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A Long Awaited Exhale by Nina Harris
I lay in my bed, trying to fall asleep for what felt like hours. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t settle my emotions. I ran a hand down my face and was surprised by both the coarseness of my cheek and the tenderness of my hand. My own caress lingered awkwardly. I rubbed again, feeling the oils and bristled hair swim across my palm. Somewhere in that touch I lost the reality of who I was. The fragments of my own self bending in a prism, twisting in a kaleidoscope. I felt myself raise my guard against my perception of truth and all at once the world seemed to close in on me.
When is it we die? Is it when our blood stops pumping? Or when our mind forgets who we once were?
Now lost, I fought off sleep for as long as I could, fearful I would lose the rest of myself in the night and wake up lost—transformed into a man with no past. An empty casing of a person, soulless and unaware of everything I once was.
My lids grew heavier and heavier until eventually I closed my eyes, resting them for only a moment.
I felt my mom’s lips graze my ear. She whispered something into me. I could feel the heat of her breath slide across the folds of my ear but could not make out what she was saying. In my dream, I looked at her and felt myself mouthing the word “What?”, but she just looked back at me and smiled.
When I awoke, it was from a rumbling engine below my window that churned loudly before simmering into a steady purr. I had made it to morning and my mother was on her way out.
I tried to fall back asleep, but as always, I failed. I parted a gap between the clock and the Ambien bottle and grabbed my phone off the nightstand. Then I got up, unlocked the door, and went downstairs. On the fridge, there was a note.
Off to work. I’ll meet you there at 3. Hope you’re doing better than I am. – Love, Mom
She had no idea. And taking that into account, it was as sweet a note as I could hope for.
My mind began to churn faster. I decided to go for a walk to try and clear my head. I laced my shoes and rode my bike out to the county reservoir. When I was younger, I used to spend whole summers there, but it had been years since my last visit.
The pungent smell of algae against the heat of the sun, brought back memories. I thought of the long summer days I spent exploring for treasure in the tall brush and conjuring adventures out of nothing. I turned my attention to a large oak tree that I used to climb up into and watch the town from. A sudden anger clouded my thoughts. It seemed to bubble-up, unprovoked, from some chambered realm of resentment. Maybe I hated recognizing the world I knew as a child was an illusion—that the magic wasn’t real and that there was misery beneath the beauty. There are days I wish I could return to that innocence, but wishing is for children.
I sat in the shade under that tree for hours, lost in thought as the day went by. The sun was now straight overhead. I looked out across the pond. The wind caught the reeds, made them bow to the water. And in return, the water carried the wind wherever it pleased. When I could no longer ignore my hunger, I went home, ate, and then got ready.
I watched myself in the mirror as I worked my shirt over my head and made repeated attempts to get my tie to hang between my beltline. After the third failure, I sagged my shoulders until it lined up right. I debated trying again, but was worried it would come out worse. I gave myself a nod into the mirror, then hit the light and let the room go dark.
Before I left the house, I read my mom’s note once more. Then, I breathed in, drew my shoulders back, and walked out the door.
When I arrived, the hall was already packed with far more people than I had imagined—and more were slowly trickling in. The air in the room was thick and muggy and would only get hotter once the doors were closed. Worse, the scent in the air had become uncomfortably sweet—a concoction of perfumes that radiated out of the thick hair and dark dresses of those around me.
My collar was tight against my neck—a hot grip of cotton, slowly choking what little tranquility l held. A man in dark sunglasses took a seat next to me. His cheeks were red and his forehead held a sheen of perspiration. He looked around the room as if searching for who he might know. When he noticed me, he froze and then pulled his glasses down.
“Hey son, didn’t see you there.” His eyes were red. “I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. Are your aunt and cousin doing okay?”
I nodded, but I didn’t know.
He ran the sleeve of his coat across his forehead. “Well, I’ll tell you what.” He cleared his throat. “God must have needed a good angel. I’m sure he’s up there doing the lord’s work, watching down on us all.”
I didn’t have anything to say to that, so I forced a smile.
A small swarm of guests were gathered around my aunt, lending their words of sympathy in an attempt to ease her sorrow. My uncle had died from a heart attack one week ago to the day. Dead at forty-eight.
I saw my cousin there too and felt for him. Over the years, he and I had grown apart, but we used to be close. I remember sleepovers at his house when I was eight. My aunt would cook us macaroni-and-cheese dinners and let us stay up late playing video games. I remember she caught us once watching Terminator 2. She walked in right as Sarah Connor was smashing the face of a guard with a baton.
