A few weeks into the 21st century, I woke up one morning unable to breathe. Or rather, I could breathe, but not correctly, not easily. My chest felt strange. My pulse labored. The act of taking in air and expelling it did not come without effort. I thought it might pass. It didn’t. I went to the doctor. She prescribed me an antibiotic and an asthma drug. She sent me to the radiologist, where the ballroom dancing wife of my parents’ best friend took pictures of my lungs. “They look normal,” the doctor told me. Normal. “Do you have anxiety?” Who doesn’t? I breathed into stethoscopes. I exhaled into plastic conical breath measuring devices. “You have an impressive lung capacity,” said the nurse. “Have you ever sung opera?”
“Do you think it’s possible that I have cancer?” I’d ask Mom, late at night, while we smoked cigarettes on the steps of the garage. She didn’t, though the irony was not lost. I tried to cut back, even thought about quitting, but not smoking made me think more about the breathing, which made me feel like I couldn’t breathe. I figured the worst thing about cancer, after the pain, would be not being able to smoke. Or maybe the worst thing about cancer would be knowing I caused it by smoking. One more thing on the tally of things I fucked up, I thought.
“Have you considered that it might be psychosomatic,” Mom would say. “If you’d go back to college, it would probably go away.”
This was the answer to all things, according to my mother, despite the fact that I couldn’t see what college had done for me save putting me in debt, giving some real shape to suicidal ideation and making me long for a bunch of far-flung friends who were now understandably reticent to pick up my calls because I was a grumpy ghost haunting the corridors of my mother’s house and they had real, interesting lives. And after a while isn’t depression just a little bit self-indulgent. Like are you actually trying to feel better? Maybe? Possibly? “You just have to put yourself in a kick-ass mood and go out there and fix it,” my mother would tell me, and relate, once again, the story of how she went on diet and leased a station wagon in 1986. I could not figure out why she kept telling that story to me. Maybe being a size 6 and leasing a 2000 Honda Accord will make me feel less weird about being alive? It wasn’t the craziest idea I’d heard. And besides, the longer I let her go about weight loss and car payments, the less time I’d have to spend explaining that I wasn’t sure I could even go back to college if I wanted to.
It was possible, I thought, that the breathing thing was psychosomatic. Being depressed was a lot like being stuck alone in a house with too much stuff in it. The stuff seemed to spontaneously generate by no action of my own, and whenever I tried to clear out a corner, I just blocked off another exit. My brain was like the Collyer Brothers mansion: unwieldy and dangerous, possibly lethal. There might have been cool shit once, but whatever it was had become so decayed, so damaged by circumstance that no one could say for sure whether it was worth saving at all.
I told Hollywood I was having trouble breathing and he quoted song lyrics at me. Appropriate. We’d met on a listserv for a sad punk rock band I’d once loved and barely listened to anymore. He thought I was a good writer; I thought he was funny and smart. We exchanged letters for a while. They were twee, self-conscious things. He wrote on an old typewriter, slightly less of an affectation in those days. I wrote in block letters and illustrated in the margins pictures of a life that was close to, but not quite, mine. I lied just enough. I justified it because internet. I suspected he wouldn’t find the whole truth as charming as the one I put on paper. I sent a written description of myself (reasonably accurate) and a drawing of my house (not the house I was living in). He sent polaroids of himself (cute), his apartment building in LA (u-shaped, hazy, palm-shaded). He might have been lying too, but when he finally started calling, his area code, at least, was right.
He made me describe the scene where I was to distract me from the breathing. I told him about the mountains, the glittering downtown lights, the cornices on the pleasingly shabby bungalow I shared with a roommate, my cloudy breath in the February chill, none of which I could see, by the way, because I was sitting on the top stair in my parents’ garage. “I almost feel like I’m there,” he said. I tried to imagine him sitting beside me in the narrow space between the canoe and Mom’s car. I couldn’t.
He said he was moving to New York soon. He’d been offered a network job. I said that sounded very impressive, because it did. “I’ve never lived on the East Coast,” he said. “I’ve never had a whole winter.” He planned to wear his grandfather’s overcoat, an old black wool thing, bought off a Lower East Side tailor in 1919, a few years before the grandfather went west. “Grandpa’s New York was a whole immigrant tenement thing. He did well in California. He thinks I’m crazy for going back.”
I thought he was crazy to think threadbare, eighty-year-old overcoat was the best choice for January in Brooklyn. I didn’t mention it. Him being in New York increased the small odds of us ever meeting in person. We couldn’t meet in person. If we did, I’d have to see the inevitable look on his face–the recognition, the disgust, the polite bank teller mask to cover the disappointment until he could get away—because I was quite sure I was nothing like he imagined.
“I read an article about Zadie Smith today,” he said. “I think you remind me of her.”
