E.C. Belli


That was some nonsense, he told her, and did anyone ever put that much thought into anything, especially a poem? Also, did they really need to be discussing this right now because moving the car seemed more pressing. She insisted; this was the stuff that changed you. She told him how they'd spent the last class discussing a Rukeyser poem, and how the lines had resonated with her. They were, she remembered, "Speak to me. Take my hand. What are you now? / I will tell you all. I will conceal nothing." The class had launched into a discussion on what it meant to love and to communicate and to be alive generally, and then how the simple things were just so hard sometimes—moving cars and all. How eating, sleeping, loving felt like a feat some days. Naming the pain, she told him, knowing that others had words for those things that dragged us all down, well, that helped. It was still some nonsense, he said, and it was almost eleven, and now they'd likely have to pay a fine. And that actually changed you in the worst kind of way, like you lost out on things, groceries, a movie, because you were busy sitting around talking about poetry instead of moving the car. Didn't she care at all about milk, butter, shower gel? After that, the class had somehow settled on the topic of breathing. Everyone had had a take on its meanings, both literal and figurative. The conversation played over in her mind, his voice taking its place in the wallpaper of city sounds. I see it as letting the old air out, Ruby said, like a million chances at a new beginning. Someone puffed. It's life, I mean, it's the basis, the root of everything, Antoine said. I don't know, Priya said, I see it as a form of control. Then someone in the back said it was a wave for the words to ride on. You're a poet, someone said. It's something children do, Buddy said. What do you mean, said someone up front, everyone does it. Then a lady with short hair whispered into Buddy's ear. Oh, I thought we were talking about laughter, Buddy said. Apparently, a nasal voice said, children laugh twenty times more than we do. For me, it's an act of revolt, said a voice, a kaleidoscope of sadness, every shape and shade of grief filling the pattern. To me, she said, breathing says, You see, I'm alive, your hate won't break me—but the hate had very much broken her, and every morning the struggle was arranging the pieces so they'd hold for one day more. It's a form of speech, a tall guy interrupted, and then, It's the white space around the words, came in from the back. You're definitely a poet. Contractions of the diaphragm, Antoine said, that's all it is. Just like laughing actually, said Ruby. Back to control, Priya said, it's this beautiful thing, but really it's our be-all and end-all. I'm not sure that expression is right in this context, the tall guy said. Priya didn't answer anything, a fog of silence hanging around her face. A lady who was dressed for church said it was why trumpets sounded so sad, because our lifebreath traveled through them. Oh now you're the poet, came in one last time from the back. Then everyone laughed, even the broken one. It's pollution is what it is, the tall guy said, interrupting everyone's laughter. A beat passed. It's better than crying, an older woman said, and this time everyone grew quiet. Her hair like a moonrise, they all stopped talking, imagining she knew the most about breathing. She sensed the mood swing and, speaking alone to the room, admitted that even though her body had been going at it alone for some time, she had stopped breathing a long time ago. It had happened in her late twenties, between that stabbing of some children at a school in a faraway country—then realizing that country was the next state over—and the day she'd waited for her father to call her for once, and that she'd ended up waiting almost a year, and that when he'd finally called, he'd told her all about what he'd done that day, but had had to go in a heartbeat, anyway, that was life and what it did to you. Then everyone felt relieved they were younger, and breathing would still very much be a part of their lives, which, for some of them it was, but still Buddy, Ruby, and Priya, though they hardly knew it, all beat the old lady to the grave because such is life, in all its unnatural glory. But the mothers, everywhere, the old lady played on, the mothers, she would have liked to have one because, rumor had it, on holidays and when it mattered and just to tell them out of the blue that they loved them, the mothers always called their children. And that, when somebody calls you like that, for no good reason, even when children are getting stabbed across the way and fathers are off who knows where, that makes breathing feel a bit less like swallowing shards and a bit more like sunrise.