My mother had hidden my Pink Floyd disk again. I didn’t know where, but after searching the house I concluded that the disk must be outside, concealed beneath the snow, or across the fence, where the garbage bins stood. I stared at the three bins, and beyond, at the frozen cornfields across the road, then back towards my feet, at the holes wild rabbits had dug through the snow, straight into the ground.The falling snow blinded me as I struggled to breathe. Breathe, that was the name of my song, and if I didn’t hear it again I would die, I was certain.
Earlier in the day, when I had searched for the disk beneath my parents’ bed, my mother had crouched beside me, at an uncomfortably close distance, and whispered in my ear, “You’re digging a hole for yourself and I won’t let you.”
I had run down the stairs, straight into the kitchen, past the mahogany table where my father sat, rigid, with his graying head lowered toward a crossword puzzle. He hadn’t heard, or even noticed me. He never did.
The splintered floorboards pricked my knees as I knelt beside the lower kitchen cabinets where my mother usually hid my things. I searched beneath the pots and pans, between the dishes and bowls and the pages of cookbooks and old magazines and inside the pockets of my mother’s folded apron, but the disk wasn’t there. I shut the cabinets and moved on to the fridge, hoping to find the disk among the fruit and vegetable bins by some miracle-but I’ve never really believed in miracles. I pushed the clear compartments back to their original positions, let go of the fridge door and then turned around to face my mother.
She stood by the kitchen entrance, staring at me wide-eyed, as though she’d been crying or was about to. And there was that strange look of triumph on her face that I never could quite interpret.
“You want to kill me, don’t you?” I said.
“I want you to stop obsessing,” she said in a slow, stern voice, emphasizing every word with her lips, as though I were deaf.
“What does that even mean?” I yelled out to her.
My father raised a pair of downcast eyes towards us. He seemed to be listening, but not really. For all he knew, my mother and I could have been discussing what flavor of cupcakes to bake, and I could have been laughing instead of screaming.
My father rarely spoke, and when he did his sentences were short and cryptic, and had little to do with people and their problems.
The times he’d tried to defend me were so rare I could recall only one incident, years before, when I’d flooded my salad with malt vinegar, expecting the lettuce to turn crimson. My mother was insisting I finish the salad when my father, who had been silent until then, pointed out to her that I would end up with a bad stomachache.
I wanted him to defend me again, as he had then, but he wouldn’t, I knew. He would raise his eyes from the table and then lower them back down, towards the clue he’d been trying to solve. He had already done so, in fact, when I begged my mother to let me listen to the song again.
“One last time,” I cried out, “only for good luck, please.”
I’ve never been superstitious, but superstition was my excuse, I suppose, for the sweat and the shortness of breath I experienced when I could not hear my song.
Thirteen is a vulnerable age, they say. When I look back on those days there’s a sad blur of colors in my head like the watery brown layers created in the snow by the rabbits that late afternoon. I was still staring at the holes when the dump truck stopped in front of our house, and Tony came out. He winked at me and said, “Hello sweetie, how are you doing?” And I just stood there, looking at him without really seeing him.
Like my father, I’ve never been able to focus on two things at once, which is why, instead of thinking about the disk and my reason for being out in the cold, I was thinking about the first time I’d heard Breathe.
Six months earlier, my mother had forced me to go with her to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago to watch the sea lion show. It finally ended and we were sitting in the car, buckled up and ready to go back home, but the car wasn’t moving. My mother sat still and very quiet, with her face pressed against the old Buick’s steering wheel, and I knew she was disappointed in me again.
Instead of watching the sea lions I had been staring at the mole on the left side of her chin, which looked bigger somehow, beneath the sun’s glare-an optical illusion more fascinating to me than anything else at the zoo.
I could hear her starting to weep and I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to yell at her to start the car, to please take me back home, but she just sat there, weeping into the steering wheel as though we’d gotten ourselves into a car accident or something. I was starting to sweat, and the sides of my fingers had begun to itch. I wanted to jump out of the car, to stamp my feet, to scream. Instead I turned the radio on at full volume. That is when I heard the song.
