Held Breath

“Breathe in, deeply, to a slow count of four. Hold your breath for another count of four. Let it out, slowly, gently, to a count of eight, so that every gasp of air in your lungs is let out. This way you’re cleansing yourself, letting out all the dirt and old air that’s been in your lungs for a while.” – Yoga teacher

“Breathe with both your mouth and your nose, and feel the air going into your stomach, your diaphragm and your chest. Good. Now hold it and feel the air inside you. All that air, and the power to keep it inside, that’s all the air you can sing with. You can hold a note for longer if you control your breathing this way.” – Vocal coach

“Oh, this came out blurry. Look, let’s try again, and try holding your breath when you click down.” – Friend, on photography

“Huh, yeah right. Don’t hold your breath, it’s never going to happen.” – Character in a nightmare

***

It feels like I’m always holding my breath, waiting for something or other. Soon, the waiting, the holding pattern, the in-between-time will be over. Soon I’ll be able to let the air out and take another breath.

One Good Thing

Jodi lay on what she knew to be her deathbed, and thought about life. It was impossible for her to think about death. She’d been thinking about death for the past three years, ever since the doctors had found the first tumor. But in a few hours, the doctors said, she would die. They’d offered her morphine, to ease the pain, but she’d refused. It wasn’t because she was particularly strong, nor because she desired to suffer. It was merely that she wanted to think about life a little before she died, and she knew that she wouldn’t do that in the blissful haze that morphine gave her.

She wasn’t a very good woman. Ninety-three years old and her neighbors had been wishing her dead for two decades already. She knew that no one liked her. But that was alright. She’d realized sometime during her sixties that she didn’t like herself much either. At first she went to therapy and tried to fix herself. After four sessions, she’d decided that there was no reason to fix something that had been broken for so long, and anyway, Doctor Haddock was simply gaga.

Lying in the stinking hospital room, on her soiled sheets, Jodi wondered whether she’d done anything good in her life. She thought of her children, and concluded that they turned out to be good people despite her, not because of her. Her husband of forty-five years had died a long time ago, and she didn’t think that she’d made his life better. She thought, upon reflection, that he would have done better to have married his mistress when he started having an affair. She didn’t begrudge him anymore. Her grandchildren she hardly knew, although they were all in their twenties and probably having babies of their own by now. But her children had both run away to far corners of the earth, and so she’d never come to know their offspring well. Better this way, really, because her death wouldn’t be of much notice to anyone.

But surely, she thought frantically, she must have done something good in her life. No one would remember her for long, it was true, and if anyone did they’d remember a gruff, violent old woman who couldn’t hear very well but insisted that she did. They’d remember her spiteful cackle and the way she never opened the door for children at Halloween. None of this bothered Jodi, not really, but she still thought that there must have been something good in her, sometime.

A strange memory came upon her as she stared at the boring whitewashed ceiling. An image floated across her mind’s eye, an image of a red-haired girl giving a flower to an old drunk on the street and handing him a thermos full of strong black coffee. She remembered the man blessing that red-haired teenager, who was wearing a frightfully short yellow dress, and calling her “ma’am.” She remembered the red-haired girl laughing merrily, giving him five dollars – more than a month’s worth of allowance back then – and telling him to get a job. Finally, the last image she could see was of a janitor whistling as he swept the floors in an old office building where the red haired girl worked as a secretary. She remembered the red-haired girl smiling at him and shaking his hand and the man blessing her for the coffee and the money, but most of all for giving him hope.

Jodi’s crabbed fingers clutched at the call-button. A nurse came in, warily. She was new, and she’d heard horror stories about the old woman’s temper.

“Tell the doctors that I want the morphine, girl,” Jodi said in her rasping voice. “And be quick!” The young nurse jumped, surprised at the vigor in the words and hurried off without a word.

Jodi smiled to herself, toothless, sunken-cheeked and liver-spotted. She’d done one good thing in her life. That was good enough.

