Rules for Breathing
Alison Sloane Gaylin
Some things never get easy, no matter how many times they happen.
You're supposed to hold your breath when you drive by a
cemetery. I've heard two reasons for this. The first is, if you don't,
you'll breathe death air and you'll die young. The second is, it's not polite
to breathe in front of people who can't.
I learned both of these explanations when I was in the fourth grade. At the
time, death was a weird thing that only happened to some people's grandparents.
I figured it felt like your whole body falling asleep, including your brain.
Try to imagine that sensation; you can't. Still, we nine-year-olds took it very
seriously, the No Breathing in Front of a Cemetery rule.
Even now, if I'm alone in my car, or I'm with my boyfriend and I'm not in the
middle of a sentence and I see tombstones out the window, I do it. Pretty
embarrassing, considering my age. I'd never tell anyone about it. It's
really more habit than superstition, anyway.
Okay, I'll admit it. It's a compulsion--a minor compulsion. Since
I'm in confessional mode, you may as well know that I also cross my fingers
behind my back whenever I tell a lie.
Thirty may be a bit old to observe childhood superstitions. But it's also
extremely young to be attending the funerals of your contemporaries. So, the
way I see it, everything evens out.
Today I went to David's funeral. I did hold my breath some of the time, but
superstition had nothing to do with it. For the most part, I was holding my
breath to keep from crying. My boyfriend Steven was sobbing audibly, so I guess
I was trying to be quiet to balance him out. He needed the strong shoulder, so
I gave it to him. Who could blame him? He'd been there when David passed on.
So there I was, wearing a wool suit in the dead of summer because it's the only
black suit I own, my conservative dress shirt shellacked to my body by sweat
(which meant the jacket and tie were keepers, even after the funeral)
attempting to comfort Steven without sweating all over him, tears pooling up
and pushing against the back of my eyeballs and the top of my throat. I'd never
felt so wet in my entire life. The air around us was wet, too, like a sponge.
Like the air was crying. I thought, death air, and I almost lost it.
I really wanted to be strong, though. I was holding my breath and thinking
about baseball scores, which is the exact same thing I think about when Steven
and I are having sex and I don't want to come too quickly. It didn't work very
well at the funeral, and when my vision got thick and blurry, my mind began to
I started wondering, "Which is easier to control, coming or crying?" And what
if you're one of those people who cry when you come? What if you cry
when you come and you have a psychiatric disorder that makes you fear your own
physical secretions? Well, you may as well hang it up right there. Take
saltpeter, join a monastery, cut your balls off and try not to cry about it.
Or kill yourself.
The priest was reciting the 23rd Psalm, which I've heard far too often recently
and really didn't feel like listening to again. It's a very nice poem,
actually. I'm not that cynical, but all the stuff about still waters and
green pastures just sounds so patronizing to me. It makes think of a
brochure for a rest home.
So, somewhere between that old familiar psalm and Steven's crying and my own
pathetic attempt to be the strong, silent type, I remembered something David
once told me, back when he was positive, but before he got sick:
"Bob," he said. (My name is Robert. David is the only person I've ever known
who's so much as thought of calling me Bob. That includes my father, Robert
Senior, a/k/a Bob.) "When I die, make sure they play 'The Macarena' at my
"But you hate 'The Macarena,' " I'd replied.
"Yes, and for once I won't be around to hear it."
I imagined all of us good friends in our black suits line dancing around
David's coffin. It almost made me start laughing, until I saw what must have
been David's parents. His father looked exactly like him, only younger (strange
as that sounds), and he truly was the strong, silent type, staring off
at some fixed, mysterious point far away. I couldn't see his mother's face at
that moment, because it was buried in the father's shoulder. When I looked at
David's dad in his pin-striped suit and rep tie, I remembered the time I'd
helped David get ready for his cousin's wedding in Tarrytown. I cut hair for a
living, and I'd given him a little trim. David wore a narrow-lapeled black 1962
suit, white shirt, thin black tie. He looked more handsome than I'd ever seen
him. He looked exactly like Sidney Portier in "To Sir With Love." I'd been too
shy to tell him that, though. It was the only time I'd ever felt shy with
I realized David was probably wearing the same suit today.