The melody seemed to float, in slow motion, like air. I shut my eyes and a warm, fiery glow the color of forsythias in spring shone straight into me, across my eyelids, and the stale coffee air of the car became infused with a scent like mothballs and burning wood and I felt calm, as though an opening were being punched through, across a barrier of misunderstandings, and I was standing on the other side of that barrier, witnessing the clearing.
I bought the disk later that day, and from then on listened to Breathe every day, seven times a day, except when my mother hid the disk from me, as she had then, the afternoon I stood outside, watching Tony empty the last garbage bin.
Out came the milk bottles, the soup cans and the marmalade jars my father liked to clean to a shine, a large crumpled slipper and a blackened frying pan followed by some small object I could barely make out from where I stood other than to notice that it reflected the light in a way the other objects had not. It was what I’d been looking for, but the fact of this had not registered. The naked disk had fallen through my eyes, like lightning kills before you hear the thunder.
In retrospect, it would have been easy at that moment to run out, through the unlocked gate, to retrieve my disk from the garbage truck. Just as it would have been easy ten years ago to stop the man I liked, who also liked me, from walking out of my bedroom thinking I had little interest in him, as it would have been easy five years after that to leave my position in the marketing company I still work for as a secretary, for a more interesting job that was offered to me then, as it would have been easy to do so many other things I failed to do. Like the disk, they all fell through me, and then they were gone, and by the time I realized what had happened, it was too late.
Tony set the last bin down, onto the exact same place where its imprint had been left upon the snow, and then ran back to the driver’s side of the truck. Perhaps it was the way he ran, or the ease with which he climbed into his seat, with a bounce, almost a hop, that made me almost forget what I thought I’d seen. It was a marvelous thing to watch people move as they did, so effortlessly. After all these years it still is, perhaps because I never could move so freely -I can run, but not fast; I can walk, but not skip; I can ride a bicycle, but not in a straight line. I can do everything, but not like everyone else can.
I remember Tony waving goodbye to me, and then the closing of the truck’s mouth. Its jaw crashing down and the hollow, deafening sound of steel echoing across the sky as the truck rode away and made its usual turn at the end of the road, where I watched it disappear. That is when it all came back to me again. I remembered why I was there and I remembered what I knew and what I’d missed, and I remembered the disk and my song, and I screamed. My right leg twitched, but I did not move. I remained standing there on the front lawn for a while longer. Then I turned around and went back inside the house.
My father was still at the kitchen table, working on a different crossword puzzle, my mother standing by the stove, stirring something that smelled mildly like vomit-boiling pasta, I guessed.
“You put my disk in the trash, didn’t you?”
“Why would I do that?” my mother replied, very plainly.
She had turned away from the pot’s rising vapors and was staring straight into my eyes-something she knew made me extremely uncomfortable. I wanted to turn away, to leave the kitchen and run upstairs to my room, where I could lock myself in and be alone, shut my eyes and pretend to be listening to Breathe, even though the disk was gone, of course, and I would never hear my song again unless someone played it on the radio, and even if they did, it would only be once, not seven times.
“Why would I do a thing like that, Emily?” I heard her say.
I hated it when she called me by my name. The singsong tone with which she pronounced the name and the expectations that went along with it-that I should be her Emily, and not who I was.
“Because being obsessive is bad.” I thought it was what she wanted to hear, but she shook her head. There was something else this time, a reason more powerful than my so-called obsession for the song that had finally made her get rid of the disk.
I noticed my father running his index finger repeatedly over the same row of the puzzle. He kept staring down at it, fixedly, as though he weren’t listening to anything we said, though a strange thought crossed my mind that he actually was.
“I don’t want you to end up like him,” my mother suddenly said, and though her back was turned to my father and her arm wrapped around her waist, the other arm was extended behind her, clearly pointing toward the place where my father sat.
I was about to remind her that my father didn’t even like music when I saw him gaze up at me from the table-directly into my eyes. His stare was vacant, like a bloodhound’s, and his lower jaw was slightly lowered, as though he were surprised at what my mother had just let out, but not entirely.
A flicker of amusement-or it might have been relief-moved slowly across his eyes, and I felt it again; that thing we both shared. The thing that set us apart from my mother, Tony, the people in town, my classmates at school and practically everyone I knew and had known and would ever know in the future.
