Fiction

Deep Breathing

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 FICTION

We hike and hike
and hike. The moon hangs above us like a floater in the eye. Thin, lighted
disc, electric lamp, perfectly circular moon — I hate it. I don’t
want to see her face. I don’t want her to see mine. The moon seems accessible
to me, bothersome and ceaseless, and I hate it. I want darkness and earth.
Clouds, if possible. Not the moon. I crave eclipse.

   The moon burns and we hiked on, up hills, down hills, further
into the recesses of the mountain. The moon sucks trees into its light and paints
our faces green, turning us into clowns. I imagine I’m a harlequin, dance about,
tell jokes. Carla says she’s heard the stories before; they’re not funny. I disagree.
We look into each other’s glasses, see ourselves, and wave. We exchange glasses
and stumble. She’s nearly blind. I wear glasses to feel detached and look intelligent.
She thinks I’m brilliant. She tells me so. I’m not brilliant.

    The moon is brilliant. Luminous even. It cuts through the
sky, the hills, the trees. It throws thick tunnels of light at us. The sky stretches
itself out for miles around us, face up. The moon doesn’t move. We do. Carla
says it’s a full moon. I agree. “We’re lost,” she says. I agree and tell
her not to worry. She asks me, please, not to patronize her. I apologize.

promotion

   Carla doesn’t like the idea of being lost. I, obviously, revel
in it. In her backpack she has a toothbrush. The moon tells us where to go.
Away. Way away. Carla says it’s a full moon. I agree again. “Wolves,” she says. “Yes,” I
say. “I’m scared,” she says. “That’s absurd,” I say, “we’ll protect each other.” “That’s
absurd,” she says.

   The path ends. Tree limbs shake at us like parents’ fingers.
Bushes jump out at us like animals. We’re lost. I’m wearing jeans, a torn green
turtleneck, boots. I’m carrying a sleeping bag, a backpack. “Let’s go back,” Carla
says. I have no intention of going back. I don’t want to go back. I want to
hike. Carla wants to sleep. She’s tired. I offer to carry her backpack for her.
Her sleeping bag. Her head. The moon. She walks ahead of me, moving her arms
like pistons.

    My eyes focus on her ass. I try to avert my attention. I stare
at her backpack, her head bobbing up and down. I look up at the moon, down at
the dirt. Moon like an attenuated traffic light, dirt like waves. I squint toward
the treetops, peer into labyrinths of entangled tree limbs. They’re all of only
passing interest. My eyes are riveted on her ass.

She asked
me if I thought her ass was too large. I told her no. I lied. I accommodated.

    Carla asked me if I thought her ass was too large. I couldn’t
decide. With my tongue I took her temperature. I was worried. She seemed feverish.
Her ass stared me in the face like balloons. She lay face down on the mattress
on the floor. She chewed the pillow case. Her shirts hung like straitjackets
above us on the backs of chairs, from the lightless chandelier. She asked me
if I thought her ass was too large. I rubbed balloons until they squeaked. I
licked them until they shined. I pulled the balloons apart, rubbed them some
more. I took her temperature. 98.6 was obliterated. I untied the knots in the
balloons, let the air out. Carla turned on her side, away from me. She asked
me if I thought her ass was too large. I told her no. I lied. I accommodated.


She asks me to promise we’ll stop at the first clearing we come to. I promise. “I’m
tired,” she says, “you have to respect that.” I tell her I do; I’m tired,
too; sleep is inevitable and natural, like the moon. I want to remove the
moon, rebel against sleep. I want to hike until the moon fades, until the
sun rises, until my backpack slips off my shoulders.

   We walk into a black meadow that’s dominated by plants as tall
as I am. The plants dwarf Carla. We walk in wet soil and whip whorls of long,
pointed leaves out of our way. “Culver’s Root,” she says. I disagree. I hate
displays of knowledge. Carla slips and pulls clusters of leaves with her. The
moon surveys the field, withholds comment. We turn our hands into scythes, trample
Culver’s Root, tear off leaves.