Dying had been David's choice. I don't mean to say he wanted to die at 28, of
course. What I mean is, he wanted to die with his lover by his side and a few
of his close friends around the bed and Beethoven's 6th playing on the stereo.
David had been pretty far gone with the disease. To say he had full-blown AIDS
would have been an understatement. His left side was paralyzed, and his right
side was in so much pain that he wished it was paralyzed too. His lungs were
full of fluid; he could barely breathe. David said his internal organs felt
like they were made of Ginsu knives--he always had a flair for description,
even when he was dying.) He could drink through a straw, but he had to be fed
through an IV tube and he couldn't get out of his bed. He weighed 80 pounds.
Oh, and he was blind. I kept forgetting David went blind, because it happened
so fast and he took it so well. He'd say, "As vain as I am, and with the way I
look, blindness is a blessing." But still, it sort of landed on him, being
sightless, like spit out of someone's window.
One day, about a year ago, his vision started to blur, and he went to the
doctor, figured he needed a stronger prescription for his reading glasses. This
doctor with a stellar bedside manner told him, essentially, that his eyes were
melting in their sockets and in three weeks they'd be gone. (The eyes, not the
The first thing David did was go out and buy one of those labeling guns that
print out raised letters on thin adhesive strips. When the clerk asked him what
color adhesive strips he wanted, David just laughed.
Next, he started labeling all his CDs, so he'd be able to feel them in three
weeks. "Music is going to be really, really important," he said. "I can't wait
to hear what it sounds like with no distractions."
It was a good thing he labeled everything so fast, because the doctor was off
by a week, and he wound up losing his eyeballs in a fortnight. His lover, Rick,
bought him some gorgeous wraparound sunglasses. They made David look like a
much thinner version of Ray Charles, with darker hair and a more stationary
head. I can still picture him, sitting on the parquet wood floor of his living
room, tenderly running his long fingers over the raised letters on his CDs,
deciding what he wanted to listen to. David had over 100 CDs. Labeling them
must have been exhausting. He wouldn't let Rick help.
The blindness didn't bother David, but the pain did. A few months ago, David
said he wanted to "be put to sleep," for he was fond of euphemisms. This time,
he wanted Rick to help. He couldn't do it himself, because he couldn't leave
Rick couldn't bear the thought. They'd known each other for ten years, since
freshman year at NYU. They'd lived together for four years. Life without David
was as close to impossible as Rick could imagine.
But David was getting so, so sick. Rick's boss was really understanding, and
let him take off work for a month. Rick didn't want to hire a nurse. He wanted
to spend as much time with David as possible, even if it was filling IVs and
He didn't want to kill his lover. But David was in so much pain and wanted
death so much that Rick finally went to David's untactful doctor and got him to
prescribe a painlessly lethal amount of sleeping pills.
David invited five or six of us to his apartment. Said it was a "Bon Voyage"
party. I went with Steven. At first, everything seemed so normal. David wore
black silk pajamas and his gorgeous Ray Charles wraparounds. They were much too
big for his face at this point. They made him look very old and small and
eccentric. We all chatted for a while. Strange way to spend the last night of
someone's life, but that's what we were doing--chatting. I can't think of a
better word. David asked me what I was wearing, just like he always did. Made
fun of it, just like he always did. (I dress for comfort rather than looks. I
tend to buy things a couple of sizes too big. I wear cardigan sweaters and I
adore seersucker. David thought I had the same fashion sense as Fred MacMurray
in a Disney movie.)
Steven, Rick, Peter, Billy, Jonathan and myself sat in a tight circle around
David's bed. We drank the beers that Rick brought us, passed a joint around.
Rick told us all about a movie he wanted to rent--one of those big action
flicks that Rick adores and David tolerated and the rest of us avoid.
