One of my first published short stories, “The Apneoist,” that came out in CLARITY (a side project of the magazine, NOT ONE OF US) in 2005.
I haven’t taken a breath in 25 years.
It all started when I woke up late for work for the fifth day in a row. I listened to their messages over the sound of the sink filling with hot water, and while I sopped up a wet washrag and scraped it against last night’s pan of sticky fried noodles, the answering machine’s solitary beep filled the kitchen. I stopped scrubbing and gave ear to that silver tone. It seemed to go on forever.
I took one deep breath. Never in my life have I felt anything so clean. Afterward I did not exhale, but stood still, staring at the suds.
Please leave a message between the beeps. Life squandered between breaths. Something inside us pauses to breathe. The hands scrub uninterrupted. Atoms remain stable. Chemicals do not loosen their grip.
I inhaled a bit more, a tiny gasp, curious as to how much my lungs could take. I still did not exhale. I gave nothing back. I fell on my bed and nearly laughed. It was all so funny not to breathe, sort of sideways wondering how long this could last. But if I laughed then that would be a kind of breath, and there’d go my compulsion to laugh.
I went back to bed and woke up again early in the afternoon. I unplugged my phone. Let them fire me. What use was a job? I’d achieved homeostasis, my metabolism was satiated at last.
My first visitor was an old friend, Stewart, who noticed right away that I wasn’t breathing. He was ecstatic. I listened to his tirade on the conspiracy of consumption, how air and water and food are all behavioral addictions forced upon us from birth in order to keep wealth in the hands of certain key corporations. He called me a warrior for the cause. Compared my stunt with Gandhi’s hunger strikes. Stewart had a cigarette. His breathing was shallow but steady, his lungs in no real danger yet. As he spoke I realized that I could still smell the smoke. The molecules continued to make their way into my nose and trigger the appropriate olfactory response. And molecules continue there to this day.
Of course, my mother panicked and dragged me to a doctor who diagnosed me with a rare case of chronic suffocation that if gone untreated could lead to a whole host of dangerous maladies. My mother wasn’t happy to hear this, but her mind was put at ease to know that I would not be dropping off at just that moment. What parents wish most for their children is a long, slow death.
I really think I’ll be okay, I wrote down on a piece of paper.
“Call me if you need anything,” she said.
All breaths decay into the anxiety of satisfaction. The exhale summons a counter mood of loss and emptiness widening into desperation, gasping for inhalation. It’s hard to believe I used to experience this dramatic cycle some thirty thousand times a day, barely registering, drifting in the undercurrent of ethereal longing and disappointment.
I’ve been rejected by the Guinness Book of World Records.
Their anemic representative informed me that they “need a quantity.” I stood in the lobby where she typed a hundred words a minute, explaining: “Quantity. Significant quantity. Something the public can compare, verify, improve upon. Something that can easily be turned into a game show question. Guinness is in the business of quantifying exceptional data, your ‘less than one percentiles.’ There’s no such thing as the zero percentile. There is nothing exceptional or meaningful about infinities. A magnitude that cannot be measured does not exist. We specialize in the exact quantification of any given phenomenon. How much does this exist, is a question we ask. We have agents all across the globe measuring, recording, verifying.”
“But he hasn’t taken a breath in weeks,” Stewart insisted.
“We are not interested in weeks. What we need are seconds—the second to be precise. The precise to-the-second accounting of any exceptional quantity. There is no number to represent his continuum. Perhaps, if he would be willing to exhale in front of our trained staff?”
The longer I go without breathing the less I understand time. One thing I know is that shadow people are stalking me, and have been for years. I see them out of the corner of my eye when the world edges begin to darken. I will feel a faint sense of falling down. I believe there is some cosmic agency troubled to distraction by my condition, conspiring to kickstart my lungs. I drift in and out of minor celebrity status. Women pine for me, sometimes desperately, but none of them will fall in love with me. They only want to put their lips up to my lips and close their eyes and feel.
Lately I’ve been leaking. I’m not sure from where. The hole must be microscopic. Maybe I’m draining out through the natural creases in my skin—as a sealed balloon will deflate over time. My lungs don’t feel like they used to, not quite as full, certainly not as fresh. It’s nothing I really worry about. I can always inhale a little bit more to refill. And I never seem to reach a critical volume. I am perpetually consumptive! One of the more popular theories on the Internet is that there is a wormhole in my lungs and I will eventually deplete the atmosphere, transplanting this human race to some distant corner of the universe.
Life hasn’t changed much being the man who doesn’t breathe. I used to think I would try new things like visiting the moon or deep sea diving. I’m still afraid of water.
These days I sometimes find myself asked to give lectures and presentations on what it’s like not to breathe. I usually turn them down, but sometimes I figure what the hell. I have stood in their auditoriums not saying a word as spellbound audiences watch with baited breath my tremendous feat of restraint.
The joke is it’s really no effort at all.
It’s just something I don’t do.