Neither Mark nor I were allowed to watch R-rated movies. I figured she would tell my mom and I would be grounded, but she didn’t. She told me she wouldn't tell her if I promised not to do it again. I promised and she kept her word.
For a long time that was something I liked about her. And then it wasn’t. There were a lot of secrets in that house.
The first to speak at the funeral was pastor Anthony. He had been the pastor of our church since we first moved to town when I was five. He had a kind face but a strict hand. Mark and I used to sneak around the back of the church during Sunday school and when Anthony caught us, he would slap our wrists and lead us back to our seats. "Don't turn your backs on God," he would tell us. “He sees you when no one else can."
I believed those words for almost two years. Until He watched me, and saw me, and did nothing.
The pastor spoke of life and death and of the goodness that had been taken from our world. He spoke of faith and trials of faith and how all roads led squarely back to Jesus.
When my aunt spoke, she spoke of the man that had been taken. The husband that would no longer hold her when she needed holding. The father that would no longer lift his boy up when he needed lifting. In her tears, the guests felt her loss and felt their own and collectively they grieved. My mom put her hand on my leg as she wiped her tears with the other.
When my aunt had finished speaking, pastor Anthony took her by the arm and led her back to her seat. Then, he returned to the podium and read a final prayer from the bible.
After he had finished, guests had the opportunity to approach the body and make their parting goodbyes.
My mother looked at me, her eyes red and lids swollen. She tried to find the words, but couldn’t, so instead she hugged me and headed off towards my aunt. I waited until a line had formed to the casket and then slowly made my way towards the back of it. As the line moved slowly along, I felt my chest tighten.
When it was her turn, the woman in front of me approached the coffin and let out a series of gasps—half crying and half mumbling something I couldn’t quite hear.
Then, before I was ready for it, it was my turn.
I thought for a moment whether I really wanted to see him. The face that had hurt me. The one I had spent so much time trying to avoid. I thought of all the Thanksgivings and Christmases I spent playing sick and hiding out in my room just so I didn’t have to be close to him. I could still smell his breath. The bourbon and the rot of food in his teeth as he held me down and put his lips over me for the first time.
“It’s your turn,” whispered a gentleman behind me.
I looked back and saw a man with his hand stretched out, directing me towards the casket, as if the path were unclear.
I walked forward and looked over the rim of the coffin. His face was swollen and caked with make-up. The suit he wore was intended to project an image of sophistication—a man with class—but all I could imagine was his bloated corpse being stuffed into the pants and jacket by a stranger whose job it was to do so.
I wondered, if he were truly looking over me, what he thought in that moment. Did he feel sadness? Remorse? I wondered whether his refusal to acknowledge the impacts of his actions—the ones that tormented my life until I was fourteen—was simply him being too scared to admit to himself who he was. I didn’t want to care what he thought or how he felt, but I did.
Why did it have to be me? I felt the walls constrict.
I could hear the sadness of the room full of people behind me and understood that to others, he was someone else. But the stillness of his sunken eyelids and the knowledge they would never reopen, brought me joy.
Death though, I thought, wasn’t enough. He could die a hundred times and never feel the shame and confusion and fear that I once had. I felt my sliver of joy break and when it did, eight years of pent-up rage spilled out. Words formed without my control—at first in a whisper—and then shouting. “You raped me you fucking fuck! You fucking faggot!”
I sensed the room look at me in shock, but didn’t care. I screamed as loud as I could, with everything I had, and then suddenly I was pushing the coffin. The box pitched and shifted as a loud crack ripped out from somewhere in the stand. Then it was too late to reconsider. In slow motion, the coffin fell towards the floor and then, with a deafening thud, it struck the ground and the body rolled out.
There were screams and cries. Someone ran to restrain me, but I was inconsolable.
As I was being dragged out, I saw my aunt from across the room—her face disfigured in angst.
“You knew,” I mouthed to her.
The last image I have of him—and I’ll cherish this forever—was of him lying on the floor, one arm up, the other flopped over his chest with his mouth twisted open like the shithead he was. Displayed like trash for all his friends to remember him by.
Maybe they didn’t deserve that, but he did. And when you netted the two, he got was he deserved and that mattered more. When I was finally released outside of the building, I breathed out, making a long exhale that seemed to go on forever. When I breathed in, I felt the coolness of the air on my lungs and for first time in nearly a decade, could finally breathe again.
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