I was stunned. Had I said anything to suggest I was a glamorous, beautiful, prodigiously talented English novelist and not a fat, white southerner who dropped out of college and lived with her mother in Appalachia. I really didn’t think so. And maybe he was just talking about writing, but Christ, we can never meet in real life.
Dad agreed to take little sister and her two friends from college to the beach for spring break. At the last minute, he asked if I wanted to go, you’ll have to sleep on the couch. I was used to sleeping on the couch; I was an oldest child with two demanding little sisters.
The warm, dense lowcountry air did wonders. I took long walks around the tidal flats on the back side of the island and spent evenings alone on a small veranda hanging over an alligator-filled lagoon. I spent days wandering around Charleston alone, spending money I couldn’t afford on records, chasing gold bugs in the wreckage of old military infrastructure out on Sullivan’s Island. It was a nice trip, if lonely. When I came home I believed myself cured.
Two days later, I woke again, gasping.
In the tubercular old days, people used to come to my hometown for its good air, the healing mountain environment to cure their ills and soothe their pains.
“What does it mean that I can’t breathe anywhere in this fucking town?” I asked.
Mom looked at me like she wanted to tell me to watch my language, but realizing that horse was way out of the stable, sent me back to the doctor for another round of inconclusive x-rays and antibiotics.
My high school celebrated their centennial with a weekend of events in mid-April. I both did and didn’t want to go. My senior year of high school had felt like wide-angle Cinemascope with me on the edge of Hudson River School scaled possibility. I thought, for a moment, that by returning I might conjure a bit of the old razzle-dazzle.
Dad, in a burst of unexpected generosity, bought my ticket (it was expensive) to the big gala. I found a noisy black taffeta ball skirt on a sale rack, and worried that I might be overdressed (I was), so wore it with an Archers of Loaf t-shirt and a glittery sweater. My friend Apollo, who would not be returning from the Ivy Leagues for the gala, charged his girlfriend and his little sister with transporting me to the event and keeping an eye should I find myself over-served at the open bar. It was a purely chivalrous gesture, both sweet and patronizing, but I was genuinely grateful for the ride and the company.
When I walked into the blue-blazered WASP wonderland under the circus tent on the back quad, I realized that not only would none of my friends would be there, but that even most of the faculty I loved and cherished had long-since moved on. The only guy I knew even reasonably well got so wildly drunk early on that he was dismissed from the party and escorted off campus. I didn’t have anything in common with the rich, elderly alumni, who’d all graduated before the school went co-ed, so I sat with the teenagers, at the same dining hall tables, operating under the same rigid rules of tradition and etiquette I’d escaped when I graduated. I received a series of dirty looks from the same Dean of Students that had once regularly sent me home for dress code violation because I laughed during the headmaster’s pompous introductions. She came over to my table finger raised, demerits at the ready, but could say nothing to tipsy, broke, underachieving, twenty-four-year-old me save “You should know better, Alison.”
I should have. I mean, what did I think would happen? I wasn’t sure school–not this one in particular, but school in general–hadn’t ruined my life. I slipped out during the pitch for the annual fund and squished around the wet grass to the back of the arts building so I could smoke a cigarette on the loading dock, Sixth Form-style. I thought about trying the stage door, maybe seeing if the Steinway in the practice room was still in tune, but I worried indulging nostalgia would only make me feel worse about the what hadn’ts. I slushed back for another drink and was surprised to find people smoking openly behind the tent. I chatted with woman with a surprising Exene Cervenka vibe for a Boarding School Gala. She was the girlfriend of a new faculty member. She saw me as such a kindred spirit (I was flattered)that it took her the better part of a vodka and three Parliaments to work out that I was, in fact, an alumna and not another just freaked out spouse
“You don’t seem at all like you went here,” she said. “No offense.”
I thought about telling her the school had been different when I was there. Some confluence of weird kids, eccentric teachers, and administrative reshuffling meant the old boys and sports boosters didn’t notice that we were coloring outside the lines for a few years. I never knew what happened to that version of the school, but this place was not that place. I puffed on a cigarette and ignored a current administrator croaked out a no smoking on campus. Inside the tent, I could hear an alumnus saluting a former faculty member I’d always known as a creep to the thunderous applause of several dozen good old boys.
It was also possible, I thought, my version of the school, the one I remembered so fondly, never really existed at all. I felt a wave of the breathlessness and steadied myself. Don’t think about the breathing. Think about the music in the tent. Is that the Electric Slide? (It was)
“No offense taken,” I said to Exene. “I’m as surprised that I went here as you are.”
I was at work on Tuesday when Dad called. He’d recently started seeing a new someone, a friend of my Aunt’s. She lived just over the mountains in East Tennessee, but her son lived in Asheville and the son had a girlfriend, Jordan, that Dad thought I should meet.