Carla watered the plants with a coffee pot. She cluttered the
sun room, the kitchen, the bathroom, the bedroom with plants. She played music
for the plants on cheap speakers. Like a child she loved Mozart, Brahms. She
talked to the plants. Nights, naked, she walked around the house, watering. Dry
dirt caked. Dead leaves crumbled. The plants begged for more water. I flooded
the plants. “Don’t,” she said. Potted plants toppled over. Soil became mud. Roots
stretched like legs. Leaves turned into huge hands. Hanging plants swayed. “You’ll
ruin the plants,” she said, “leave them alone.” I bought new music like candy.
Mahler. Nothing else. Only Mahler. Only the symphonies. I turned up the volume
all the way. The plants sprouted up like arms, brought the ceiling down a foot
or two. The plants took over the house, dominated rooms. The sun room was transformed
into a greenhouse. Carla said she felt suffocated by the plants, that they were
out of control. She threw out the plants. She played Mozart. Early Mozart. Very
quietly.


The meadow curves upward. We use plants like walking sticks.
The meadow straightens its back, stands straight up. The meadow becomes a hill,
becomes a seventy-degree angle. Our backpacks hang on our shoulders like vaults.
Carla’s sleeping bag slips out of her hand, unrolls into mud, opens flat like
a mattress. I suggest we stop hiking, take advantage of the mattress. She rolls
up the sleeping bag like a tongue. She stands up and walks ahead of me. I quote
a passage from Camus so banal that it’s the text of a fairly popular poster:
do not walk ahead of me, do not walk behind me, walk next to me and be my friend,
etcetera. She hurries away from me. I run after her. Climbing the hill, carrying
my backpack and sleeping bag, I run after her and overtake her.


Until I was twelve years old I was the fastest person I knew.
I ran to the store, around the block, to school, up the stairs, around town,
across highways, away from people, with people, toward people, on dirt, on sand,
on asphalt, on the beach, in bare feet, in sneakers, in sandals, in boots, in
good thin tight shiny laced black shoes. I was twelve and had no hair on my legs,
had legs hard as rubber, tanned as an Indian. My girlfriend was twelve and ran,
too. We ran together. We ran into each other, into trouble, around lakes. We
raced. She won. I thought, perhaps, she won because of a false start. I demanded
a rematch. She said no. I took off my sneakers, threw them into the lake, stepped
on twigs, rocks, glass in my bare feet. She ran away from me. She started smoking
cigarettes, lost her wind, became a cheerleader. We broke up, returned identification
bracelets, found out who we were.


The top of the hill curves toward us like a lip. The moon
flashes off the plants like lightning. We make crunching sounds, snap twigs,
step on snails. We kiss the hill’s lips. We make it to the top. The white moon
ensconces itself in a cloud, hovers casually. We look around, at the sky, the
mountains in the very far distance, down below us at a river and, beyond that,
to a dark flat field.

    “A clearing,” Carla says. I agree. “A place to sleep,” she
says. “Yes,” I say. We run down the hill like goats. Carla trips, tastes dirt.
I lick topsoil off her mouth. I swallow earth. I spit out pebbles and dry terrain. “You
don’t love me,” she says, “I swallow you.” “They’re of different consistency,” I
say. She nods. She loves scientific answers like that. I wish she’d push handfuls
of mud past my throat.

    At the bottom of the hill we catch our breaths, suck in the
soft summer night. The moon climbs up steps higher into the sky. The river’s
wider and deeper than I thought it would be. Many things turn out that way. Carla,
for instance. She says the water’s filthy. I drink gallons of the river. “You’ll
destroy yourself,” she says. Like a child, I blow bubbles. I look into the river,
stare into murky water. Carla recounts the myth of Narcissus. “Boring,” I say, “obvious,” and
slurp water. The moon bounces off the stream like flashbulbs.