It was warm that night, and Rick had opened all the windows. You could hear
cars buzzing by from the street. An ambulance siren filled the room, so loud
that Rick had to stop talking about the movie and wait until it passed. This
lasted only a few seconds, but it seemed like hours. After the room got quiet
again, Rick reached behind him, turned up the Beethoven, and tried to pick up
where he left off. But David interrupted him, his voice gentle and ghostly,
like snow crunching under your feet.
"Sweetheart," he said. "I'm ready now."
Rick swallowed. "Really?"
The CD kept playing. Beethoven's 6th, which is also called The Pastorale. Green
None of us moved or spoke or even breathed. I wondered what it would be like if
we all just froze like that, forever, with nothing to say and David still alive
and no one moving an inch, The Pastorale playing over and over and over.
Steven took my hand and squeezed it. Rick stood up, went to the kitchen, came
back with a glass of orange juice. I supposed he'd crushed the pills and
stirred them into the juice because they were too big for David to swallow.
There was a white straw coming out of the glass, and as Rick handed it to
David, I tried to think about how nice a couple they were. I tried to think
about how much I loved Steven. I tried to think about how the white straw set
off David's dark skin and his black pajamas and his black glasses. I tried to
think about anything other than what David was drinking.
"We love you, David," Jonathan said.
Rick leaned in close to David's ear. I heard him whisper, "You're so
David didn't respond. He just kept drinking. I imagined those two sentences
sitting in the center of the room like unopened presents. It suddenly became
very hard to breathe.
"I have to go. I'm sorry," I said. "I'm... sorry." I ran out the door, down
three flights of stairs, through the double doors and out into the sticky
I sat on the curb and put my head between my knees, sucked in, as hard as I
could. I'd left both downstairs doors ajar. The idea was to catch my breath and
walk quietly back upstairs. But the air outside was thick and unbreathable,
like air from another planet, and I couldn't inhale enough. "Shit," I said. My
voice sounded wet and choked.
I put my head in my hands and closed my eyes and tried to remember what David's
eyes looked like. After about a minute, I stood up and walked back to my
apartment, thinking of absolutely nothing.
Steven came home about two hours later. He wasn't mad at me, but he was crying.
He'd heard David's last words: "Hi, Grandma."
That night, I dreamed I was following Rick down a dark, deserted street. I kept
trying to say hey to him, but no sound came out.
At the funeral today, he sat in a chair next to David's parents, with his jaw
clenched like he never intended to open his mouth again.
After the funeral was over, most of us went to David's cousin's apartment for
coffee and dessert. What I wanted was a Vodka on the rocks, but there was no
alcohol--not even wine.
It was the same cousin whose wedding David had attended in Tarrytown. She was
about David's age and heavily pregnant. David's parents, she explained,
"weren't up to having people over." Steven and I separated and circulated
around her living room, exchanging condolences with David's relatives and
friends. I kept trying to catch Steven's eye. I really wanted to wink at him,
for some reason, and have him wink back.
Rick didn't go to the cousin's. I wonder what I'll say to him the next time I
see him. I wonder if he'll ever rent that action movie he was talking about,
how soon he'll go back to his job. Rick works in a video store. He wants to
make a documentary about dogs.
Steven told me that Rick had gotten into bed with his lover, held him in his
arms as he died. When everyone left, he was still holding him. I wonder how it
felt to hold David's body, how it felt to finally let go.
Tonight, he'll go home and take off his black suit and lie alone in his big,
empty bed without turning on the stereo. (He told me once that every CD he owns
reminds him of David in one way or another, with or without the labels.)
Maybe, in the silence of the apartment where Rick used to burn magnolia incense
to cover up the smell of medicine, maybe he'll lie there and look at the
ceiling and try to smell the magnolia again, but he won't be able to.
Maybe he'll cry a little. Or maybe he'll hold his breath.
Alison Sloane Gaylin ([email protected]) is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She covers entertainment for several publications and Web sites. She is currently at work on a novel.