Lessons in Breathing

by Nicole A. Cuffy

1976
It was at these grey junctures between summer and fall, when the air was still balmy, sodden with autumn rain, when Theresa got sick upwards of three times a week. The windows were left open to supplement the work of the fans, whose petal-like blades were bathed in dust. There were no air conditioners. She still thought it was because they were bad for the skin. She still thought that when the electricity went out for days at a time, the meat spoiling in the old ice chest faster than they could eat it, the whole neighborhood suffered, and not just her house. Blind to the puckering wallpaper, the splintered floors, the decay; a child.On nights like this, with the sickly air seeping in through the windows, it began with a quickening of the breath. Like she’d been running. She tried to breathe deeply, but no matter how much air she sucked in, it was not enough. She looked down her nose to what she could see of her small body. She was smaller and darker than her sister, bony and long-limbed. The white nightshirt sagged off her clammy, terra cotta shoulders. She was surprised to find that it hung off of her instead of stretching taut across her chest. That was what her chest felt like—taut, angry. No air. The panic came. With it, the wheeze—high, desperate sound. Her sister sat up in the bed across the room, her eyes pale marbles in the darkness.“Mama,” her sister called out, her voice broken by sleep, “‘Resa’s wheezing.”But it was their father who came instead, shuffling in his white underwear. “Go on,” he grumbled, and Janelle scrambled out of the room. He sat down at the edge of Theresa’s bed, but her eyes were squeezed shut, so she only felt the comforting weight of him, felt him place his warm, dry hand on her chest, heard him breathing. No air. Her father’s hand and weight disappeared. Her face was wet; she was crying. When her father returned, he wiped away her tears with a cold, wet washcloth, which he then folded and draped over her forehead. Then he pulled down her nightshirt, exposing the fragile lines of her sternum, that ridged column. With two calloused fingers, he applied a pungent smear of Vicks down her chest, across her collarbone.

No air. She was suffocating. She opened her eyes. There he was, dark, a looming figure, his face youthful but for his mustache. She could barely smell the Vicks. Suffocating. “Come on now,” he said. “Settle down, Theresa. It only gets worser if you panic.”

She didn’t know how not to panic. “It always passes,” he was saying, but she didn’t quite believe in those words. What she knew was that, yes, it had always passed. But there was no guarantee that it would continue in that pattern. And so it was that her prepubescent chest, her chronically excitable respiratory tract, taught her an adult lesson when she was still a child. When she still thought Watergate had something to do with the ocean, thought her father was talking about cars when he said Carter would get Ford. At six, she had only the most primal understanding of death. But she knew already that life made no guarantees but death.

Her father kept two fingers on her greasy chest, as if to still the discord that occurred therein. He kept telling her to calm down, assuring her that it would pass. She grabbed his other hand and squeezed it hard, irrationally terrified that he would evaporate at any moment, leaving her to suffocate on her own. And then, slowly, a divine relief. Her chest opened again. The breath hurt like hydrogen peroxide in an open wound. A welcome pain. Her father removed his two fingers, removed the now tepid washcloth. He kissed her forehead. “Go on back to sleep now,” he said, and he left the room. She licked her lips. The desperate, open-mouthed gasps had cracked them like baked earth. She readjusted her nightshirt. Because of the Vicks, it clung to her chest, which cooled with an artificial, chemical tingling.

1983

She began furtively siphoning off some of her parents’ grainy instant coffee in the morning, before school. It seemed to help. More, she believed, than the mammoth Primatene tablets she was now forced to take twice daily. The diagnosis was both a blessing and a curse. Asthma. A blessing because it proved that the attacks—now down to only once or twice weekly—were not just hysterical exaggerations, curable with a little Vicks and a prayer. A curse because she felt the stigma of disease. No one outside of their household—excepting the doctor who had diagnosed her six years ago—knew.

