Tina likes pulling on a cigarette. She feels so close to Morse when she exhales, watching the thin blue streaks of smoke unravel and blur, spreading across their little apartment until the light filters through evenly, expanding equidistantly. There is a kind of justice in how egalitarian the haze spreads. It is as if a masterful painter washed every interior scene gray-blue: their bedroom with tossed sheets, the studio kitchen table with coupons and oily Thai take out containers, the den with glasses of warm beer sitting on the floor and crumpled Oreo bags on the sofa. The rooms filling with smoke seem as close to mingling love as Tina and Morse can manage. But it doesn’t matter that she smokes this evening. He hoists himself up anyway and walks out their front door. She inserts her half-smoked stub into one of those beer bottles and watches the smoke curl in on itself.
Five years ago love filled these rooms. Five years ago they married at the courthouse in front of a magistrate with a two inch strip of gray running down her center part and a mass of rusted orange hair hanging loose past her shoulders. Tina held her breath when Morse picked up the pen to sign the marriage license, held her breath when she signed, and held her breath when the magistrate spoke words uniting them as a couple. She exhaled on the elevator. They celebrated with cold beers pulled from the tap at Long John’s, and Evan, the bartender, even paid for the last two. His, “On the house,” made her feel like a grownup. The twenty dollar ring from K-Mart itched and left a green shadow. By the end of the week, the shadow floated around her finger like a second, malignant wedding band.
Tina knows she should have discovered the power of holding her breath earlier. But she didn’t realize back then how breathing is really just a trick of the mind, and we don’t need to breathe, ever, really. We only notice our respiration when we are conscious of it. The first time she became aware of this truth was their wedding night. Sex was different. Morse came fast, remained agitated, angry with her, and she held her breath through the grabbing, shoving, pulled hair, sweating and swearing, the strange, painful ejaculation, and it wasn’t until he fell asleep next to her, she notice the rise and fall of her own chest.
That morning, after the “you want it bitch,” from the night before had been deflated in her mind to a mere husk and tossed from memory, she stepped from the square fiberglass shower, burned green in the corners with mildew. She saw Morse bent over the bed, a knife in his hand, swiping at the mattress. She hugged the coarse blue towel around her tighter.
“What are you doing?” she asked, the thin beige carpet soaking up water, making dark, immovable wet soles for her feet.
He turned and faced her. It wasn’t a knife. It was a thick, wide, felt-tipped marker. “This,” he said, pointing to a black line down the middle of the fitted sheet, “is your half and that is mine.” He capped the pen.
She heard her breath escape and in the vacuum she breathed again.
It was still unconscious though. The fallacy of breathing did not truly appear to Tina until a week later in the moment he reached up, caught her from behind the neck and slammed her head to the small, round, blond, pine table. As she felt herself slide to the left, off her chair, he picked her up by both arms and threw her against the wall. She held her breath the entire time, or maybe the air had already escaped. Either way, she suddenly realized she didn’t really breathe all the time.
Tina held her breath every time he struck her, or yelled at her as she crawled into the closet, or the police came and Morse watched her. She managed to hold a conversation when cops were standing in their kitchen, though no air escaped. This ability to hold her breath while speaking was a source of pride for her.
And each time, Morse would kiss her afterwards, tenderly, and sometimes cry and say he was sorry. He didn’t know why he did these things to her. And she held her breath then too.
This morning, Morse is still out after closing the door last night. His side of the bed is empty, the black line now long faded, but still a blur in her brain. She doesn’t know where he is. When he is gone like this, he arrives home drunk, Evan having poured too many beers and succumbing to ridicule if he stops.
Tina holds her breath at 8:37 when she hears the front door open and she looks up to see the morning light falling short of their front door.
By the time she makes it to the shower and spits out one tooth, the blood swirling down the drain, leaving the mildew purple, it is 9:56. Her jaw and ear hurts. She stands in the shower, letting the water fill her up. She opens her mouth, closes her eyes and weeps, drowning under the shower head.
Her friends are never helpful. They all work a half-shift cleaning hotel rooms.
