Gasp


An image of four plastic bags, inflated with air and sealed. They are a range of colors.

Hailey dodges the dingy bags of other people’s breath on the sidewalk. Crumpled and stashed into paper and plastic; the old breaths linger. She keeps her stride narrow, avoiding kicking their exhaled contents, avoiding mixing them with her inhales. They remind her of the bloated mushrooms of her childhood, spilling spores out of their open mouths. These bags are closed, some carefully with pleated necks and tight folds; others loose and strangled-looking. Half-jogging, she clutches her tote to her shoulder. She is careful not to brush or disturb them, coming home from her last day in the office, the beginning of the apartment days.


The next week on the way to the store they have grown into clumps, convening like cliques outside a high school. The smokers leaking air, the snobs with their refined creases, the jocks jostling, restless. It is harder to pass without brushing some paper sack, holding the expelled breath of a stranger.


She gets her groceries delivered, logs on, zooms through the week. Binging at night she avoids the second hand air of unacquainted lungs. Her own breath, unbound, cuddles into the corners, permeates the cushions, wafts errant hairs away while she sleeps. She wraps herself in it, coddles it, brushing her teeth three times a day, chewing gum, apologizing for coffee or onion. Only she hears the apology. Accepts it.


There is a doctor’s appointment, mundane and death-defying, routine maintenance. The stacks of patients’ bags terrifies her in the waiting room. They roll loose across the floor, corralled by chair legs. A patient drops theirs by her feet and she swears she can see it steaming. She shifts away, notices behind the plexi partition there is a massive heap; for some reason these bags are Thank You plastics, tightly knotted, wearing their handles like bows on prim heads. She notes the masks, conelike and professional, like sideways beaks on medical swans. For once, the pap smear isn’t the worst part.


The bar across the street becomes a dump; sordid bags, some fresh, others finally dispersing their contents into the wake of cars flashing past the yellow light. Why can’t a stronger wind come, blast them all toward the highway where the drivers race off to, off to Long Island where a few bags make no difference? Where there are yards and fences, beaches and hikes. The vacuum of space. Blessed with fresh oxygen, not even gently used. She stares out the window, bobbing a teabag (refreshing mint), watching the slow progress of bags--up, mountaining mounds, around the makeshift outdoor dining and bars. Maskless smokers, half empty pint glasses, bags dropping to the sidewalk, the color of phlegm.


Hailey can’t breathe. Shreds of old bags strafe her third floor window, obscuring the winter scene below. Months have gone by, cycling over two million breaths, all her own. Most linger in her apartment, some re-breathed, maybe a hundred times, a thousand. Her breaths unbagged are still not free, the squared block of air that is her apartment contains them, restrains them; they are clogged, rolled by the roiling radiator, she can see them reel away from the heat. The windows are cracked, inched open, but many breaths bundled are too large to exit, ghostly balloons that lumber and linger at the ceiling or baseboard.


Near suffocation, Hailey stumbles to the roof, three flights up, fleeing the cube of carbon dioxide and fatigue. Shies when passing shut doors, rank with sounds, nasal and fricative, voiced and poison. Bangs the exit open, inactive alarm sleeps through her escape. The flash of winter glare off silver patches blind her momentarily. Acclimating, she sees the sky, a huge white-blue glacier dome. The fog over the city is gone, the air is crystal clear. So few breaths in the near-empty metropolis, invisible from her roof. Harmless parts-per-billion from this distance.


Hailey expels her humid exhale, carried from indoors. Lungs soaked, condensation and mucus swirling in the damp cavities of her chest. Bursting out from the piston of her diaphragm, hot exhaust ejects from the cone of her throat, blooms white on gray, misty and crystalline. The breath doesn’t self-censor, dancing into the slow twist of the rooftop gusts. Hailey hugs herself, barbed breath drawing in, dewy exhales steaming away. She witnesses dissolving sacks levitating, warm lanterns bearing their contents away, spreading to nothing a hundred feet above the ground. Her breath expands, shoulders dropping.


She spies across the hopscotch squares of adjacent roofs: others, neighbors, strangers. Each breathing deeply, chests open, hearts arced up to the sky. Exhales loosed, liberated into the vast horizon. Joined but separate, united in the solidarity of this finally found breath.


 

An image of Amy Nagopaleen, a person wearing a hoodie and baseball cap. She smiles lightly into the camera.

Amy Nagopaleen (she/her) writes fiction from Queens, NY, where she has been a union and social justice activist for over twenty years. When not making up stories fueled by coffee and weird experiences at work, she is making art, parenting, and complaining about capitalism. Her writing can be found in Newtown Literary, Pen+Brush in Print, Clarion Magazine, and forthcoming in PseudoPod.

You can find her on Twitter @amynagopaleen