Learning to Breathe
IT’S BIOLOGY WHERE THINGS start to unravel. Mr. McDonald’s out getting his cup of coffee and everyone’s abandoned their seats. A cluster of boys is huddled around Quetz’s phone, peering earnestly at its screen. Some of the girls are flipping through a magazine. Me, I have Grammy’s book hidden behind my Science 11 notes under the desk, and I’m thinking about how I’m five periods late and nothing fits quite right anymore. I’m trying to peek at the pages without being noticed when I sense someone behind me. Before I can turn, they pull my bra strap far back, then let it fly.
There’s a loud sound, something slapping and tearing at the same time, then brief, unexpected relief, like loosening the waistband on a pair of jeans that’s too snug. I spin around to see my cousin Smiley, and am about to say Why you in my class? What you want? when I see everyone’s paused,
mouths hanging open. Then I feel a cool breeze where breeze shouldn’t be felt, and look down. My top’s popped open, I can see bra and skin and everything. I try to close up my blouse but two buttons are totally gone, ripped right off with the force of my too-big-for-this-bra-and-this-shirt-and-this-life chest bursting free. I cling to the fabric anyway, trying to hold things in place.
Churchy, whose grammy sent him over from Mariner’s last August, same time as me, breaks the silence. In Mariner’s, we called him Churchy for the way he dressed from before he was in school; pants starched stiff with creases down the front of each leg, shirt collar you could peel fruit on, hair always kept too low, and the way he stuttered out T-t-t-two t-t-t-times f-f-five is t-t-t-ten like raspy Bishop Laing. And since Churchy’s first act off the boat was to call me by my stupid nickname, I made sure everyone at our new school learned his. Now Churchy gets me back. He holds out a white button. “Here, D-D-D-Doubles,” he says.
His stutter sets everyone off. Quetz is motorboating D-D-D-D-D-D-D-D-D-D-Doubles, cheeks slack, shaking his head side to side, eyes bugged out like a comic book perv. Bullet’s long head is flung back, finger pointing. Mark’s turned, his face right on eye level with my chest. “Wow and wow,” he’s saying in his best Barry White impression, a look on his face like Christmas and his birthday came together, even though
I’m holding my blouse so tight there’s not even half a wow to be seen. Samara’s trying to hide her laugh behind her hand, and failing.
“Guess that’s why they call you Doubles,” Smiley says, grinning.
Used to be I’d laugh it off. I know Churchy didn’t mean it, and anyway, we’re all humiliated at some point: Mark cannonballing into the pool and his trunks sliding off, Quetz—short for Quetzalcoatl—giving a presentation on the rise of the Aztec empire while he tries to fight off a hard-on in his slim-fit pants. I can’t laugh at this, though; I’m not normal like the rest of them. Not anymore. Not ever again. I stand up, my face burning, and shove Smiley—not hard, but she’s younger than me, and so skinny she goes flying into Mark’s desk. I hear her “Owwww!” over the whole class’s laughter as I run out, clutching my blouse with one hand, hanging on to the book and the straw bag with the other.
“Excuse me!” I hear, as I run right into Mr. McDonald, hot coffee and all, and there’s swearing as I hurl myself down the stairs. I run past the nurse’s office, past the art buildings, windows a blur, past the security guard in his hut, talking to the maid. He doesn’t stop me, just glances my way, then turns back to chatting her up, as if girls holding their clothes together make a break for freedom every day. I slip into the bathrooms at the bottom of the path. All that running has my
chest hurting—my breasts are always sore now—and more than anything, I wish I could lie down, close my eyes, and forget this afternoon ever happened. I always pack comfortable clothes to change into right after school, and today it’s a loose T-shirt and one of the skirts Grammy sent over with me: long purple Androsia, wide and soft and elastic-waisted. I lock myself into a stall and take off the blouse. It’s been feeling tight for weeks, but maybe I can sew the buttons back on. The skirt, at least, still fits all right; I only begged it off the school secretary last week, salvaging it from the stack of orphaned uniforms in the lost and found. I just wish the bra could have lasted longer. It’s the biggest one I have, and still sort of new. I’ll have to make it work for now. I tie that stupid busted strap together in a bulky knot, then stuff my uniform into the bottom of the bag. Back in my own clothes, I head outside. Behind me, the school buildings stand placid; meanwhile, I’m falling apart. I turn away, squeeze through a gap in the fence, and step onto the street.
