Starting to Breathe by Patty Somlo

The first thing Barbara taught me was to feel my feet. We began by sitting in straight-backed chairs facing one another. The only window in the room was closed but I could see the fog outside still thick and white, leaving small scattered streaks across the window pane. Barbara asked me to take my arms away from my waist, where I’d wrapped myself in a tight hug. “Like this,” she said, and I studied her hands, knuckles resting on her thighs, the palms open and ever so slightly curled. And then she told me to put my feet flat on the floor, a slight distance apart. At that moment, we started to breathe.

***

People rarely ask for a memory of happiness. But I will give you one. For the briefest moment, the wave picks me up and I feel as if I might be about to fly. Then the wave hurtles me forward, to shore. Even though I get pulled under, and it is dark and the water whirls me around, I manage to push my head out of the swirling tide and take a breath. Afterwards, I stand and lift the elastic of my bathing suit pinching the top of my leg, to let all the water, sand and fragments of shells out.

***

We take the breath first to the feet, feeling the toes — the big toe, the second toe and the baby — and then the arches of the foot, before moving on to the heel and up to the ankle. The breath takes us back inside, away from the fog clutching the window. We move the breath on up, to the calves that ache a little from jogging and the knees, and next to the thighs spread across the chair. Barbara says to me, “How are you feeling now?”

***

I suspect they wanted me to be a boy. The third girl child of a military man, what else would make sense?  For a long time, I was small. My father used to call me Shorty. When he took me to the dispensary to get shots, he would hold my hand. Before the pain began, he’d warn me to look away. I’d watch my eyes staring back at me from the surface of the shiny brass buckle on my father’s uniform belt.

***

I have no answer to Barbara’s question. This is bad. I’ve always been a girl who knows how to please. Barbara won’t be pleased when I tell her what I’ve got to say. “I don’t know how I’m feeling. I don’t feel a thing.”

***

It’s strange to me now how muddy the memory can get. There are rivers in the mountains close to where I live that carry glacial melt and the color of the water is brownish gray. The water moves very fast, in part, I suppose, because it is headed down.

***

“Where do you feel nothing?” Barbara asks, and I squirm in my seat, as if this might help me find an answer. I run my mind up and down, from my feet still pressing the floor to the tips of my fingers and up to my eyes. In the space above my eyebrows, I find it. “It’s in my forehead,” I say.

***

Military kids know how to tell time. It’s one of the first things we learn. We can even convert civilian time to military time and back again. Time is not a game, though, to be toyed with. If something is supposed to start at 1700 hours, that doesn’t mean 1701. The best way to understand military time is to know that wars are often fought under the cover of darkness, before the sun comes up, at 0600 hours.

***

I pay for hour-long sessions with Barbara. But after fifty minutes have passed, she will say to me, “We’re going to have to stop now.”

***

We ate dinner every night at 5:30 sharp, no matter what the season or month. My father sat at the end of the table, closest to the window. I can actually see him sitting there in my mind. It’s strange that I think this now. It’s strange because we lived in so many different houses, moving on the average of once a year. Regardless, in my memory, he is always sitting in the same spot, and I am sitting to his right.

***

The breath takes time to reach my forehead. As I have been taught, I begin directing the breath to my feet. The feet have tiny bones but I ignore them, letting myself only be concerned with the flesh. I’ve started to swirl the breath around each one of my ankles.  I can’t explain why.  Breath hitting the forehead is like a rock smacked against a concrete wall.

***

On Sundays, I helped my mother polish the sterling silver spoons, knives and forks. After dabbing the soft cloth in cream, I would rub away the black coating, amazed when the shiny surface that had been hiding underneath appeared.

***

“What does nothing feel like?” Barbara asks, and when I don’t respond she tells me to take the breath back up to my forehead. I watch as the breath slithers up my throat into my mouth and out my nose. It’s a soothing feeling to take the breath to the eyes and the eyebrows, a bit like getting a massage. The weight presses down above my eyes, almost a headache but not quite. When I move the breath to the space above the bridge of my nose, I see that my whole forehead feels as if someone has stuffed it with cotton.

