“Just relax and breathe.” Mary’s fingers run through my hair, her long nails gently scratch my scalp. I’m wheezing into a wet cloth over my mouth. “Just relax”. A blue, hazy light shines in from the skylight in the hallway. I can smell the wood rotting under the thick, dusty carpet. I want to join my parents downstairs but Mary holds me down gently. She puts the inhaler to my mouth and I take another puff. It doesn’t help. A cat sits in the middle of the doorway, flicking its tail. I tell her to close the door. I’m allergic. She shoos the cat away and shuts the door carefully. It’s dark now. I smell the dust from the oversized teddy bear on the dresser to the right. “Deep breaths.” I could fall asleep if I wasn’t wheezing so hard. My throat feels like a pinhole. I tell her I need to go home. She’s disappointed. I was five.
“Chill out, you can breathe”. My head twists under the couch cushion. My arms flail, batting at my cousin Rich who’s sitting on top. “Just breathe through your neck! Everyone can!” I can’t. I try to yell. Instead my mouth stretches open around the metal bar of the couch. I squeal. Rich presses both sides of the cushion over my face, covering me a little more. I start to sob. He’s not doing a good enough job suffocating me, but I think my jaw might break. I manage to twist my head again and I find a little crack between the cushions to breath through. I play dead. He punches me through the pillow and finally stands up. I bolt for the door. I go to Aunt Ashley. She’s sitting with my mom with a glass of wine propped on the armrest. I try to explain what happened. She barely turns her head. I didn’t want to tattle. I’m seven. He said he’d hurt me. She laughs heartily and looks over at my mother. Roughhousing is what boys do.
I can’t remember the name of the boy I was sitting next to on the bus ride to the wave pool. His name might have been Herald or Josiah. I remember it was something distinct. We stay quiet on the bus ride, looking out the window. We were the misfits and therefore friends by default. I was too excited to talk anyways, and all he’d ever talk about was sex. The waves looked around five feet high in the brochure, pushing you up and down like a huge seesaw. We arrive, stuff our clothes in the lockers, and all cram into the pool. We’re elbow to elbow. It doesn’t feel right. I can’t stay afloat. The waves rise higher and higher. Everyone is panicking. I remember hands on my head shoving down, down. I remember watching the air bubbles rushing out of my mouth, and the first horrible breath of water. I remember punching and kicking and clammering out of the pool. I sit on a bench for the rest of the day. We go to change but my locker was robbed. I take clothes from the lost and found. Herald doesn’t sit next to me on the bus.
Aunt Ashley sits beside me at the dinner table. I don’t look at her. I’d forgiven Rich. We were kids, but she knew better. We visit her plastic looking house in the suburbs twice a year. It’s far away from a depanneur or anyone we’d want to talk to. We eat thick steaks. I cut it as small as I can and chew and chew and chew and chew and chew and try to swallow but it never quite feels small enough. I cough a lot. Aunt Ashley makes sure I clean the plate. I’m a growing boy. I remember the first time I choke. My eyes bug out and I stand up. The chair clatters to the ground behind me. The strangest sound comes from my throat. Aunt Ashley tells everyone to give me space. She insists I’m okay. I stand there for thirty seconds before coughing the hunk of meat onto the floor. For the rest of the summer she jokes about the stain I left on her rug. I was eleven
Edie’s brother stands silhouetted in the doorway. ‘Just stay!’ He wants to play more videogames but I have to get to school. I laugh uncomfortably and try to dash past him. He punches me in the stomach. His father died in a car crash. I lower my tone and tell him that it’s okay. I promise to come back. He yells no and slaps me. He’s only 12 so I don’t fight back. I consider sitting back down on the piss stained couch and waiting until he calms down. Edie pushes between us and tries to pull him away. He pushes her to the floor. She storms off. I finally shove him aside and walk out the door. He trips me and I fall down the front step. He clambers on top of me. My nose is bleeding. His little hands wrap around my neck. He starts to cry. I throw him off of me and leave.