She was no longer a child. She knew what it meant that her family lived in the house with the noisy gravel driveway, the carpetweed and peppergrass, the rock-hard crabapples, the rusted-chain wire fence. She knew that her parents struggled to accommodate her medication in their budget. She was a burden. So she stole her mother’s used coffee mug from the sink and drank her tonic lukewarm, black, unsweetened. The coffee enabled her to skip her Primatene most days, which meant that her parents did not have to replenish her medication so frequently.

She drank the coffee in the privacy of her bedroom while her sister was in the bathroom, pulling the hotcomb through her hair, beautifying herself with her hidden stash of makeup. Janelle had finally and fully come into the role of superiority bestowed upon her by their three-year age difference. But Janelle burst back into the bedroom earlier than expected this morning, startling Theresa in her training bra so that she almost dropped the mug.

Janelle’s expression was amused. “Coffee? You’re just a baby.”

Theresa stood and straightened. Pride kept her from covering herself. “Mind your business. And I’m not no baby.”

Her sister smirked. “Tell that to the itty bitty titty committee.” She turned to leave the room.

“Nelle?”

Janelle paused without turning around.

“Don’t tell Mama?”

Janelle laughed. “Like I care,” she said. Then she partially turned, nodding toward Theresa’s bra-clad chest. “But you’re probably stunting your growth.” And with that, she left the room, closing the door behind her.

The bitter liquid in the mug was momentarily unappealing. She placed the coffee cup on the dresser and looked into the oval mirror there. She pulled down the straps of the pseudo-bra and examined the twin tents of flesh, tipped in smooth, umber caps. Buds—as she’d heard them called—that would one day blossom into full breasts. Until this precise moment, she’d harbored none of her friends’ desperation for voluptuousness, for nature to make a woman out of her. She’d viewed her pubescent swellings as merely extensions of the chest she’d always known—the smooth housing for her malfunctioning lungs. But for her sister, she might have continued a while longer without thinking of her buds as breasts. Her chest may not have been sexualized so soon. It may have, for just a couple more years, remained only the unmarred gate of an ugly disease.

But now, just as simply as that, she envied her sister, who belonged to a club she was excluded from. Beautiful Janelle, with her hazel eyes, her woman’s breasts. Popular Janelle, who lived in a world of weekend parties, hidden lipsticks, boys with cars, Michael Jackson, and “Say hello to my little friend,” and “Run Jesse Run.” Theresa wanted that world, too. She wasn’t an invalid. She wasn’t a baby. She envied her sister, her mother, her grandmother; envied her female ancestors, envied all who were women when she was not. She looked at her little girl breasts, her buds, and muttered, “Bloom.” She snatched the mug from the dresser and downed the rest of the cold coffee in one swig. She readjusted the straps of her bra, covering herself.

1986

After two emergency room visits, one involving a boxy, Band-Aid-colored nebulizer, and the other involving a shot of epinephrine, she was finally awarded the miracle of an emergency inhaler. She knew the signs now. At the slightest shortness of breath, she’d scurry off to a secluded corner—only her closest friends knew about the inhaler. Just press on the canister and breathe in the slightly acrid mist, and her chest unfurled, her airways halted their seizure. Her sister, now studying to become a nurse, had put a name to the miraculous mist: albuterol.

It was December. Icicles formed on the windows outside. The Challenger’s O-ring seals still dominated the news. Her parents were sitting at the kitchen table. Her mother was mending a shirt; her father was reading the newspaper.

“I’m going out,” she told them.

Her mother raised her eyebrows. “Oh, you grown now? Where you going?”

Her father rested his hand on her mother’s bony wrist. “Let her alone, Annette,” he said. “She’s a good kid.”

“I’m just going to see Pauline, Mama,” she said.

Her mother did not look mollified, but she only said, “Put some Vaseline on before you go. That cold’ll cut you up.”

