Even One Word

The Blog of Nathan St. Pierre


Breathe Monday, January 3, 2011

Shards of ice cling to each breath of air, scathing and shimmering as they enter his nose. He sneezes, shaking his head and staggering his steps for a moment to avoid the urge to breathe deeply in from his mouth. Narrowly avoiding a curb, he regains his stride and begins to count again. Left, two three, right two three. In, two three, out two three. The sky is clear save for a few wispy clouds far at the edge of his peripheral vision. The skittering of bare branches blowing in the wind against each other is the only counterpoint to the plodding taps of his cold shoes. Left, two three, right two three. His foot lands just a bit too hard and a cold pain shoots up some hidden nerve from his right knee. Wince, two three, grunt two three. He shakes the pain from his eyes and pulls the sides of his tuque down around his ears. A clump of dark hair drips a line of sweat onto his cheek, and he shakes again to free himself from it. He feels the strain in his leg and remembers to lean back a bit, bring his arms down and focus on landing each stride somewhere in the middle of his foot. This isn't the one hundred, he reminds himself.

A child laughs somewhere off to his right and he snaps his head immediately to the source. Four children in new Christmas sweaters are throwing back and forth a shiny new ball with some kind of lights and whistles on it. They run back and forth between two yards, and he can't help but smile. It happens before he realizes it. The world shifts and he falls backwards into a memory.

The sky was the silver of late February, and a dozen puffs of warm breath filled the air with thin wisps of vapor. He idly shifted his weight from foot to foot, trying to keep his legs warm in the chill. The team captains looked back and forth between he and his ten and eleven-year-old fellows, all eagerly bouncing in anticipation. He kept his eyes down, trying not to seem too eager, knowing he wouldn't be the first picked. "Walker," said one of the captains. "Eric," said the second one almost instantly. The two boys joined their friends. "Adam," said the first. The second waited for a few seconds before saying "Kirk." He grunted, knowing his time would be soon. But it continued in this fashion, each successive pick sounding less and less enthusiastic to be added to that team, until finally it was down to him and one other boy. "Don't pick him," Walker said to one of the captains. "He can sprint okay, but he'll be tired in five minutes." "Typical fat kid," the other one returned. He looked down.

The road was rushing by, the cracks in the concrete slipping beneath his feet like a pattern of cracking late winter ice on a lake. Shaking his head, he looks back up. A beeping sound had been exploding from his wrist, and he isn't sure how long he'd been ignoring it. Looking down, his heart rate monitor whines of a drastic increase in pulse and drop in oxygen. Breathe, he says to himself. Left, two three, right two three. Pretend, two three, ignore two three. No, he says to himself. Don't run away: run towards. He looks up, seeing his garage only another hundred meters or so away. Spotting a ninety pound punching bag hanging from the ceiling of his garage, a flush of anger suddenly wells up inside of him. Taking a deep breath, he leans forward slightly, pushing his legs up higher and extending them further, landing on his toes with each stride. Trees on the streetside whoosh as he runs by them. He feels the heat of his body focusing deep in his chest and rising, and he sprints hard towards the bag. Left, two three, right, two three. Rage, two three, pain, two three. The world disappears in a cloud of red haze.

He narrowly ducked the blow, glancing it somewhere on his cheek. The blonde-headed boy in front of him was a good foot taller, although they were around the same age. Blondie laughed as he rained blows down, not bothering with form or technique. The towheaded assailant knew that his enemy could never get inside his reach if he just kept swinging. He felt more than heard a muffled din of shouts and cat-calls around him, blending in slowly with the sound of the blood pounding in his ears. Another blow came down, but he ducked into it, multiplying the impact. The scene was replaced by a high-pitched squeal and the flash of a million tiny multi-colored lights. Shaking his head and looking up, the rage in his body congealed into a solid ball, and then suddenly there was silence. The world was still, the slight brush of warm Texas summer air blew in his hair, and he saw something he hadn't before. A shard of what could be fear glinted in the tall boy's bright blue eyes. With absolute calm and no sense of urgency, he shifted his weight over the front leg, whizzing by a sloppily laid jab. Using the gathered potential energy in his leg, he pushed his entire weight upwards. His arm was already curled beneath him from the earlier blow, and he pushed it up, gathering with him the energy of his shoulder and waist. When the blow connected to the boy's chin, a satisfying crack resounded, and the blow followed through well over the height of the boy. He was vaguely aware that both his feet had left the ground, and he calmly readied himself for a landing. When he struck the earth, the silence was still there, and dozens of eyes were on fixed mutely upon him. Rather than the pure rage or random sense of calm he had felt, now a sudden wave of shame and remorse covered him. Had he been wrong to fight back? A slow and steady clap began to resound in the group, and cheers rose up. He looked down at the blonde boy, who had bitten his tongue on the uppercut, and was fighting back tears as blood drizzled from his mouth. This wasn't revenge, this was just sad. The sudden urge to run overcame him, and he accepted it. He shoved through the crowd and ran until his lungs filled with acid, tearing at each breath.

His hands are sore beneath two layers of handwraps, and he can feel blood welling up somewhere in the palm his right hand. The rage was gone, at some point replaced by a slow and steady sense only that he was punching. Each blow lands on the bag in a rhythmic thud, and he is at once alerted to the fact that his entire upper body is numb. He takes a deep breath, and blood rushes into his ears and his arms. In, jab cross, out, duck hook. Before he has time to question how long he's been landing blows on the quivering mass of nylon, a screeching alarm sounds. Five minutes are up. Is that the third round? The fifth? He can't remember. It doesn't matter: this is his last one. Suddenly, he is painfully aware of how heavy his body has become from fatigue, sweat, and spent emotion. He unlatches the bag from the ceiling and heaves it to its resting place on the wall with a grunt. He plods slowly into the house, closing the garage behind him. He barely hears something over the groan of the door as it closes.

"What?" he asks.

"How was it?" he hears his wife as she comes around the corner. She wears a bright pink robe he bought her for their second anniversary, and she's sipping on a hot chocolate from a machine she got for Christmas. He hears the rattle of his dog's collar as he runs in from the den with a stuffed gingerbread man in his mouth. He smiles as he kneels to pet the dog, rubbing beneath his chin.

"Keep breathing, and you'll finish eventually," he finally answers his wife.

Confused, she cocks her head a bit to the side with a smile. "So... it went well?" she asks.

"It is now," he stood with a smile, bringing her in for a one-armed hug. She responds with a grunt and pushes his sweaty form away with a laugh.

"You smell awful!" she chuckles. He keeps pulling her in.

"Just breathe, it'll finish eventually."

He smiles, and she lets him hug her a bit before insisting he run upstairs to the shower. As he mounts the stairs two at a time, he breathes on each step. Smile, two three, peace two three.