The Long Held Breath
“I can hold my breath for over a minute!” he declared to his best friend Andy. Andy looked down to his thumbs rather than reply.
He slumped back to the face-forward solitude of his seat, more confused than hurt–though at the age of 9 he could scarce distinguish the two.
There had always been a terror inside of him going to school, an emotion like a fly in a bottle, periodically tap-tapping, then buzz grinding against something it could pace out but never quite see. There had always been this sense of spinning abduction, of losing his footing and swirling away, as though sheer numbers could turn children into crashing waters.
His mother had always told him he was special. So smart. So handsome. And his teachers had always seemed to agree. Whenever they asked questions he would bide his time, not only knowing the answer, but knowing their eyes would eventually sort through the downcast gazes, discharging some egalitarian impulse before turning to him…
And his light.
He would have been bullied, teased, but his father had told him to simply hit anyone who said anything mean, and despite feeling frightened, he had found it was quite easy, hitting people who were ‘mean.’ And more importantly, he found that they almost always wanted to be his friend after he hit them.
And so he became a shrill little tyrant. If someone crossed him, he inevitably decided they were being mean.
A powerful thing, hitting.
It was October, the time when the sun’s heat has faded into the grace of memory, when you squint but never perspire, and the trees wreath your periphery in colours both wild and earthen. His friends continued to be mulish and strange all morning, so at lunch he simply stalked the schoolyard, witless, his indignation growing ever more brittle, the fly in its bottle firmly wedged between his lungs.
He slipped into the bathroom after the bell to hang a quick leak–it was his daring thing. He loved the solitude, the momentary all alone. He loved the bright light, the sterile glare spangled across the chrome. He even loved the smell of the urinal pucks, mint and ammonia. If being alone had a colour, it would be blue. He liked to stare at the tiles while he peed, imagine that they were rectilinear islands floating on an ocean of groat. He even tapped them from time to time to see if they would bob or sink. It seemed a miracle that things could be welded together.
But this time someone followed him: Jay Martin, who lived just a concession up Sparta-Union road. Jay was one of those kids who exhibited all the particulars of his adult appearance in embryo, the guy you laugh and marvel at when you bump into him twenty years later. He even possessed an eerie grown-up manner, a weariness in his gaze, and a carefulness, a processing lag that suggested the premature activation of otherwise late-blooming cortical circuitry. He probably didn’t get enough sleep, which is the usual case when children resemble adults.
He stood at the urinal immediately adjacent, and they pissed together–or seemed to.
“So you’re pretty smart, eh?” Jay asked, looking at him somehow without looking away from his pissing. He talked slow, piping his voice through phlegm he could never be bothered to clear or cough. This too made him seem like a miniature adult.
“The smartest kid in school?”
He always wore button down shirts, too, like everyone’s father.
“Huh…” Jay said, shaking his little plucked peepee. He turned and walked out, still hoisting his blue-jeans.
Had he even pissed for real? No foam hissed at the bottom of his urinal.
Later in life I imagined this was the way it happened in prisons or in palaces, wherever tyrants are overthrown. It was like walking through a cloud of biting midges, all the defections from the chatty routine, all the angular glances. Everyone was quiet, expectant…
Most people have to take a run at treason, build up speed.
In preschool outings, they sometimes tie us together with ropes about our waist, provide physically what we have yet to develop psychically–so we don’t stray. But some kids stray no matter what, and when the group is tied to them, everyone gets pulled and entangled. Until we start pulling back.
He knew something was wrong. He walked with that breathless, bubbly feeling, rag-doll limbs knotted about a fart. He looked wildly about, suffered the horror of having every face he trusted turn on him. Sneering, gleeful, teeth like fingernails, glares like balled fists. He continued walking out into the sunlight, onto the basketball court, stalked by them… all of them.
Pretend-pretend, and it will all go away. Pretend. Pretend.
“So you’re the smartest?”
His voice felt like an ice cube. He had to cough to use it.
A terrified child’s attempt to sound all, like, whatever. “Yep.”
What was he supposed to say? He was. He. Was.
The first sob kicked through him.
“Look-look! He’s going to cry!”
Several things would astound him, looking back–and down–from the exhausted heights of adulthood. The deviousness for one–the premeditation of the whole thing. The extent for another–that so many would conspire, too numerous for a pack, too carnivorous for a herd. And the solidarity–some were frightened and hung back, and others fairly danced with vicious excitement, but everyone had come to the selfsame resolution…
He was the problem. He was the one hated. All these things had been settled beforehand. There had been talk. Conspiracy and coordination.