She kissed her parents and ran to her room to smear Vaseline on her lips. Grabbing her hat and her gloves, she hurried out the front door. She was not going to see Pauline. She walked out onto Sutter Street and then took a left onto Post, where she continued to head west, past the gas station, past the permanently shuttered bank, past the parking lot where the candy store used to be. The cold felt like pine needles on her face. She sniffed frequently to keep her nose from dripping.

Curtis waited for her behind the hardware store in his ailing, mud-colored 1973 Ford Maverick. She hurried inside, eager to enjoy the warmth of his newly repaired—by himself, he’d boasted—car heater. But as soon as she’d settled in, taking off her hat and gloves, he turned the engine off.

“What’re you doing?” she asked. “I’m freezing.”

“You know I don’t like wasting my gas, Baby.” He smiled. His teeth were stubbed piano keys.

She looked around, anxious. “You sure nobody’s going to find us back here?”

“Relax,” he said.

It was the first of several times he’d say that to her over the course of their evening. He kissed her. His mouth tasted like menthol. He kissed her and his mustache burned her upper lip. He kissed her and his hand, hot and rough, found her breast under her layers of clothes. He squeezed her, and she felt simultaneously worshipped and desecrated. Surely, this was what it meant to be a woman. Awkwardly, they climbed into the back seat. Pleasure of a woman. Pain of a woman. When they were done, he kept his hands on her breasts while she tried not to cry. She was beginning to feel the cold again.

“You’ve got great tits,” he said.

1991

The women were in the kitchen. Her sister, still in her scrubs, was standing by the stove, shaking her head. “This thing with the LAPD just gets me all fired up,” she was saying. “You see the statements from those officers? They had themselves a good old time beating on that man.”

Theresa was standing on the kitchen table, her mother fluttering around her, pinning the muslin shell.

“Wasn’t he on the OCP?”

“It’s PCP, Mama,” Janelle corrected, “and that was a load of bull. He was a little drunk, that’s all.”

“You watch your mouth in my house.”

“Aw Mama, she can’t help it,” Theresa said. “That Rodney King gets ‘Nelle—you know—all fired up.”

“He does not,” was Janelle’s weak comeback.

“Then it’s the LAPD that does it for you?”

“You’re the one marrying one of them.”

“Leonard ain’t no LAPD.”

“He’s a pig just the same.”

“What is it, 1962?”

“Grown women,” their mother muttered. “Nelle, check them kidney beans. ‘Resa, stop messing around and get down so I can remeasure your bust. This ain’t fitting right.”

Theresa climbed down off the kitchen table and removed the muslin shell, carefully, so as not to disturb the pins. Her mother wrapped the tape measure around her satin-clad bosom. Leonard was the only other person who got close to this part of her body. Her mother’s feathery, maternal touch differed so fundamentally from her fiancé’s amorous one. The way he held her breasts—the way he loved her with the palms of his hands—was one of the reasons she’d fallen for him so thoroughly.

Her mother was done, the measurements diligently recorded. Theresa dressed herself and made some coffee. (She was still addicted, after all these years.) As she drank it, now sitting at the table with her mother and sister, she absentmindedly fiddled with her inhaler.

“How are you going to wear your hair?” her sister asked.

“Just like it is.” Theresa had been sporting a short ‘fro for almost a year.

“You going to be nappy on your wedding day?” her mother asked.

“She’s part of the revolution, Mama,” Janelle said.

“Lord, what did I raise?” said their mother, but the sisters looked at each other and laughed, because they knew their mother was busting with pride in her girls.

Soon, their mother laughed, too.

1996

Baby Amare drank from her with a savageness that frightened her a little. His fat hands grasped at her, his dark, huckleberry face trembled, his colossal eyes pressed shut. She liked to sit in the lawn chair in the cramped backyard when she fed him, in the high summer heat, the rattling racket of the cicadas. Roving wild honeysuckle was pillaging the far side of the plot, killing the other plants, drowning the backyard in its ambrosial perfume. Her son was nearly five months old. Most of her baby weight was gone. She was going to have to stop putting off her return to the small law firm where she was a secretary.