• • •
“Ocean water cleanses,” Grammy used to say, before she let Mamma ship me off. Whenever I had a cold, after an argument, if one of Mamma’s boyfriends looked at me funny—the answer was always the same. “Go in the sea. Put your head in the water. Cool off. Take a swim.”
Ocean water can’t cleanse everything, though.
I take the bus toward Aunt Patrice’s house but stay on it a couple extra stops and get off at the end of the route, where Main Street finishes its run from downtown to the southern part of Nassau. Around the bend is a half-rocky, half-sandy snippet of beach with a rickety dock the boys use to backflip off into the sea. Today, it’s empty, not even seagulls perched on the old posts jutting out of the water, where part of the wood has rotted or washed away. I drop my bag on the dock and pull out Grammy’s book again. It’s disheveled, the edges colored a faint red, pages yellowed with time. The paperback cover has come loose and been reattached with old masking tape that’s grown brittle and flaked away. Grammy has joined it once more with a fresh binding, determined to hold it together, to pass it to me, as if she foresaw how much I would need it, that I’d open it again and again. There’s no picture on the cover, only its title: The Pregnancy Book. Now, like always, seeing those words is a kick in the gut.
I thumb open the book, turning the pages carefully. I navigate the chapters with their soft, hopeful names—“The Story of Conception”; “Early Days”; “Expanding Horizons”; “Preparing Your Home”—and stop at “Signs and Symptoms.” I don’t want to read what the author says; there’s something else I’m looking for. There it is, squeezed at the top of the page. Grammy’s familiar cursive, speaking to me:
I knew from the second my mouth itched for ripe mango.
They say when you pregnant you want sour things, but my body didn’t care, it craved sweetness and juice. I sent my nephew on a hunt; trees were done bearing, but I promised him a new pair of shorts and a cake for his birthday. I would have given him this same plot of land if I had to, right then. It took him half the day, and where he found them he never told me, but he came back all scratched up and grinning, with two of the saddest past-ripe fruit you ever saw. To me, though, it was better than a six-course dinner after a fast. I ran down to meet him on the path, snatched those mangoes, and bit straight in. It was sugar and sunshine, the best of all things. It completed a part of me I never knew was half-done. Right then I realized I had to be in the family way. That was my first lesson: don’t matter what they say you should want. Only you know what it is you need most.
Reading Grammy’s words brings her voice back to me as clearly as if she was here beside me. Her stories always used to be a comfort, but as much as I miss her, I’m angry, too. I toss the book down. Why would she have given this thing to me, unless she thought I’d need it? How could she have known? I sure didn’t. The only thing I knew was when I got pregnant. I knew from the moment it happened, and there was no sugar or sunshine in it.
One night—like a whole bunch of nights in December, November, October—sleeping sitting up on the couch, cause
it feels a few paces closer to safe. I’m knocked awake, thump onto the floor so loud someone has to have heard. Math book pages rustle as I try to twist away. He catches my feet, cursing so quiet I can make out the tone but no words. Face to the wall, eyes squeezed shut, I brace myself and wait, but this time there’s no sound of a packet tearing open. I choke out, “You ain gat nothin?” because Gary always does, always says “I gotta be careful, I ain know where you been” or “You sleep around like ya mummy? Everybody know Mariner’s Cay Sharice.” Only this time, nothing. When I try to scream, his hand covers my mouth. There’s that sick salty body smell Mamma’s boyfriends always had, only Mamma isn’t here, only me. I can’t call out, I can’t move, I can only think of how I’m letting it happen, letting someone take advantage, and what would Grammy say, and it’s happening and all I want, all I want is for it to stop.
I kick my school shoes and socks off. At the edge of the dock, the sea bobs and laps, waiting. What I need is to not feel dirty. I need to be clean. I climb up onto one of the wooden posts, feet barely fitting on it. I teeter for a moment. Then I jump.
There is an instant, sailing through the air, when I am both moving and still. There’s no room for the rush of fears and doubts in my head. My breathing stops. I can hear the poundpound of my heart. No thinking, I can just be.
Then the smack of impact, the tearing through water, body sucked down down down before the force reverses and I rise. I break through the surface, gasping for air, wet face, drenched hair, eyes stinging from the salt. The dock already seems far away.
I swim. Head underwater, breaststroke style, gliding long, coming up only when I need a breath. My purple skirt pulses and undulates, an enormous jellyfish. The water holds me up, even my heavy breasts and expanding belly; moving easily through the sea, I feel almost like myself, except for the knot at the back of the busted bra and my underwear’s elastic, digging in. I am alone; there’s a few people farther up on the shore, but they can’t see anything from there. What if I could really be free? Pretend there’s nothing going on, pretend Gary never happened and I’m a normal sixteen-year-old taking a swim? It’s not so private I’d strip down fully, but maybe I could loosen things a bit . . .