“I feel naked,” she
said. “You should,” I said.

In a secluded glade, surrounded by woods and the deep dark
verdant shadows of cypress trees, I played with the camera, twisted the f-stop
dial, adjusted the black plastic strap. I undressed Carla in my mind. I thought
about the softness of infinity, the violence of the close-up. I thought about
undressing her. “We don’t have much sunlight left,” I said. Shadows splashed
across her face like paint. I read the light meter, tinkered with the f-stop.
She made a pile of her clothes like laundry. She stood in the shade, folding
her arms across her breasts. “Put your arms down,” I said. “I feel naked,” she
said. “You should,” I said. I put the camera down, jumped out of my clothes,
made a pile of clothes like a picnic. “Better?” I said. “Yes,” she said. I looked
into the view finder: her breasts hung like pine cones. Her arms were pinned
to her bare legs like pickets. Shadows warped the picture. Sun streamed through
the trees, throwing my light reading off. “Take off your glasses,” I said, “they
refract light.” “No,” she said, “I can’t see without them.” “There’s glare,” I
said. “I don’t care,” she said. The rhyme gave rise to laughter, to frolic, to
my ripping her glasses off her face. I spoke of the poetry of blindness, the
clarity of an oblique vision, our need for distortion. “Give me back my glasses,” she
said. Shadows cut off the sun, stretched like ladders. “Step out of the shadows,” I
said. Hands on bony hips, Carla walked out of the penumbra, sprawled out on the
grass, chewed blades like a cow, spread her legs, rocked, fingered herself, arched
her back like a cat. “Better?” she said. “Yes,” I said, “hold it.” I toyed with
the range finder. Shadows sprayed her body like a water hose. I turned the f-stop
to 2.8. I switched the shutter speed to 1/25th of a second. “It hurts,” she said.
I straddled her, crouched down, turned the camera vertically, focused. “It hurts,” she
said again. I spoke of the need, now and then, to suffer. I photographed through
her body: I ducked between her legs and shot from her thighs to her face. Shadows
fell like walls.


The river stretches itself out in front of us for years, winds
its way through meadows, trees, bushes for as far as we can see in either direction.
It presents itself to us like a broken arm, some nagging ugly contorted barrier.
The water, hissing, ceaseless, kisses the rocks and banks of its own chasm. Carla
says we have to turn back; we certainly can’t cross the river. “Of course we
can,” I say. I throw our sleeping bags and backpacks, one at a time, onto
the flat land of the empty dark field on the other side of the river. The backpacks
clank like prisoners. The sleeping bags fly like bullets. I run to the foot of
the hill behind me, stare up at triangular acres of Culver’s Root. The moon recedes,
climbs higher into the black sky, turns down its light, waits for the stars to
dance. “Don’t go leaping over the river,” she calls, “athletics repulse me.”


In the pastels of early morning, on quiet empty black tar
courts, I served yellow tennis balls and Carla swings at air. I rushed the net,
made chalk cough. I smashed cross-court shots at wicked, impossible angles. I
sliced drop shots that bounced back onto my side of the court. I arched lobs
that tickled the sky, landing inches inside the back line. I served hard, like
a cannon, deep, into corners. You serve too hard, she said. She held her tennis
racquet like a guitar. She hit backhands with two hands, spun around, lost her
balance. She played in a white tennis dress. Emily Dickinson was buried in a
white casket. Every other game, we exchanged sides, slurped orange juice, kissed,
intertwined racquets like serpents’ heads, like hands, tugged at shorts. “Don’t,” she
said, “I’m trying to concentrate.” Like an athletic genius she concentrated.
We played hundreds of games. She rarely won a point. I aimed for the bottom of
the net and she won a game. She danced around the court and flung her racquet
into the trees. She kissed me until I could taste the salt of her sweat. She
gripped me like the handle of her racquet. “I let you win,” I said. “I won,” she
said. “I let you.” “You didn’t.” “I did.” She twisted my racquet, poked me in
the stomach, broke my strings.


