not to say two words to him on the way, which was really hard because it’s a seventeen-hour ride and my mouth is pretty much always full of words waiting to spring out. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to do it, but being that miserable helped. Swollen ankles that I thought couldn’t stretch anymore decided to drink in the heat and bloat themselves to the size of my thighs. The two humans inside of me pressed their lovely bodies up against my ribs and my bladder, making it hard to breathe and making Paco go mad with all of the stops I made him take. By the time we got there, I was so exhausted that I slept my way through the weekend. We drove up on a Thursday and the wedding was on Sunday afternoon. It took me until then to even regain enough stamina to walk down the aisle as a bridesmaid. I had objected to wearing that taffeta lavender tent, but Paco insisted that I would look beautiful. Because of that very sweet lie he told me on Sunday morning, I decided to end my one-sided war against my husband for all of his horrible actions in forcing me to actually attend his brothers wedding. After making it through standing up for the duration of a 2-hour Mexican wedding, we sat together at the reception. Knowing it would last all night, I let myself relax into a comfortable chair and Paco sank down beside me. My usually racing tongue was wanting to stop as much as my aching lower back and fully swollen hands wanted to lie down. Seeing my eyes, he just laid his calloused, warm hand on my bloated one. I tried to throw him a smile, but the deep breath I had just attempted to take had brought tears. Tears were my constant companion throughout the pregancy and since I had heard that one baby made you emotional, I expected from the beginning that carrying two was going to make me like a pubescent girl. I
tried to focus on anything but my overwhelming desire to become one with any bed, couch, or pillow available. The lights hanging from the ceiling started to blur like fat, fuzzy lightning bugs and I was worried that sleep was going to cloak me. Paco grabbed my hand, hoisted me out of my seat and onto the dance floor. I must have looked like a dancing cow with a terribly large tumor on her front, but he did his best to move his head toward mine. “What makes you feel alive?” He looked at me expectantly. “What?” My head snapped up, his question snatching me out of my stupor. “You heard me.” He hadn’t asked the question since the first week we met. I felt the same aggravation coming over me then as it did when I was seventeen, seeded in my stomach and growing toward my tongue. “What makes you ask that? I am tired. What would make me feel most alive right now is to not be asked such a dense question.” He smiled at me and nodded, but his eyes sighed. He didn’t deserve my angry treatment. Too tired to verbally rectify, I put all of my energy into the most alive smile I could muster, lifting my eyes to find that his gaze was already lost in another spot.
We were supposed to drive back to Laredo on Tuesday. I tried not to comment with my mouth but I made it very clear that I was not happy about the return trek. Body language was an understatement compared to my flouncing and huffing and sighing leading up to the impending drive. Tuesday morning, Paco woke me up with a soft brush of his lips on my forehead. I scowled again. Being pregnant makes scowling very, very easy. “Fine, I won’t give it to you,” he said, looking defeated. Oops. My scowling may have lost me something good.
“Give me what?” “This.” He tossed a piece of paper on the bed and walked out without any more words. I crawled across the bed to pick up what I hoped was my rescue as soon as the door hit the frame. An airline ticket for today, thank God. I happily got ready and walked into the kitchen. I thought that everything was turning out much better than I had hoped for. Paco’s mother was there cleaning up from breakfast, miffed at my missing it. I perched on the side of the bench right under the window to relax. All of the commotion of getting ready and walking had me tired already. “Your husband already left,” she said to me over her shoulder, right before she walked out the door. I peeked out to see if she was being her manipulative self and saw her leaning into the window of Paco’s truck, kissing his cheek goodbye. My energy quickly came back and I waddled straight out of the door, squeezed in right beside her and kissed my husband soundly on the mouth. “Thank you, honey, for the ticket. See you in a couple of days. Love you.” I pointedly locked my eyes on his mother and waited for her to walk back inside with me, which of course she did. We waved from the driveway, not knowing how real those goodbyes were going to be.
Another pain just hit me, and I don’t have the ability to breathe, much less keep trying to remember. They are closer and closer, and I don’t have time to be illogical anymore. My body must go into overdrive. I watch my hands push my three-person body up with white knuckles from the pain and the weight. What I was thinking to allow this much time to pass, I am not sure. Disregarding my now uncomfortably wet jeans and my mascara-scarred face, I scramble to find my cell phone and dial Mami. It would only be a matter of time before she arrives and
hovers around me like the awkward husband that should be here. We had agreed last week that she would now come into the waiting room with me to be my breathing partner. She had not been the one to take me to classes, choose the babies’ bedding with me, look through name books and wonder how we would ever settle on one name, much less two names and care for two children and worry about college… Yet she is going to be the one in that room with me. Somebody has to hold my hand, she says. Somebody has to make me breathe, she says. I think she’s afraid these days that if I got the chance, I would just stop inhaling all together. If it weren’t for the two organisms inside of me, I just might. I feel like I’m up in the corner watching myself way down below get into the car, silently ride to the hospital in the back seat of Mami’s minivan and breathe deeply in choppy concessions. I see the myself get out of the car and take slow, penguin like steps toward the sliding glass doors. She looks sad, I think, tired and sad. Another series of knives stabs into me from all sides and I am back in my body, fully aware of everything and nothing but pain. God, take this breath. I am done. I have done my job. I have carried these two beings, and I have no more reason. What makes you feel alive? Oh, love, I hear him again. I asked you a question. I’m too tired to answer. What makes you feel alive? I’m too angry to answer. You don’t have time to be angry. Answer me. Between his voice and my scream the question is lost and I’m ever so thankful to have once again evaded it. I hear commotion all around me but I have to push again. One more, I can do this. Again, I hear a moaning scream akin to something from a horror movie and I realize it is escaping from my lips, and I am ready. This is my last task. I am tired, and I am finished. There is now silence and I feel myself drifting. I am done now, I think, so done. Finally, peace… and then I am interrupted by coupled wails, welcomed cries. They get stronger and
closer and an invisible rope is pulling me up out of my well and I can breathe. Their wailing breathes life back into my body, just as my body has breathed life into theirs. We are alive now darling. We are alive together, two times over. Can you feel it? I can feel it. I can hear it. And life begins again, and life goes on again, and they make me feel alive.