By Daniel David Gothard
Michael Davenport watched his literary agent, Suzanne, arrive late, as
she always did. She blamed the traffic every time and sat with a huff of
frustration. She had postponed this lunch twice already. She never
postponed a meeting when he first signed with her.
Michael returned an air-kiss and smiled, feeling his own surge of
frustration. He had been waiting for half an hour and didn’t want to be
in this place facing the reality of his stale creativity. He was fairly
certain he was going to be dropped as a client soon, having failed to
deliver his work in progress six times across the previous three years.
Work in progress was a polite way of saying bits and pieces of ideas
that might coalesce into something resembling a book one day. Michael
knew it was pointless and so did Suzanne. They had talked about
deadlines, storylines, anything and everything to make the situation
appear more optimistic.
‘Will you have some wine, Michael?’ Suzanne said, looking over her
‘That would be nice,’ he said, wondering how long it might be before
Suzanne looked down, then raised her gaze slowly, half-smiling,
attempting more empathy, finally delivering the axe to him.
‘I have some news, Michael,’ Suzanne said, swallowing some water.
They had both ordered salad niçoise as a starter. Suzanne had ordered
a bottle of Chilean merlot. Michael was glad he was never expected to
pay. ‘Boston University want to include “Breathe” in their annual
Michael’s left eyelid flickered. It was virtually imperceptible to anyone
else, but triggered a violent response in his mind. He sipped his water,
clutching the glass. He wasn’t certain how to respond. His cheeks felt flushed.
'Right, well. Why would they want that? Why not something else, something new?’
Suzanne took a sip of wine.
‘Is there anything new?’
Michael’s jaw tightened.
'Are they going to pay for it?’ Michael said and sat back as the waiter filled his glass with wine.
‘Only seven hundred and fifty dollars, but it’s better than nothing and the publicity is invaluable. It’s very prestigious.’
Michael noticed Suzanne’s top lip had a thin stain of red wine. She looked as if she had been draining blood. He wanted to lean across the table and draw a pencil thin moustache under her nose.
‘How did they know – ’
‘Everyone knows that story, Michael. That’s your masterpiece.’
‘It’s not a masterpiece, and it’s been around for such a long time. Why would anyone want to use it now?’
‘Well, a classic story always sells, and it’s been over five years since it last appeared in the United States. You should be pleased. This might be the... motivation for something else.’ Suzanne’s final four words trailed off, as if she knew something else was a pipe dream from this client.
‘I don’t know. You can say all these nice things about it all, but I’m not sure publishing that... that story again is a good idea. It’s not who I am now, as a writer or a person.’
Michael was refilling their wine glasses for the third time. He was feeling a bit drunk and wasn’t sure whether he was imagining the words he was saying, and was he shouting now?
Suzanne’s hand was on top of his.
‘Michael, you need this, you need the money. You must be running on fumes these days.’
‘I’m all right. The money from my father is still there, some of it left.’
‘Have you heard from Amelia lately?’
Michael took a long drink of merlot and watched Suzanne over the top of his glass. His left eyelid flickered again.
Amelia had left him five months before. ‘I love you but I can’t live around you anymore’ was all she had said as she left carrying one suitcase and a holdall – the detail of their six years together.
Love but not live. What did that mean?
‘No, she’s gone back to her mum. She always hated that story. I don’t want Boston to publish it. That’s my final answer. No more publishing for that. Kill the bloody thing.’
‘I really think you should take a bit of time and—’
‘No, it’s got to end sometime, all of it, got to go.’
Suzanne paid for the meal and insisted Michael finish the wine.
‘I have to get back to the office for another meeting. I’ll be in touch. Think about Boston again and I’ll call you in a few days. Lovely to see you.’
They air-kissed again and Michael watched his agent leaving in the same hurried way she had arrived. Why had they bothered meeting? There was nothing left to say.
Michael could smell dog. He immediately remembered his family pet, a Labrador called Tilly.
The cushion beneath his face was coarse, the one his father used to cradle on his lap, a security cushion, and the familiarity made Michael want to cry. But he couldn’t raise his head. His cheek felt sore and hot but the weight of alcohol and exhaustion held him to the floor. The room was freezing.
The sound of air rushing back and forth above his head and a presence in the air made Michael roll an eye towards his shining blue laptop screen. Was there an outline reflected behind him. Was it his father, standing with his arms open, waiting for the cushion? Michael felt a prickle of terror scurry through his hair; cold sweat trickled onto his forehead.
Michael couldn’t read the words on the laptop screen, but knew from the pattern of paragraphs it was the story again.
A wide line of sunlight woke him. He lifted himself up onto his knees and shuffled to close the curtains. As he blinked and rubbed his eyes the story came into focus. He only read the title and the first line:
Breathe by Michael Davenport
Lawrence Seymour, a chronic asthmatic, died on the floor of his parents’ bathroom on the day of the party celebrating their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.
He slammed the lid of the laptop shut and rifled around in his jacket pocket
for a cigarette. He felt nauseous after the first inhalation and able to focus
after the second. Two balloons wobbled next to his desk. One had a photo
portrait of Amelia glued on and the other was bare. Michael blew up a fresh
pair every few days. He fooled himself that it was an act of creative nurturing –
making real a vital part of the story which haunted him, a way to rid his mind
of the looping theme while reminding his heart it could be open to love, even
if that love couldn’t live with him. Perhaps he should call Amelia and tell her he
was done with writing; that all he wanted was her, and he could do any other
sort of work.
