HOW TO BREATHE UNDERWATER
It’s tricky at first, the gasping and gulping of it all. But dig your hands deep in the rotten wet earth and prepare to inhale. Wait for the world to get milky and quiet. Wait to feel forgiveness and light.
First, wake up at the crack of dawn and listen for your mother. Wait for the pitter-patter shuffle of flattened-down slippers and watch the damp light seep under your door. Make sure it is winter. Make sure you are flat broke. Make sure nobody on the entire fucking planet is thinking of you, is wanting for you, is trying to remember your skin against their skin against the feeling of a bare mattress at dusk. That last part’s important.
Listen for the familiar crash of the back door, when your mother leaves for her shift as a nurse, where she is underpaid and overworked and productive in an honest, obvious way that makes your gut ache. Ache because you can’t remember ever telling her thank you. Ache because you’re pretty sure there’s not a single thing in your life that feels honest or obvious at all. Heave your body up anyway.
Stand in front of the bathroom mirror and take stock. You are a hollowed-out son, atrophied and sunken. You are so pale that you’re almost grey. Try to convince yourself it’s the caked-over lights, the fluorescents twisting and shading your reflection beyond recognition. Know that it’s not.
Feel like a loiterer in your own home, or house, or whatever it is you call the cigarette-stained two-bedroom you’ve moved back into. When friends ask why you’re back in town, keep answers vague. Run your hands through your hair and mumble something like temporary, or through the end of the month, or mom really needed the help.
Survey the landscape, this house plastered in brown. Shag rugs and brick fireplaces and scratched-up leather. Run your hands along pieces of a life gone on without you. Childhood homes are like childhood clothes – we can’t imagine our bodies ever that small, they having ever fit our whole selves. Rooms that felt familiar now feel all out of proportion, elongated or shrunken in. Look at pictures of your fucked-up brother and dead father and own keen-eyed self, 15 years younger. Wonder who left whom behind. Everything dusted with shame.
Move to the window now, the small one off the kitchen. Let it open just a crack and feel the wisps of cool light, the whole neighborhood bristling with a quiet you’d almost forgotten. Smoke two joints back-to-back of shitty weed you haven’t touched in a year, because being high tastes like her skin. Inhale deeply.
For a moment, let just her outline emerge.
Just a dim silhouette in that bar off Canal. She is chapped lips and collarbones, waving hands and a liquored-up voice. You listen as she tells heavy-tongued stories of her sister on the ride back to Brooklyn, knotting her limbs around an empty train pole. The night-shift men watch her, too. You feel invincible.
Forget the promise you made to yourself back on the turnpike, in that final trip home. That you’d stop thinking of her, looking backward for her. That you’d try your best to move on, rebuild, save yourself. That you’d work to unwind the curl of her laugh from the knot in your gut.
But that’s not what you need. Sink all the way down, instead. Lower yourself into the pool of her memory, feet first, wrists locked against the edge, face sketched into a grimace that says – okay, here we go.
Start at the indigo veins that ran down her arm and the way her mouth looked like a cave when you fought. Remember her blotchy skin, chipped tooth, golden eyes. Remember the first summer you both lived in the city, how the heat sank heavy and slept on your shoulders. All the oxygen sucked from the streets. Every block a huddle of slick, heaving bodies.
You spend all of July with wet brows and burnt skin. All you want to do is touch her wet brows and burnt skin.
Your damp cheek pools into the small of her back.
You spend a day at the shore, letting the foam of the bay outline your bodies. You tell her your father just died and you don’t know what that means but you don’t think you’re sad. You ask if that’s awful. It’s probably awful. She kisses the palms of your hands with a mouthful of sand. Something unhinges inside you.
Flit between it all now, like a slideshow. Turn your life into a home movie, click-clacking against the white of a father’s den wall. Everything jutting this way and that, whirring between smiling faces and auburn hair.
One month together. Two months together. You feel like you know her. You feel like she wants you to know her. You feel like everything you’ve ever done has been a way to get to know her.
Your whole life becomes pale curves against a city sky. Your whole life is drowning in good in a way it’s never been before. You feel over some hump, over some lifelong affliction of no-good, shit luck. You swear you’ve reached the downhill, homestretch, last leg. Like you’d been all cooped up inside this terrible fate, this one-track path you’d been sure of since high school, that your whole fucking family fell down, too slick to stop.
But then there she was. Improbably. Quietly. Like solace, or God, or sunlight at your end of the block.
You see her in everything good. She becomes everything good. You start to make art again, to believe in art again. You start to hold open doors and not hate people who hold open doors and kiss when you fuck and kiss without fucking.
Milk tastes like mouthfuls of honey. Everything tastes like mouthfuls of honey.
Three months together Fall slips into your studio apartment. You spend nights together in a frantic rearranging of limbs. A clanging of teeth. A rosebud swelling of lips. Her nose bleeds from the cold and you wake up startled and smudged, metallic and warm.