“Don’t jump,” Carla says. I’m not committing suicide. I’m
jumping over a river, shallow stream of murky water. I crouch low, feel light,
feel bounce and spring in my legs. I want to land on dry earth, open up my sleeping
bag, connect zippers with her. The moon twists around like a dangling yo-yo.
I clench my fists, tug at dirt, run hard. She waves her hands, shakes her head. “You’ll
kill yourself,” she says. The river’s as wide as two tables. I’m willing to risk
it. She looks away, hides her face from the moon. As I near the river, I stutter-step.
My feet chop at the ground like piano keys. I bounce off the last clump of earth
before the river and lift — arms outstretched, hands clapping air, stomach tight
as a fist.

As if I’m gliding forward in a swing, I kick my legs out ahead of me. I
savor altitude, flight, proximity to the moon. As if I’m riding a bicycle,
I pedal air.

   Air leads to earth. Below me is water. The
gravitational pull of the moon brings me down. And yet I make it. My right
foot lands on level ground; my left foot, on the steeped bank. I lunge
forward, lose my balance. As I slide down the hill, belly up, I clutch
crazily after rocks, twigs, things to hold onto. I slip into the scummy
edge of the river. I roll away from the water like a crocodile into mud.
I scramble up the hill onto flat land, take off my wet shoes and socks,
my soaked pants. Otherwise I’m bone dry.

   Carla laughs. It’s the kind of event that entertains her. She
thinks I’m clumsy. She thinks I have no sense of myself in relation to things
around me. The things around me at the moment are weeds, rocks, backpacks, sleeping
bags, clumps of bushes. I feel in union with them. With all of them, with each
of them. In touch.


I loped around the kitchen like a gazelle, making
a lavish breakfast in honor of Carla’s birthday. “These are dessert forks,” she
said, thumbing the Sunday paper, twanging the fork like a Jew’s harp. I
ignored her. The distinction seemed spurious. A fork is a fork, I thought.
You shovel food with it. I patted the omelets, threw cold cinnamon bagels
into the oven. “These are dessert forks,” she said again. Like a magician
I switched forks. Like a gourmet I made breakfast. I poured milk, stirred
orange juice, boiled water. “Coffee,” I said. “Tea,” she said. I whipped
out tea bags like condoms. I hated tea. Polite weak tea. Healthy herbal
tea. Carla sipped tea. I inhaled coffee. I was addicted to coffee. I lived
on bitter black essence. She folded the paper around her like a dressing
room, occasionally poked her head out over the headlines, lost herself
in new places to travel, new marriages, new books. I despise the temporal.
Food isn’t temporal; it’s substance. Like a waiter I served omelets, crisp
bagels. Like a fountain I spilled orange juice, tea, coffee. I slapped
butter on a plate. “These forks are dirty,” she said. “Fuck the forks,” I
said, “eat with your hands.” I pushed omelets past my face, swallowed bagels
like sugar doughnuts, drank coffee, orange juice, cold milk. “You’re a
pig,” she said, crumpling her newspaper. I rubbed my finger in butter,
smeared her lips, kissed her until I smelled smoke. “The oven’s on,” she
said.


The moon turns on its side, noses its way into oblivion. The
moon, alone, bored with its own waning light, surrounds itself with stars. I
can’t see Carla on the other side of the river. I clap my hands, call to her. “Carla,” I
say. “Carla, Carla.” She howls like a dog. “I’m not a dog,” she says, “don’t
you dare clap your hands at me.” I applaud. I whistle. I cluck my tongue. I snap
my fingers. Across the river she yells at me. “Come on, Spot,” I say, “jump over
the river.”

If,
momentarily, she’s inaccessible, her clothes are not.