Michael picked up the Amelia-balloon, took a pair of nail scissors from the top
of his desk and carefully sliced the latex throat. He pinched the clammy fissure
until he was ready, then released the captured breath, allowing it to dash
across his face as he watched Amelia’s smile. He thought of her naked,
breathing hard into his ear, whispering lust.
Two hours of attempting new sentences left Michael screaming into the
cushion and punching himself in the face, five heavy blows on each cheek,
an act of self-harm he had started as a child whenever he felt like a bad person,
an act of penance that made him feel as if God might forgive him.
Silence accentuated his breathing. Michael listened to himself, his eyes closed, the breaths in and out, the slow rhythm of his life. In the darkness Michael saw his father in the hospital bed he died in, the clouds of his breath covering the oxygen mask, disappearing then coming back, as he clung to life. Michael sat by the bed and held his father’s boiling hand, thinking aloud occasionally, but fascinated by the imminent cessation of a life, the simplicity of breathing coming to a close.
His father had developed Parkinson’s disease just after his seventy-first birthday and caught terminal pneumonia a year later. Michael was secretly glad he hadn’t been expected to care for a slow-motion-dying parent. He had written ‘Breathe’ as a memento mori.
‘Father, forgive me,’ Michael whispered, his eyes still shut tight. He launched ten more fists to his face.
Michael was drunk again. He had given up most alcohol when he was with Amelia, missing the taste of vodka but restricting his desire to the occasional social bottle of beer. Since being alone, he had allowed himself to drink whatever he pleased whenever he wanted it. He sat on his brown leather sofa, seats sunken from years of falling asleep in front of the laptop and waking up cold and aching. He stared at the two new balloons. He had Sellotaped the portrait of Amelia back onto one and a photo of himself, taken by his aunt years ago, looking carefree in some woods, on to the other.
‘Breathing, all about that one small thing. I can break this curse,’ Michael said to the bobbing image of his ex-girlfriend. ‘I can do anything else and you can come back. Living together in love.’
Michael stood slowly and unsteadily. He reached for the virtually empty bottle of Stolichnaya and downed the contents. He shuffled as if on ice to the kitchen and opened the cupboard under the kitchen sink, pulling out a large ball of plastic supermarket bags. He separated three and tried to carefully place them inside each other, preventing any air-holes. Michael took a long navy blue balloon from the bag next to the toaster.
‘Your favourite colour,’ he said to Amelia’s photo.
As Michael breathed expansion into the balloon he tried to add some words to his blowing, imagining as true the idea he had concluded ‘Breathe’ with: that spoken words, like a last moment alive, can be held inside a latex skin.
‘My finest work,’ he whispered, placing the sausage-shaped inflatable next to the two that were now moving side to side as if in a trance.
Michael smoked a cigarette and wound the plastic bags around his hand like a glove. He read the blurred marketing words on the bags between his fingers and stubbed the half-finished roll-up onto a kitchen plate he used for smoking.
The colour of his lounge became filtered red, the cold inside the bags began to make him sweat, and the taste of plastic back and forth against his mouth felt like a grave.
Michael wondered whether this was a good idea. Surely there must be less claustrophobic ways of edging towards your last breath, seeing the celestial light of death beckoning, finally knowing your truth, then racing back to life renewed to begin again. He gasped panic and tore the bags away from his face, throwing them to one side and watching his fingers shake.
Michael found a bottle of dusty cooking wine behind some rice and pasta and poured himself a pint glass. It tasted revolting and he thought about spitting it out, but he wasn’t quite drunk enough to rekindle the necessary courage to try again.
He whirled around the kitchen singing Sinatra, holding Amelia’s balloon-face to his cheek, kissing it and wiping saliva away with his sleeve. He stopped in the middle of the floor and looked up. The oak beam above him had a gap for the light fitting. Would the beam hold him for long enough? How long would it take?
Michael was satisfied two chairs and the table top would be enough to ensure his
safety when he had seen enough of the Other Side and wanted to end what he had
come to think of as his ‘partial hanging’. This wasn’t a suicide attempt, this was
going to be enlightenment.
He climbed onto the table and stood slowly, his arms out like wings to hold himself
still. He had taken his belt off. He breathed out and began to force the brass buckle
up and over the light fitting. It wasn’t an easy job and Michael was beginning to slip,
and wonder if he should just give up and lie on the sofa.
The pressure in front of the buckle lessened then gave in. Michael fed his belt over
the beam and pulled down hard to check the wood wasn’t rotten.
The oval of leather around his neck wasn’t really large enough and the beam pressed
against the back of his head. But this wouldn’t take long. He would be finished soon.
This act of faith would change everything. He would be able to move on.
Michael slid to the edge of the table top and nudged away from the safety of the
surface. The belt began to dig into his throat. He moved his feet back, breathed in
and out and brought his fingertips up to the inside of the belt as a cushion.
He had to do this, no more procrastination. He had to know the feeling of his breath
leaking away to be able to appreciate life itself.
The life and love in him now was toxic, Amelia knew that, and he had to drain the
poison to be with her. The chairs and table would save him.
With a sideways push Michael began to swing. The belt cut deep and quick. He was
immediately dizzy, panicking and struggling to find the surface again. The two chairs
had fallen onto their sides and he could see his legs flailing as if he was cycling
manically. He was choking, listening to the sound of his own hawking, trying to remove something large and painful from his respiratory tract.
Urine was soaking Michael’s trousers and socks, tears made his vision distorted, fading to darkness. All he noticed was the blue flicker of his laptop screen. That story, always there, waiting.
‘Can’t... can’t stop,’ Michael whispered, his arms dropping to his waist.
And then he stopped.