“Cry! Cry! Cry!” they chanted.
Someone charged him from behind. His head snapped back, but he was lurching up as quickly as he went down, swinging his fists at lurid images. Ancient instinct seized him whole, his expression, his limbs and his lungs.
“Fuck you! Fuck you!”
Somehow the fracas spilled across the lane into the broad field of grass that was the playground proper. The children had become a horde of sun-spliced shadows, squealing and laughing and pushing and punching and scratching. Someone dropped to all fours behind him, while two others charged. He toppled to the sound of uproarious laughter, glimpsed Andy, his best friend, scampering to his feet, howling like a spider monkey.
Someone kicked him square in the face, bloodied his nose.
Another jumped square on his back, the way you would a trampoline. He scrambled, rolled…
Someone tried to stomp on his balls, but skinned his thigh instead.
And then he was up, screaming, shrieking, screeching outrage through the razors in his throat.
“Fug you! Fug you! Fu-fug you all!”
The mob shrank, like an amoeba disgorging a poison pellet. They laughed with a kind of wild ecstasy, the shrill yes-yes hilarity of those who triumph over the defenceless.
Rocks caught him. High on the left cheek. On the right buttock. The top of his spine.
“Bease!” he cried through snot and cramp and fire. “Bease! Leave me alone!”
No teacher came. No one.
So he ran, away from everyone and everything he knew, to the far corner of the schoolyard. He huddled against the thronging weeds, weeping, sobbing, somehow mindful of the electric fence. A few of his tormentors followed him to throw more rocks and catcalls, but he was quicker, and when they scattered he picked one, made an example of him–though quickly, so as not to be mobbed again. They left him alone after that. Milling became talking became amnesia, and soon everyone was playing as if nothing had happened. And that was the knife, the unforgivable thing: existing without him. The first bell rang, as long as an alarm on a torpedoed battleship, and he watched them cluster like honey bees about the entrances, watched them vanish.
The bell pealed again, the brief coda. It’s phantom continued ringing, like the jammed horn of a car wailing across the miles. He felt sick for breaking the rules. Out after the bell–oooh. He wept some more, convinced that now the teachers would hate him too. He gazed at the blood and snot on his sleeves, uncomprehending. He felt more heat than pain. He stared at the cows grinding their cud in the adjacent pasture, their ears twitching, their eyes rheumy with bottomless resignation. He wondered whether the salt-licks were made of the same stuff as the urinal pucks: they were the same radioactive blue.
All alone, now. He caressed cuts and probed bruises. He sobbed and moped. Mucous like lettuce leafs in his throat, bruised and clinging. No victim is quite so pure as a child. Victimization is one of those things no one need learn. Natural. The only real question is where and when–it’s like shitting that way.
It was so quiet in the field. And it seemed he could feel it, his loneliness, liking a piling of vacant spheres, each more cavernous than the last, until even the sky seemed as meagre as a pup-tent. This… he decided. This was what he wanted, to huddle and grieve until he finally fumbled the hot potato of life, until he was nothing more than a pile of clothing and bones.
No one can hold their breath longer than the dead.
His teacher began crying when she found him. Mrs. Drieser had always been such a sap.
(And this is where the vice-grip truly clamps my throat, where I forget how to breathe, the thought of finding him, bloodied, crying, all alone…)
She raced him to the office, shushing and fussing and calling out in panic. They all seemed so tall. He answered every question on a quarter breath, avoided every gaze. The world seemed to smell like wet carpet back then, flooded basements. He told them he had been in a fight. When they asked with who, he said, “Everyone.” Silence, the rigid air of pity. Even as a kid he knew what they knew, the gravity and the finality. They took him in, cleaned him up, escorted him to the bus.
No one called his parents.
He certainly never said anything. Not much, anyhow. A fight. Some boys. Seeing only the criminality, his mother hugged him while he wept yet again, showered him with reassurance and praise. “You know how special you are… How smart and handsome and loved… You know, don’t you honey?” Sensing the chill of justice, his father raged. He, at least, understood that shame is genetic, both in propensity and assignation.
“Hold your breath,” he finally said in exasperation. “That’s the best way to stop crying.”
Love or weeping–apparently everything has its cure.
But I didn’t care. I had learned all the lessons, you see: right, wrong, whatever.
He clung to the doorways after that. Shy. Bookish. Perpetually anxious.
All alone. Safe.
Special in that way only mothers and homeroom teachers can see.