Updated: Feb 11
When I was 7 years old, I held my breath for almost 5 minutes before passing out. No one believed me that it took five minutes, but I used my phone to make a video of myself doing it, and I didn’t cheat. I held my breath the whole time. Past the pressure in my chest where I could feel my ribs almost cracking. Past the tingly feeling in my temples and the blinky ribbons in my vision. I held my breath so long that breathing felt strange when I started again, like the absence of waves crashing rhythmically feels strange when you step out of the ocean. Not that I would know what that felt like.
The oceans were too close and too dangerous now, crashing against the steep side of our little mountain, but I had heard that my great great great.. I don’t know how many greats, but I had heard that my people once played in the ocean, like, for fun, in a place called California that isn’t there anymore. It sank, I guess.
That’s why people moved here to Colorado and the mountains. There is this old story of the race to the peak--each generation building higher up the side while the water swallowed up the homes of our forefathers. There’s still all sorts of cool stuff in those houses that the water took, if you can hold your breath long enough to swim down there.
Anyway I held my breath for a long time, and then I passed out, and the doctors thought that I should probably have brain problems from the lack of oxygen, but I didn’t. I was fine. Better than fine, actually. They told me I had “Pulmonem Extensus” or, um, big lungs. By the time I was 15, there were lots of people who had big lungs. It was almost normal.
We could breathe better, had rounder barrel chests and ribs that flexed a bit more than others. We could talk louder, too. We saw the old timers suffer with shortness of breath, complaining how the air was too thin up at the top of our communities. There started to be groups of old timers that stayed as low as they could on the mountain, near the water line, but we stayed at the top. We built rope suspension bridges from peak to peak, and skyscrapers wherever the land could support them, reaching up to the stars, with skyways between them to get from place to place.
We even made diving boards off of the skyways, because the large lung kids could swim pretty well, too. I loved diving, the free fall, the plunge. In the air, I could feel my heart and lungs work as one. As I hit the water, my lungs felt rock solid, pulled taught over the air that let me go as deep as I dared. I heard the little lungers talk about feeling worried they would fall too far into the water and not have enough time to get back up, but I never worried about that. The air in my lungs carried me up quickly, and even if it took 5 minutes, hell, even if it took 10 minutes, I would be fine. If I breathed in hard enough, I felt like I could swim forever. My chest puffed out and my ribs expanded like a defensive puffer fish, and I felt at home in the water.
The little lungs made fun of how we looked, and I guess it did look odd. But I didn’t care much because I could do things better than they could, swim and run and hike without getting tired, sleep higher on the mountain without worrying about blacking out. Mostly I didn’t mind the talk. Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me and all that.
But Simon’s words were different.
Simon was a little lung. The littlest lung, really. Born with a small lung capacity, he spent all of his time, right at the water line, learning to swim with his head above the water. He was strong in the arms and legs, tan from being outside all the time--real good looking, and he knew it. He walked around with an attitude that he was better than everyone else, and when I was 17, I had the biggest crush on him. We talked sometimes and were friendly. I helped him with chores when he had to haul salt water up to our purifyer. I knew it was tough for him, and I was sure he’d be appreciative. Eventually, I got the courage to ask him on a date, and he made me wish my heart were as strong as my lungs.
He laughed. Scoffed. Looked left and right like I had been talking to someone else. Said no. Never. How could we date, he asked. “I couldn’t even get my arms around your whale chest.” Told me I should find another one of my kind so we could go swim in the ocean like orcas in love. Said it loud, too.
I cried, of course. And ran up the hillside, going as high as I could into the peaks, hoping no one could follow. That was the first time I ever had trouble breathing, but it had nothing to do with my lungs and everything to do with choking back tears.
He made it worse in the coming weeks. Telling friends that he had used me to do his chores, that I was his big lung lackey. I didn’t even like him at all anymore. I hated him, hated what he had made me feel and hated myself for liking him in the first place. I started getting looks from other people, whispers while staring at me across the room. No one wanted to let me up to the diving boards anymore. I felt alone and embarrassed everywhere I went.
Simon had a girlfriend now. She was a little lung, too--pretty girl with a thin rib cage and long limbs to match her long hair. She swam well enough and had been nice to me in the past. But now she was mean like everyone else. Maybe just to impress Simon. Called me “Shamu” and sneered at me between glances at Simon to see if he approved. She took it further every day. She spit at me and then on me. She turned my friends against me. All to impress Simon. And then she took it too far.
I put down my salt water cannister to use the restroom, and as soon as I walked in, I felt a plastic sack thrown over my head and mouth. I was choking, trying to grab the bag off of my head, frantically reaching behind me to get a hand on whoever was doing this to me. “I thought you didn’t need to breathe, Shamu.” I was panicked. I could taste plastic on my lips as the bag pulled into my mouth every time I tried to inhale. She had pulled me backwards to the ground and stood over me with her arms clinched behind my head. I scratched at her hands as she tightly held the bag around my neck. “Orcas don’t scratch, Bitch. You a kitty cat now?” I struggled and kicked and screamed but my sounds were muffled by the bag. My heart was thumping erratically, and I could feel my pulse in my eyes, in my teeth.
But it occurred to me that my lungs were fine. I stopped wriggling and laid there, on my back, looking up at the hatred in her eyes. I took a finger and poked a hole in the part of the bag that had been sucked into my mouth. Then I ripped the bag open across my face. She let go and backed up, laughing, uneasy, and I stared at her with a blank expression that seemed to scare her.
I don’t remember much about how I got her into the water. They told me, at the trial, that I had dragged her by the hair towards the cliff and threw her off of it and dived in after her. A friend who visits me here in prison told me that I didn’t look mad, but also not happy. Just kind of blank like something inside of me had broken.
I do remember thinking about Simon while I pulled her into the depths. Thinking about how this was his fault. How, if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be pulling myself and this girl through the wreckage of my ancestor’s homes, deeper and deeper into our collective past and through communities that could never have managed underwater half as well I as can, or could, outside of this cell. She fought, of course, but she didn’t have much of a chance. One minute. Two. Five. Hell, ten. They told me I came up twelve minutes later. Alone.
These days, I spend almost all of my time alone. My cell is on the side of the highest peak in my community. No one else can really spend much time up here, what with the air quality what it is. On the other end of the spectrum, that poor girl is where I left her, as lifeless as the society that lost the race against the tide up the side of this mountain. Simon’s still at the water’s edge, though I’m told he doesn’t swim much anymore. The water reminds him of her. And the land reminds him of me. Perhaps I am not the only one in prison.