***

We were not allowed to laugh or fool around at the dinner table. The only way to keep from saying or doing something wrong was to keep my mouth shut. In the silence, I could hear the ice cubes smack against one another as my father swirled whiskey around his glass.

***

“It feels like cotton stuffed up there,” I tell Barbara, and then we breathe some more, waiting to see if the clean air might cause the tightly packed cotton balls to loosen, like muscles after they’ve been massaged.

***

Military children learn how to be perfect. Perfection starts with the clothes. A dress should be well-pressed and stay wrinkle free in the wearing. This requires a girl to sit up straight and stay still. It’s easy, of course, to mess up, to drip catsup on a pale blue front or to drizzle milk on a dark skirt, that even dabbing with a napkin won’t hide.

***

Silence causes me to become too aware of the ragged sound of my breath. Barbara expects me to fill up the silence with words but I have nothing to say. Isn’t this what I’m paying for, the hourly rate that only covers fifty minutes?  “Does the silence bother you?” Barbara eventually asks.

***

Before my father hit me, it would get quiet. The silence spun around us in a cloud, thick and dark. I couldn’t have told you then that my father was an unhappy man. What I would have said if anyone bothered to ask was, “I always manage to make my father mad.”

***

“Silence isn’t supposed to be there,” I tell Barbara, and she asks me if my father was ever silent. “He would sit,” I explain, “all by himself in the den. If I had to walk past him, I would try to be very, very quiet.”

***

A sterling silver spoon hitting the knuckle doesn’t make much of a sound. The second time it strikes, one is prepared. By the third time, one has taken the mind away from the dining room table to a dark little room, where no one else is allowed to come inside.

***

Barbara instructs me to take the breath through my body again, starting with the feet. As soon as I reach the belly, Barbara asks how I feel. I tell her it feels like I’ve got a pair of hands wringing inside. She suggests that I start breathing into those hands.

***

It might have to do with his military training but I never heard my father say, “I’m sorry.” He didn’t use words like “love” or “child.” There were times he’d mistakenly call me Carol, his second daughter’s name.

***

The breath eases in and slowly begins to separate the hands, one curled finger at a time. Before I know it, the hands are open and loose and they’ve left a terrible, wrenching sadness behind. The sadness shoots up to my chest and then into my throat. I’m bawling now, huge mucousy sobs, and all the light has vanished from my mind. I haven’t a clue what’s happened to the breath, because I’ve fallen down into this dark, narrow tunnel so far.

***

I read somewhere that military children develop a sort of radar. When they enter a new school for the first time, they can instantly sense which other kids in the room are military brats. Military children make quick calculations about what is expected of them. In a sense, they become like their dads, ready at a moment’s notice to defend themselves.

***

Barbara’s not letting me give up just yet. She instructs me to bring the breath back, to the place where all that sadness came from. And then she asks me what I see. “I am an egg,” I tell her, as if this were the most logical thing in the world. “I am an egg with huge eyes, and the eyes are constantly moving around the surface of my skin, keeping me safe.”

***

 

When I lived in Hawaii as a child, the sun would often emerge before the rain ended. Just when it seemed as if the darkness would linger a long time, all of a sudden the sun would crack open the clouds and penetrate a curtain of showers, making the raindrops shimmer. If you ask me to give you a memory of happiness, I will tell you this. When I look back at my life, seeing sunlight dance with rain is what I most like to recollect.

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Previously published in the anthology Solace in So Many Words

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About the Author:   Patty Somlo has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times, was a finalist in the Tom Howard Short Story Contest, and has been nominated for the 2013 storySouth’s Million Writers Award. She am the author of From Here to There and Other Stories. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in numerous journals, including the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, WomenArts Quarterly, Guernica, Slow Trains, Shaking Magazine, and The Write Room, among others, and in twelve anthologies, including Solace in So Many Words, which won the Next Generation Indie Book Award for Anthology.