I wriggle out of my underwear. The panties bob, brazen and black against the clear blue. The bra is next; I undo the knot holding it closed and my chest celebrates, liberated at last beneath the balloon of my shirt. It’s the newest one I have, but it’s ruined now; what’s the point in holding on? The bra follows me for three arms’ lengths, catching my ankles like seaweed, until I kick it free and take off through the water, my skirt billowing around my legs. I come in line with
the curve of sand along the shore, smattered with benches, put my head down in the shallow water and glide past like a purple-frilled fish. When I surface again, I glimpse the blur of parked cars, hear the shrieks of kids too little to be in school. Kids. I dip my head back under and push off again, muffling their cries.
As I swim past houses, a few with boats tied up, I realize I’m getting tired. It’s deeper now, and farther on, the shoreline is rocky. Just ahead is one last stretch of sandy shore, a private beach flanked by a low wall that runs all the way along it, then disappears up into someone’s property. From here I can’t see a roof, but it’s probably some winter home left empty during the hot summer months. Casuarina trees grow on either side, giving shade. I push toward land, feet fumbling for the bottom. When it’s shallow enough to walk, I hurry for the shore. Out of water, the skirt and shirt cling to everything, forming a second skin. I yank the soggy fabric away from me, wringing it out. The skirt hangs like spent petals now. I lean up against the wall to catch myself. It’s taller, close up, too tall to step over, but short enough to climb. If I can get over it, I can cut through the yard to the road and walk back to my bag and shoes on the dock.
I put my hands on the top, my butt against the side, pull and . . . nothing. My back’s hurting, and what was so light in the ocean now feels like a sack of wet concrete. On top of
everything else, I have to pee. I try again, using my legs to help launch me up. One extra pull, and I’m up and swinging over, feet touching down on the other side.
As soon as I turn around, I know I’ve made a terrible mistake. This is no abandoned winter home. Instead, it’s a buzz of activity, some sort of exercise camp on cleanup day. To the right is a low wooden building, the open door leading to a small office, and past that, through trees, a large pavilion. Farther along the wall is a big deck standing on its own, with about a dozen people on it, all stretching in unison. They stand with their arms up to the sky, then bend, bringing their hands to the ground, following the lead of a tall woman at the front. To the left are twenty or so miniature cottages. You could fit four of them in Aunt Patrice’s living room, but they’re scattered across a wide area, separated by trees that defy the salt air; mango, guava, almond, dilly, poinciana. Off the deck, a handful of other people bustle around in staff shirts. A girl on the porch of the cottage closest to me sings tunelessly as she sweeps. A woman with a red scarf tied on her head paints the office wall, her brow knotted in concentration. And not more than twelve feet from me, a guy is weeding around the base of a coconut tree, his fat dreadlocks tied back. He’s bare-backed, but so bony even Smiley wouldn’t be able to muster a dirty comment. His shirt hangs from the back pocket of his shorts like a dog’s tongue while
he squats, cutlass in one hand, sending grass and dirt flying.
No one’s seen me—yet. I look down and realize one of my feet is planted right on an exercise mat, thin and cushiony like a sheet of rubber sponge. It’s bright red. I might as well be standing on a target. I have to sneak away, quickly, quietly. Bonus if I can find their bathroom without anyone noticing. Please, I pray, let me be invisible.
Prayer denied. Cutlass Guy stands up, wiping his forehead with the back of the same hand that holds the machete. It’s a miracle he doesn’t lop off his ear. “Miss, you all right?” He takes a step toward me.
“Sorry. I got the wrong place.” I back up against the wall. But where can I go? I can’t make the swim back to the dock. Even the beach feels too far.
“You soaking wet. You always swim with all your clothes on? Hey, you ain fall off a boat or anything, right? You live round here? You speak English?” Cutlass Guy takes another step forward. He’s only Smiley’s height, would have to stand on tiptoes to look me eye to eye, but with that cutlass in his hand, I don’t care. “You swam up here? From where? Back that way?” He uses the machete as an extension of his arm, pointing at the ocean; the blade reflects the sun’s glare into my face, making me squint.