But for now, she looked at her child lovingly as he drained her. She heard her husband’s car pull into the driveway. She heard the car’s door open and shut. In a few moments, Leonard himself appeared, standing in the open doorway, the interior of the house at his back. He smiled and walked over to his wife and son. He kissed her cheek, rested his hand on Amare’s round head.

“How was your day?” she asked him.

“Long,” he said. “How was yours?”

“Busy,” she answered. “I’m as tired as can be.”

Her husband patted her on the back. “Hey,” he said. “How about getting out this weekend? Catch a movie? We’ll see that new one—the one with Will Smith in it.”

Independence Day?”

“That’s it.”

“And our son?” she said.

“We’ll ask your sister to take him. She and Earl have been wanting to watch him for us.” He patted her back again. “Come on. It’ll be good practice.”

She smiled up at him. She still loved his smell—Royal Crown Hair Dressing and Old Spice. He was an old-fashioned man. He smiled back at her and leaned down to nuzzle the top of her head. Then he kissed their baby’s forehead. Then he kissed the top of the breast that Amare was still attached to, still emptying. The breast whose nipple Amare’s attentions had cracked. Her breasts were engorged with milk. They ached, when left alone, for want of Amare’s primal attack. They were not hers anymore; they were his. That’s why her husband could kiss the baby like that and then kiss her breast. They were not breasts anymore. Mammae. This was what it meant to be a woman. She had given her body to her husband; and now, to her son.

2001

Amare, Kwame (who was not born on a Saturday), and Binah were at Leonard’s parents’ house. They were all much too young to be handed a thing like this. In time, she and Leonard would explain it to them the same way they’d explained the terrorist attacks back in September (except for Binah, of course, who was just over a year old): bad things happened sometimes, but you loved yourself, you loved your family, and you tried to love people, no matter what the disease of hate might drive them to do. It had become the kind of world where you told that to children who couldn’t tie their own shoes yet.

Her right nipple had looked red and irritated. That was all. She’d thought it was Binah. She breastfed her daughter longer than she’d breastfed her sons, and had only just begun weaning her. It was Leonard who’d found the lump. Hard and uneven, like a baroque pearl. The doctor confirmed it. Staging began. Her body had betrayed her. Stage II ductal carcinoma. She’d sat wordlessly while her husband quizzed the doctor on next steps. The good news was that it was relatively small. The bad news was that it was relatively aggressive. Partial mastectomy. Axillary lymph node dissection. Reconstruction. Chemotherapy. Her body had betrayed her.

She thought about her children with her in-laws while she waited in the preoperative holding room. Her husband and her parents were with her. Her father kissed her hair and said, “You’re going to be just fine. You’re a good kid.” Then he patted her arm and left the room so that she could change into her hospital gown.

Her mother helped her change. She could tell that her mother was trying not to cry. She tried to lighten the mood by joking. “Why are you getting ready to cry, Mama? Is it because I’m going to lose all my hair?”

Only her husband let out a supportive chuckle. Her chest was getting tight, but she knew it was only fear. She’d been managing the asthma with an inhaled corticosteroid for years, only very infrequently needing her emergency inhaler. She tried to breathe deeply. She looked down at her breasts. She didn’t know what her silhouette would look like after the surgeon was done with her. She did not even know if she was going to survive what her over-enthusiastic cells had done to her.

The surgeon entered with his marker and a syringe. He stabbed her breast several times, injecting the dye that would leak its way into her sentinel lymph nodes. The marker’s felt tip was abrasive against her skin. Her mother tactfully looked away while he drew dotted lines on her bare breast. He explained the procedure. He explained the aftercare. He asked if there were any questions. She had so many, but none that he could answer. The sterile blankness of the room was beginning to make her dizzy. Her mother and her husband kissed her, and then she was being wheeled away to the pre-operating room. She watched the ceiling pass above her. A bleached Piet Mondrian.