“Leave that motherfucker, Tina. What the hell.”
“What are you doing?”
“Go back to college.”
“He’s gonna fuckin’ kill you one day.”
“Just leave. How hard is it to leave?”
Hard, she has tried to tell them. Tina cannot leave. She is bound to him and in those moments of smoking, or watching him brush his teeth, or when he brings her coffee in her favorite mug from Coney Island, she thinks, “He does love me,” and they kiss and watch tv and smoke. After all, the measure of his rage is in equal proportion to his conviction she cheats on him, or wants to cheat on him, or that some stranger has gazed too long at her. This had to be love.
She emerges from the shower, her face feeling smashed in and her left shoulder tender from where the edge of the sofa caught her. Morse, who has been sitting on the bed, waiting, comes to her, his face full of remorse and as he kisses her. She feels his tongue touch the warm pulp of where her molar should be. The towel drops and she stands naked as he kisses her shoulders, her back, her ass.
He pulls away. “Let’s go to the beach,” he says, standing.
They never go to the beach. They live on Long Island. She must remember her sunglasses.
The train ride to Port Jefferson and the beach is hot and crowded this Sunday. “God’s day,” says Morse. “Maybe we should go to church. Might help us,” he adds hefting the cheap canvas bag full of towels, suntan oil, cigarettes, and two cold, stiff, Taco Bell burritos. There is nothing left for her to carry except the charge to fix things. Fix them.
Little children race around in neon swim suits, their tiny calves balling up with the effort of running on tip toes in sinking sand. To the left, a large shelf of jagged, black and gray granite juts into the sea leaving tidal pools and rough, hard edged areas too dangerous for dogs and old beachcombers to wander. The surf crashes and it is difficult to hear. Morse wants to get as close as possible, near where the water leaves large dark fans fringed with foam on the beach.
They spread towels, kneel, put lotion on each other and he plays music on his phone for the two of them. No ear buds. It’s nice. It isn’t until she rises, peels off her t-shirt and walks to the water, that Tina realizes she is in trouble.
Within minutes, a young man, a teenager really, with a flat stomach and the whisper of a beard, crashes into her with a rubber raft. He apologizes in the surf, standing, one hand on her bruised shoulder, the other hanging on to the rope of his raft. Then another wave crashes against her thighs and knees and she flounders for a moment, her body touching his, the white water churning between them.
Tina laughs and shouts her, “It’s okay!” as he turns, shivering, toward the mosaic of towels on the beach.
She is wrong to think Morse did not see this touching. She should have known his view of her from underneath the bill of his Yankees baseball cap afforded a clear vantage of tumbling water, her slender body, the young man, and his grip on her body.
Her back is to the beach. She stares out to the expanse of water, to all that blue potential, her feet unrooted over and over again with each wave. Then she wanders further out to where small children refuse to go and adults do not make eye contact. Each rolling wave buffets her like wind, lifting her like a sigh.
And then she is jerked from behind, swiftly thrown off balance. She goes under, his hand behind her neck again, forcing her down, down, not to a hard table, but to some ethereal place. She holds still and she holds her breath.
She holds her breath so long her head throbs. She holds her breath so long, her chest hurts. This is when she realizes we really must breathe. She feels her hair wafting around her face, hears him screaming above her and she plants her two feet firmly on the floor of the sea and pushes up, hard, breaking the surface, gasping.
“Fucking whore,” is all she hears before he plunges her back under. Then her head is released from the vise, another hand catches her from behind, there is more shouting, the ocean roars as a wave comes down on her again, and then the arm pulls her up and she stands swaying, gasping, breathing, and a woman with short cropped gray hair and another man with a tapered low cut, both stand waist-high in water. The woman pounds Tina’s back as she coughs and the man, who is in in his forties, blacker than coal and sheds water in sheets, holds on to Morse.
“Thank’s man,” shouts Morse above the surf, trying to shrug the man off. “Close call, babe. You okay?” Morse assures the couple he is fine, she is fine, just has the breath knocked out of her. The man with the low cut releases Morse. Thanks so much, Morse says to the large man and shakes his hand on the beach once they are all back, out of the water, and on land.