A Daughter’s Fever

Miranda looked down at the small crib. It was without ornament – nothing like the wonderful crib she had at home, with the painted bars and the bright sheets and blankets. Hospital cribs don’t have to be pretty, merely functional, just like hospital beds. It was strange that she’d never thought of hospitals having cribs before. Of course, when she’d given birth there was a crib, but it was small, it was near her own bed, and her daughter hadn’t been in it much; Miranda had preferred to hold her in her arms as she slept.

Miranda stirred, tearing her eyes away from the sight of her little golden-haired girl red with fever. She’d been sick for five days already. When Miranda saw that the fever wasn’t going down, she’d taken her girl to the hospital. It was a throat infection of some sort, that’s what the doctors said, but the fever was still so high… Miranda couldn’t stop worrying. She hummed with nerves.

She looked at the lone chair that could fit beside the crib. There were others in the room, but they were occupied by other parents watching their sick infants. What a dismal place to bring a child, Miranda had thought when she’d first walked through the door to that room. Her opinion of the cheerless place hadn’t improved since. Her husband was in their chair, fast asleep; the poor man. He’d borne with Miranda’s worries and unfounded fears and had tried to calm her, but she wouldn’t calm. She couldn’t calm. She’d exhausted the poor man.

Miranda thought of her work. She was needed, she knew. Real people, everyday people, depended on her. She knew some of them would be in agonies without her support and encouragement. She felt bad for not being there for them, but that feeling was in a very small corner of her mind. She really mostly felt bad because she was worried sick and still her little girl’s fever raged on.

She looked back into the crib and wiped the sweat of her daughter’s forehead with a small white towel. The doctors said that she needed to wait and let the medicine do its work. She waited.

Sorry-Sorry-Service

The waitress was pretty, in a conventional way. Her hair was that sort of natural bright yellow that all those who dye their hair want to have. Her figure was trim but womanly, short without being stocky. Her eyes were big, brown and innocent looking. Her school-girl looks were probably the only reason people were being semi-patient with her.

She’d been running around tables all day. She had no idea why she was lucky enough to get this job at Patisserie Valerie, one of the most popular hangouts in Soho. She had no idea how she was there with her English being so imperfect. She also, unfortunately, had no idea whether or not she would be allowed to stay; so far, she was a disaster.

A group of three came into the cafe: a red haired woman, a girl in her late teens who looked like her daughter and a young man with dark, curly hair. They sat down at a table, and the waitress was shooed over to them by the woman who’d been helping her on and off all day. She bobbed over to the table and asked in her broken English what they wanted to drink. They answered, and the flurry of words was almost too much for her. She went to the kitchens to relay the order. Once she brought it, she realized that she’d forgotten two items. She hadn’t understood what they wanted, she supposed.

Asking about the food was worse. The young man, bless him, merely wanted the sandwich as it was written in the menu, but the woman and her daughter asked for all sorts of changes. Simple enough, if she could only understand what it was they wanted. She felt like her brain had turned to mush, and she only understood every third word, though she dutifully scribbled in her notepad obligingly the keywords that she could understand.

It took her three runs to the kitchens and back to make sure she had everything right. Then the kitchen botched one of the orders. She lost her head completely, and took the order out anyway, saying as she did so that she told the man what to do and he hadn’t done it right. She was about to set down the plate anyway, but the three stared at her uncomprehendingly and then asked her to please get them the order they’d asked for. They didn’t mind waiting, but they wanted to eat the food they’d ordered – not whatever the kitchen’s whims were.

The waitress felt the tears well up, but they didn’t break out. She quickly brought the things back to the kitchen. When she came back, finally with the correct order, she bobbed a sort of half curtsy and explained that “It’s my first day, so sorry, so sorry.”

***

The really strange thing was that when I returned the next day for another meal at the same place, I got the same waitress. It was, again, her first day – sorry-sorry – and again the orders weren’t done right. I don’t blame her. I’ve waitressed. It’s hard, it’s pressuring, and it requires some knowledge of the language. I do, however, blame the restaurant for not even pairing her with a more experienced waitress for a couple days. My mother tells me, however, that Patisserie Valerie has been known since she lived in London more than twenty years ago as a place with good food but notoriously bad service.

The food, at least, was indeed delicious.