“Did you rescue your disk from the trash?” he asked me.
There was a muffled depth to his voice I recognized as concern. I shook my head, unable to speak.
“I’ll take you into town tomorrow to buy a new one,” he said, and lowered his head down again, toward the puzzle.
His tone had been gentle, but definitive, and as I thanked him I could not help noticing my mother standing between us, her thin fingers dangerously tugging at the silver necklace around her neck.
Her complexion had turned the sickly pale of the winter sky outside, and she was no longer looking at either of us -my father or me-but staring into space, at the air between us, as though she were trying hard to remember something. I kept waiting for her to dump the dinner she’d just prepared all over the kitchen floor, to start yelling at my father about the difficulty of the situation -a sentence I’d never really understood until that moment-or to take the Buick out for a drive in hazardous weather. But she just stood there, and then turned to my father.
“Why are you doing this, Roger?”
Her voice was low, defeated. She was referring to him by his name for the first time in years, and it almost felt as if by doing so, by mentioning my father’s name again, she wished to remind herself of some past mistake.
“It’s not her fault,” my father replied bleakly, without ever raising his head.
For a while nothing was said. My mother shut the stove and took her apron off, left it lying over the kitchen counter and walked up to the cupboard, removed from an upper shelf a small clear bottle containing pills, and then, mumbling something about being upstairs in case someone needed her, she left the kitchen.
I knew then that I had won. I had won a major battle against my mother. But nestled within her loss was also my own, much greater loss. I did not feel it then, but I would, years later.
“It’s not her fault,” my father had said. By the time I left home for college it was too late to change. My father already lived in me, because he always had. We were tied to each other through our genes, through an area in our brains that did not work well-perhaps it had never worked at all. I no longer care to know.
After Breathe something else came along-a collection of books about North American butterflies-and before Breathe there had been my collection of keys-any key as long as it opened a lock- and before the keys my 1975 stamped pennies -because 1975 is the year that I was born-and before the pennies there had been the flashlights I kept in an old tool box with lock beneath my bed, where I read at night, and before the flashlights my kaleidoscope collection, and before the kaleidoscopes the magnifying glasses I liked to observe the world through, and before the magnifying glasses the sharpened lead pencils I liked to suck on because they tasted like rain, and before the pencils I can no longer recall.
The afternoon my mother walked out of the kitchen with her little bottle of pills I just stayed there, looking at my father who was no longer looking at me and would not again, anytime soon. A pale light poured through the frosted windowpane behind him, illuminating his head, and the place where he sat, with a strange, almost alien glow.
I thought to ask him why he collected books about birds, particularly about woodpeckers, and why he liked to solve crossword puzzles. I thought to ask him why he kept the puzzles he solved in numbered boxes down in the basement instead of throwing them away like most people did. But I didn’t. I never asked any of these questions, perhaps because I feared to learn what I already knew.
Outside it had stopped snowing.
Unless it began to snow again, and continued to through the night, or unless my father changed his mind-which was as unlikely as Tony bringing the old disk back unharmed-or unless something terrible happened to my father or to me, or to Rock Island, Illinois, tomorrow, first thing in the morning, he would take me into town to buy a new disk, and within a matter of hours I would listen to my song again, over and over, everyday, until I felt stuffed with it like after one has had too much of a good thing to eat, at which point I would put the disk away-like I had everything else-and then eventually forget about it.
I still have that disk, the one my father bought me the day after my mother threw the old one in the trash. Early this morning I took it out of the box-box #12, where I’ve kept it all of these years-and I listened to my song again, after two decades.
With Breathe, the yellow glow of forsythias in bloom came back to me, as well as the smell of mothballs and burning wood of our den, my father staring up at me from the kitchen table and my mother tugging at her silver necklace. “It’s not her fault,” he had told her in front of me. It was snowing while I heard my song, just like on that day. A strong wind was blowing against the building, rattling the old windowpanes of my studio apartment, where large flakes of snow had settled. I wish I’d had black paper to catch the falling snowflakes, as well as a magnifying glass to observe the ice crystals up close. I once read that like the human fingerprint, every snowflake is unique.