Carla fed her dog the morning mail. She threw a rubber
ball at its nose. Now and then she walked the animal, wrapping the leash
around her wrist like a bracelet. The dog, in heat, chased a Great Dane.
On the front lawn, at night, beneath Carla’s window, a Great Dane and Carla’s
dog copulated. The Great Dane pranced away like a pimp. A few seconds later,
months before it could have puppies, Carla’s dog chased a bird across the
street. The bird flitted up to telephone wires. The dog barked. A car flipped
its high beams, honked, slammed brakes. The dog put out its right front
paw, waved, swallowed tires. The car dropped into third, then fourth, while
Carla and I, undressed, unfinished, ran down the stairs and into the street.
I rolled the dying, dead animal into the gutter. The dog wheezed like an
air conditioner. Carla said she couldn’t stand to look at the animal;
she loved it too much. “If that were true,” I said, “you wouldn’t have
left the door open all night.” She pleaded with me not to put my guilt
trip on her. She adored the terms of popular psychology, spat them out
like bubbles. “You couldn’t stand the bitch,” I said. “Liar,” she said. “Kiss
it,” I said. “What?” she said. I was undressed, but I meant the dog. “The
dog,” I said. “No,” she said. “Kiss it.” “No.” I held her by the arm, pressed
her face into the still wet crotch of the animal, into its wine-colored
rib cage. She cried. Not for the dog but for her own desolation she cried.
Man-to-man I shook its paw, said goodbye, crossed its legs. The driver
of the white van unlocked the door of the cage and scooped up Ubu like
fish.


“Run back,” I say, “and jump.” Carla’s light. Even
with her ass she weighs 114 pounds. It’s conceivable to me the wind will
simply pick her up, carry her across the river, and deposit her neatly
in the limbs of one of the trees on my side of the river. The dichotomy
bothers me. Her side. My side. It suggests two people, married, turned
away from each other, sleeping. “I’m afraid,” she says. “Don’t be,” I say. “Basically,” she
says, “at heart, I’m a coward.” “Basically,” I say, “so is everybody.” “I
can’t do it,” she says, “I can’t, I can’t.” She sits down and holds her
head in her hands, thinks about things. She pounds dirt.

   If, momentarily, she’s inaccessible, her clothes are not. I
undo the knots in her backpack, fold back the flap. I squeeze her clothes into
a ball, smell them, breathe in their musty odor, spill them across the ground.
The moon fades and descends slowly. Falling, but in control, the moon wraps itself
in the curtain of night. The moon retreats into the bottom of the sky. “What
are you doing?” she asks. Worry is imbedded in her voice like gallstones. I say
nothing and tied cloth into cloth, turn jeans into outstretched arms, knot her
clothes into a rope. Her fat woolen socks. Her patched pairs of jeans with their
stuck corroded zippers. Her stained silken panties. Her navy blue sweat shirt,
inside out. Her 34B lace bra.

   I hold onto Carla’s panties and, holding onto my soft pink
end of the clothes line, throw the other end across the river to her. “Catch,” I
say, and the clothes nose through the night like an eel. She catches her clothes.
A line tight as wire stretches between us. “Hold on,” I say. “Now what?” she
says. “Hold on tight and swing across,” I say. “You’re brilliant,” she says.
I am brilliant. The moon isn’t brilliant. Not even close. The moon sits on top
of a cloud like a dime caught in a coin slot. The cloud drifts away, threatens
rain, and the dime falls, clanks silently, disappears.