You find yourself sketching midday, like when you were a kid, ripping off scraps of paper or stealing bar napkins, etching out constellations to match the freckles down her back. You move your tongue along the roof of her mouth and it feels like a choir.
Pause here. Reconnoiter.
Roll another joint and lick the end. Feel yourself grow lighter, dimmer, softer. Watch as the sun crowns over the oaks in your backyard. Try to be in the moment of something precious, maybe religious, but spend the whole time moving backward, head between your legs, palms at your temples.
Four months together. Five months together. Everything spinning.
You stand together in a church off of Houston. It’s been two days of no sleep, after more whisky than most people drink in a year. The Sunday morning light bleeds through rose-tinted windows and spills across empty pews, staining the white of her hands. We should go listen to music. We need to listen to music. You stare straight ahead toward the choir as she breathes sour songs into the crease of your neck. You want her to die in the crease of your neck. You might die if she leaves the crease of your neck. It’s the first day in three weeks you’ve been sober.
You forget to call your mother back, once, twice, three times. When you do call, you can tell she’s been crying. You talk instead about the woman you’ve met, the way she’s taught you to draw faces on the train with charcoal pencils, how she has an older sister with a brand-new baby, about her souped-up laugh and auburn hair. Your mother listens but doesn’t ask questions. You tell her you’re happy, and figure that sounds something like sorry.
Feel ashamed at the night you yelled at her brother. Because they had money and they’d always had money, and why aren’t you helping us out? It’d be nothing for you to help us out. When you come from a family with a nurse for a mother and a drunk for a father, you get hot and greedy when something different feels close. Though it wasn’t ever really that close. Know that now.
Seven months together. You listen to her tell quiet stories of the men who came before you. The stories feel both brief and eons-long, about her, but also about her mother and her mothers’ mothers and her grandmothers’ mothers, all stripped bare for the taking. Understand you’re no different. Feel ashamed that you ever suggested she fuck you, that she ever let you fuck her, that your body was ever up against hers, inside hers, a part of hers. Confess to the way your clumsy hands tiptoed across the white of her stomach. Confess and confess and confess. That last part’s important.
Go back to that last night at the bar, when the whole borough felt cocked-back and angry. You’re lit-up drunk and looking to fight, watching her from across the room and she knows this. She knows this as she leans into a man with broad shoulders and loose hands. She knows this as he wraps them around the bulk of her thigh. Later, yell the way your father taught you.
Skip forward now. Ten months gone by. A year gone by.
There are no more apologies. She is sunken eyes against a snowy sky. She is seven-days sober but tired and you are barely-ever sober but tired. She is I need to leave this city and I won’t forgive this city and no, you should stay behind in this city. She is slipping, slipping, slipping, and then she is gone.
She calls you months later, from her sister’s house back in St. Louis. She has something to tell you, but you can’t make out the words. Her voice becomes thick like cotton. You try to listen but instead feel overwhelmed with the memory of your room as a boy. The way light would sweep across the oak floors as headlights brushed by your window. The world feels ancient and kind.
But listen now. This last part’s important.
You will hear the words daughter and early and lost. Don’t shudder. Let them rinse through you. Let them live inside you the same way they lived inside her. It was not yours to mourn, never yours to mourn. But feel the words echo like hymns at the foot of an altar, like a banshee cry, like a parade of trombones. Know what it’s like to lose a daughter, to have lost your daughter.
Swing your legs over the edge of the windowsill and jump down. Run faster than you meant to, or just as fast as you’ve always meant to. Listen to the thwapping of muscle against air against pain. Yell it out loud. I had a daughter! I had a daughter and a lover and a chance! Or rather almost had a daughter, or rather watched the word daughter appear for a moment, in an exhaled ring of smoke, undeniably there and whole, and then gone.
Pick up speed. Follow the salt in the air toward the ocean. Migrate toward the source like a wild animal, or like a man who wrapped up everything good in a woman, or like a man who never had anything good but this woman.
Let the film reel slow down, the click-clacking cease, until it’s just one image etched out in front of you. An image of yourself as a father, as a better father, or an almost-father, or as a father inexplicably better than all those behind and before you.
Keep running. Watch the image become every man ever thrust toward a family, some Platonian ideal sat at the head of a table. The drunk ones and the just-sober ones and the ones who spend 40 years quiet with grief. The ones who seek redemption from shit lives through women, who steal sadness that is not theirs, who have sunken eyes and always-curled fists and are angry, angry, angry.
And when it is time, step into the water. Make sure it is cold. Make sure it is wild. Run your palms through the rotten wet earth, across slimed-over bones and handfuls of pearls. Taste the sea. Swallow mouthfuls of honey. Find your place in the circle at the floor of the ocean, round-robin with every man here before you, cross-legged and joyous, forgiven and free.
Sink, with eyes open, and breathe.