“I going right now.” Forget the bathroom. I decide to
make a run for the path between the nearest cabin and the woman painting. I take one, two steps before I trip, stumbling over the stupid mat. Cutlass Guy reaches out to catch me and I let out a shriek.
I clap a hand over my mouth, but it’s too late. A plump woman with a box of groceries on one hip turns midstride to look at me. The sweeping girl drops her broom and stares. The class on the deck has let out and a few of the students pause to look too, their mats tucked under their arms, curled up like long cinnamon rolls. My gaze falls on the woman with the red scarf, paintbrush frozen, like she’s touching up the air. She’s the first person to spring back to life.
“No! Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no.” In a few bounds, she’s right in my face, brush still in hand, dripping butter-colored paint. “You the one who went and messed up our walls? You did this?” She points at the area she’s patchily repainted. “I should call the police on you. Trespassing and vandalizing and I wouldn’t be surprised if you stealing, too. You and whoever else did this, get out. Right now, out. Out, out, out.” She jabs the paintbrush at me like she plans to skewer me on it.
“Hey, hey, hold on.” Cutlass Guy steps in between us. “Look at her, she ain no vandal. You see her with any spray paint?”
“What are you doing here?” the woman demands, ignoring him. She is short and pointy-faced, younger than Grammy
but older than Mamma, her skin dark and glowing from sweat or pure fury.
I open my mouth, but nothing comes out.
“What, you don’t talk?”
“Come on.” Cutlass Guy crosses his arms. “You ga yell at her while she stand here soaking wet, on a yoga mat?” He turns to me. “Look here, miss, you want sit down? Maya,” he calls to the woman toting groceries, “you got any switcher in the kitchen? She might be thirsty. You thirsty?” Maya nods and disappears down the path to the right. He swings back around to the painter, gesturing with the cutlass again. “We can’t just throw people out, man. We have to make sure she okay.”
“Don’t point that damn cutlass at me,” she snaps. “You,” she says, spinning around to glare at me, “when I come back in ten minutes, you better be outta here. Wherever you come from, you go right back.”
“You should spend a minute on the deck,” Cutlass Guy shouts as she stomps off, tossing her paintbrush down as she goes. “Need some yoga for that bad attitude.” He glances at me. “Don’t mind what Joe say. You don’t have to rush outta here. How could we kick you out? And this a yoga retreat and all.”
“I’m fine,” I say, finding my voice again. “Y’all have a bathroom?”
“Yeah, shore. Get it? Shore?” He smiles, showing off a
perfect set of white teeth, and laughs. It’s a nice laugh. Of course, I know better than to trust a person on that alone.
I shift a little. I really have to pee. “Um—where?”
“Sorry,” he says, noticing I’m not amused, and points past the office wall Joe was painting. “Bathroom’s over that way.”
I barely make it there; inside, I’m so relieved, I don’t have time to regret the shoes abandoned on the dock. While I’m in the stall, someone comes in and drapes some clothes over the door. I take them down; loose, faded sweatpants and a saggy T-shirt, still clothesline warm. I change, then wash my hands, leaving my wet clothes in the sink. Outside, someone’s set a fresh glass of switcher on the step. I chug it; cool, not too sweet, and just enough sour. I start down a path that leads me past the cabins. The girl with the broom is sweeping one of them; through the open door, I see a nightstand, a bureau, a narrow bed. What I’d give for something so simple, a home that’s safe, that’s all mine, that’s close to the sea. Worlds, or at least streets, away from Gary.
There are footsteps, voices approaching me from the beach. I head down the path in the opposite direction, following it through the dense trees and shrubs until it widens, opening into an unpaved parking lot with a beat-up white jeep and a few other cars crammed together in the shade. I hobble over the gravel and through the black, rusty gates, down a long driveway lined with more trees. That gives way
to a badly paved street, then the road curving back to where I began.
My school shoes wait for me on the dock reproachfully. Beside them, the book still sits, blown open, its pages rustling back and forth. I slip on my shoes and think of shoving the book off the edge and into the water, sending it to the same fate as those waist-hating panties and that stupid busted bra. I don’t care about the underwear, I have more of those, but I’m starting to regret setting the bra free. Even with the broken strap, it’s the best one I had. I peer over the edge, sure it’s long gone, but miraculously, there it is, bobbing, curled around one of the dock’s posts. I reach down and fish it out. Maybe a few staples could make it wearable again. Or duct tape—that stuff will hold anything together. I wring it out and cram it into the pocket of the borrowed pants, then put the book back in my bag. There’s no point going back to school, not right now. I start walking, heading to the only place I have to go.