Carla, awake for hours, played music, walked around
the room, hung up clothes. She lifted up the covers, pinched my ass, and
whispered. “Got change?” she said. She never had change. She hated to break
a dollar. She hated to be late for work. With all the walking around the
room she did, she could have walked up and back to work twice. She changed
records, tucked in the covers, bent hangers. “Close the shade,” I said.
I didn’t want to see the sun or hear the alarm clock. I wanted to sleep.
She sat down on the edge of the bed, opened up her yellow bathrobe, and
kissed me, checked if I had tonsils, until I was awake. “I need bus fare,” she
said. She lay on top of me, felt soft as soap, smelled like toothpaste.
I pulled out my toothbrush, lathered up. She turned my pants pockets inside
out, spilled coins onto the rug. “Don’t be a whore about it,” I said, “don’t
just take money.” “Oh, pretty-pretty-please, father, mightn’t I borrow
a pittance,” she said, “pretty-pretty-please?” “At least play fair,” I
said, “flip a coin — double or nothing.” “What do you mean?” she said. Carla
wasn’t a gambler. “I’m late,” she said. “Flip a coin,” I said. “Call it,” she
said. “Tails,” I said. She caught the coin in midair, jammed it into her
pocket, snapped the shade open, kissed me on the ear. “Get up,” she said,
then pulled the blankets off, jingled change. “You denigrate the act,” I
said. She rang the alarm clock, slammed the door behind her. “What act?” she
said.


Carla tugs on her end of the clothesline. “Just jump?” she
asks. “Yes,” I say, “hold on tight and jump.” “I can’t,” she says. “Swing
across,” I say. I pull on my end. “Don’t,” she says. She tiptoes to the
edge, sizes up the river. “Are you holding on?” I ask. “Yes,” she says. “Tight?” “Yes.” I
yank the clothes line like a bed sheet.

   At first I think she’s going to make it. She swings through
the air like a wrecking ball. She clings to her clothes, screams, kicks her feet.
I hold tight. With two clenched hands I hold tight. She’s only a few feet away
from me, on the upswing, when she loses her grip. The clothes slip through her
hands and she plops backwards into the river like an enormous fish. “Carla,” I
call. She’s gone.

    The river sucks her up, sends her downstream, flows on. She
seeks the surface, coughs water. She cries for help. She slaps at water. Like
a buoy she bobs above water. Like a suitcase she sinks to the bottom. Virginia
Woolf placed a good-sized rock in her coat pocket to make sure. Carla struggles
for survival: one moment, alive, determined, searching; the next, hidden, drowned,
dead.

    I run toward her, in bare feet, downstream, away from the
moon. I hurdle bushes and pick up speed. I dive. Head first I dive. I cut the
water like a knife. I hit the soft muddy bottom of the river, jet to the surface.
I spot her, swim toward her furiously, wrap one arm around her waist. She weighs
a ton. With my free arm I dog-paddle toward the bank. The river splashes foam
at us and the undertow carries us downstream while the moon diminishes to a pale
empty disc and the bank recedes a couple hundred yards every time I reach for
it so that I have a fairly strong sense of doing battle with nature. I win. I
swim through the current, lunge and thrash my way across it, then claw at roots,
dig my fingernails into dirt. I pull her to me. I hold onto her, crawl out of
the river, drag her onto the soft slime at the edge of the river.

    I lie down on top of her unconscious body and breathe into
her blue pale paper lips. I breathe into her mouth like the wind. I press my
wetness to her wetness like rags. I pound on her chest, want to know if anyone
is home. Breathe, you bitch. The bottom of the moon touches the earth at the
end of the meadow. I rub her neck like masturbating, tear open her shirt. My
feet chip at pebbles, sink into mud. Cold courses through my body like wet wires.
I lick her teeth, the back of her tongue. I bite her lips like hard candy till
they bleed. Breathe. I thump her chest like applause. I kiss and kiss and kiss.
Only the top edge of the moon is still visible. I rub her breasts like doorknobs.
I sit on her legs, rock up and back like a horse. I open her mouth like a cave,
enter. Her legs shake, kick at the ground. I sway from side to side, swing my
hips forward, squeeze my thighs tight to her cheeks. Water sprays out of her
mouth like a geyser. She coughs. She pukes. Carla breathes.

   The moon falls like a bomb.
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
David Shields is the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction,
including Black Planet (finalist for the National Book Critics Circle
Award), Remote (winner of the PEN/Revson Award), and Body
Politic
(forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in May).

©2004 David Shields and Nerve.com