“She says she wants to start a literary magazine. I remembered you’d said you wanted to start a literary magazine too.”
Had I? That sounded like something I’d throw out at peak founder. I had a lot of ideas I’d air when I thought people could literally seek me sinking beneath the waves, theatre company, publishing house, record store, activism.
“Anyway,” he said. “I said you’d call her today. I think you’d be great friends. Do you want her number?”
I didn’t really.* I imagined Jordan as some delicate linen-trousered nature poet currently enamored of the same New Age creativity guru my dad was reading at the time. I was sure she’d be nice. Might not have a sense of humor, though. In reality, Jordan was a tall, lanky girl with wide-set, bright blue eyes, and a dreamy, highly expressive way of talking that I believed, for about thirty seconds, to be an affectation until I realized it was just the way Jordan was. Jordan was from Nevada. Like me, she’d found herself degree-less and directionless in her mid-twenties. Unlike me, she’d arrived at that state following an extended Parisian foray. She had a line of Arabic tattooed on her upper arm (it meant different things depending on who was asking) and a boyfriend, a congenial, oblivious giant, she’d followed the three-thousand miles east to Asheville.
I adored her. I knew it immediately. Some friendships are like that. It’s a love at first sight thing that has nothing to do with the visuals (we were hours into our conversation before it dawned on me that Jordan was pretty, even objectively so), and everything to do with knowing you’ve met a person you can say anything to.
We exhausted ourselves on coffee and disclosure, our favorite writers, our mutual affection for Sonic Youth and Patti Smith. I drove her home to her apartment, an unairconditioned garret with slanted ceilings and door frames too low for her oversized boyfriend. We sat on her sofa, taking in the fleeting gasps of cold spring air from her open window, drinking lemon dieter tea bought she’d bought bulk from the discount grocery outlet, and listening to the same scratched Jacques Brel record on repeat. I tried to tell her about the breathing thing. She was completely sympathetic.
We went out to sit on the hallway stairs, our smoke hovering over us in the stale air. Someone from downstairs complained about us smoking in the building, but they were too lazy to come up and threaten us, so we ignored them, and lip-synched along to J’Arrive. I tried to exhale in time to the music. It seemed to help.
“You know,” she said, “everyone I talk to seems to love this place. I know this is your hometown, but I don’t really like it here.”
“ I don’t either,” I said. “I never have. And I can’t tell you how nice it is to be able to say that aloud without someone making me feel bad.”
I think I cried driving home. I did so for several reasons: because of the way the stars were glittering over the Parkway bridge, because “Horses” is such a good record, because I hadn’t realized how profoundly lonely I’d been until I wasn’t anymore
I want to tell you that the moment I met Jordan was the moment I started breathing normally again.
This is not true.
In the end, it turned out my parent’s still-new house hid secret reserves of sheet rock dust behind the walls and above the ceilings. My bedroom, a little one at the end of the upstairs hall hall above the laundry room, was unnaturally dry and dark, a repository for what was left behind during the construction three years before. The bedroom vent was located in the ceiling my bed and it blew a fine dust down at me all night long. The reason I breathed easier the less time I spent at Mom’s house wasn’t psychosomatic at all. All the great theories, the myriad schools of psychological thought applied to what had been believed to be an imaginary affliction, were useless. It was a boring dust allergy, though it took another round of exams and well-meaning medical professionals wondering whether the whole thing couldn’t be sorted out if I’d get more exercise and they upped my antidepressant dosage I could tell people were disappointed by my prosaic diagnosis. But I was sure it was Freudian. I bought some Claritin. I opened the windows. My stepfather cleaned out the vent and bought a cover to redirect the airflow. I stopped dreaming I was drowning every night.
It would take a while longer to convince myself I wasn’t. It was a start, though.
*Family-based matchmaking, platonic or otherwise, is a total crapshoot. Sure, it had been how I’d ended up meeting both Ivy League in the fifth grade and my best friend freshman year of college (thanks, Mom), but it had also been how I’d ended up on a blind date with a dishonorably discharged Marine, who was the song of my grandmother’s neighbor, Evelyn. That guy had spent the first ten minutes railing against minorities and trying to touch my boobs and the next hour guzzling Michelob Lite direct from pitcher and his shirt so he could “make his tattoos dance” for an enthusiastic cadre of like-minded cretins in the O’Charley’s bar. When I called Nana to tell her I needed a ride home, she said “Evelyn has always said her grandson had a fragile constitution. She worries he might be too sensitive for this world, poor thing.” And I looked over at my swain, delirious and draped shirtless over a bar table like a beached whale, surrounded by, like, six Woo-ing Limp Bizkit fans, and could only think, that thing on his shoulder, is that a White Power tattoo?