Jackie smirks. I want to cry. I get up and try to lead her away but she stops me. We’d been walking all day. Her face is speckled in sunlight. I glance around the alley. ‘No one’s here, you can tell me.’ I think of running away and never talking to her again. ‘It’s alright, whatever it is.’ I want to tell her that it’s not. A tear drips down my chin and she wraps her arms around my neck, squeezing tight. ‘Just breathe.’ She’s not making it easy. I whisper in her ear. ‘What?’ I don’t respond. ‘I knew it. You’re such a fag.’
Nick is thirty-one years old. I am fourteen. He sits beside me naked. I marvel at his untrained body. He stands up and puts on his boxers, leaving the room and returning with a glass of water and a cigarette hanging from his lips. I take it out of his mouth and kiss him. I love the acrid taste of his huge tongue. It reminds me of an octopus. I love the way his hands wrap around my whole waist. He pushes me aside gently and leaves me with the cigarette. I take a long haul and exhale, holding back a cough. He chuckles and chugs the water. He fucks me again and afterwards I smoke a full cigarette to myself. I feel dizzy. I see spots. He gives me his pack of cigarettes before I leave. He’s making sure I come back for more.
Derrick tucks in his legs and wraps his arms around himself, scrunching up his shoulders. I can’t suppress my laugh. He lets out a strange moan and I laugh harder. Samara comes back with water and she starts giggling too, spilling some on the floor. Derrick sticks his foot out awkwardly and touches my knee. “The room is spinning.” He’s going to puke. Samara and I move to the kitchen to deliberate. She thinks more weed might help. I laugh in her face. We come back five minutes later with stitches in our sides and several plastic bags. I hold one in front of his face and he leans over and vomits immediately. I can’t breathe, crowing and snorting and gagging and burping. The bag drips onto the carpet. I put it in the kitchen sink. Tears stream down my face. ‘Much better!’ he yells from the other room. He gets the last laugh while we clean it all up.
Mark’s hairy knuckle clenches around the back of my neck. He pushes my face into a pillow. With his other hand he pulls my waist up to his crotch. He fucks me, running his hands roughly through my hair and tugging. I’m nineteen. It hurts so much. He flips me over. His boorish face winces and contorts strangely inches from my nose. He kisses me. I bite his lower lip. He pulls away and slaps me. ‘Bad boy.’ I tell him to choke me. His hands wrap around my neck. His thumbs press down on my Adams apple. His muscles ripple with every thrust. I stare at the headboard and clench the blanket in my fist. I think about Nick’s octopus tongue. He pulls out, barely ripping off the condom before cumming on my face. He spoons me afterwards, wrapping me in his massive body. I kiss him goodbye and never talk to him again.
I stare at the dusty teddy bear on the dresser to my right. There is a black fan on the wall in front of the bed, staring at me like an evil eye. I hadn’t noticed it before. I close my eyes and try to sleep but I’m sweating through the sheets. I pull them off and turn on the light. I listen for creaks in the hallway. Mary is asleep. Dim orange light shines from the skylight in the hallway. I open the drawer to my left. A bible. I open it, trying to distract myself. A razor blade falls into my lap. Mary told me that thoughts of suicide are normal. She reminds me that she loves me, and that she wants me to go to heaven. I look down at the razor blade. A cat flicks its tail in the hallway. I wheeze for the first time in twenty years. It feels like a couch cushion over my head. I’m not a coward anymore, Mary. I go to sleep.
Simon sleeps next to me. My left arm is asleep under his ribcage. The morning sun warms his skin. His bed is covered with cat hair, but it never bothered me. I try not to wake him as I turn my head and look up up at the mural on the wall. The prismatic colours fade into each other messily but right now it looks so perfect. We painted it on a lazy Sunday. Today I’ll be painting over it but I don’t mind. It’s better this way. We don’t have enough time together for things to turn sour. I burrow my nose into the nape of his neck and breathe deeply. I am twenty-three.