“You sure you’re okay?” the woman asks.
Tina nods and can tell the couple cannot quite reconcile what they saw juxtaposed with Morse’s story, but there is not much they can say or do.
Tina sits with her towel wrapped around her. Hot sand sticks to her thighs. The man and woman were long swallowed up with hundreds of others on the short, hot, stretch of beach. She ate her burrito because Morse told her to, but threw it up in the bathroom along with salt water. Now, when she blows her nose, her face and throat sting.
She watches Morse in the surf. He is strong, a strong swimmer, at least that’s what he has always said, and he is out there where she was, but his back is to the horizon line. He not facing the expanse of water but is focused on a small spot on a white beach. She knows he is watching her. Four young men suddenly arrive, surfers, tossing gear onto the sand and strip off next to her. They lift their boards onto the undulating blue and white surface, trying to find purchase in buoyancy, skimming foam, and join Morse out in the sea.
She is careful not to look at them.
They surf, climbing up on boards, hunched over inside the curling “C”s of waves. One is Mexican, two are white and another is Caribbean, his voice sing-song as they shout to one another. All their hair is salt colored and hangs in wet, crusty twists. The Caribbean man is small and light and likes to surf near the end of his red and white board. She does like to watch them, but puts on sunglasses, turns her head to the side and then moves her eyes behind the lens to track each man. This way, she knows Morse can’t decipher the purpose of her gaze and, instead, there is a direct line he can draw from her sunglasses to a group of three children making a sand castle and dancing at the water’s edge.
Then something happens which makes her skull align with her eyes and she looks forward again. The tip of a surf board moves too close to another and the Caribbean surfer collides with one of his blond brothers. The point of impact is Morse.
All three men disappear in a horizontal maelstrom of white. The boards fly up into the air and for a minute, a full minute, Tina does not breathe. She stands. People scream, running to the water to help. The Caribbean boy lunges up from the froth, coughing. The blond fellow pulls hard at his safety line, but the board is snapped. Tina can see how it flaps like a broken wing. Then, to the left, closer to shore, near the flaring jut of rocks, Morse erupts from the crashing sea, blood streaming down the side of his face. He holds his jaw. Water is chest high and then he disappears as a rolling wave covers him and then he reappears. This repeats as he reaches the tip of the wedge of sharp, jettisoned rock.
She starts off, running towards the water. He sees her, stumbles again, and goes under. She reaches the high crest of tidal pools, stepping quickly over mussels and shells and bits of rock that cut her feet, hurrying to the end where he is struggling. Then she sees the wall of blue rising, moving behind him. She stops. If she runs further, tries to venture out to the point, she, too, will be pounded into rock. She watches the gray-blue sea lift him.
The wave breaks. Morse is lost against rock. Rushing water swirls up to her calves, but she stands firmly on the slicing ridge of granite and sea weed, listening to the sifting sounds as receding water makes its way through all the holes and cracks. Shoaling waves carry him to her, his body moving like a wide, pale leaf under the water. His eyes are open. Another rolling wave brings his body close and she squats, reaches down, salt spray in her face, and tries to pull him up. Men and women are either keeping children away or running toward her. Water pours from his mouth and she yanks hard, dragging him halfway onto the rocks. She tips his head up, opens his mouth and leans over ready to help him, if he can be helped.
She takes a deep breath, but decides to hold it.
R. A. Morean (Rebecca Morean) has published over three dozen short stories, articles, and novels. Her work has appeared in Salon, the Jabberwock Review, SN Literary Review, Piker Press, Ploughshares, Kalliope, Mississippi Mud and The Lost Coast Review, among others. Her novels found publication with St. Martin's Press (US), Breese Books (UK) and Escape (AU). She served as president of the Antioch Writers' Workshop for half a decade, and teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair College. Visit her at www.ramorean.com
The "Importance of Breathing" was previously published in 2017 in the Jabberwock Review.