The anesthesiologist came while the nurses were inserting an IV. He explained that they were giving her something to make her sleepy before he administered the drug that would put her under. She watched the clear fluid come down in the tube of the IV before entering her bloodstream. She heard someone going through a checklist. Someone wrapped her in blankets. Someone said her name. Someone was petting her forehead with a gloved hand, soothingly. Her thoughts disintegrated into nonsense.

She awoke not remembering where she was. She blinked several times, but her vision remained blurred. There were people near her. They were talking, but the words came to her ears deformed, unrecognizable. She was lying down. Something restricted her movement. One of the people leaned over her. A brown blur. A man. Her husband. He was saying something. Her name. He leaned down, closer to her face. Distantly, she was aware of a sharp ache where a whole part of her used to be.

2012

The coffee is black and earthy. Strong. She likes it pure like this. She drinks it alone in her living room, while she thinks about time. Her sons are teenagers now; Binah is on the brink. Earl and Janelle’s Raymond is nearly nine. Today’s appointment, she is confident, will make this the eleventh year with no recurrence of the cancer.

Her parents have begun to suffer the consequences of age: Her father has kidney stones. Her mother, high blood pressure. When she thinks of them, she still sees them as she saw them when she was young. Her father with big muscles and his mustache; her mother, skin smooth, hair immaculate. When she is confronted with the reality of how aged they look now, it almost makes her want to cry. One day, they will die. Her husband will die. She will die. Her children will die. Not necessarily in that order. Life makes no guarantees but death.

She takes another sip of her coffee and turns on the television. The news channel comes on. They are talking about Obama and Romney. She turns the television off. Politics give her a headache these days. She finishes her coffee and heads to the bathroom. She can hear Leonard waking their children, telling them to get dressed and ready for their first day of school. It is one of those humid days between summer and fall. She takes a puff from her inhaler. Holds her breath. One. Two. Three. Four. Exhale. And again.

She watches her chest deflate in the mirror as she exhales the second time. Aging is affecting the angles of her face, rather than the smoothness of her skin—her profile is not as soft and rounded as it used to be, though her skin remains unlined. After three children, she is not as effortlessly slim as she used to be, either. Her arms are fuller, her waist a bit wider.

She has not put on a bra yet. Her left breast has begun to change its shape. The distribution of its fullness has morphed; it is dipping a little lower. Her right breast, however, is as round and buoyant as ever. She smiles to herself, lifting up her shirt to see her asymmetrical breasts more clearly. Perhaps she will save up and go back to her surgeon, get him to make her left match her right. This is what it is to be a woman: the reclaiming of her body after a lifetime of giving it to people who needed it.

She has always seen her body as a burden, a traitor, something to be given and shared. Now, having survived to middle age, she has earned a different perspective. She still bears the pale stretch marks from her children, the small scar from the partial mastectomy. Her body has brought her through her life so far—she has survived. Her body was an ally all along. She pulls down her shirt, covering herself once again. She hears Leonard and her children moving around, beginning to come downstairs for breakfast. Before she goes out to join them, she takes a deep breath, and a quiet, visceral part of herself marvels at that small miracle.


 

Lessons-in-Breathing_Cuffy_photo_lgeNicole Cuffy received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Creative Writing from Columbia University in May 2010. As of May 2012, she holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from The New School University. Her concentration was in Fiction.

Nicole has worked for the Columbia University publication, QUARTO, which specializes in outstanding fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She has also read for The New School’s LIT, and worked as the editor-in-chief of C-Spot Magazine. Currently, she runs her own blog and website, gardenofeuterpe.com.

She was the recipient of the 2004 Expository and Creative Writing Award, the Glynis George Memorial Award for Creative Writing in 2005, and the Literary Silver Award in Non-Fiction.

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