Breathe


Caroline Leavitt, Fiction

She was sitting in the dark, at the kitchen table, wearing her flowery blue nightgown, when Sammy and his dad came downstairs, both of them dressed and washed, Sammy in his favorite blue and red striped jersey.

“What are you doing in the dark, silly?” his father said. He snapped on the light and then they both saw the smudges under her eyes, the wobbly line of her mouth. “No sleep again? Boy, you’re a mess today, honey,” he said, bending to rub her shoulders, but she jerked away. His hand floated in the air. “What’s the matter?” he asked.

“Can’t you ever say, honey, you’re the loveliest woman in the world? You do so much? You make our lives so easy?”

“You know I think that.”

“Then say it. Would it kill you to say it?”

“You’re the loveliest woman in the universe, never mind the whole world. And I love you. And everyone knows it.”

She stayed mad, cooking them breakfast, slamming the pots, so that she burnt the edges of the French toast and spilled the orange juice in a pool on the table. Nothing tasted right that morning, as if she had put a spell on it that made the food turn to metal in their mouths, and the whole time they were eating, she didn’t take a bite herself. She just leaned against the counter, her arms folded about her, and watched them, not moving even when his father got up to leave for work. He leaned forward to kiss her. “I said I was sorry,” he said in a low voice, but she turned slightly from him and he kissed the air.

“If you feel like smiling, you’ll know where to find me,” his father said. He bent and gave Sammy a huge hug and kiss. “You be good, sport,” he said.

After his father left, the house seemed quieter. Except for his mother’s anger, simmering, about to boil over, like one of the pots on the stove, and now it was directed at him. “Why are you taking so long with breakfast?” she snapped, pointing her finger down at his plate of French toast. “Eat. The doctor says you need protein.” He didn’t want to tell her he couldn’t eat the toast that tasted like rubber tires, the juice that had too sharp a tang. She tapped her fingers on the counter, rifled her fingers through her hair. “It’s so bloody cold in here,” she said, but she didn’t turn down the air conditioner, which was always set on high because it helped him breathe better, especially when it was humid. Instead, she wrapped her arms about herself, then went and got a sweater and put it on over her flowery nightgown. “I said to finish,” she said, and he heard something hard and ungiving in her voice that scared him.

He gathered up his lunch and his books, and went to the door, sure he had remembered everything. The school was so close he could walk, and because there were safety patrols all along the way—kids he knew with crisscrossed white straps across their back and the shiny silver badge—his parents sometimes let him. He turned for his goodbye, but his mom was standing with her back to him. Maybe it was better to just go. Maybe it was better not to say anything. He opened the door so that it creaked.

“Wait just a minute, buster,” she said. He turned and there she was. She kneeled down beside him and looked deep into his face, almost as if she were searching for something. Her breath smelled dark like coffee. He patted his pocket and felt the metal lump of his inhaler. “I have my inhaler,” he told her, because she always asked.

She studied him for a moment and then shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly, “Sammy, it’s not you. Or your dad. It’s me. It’s just me. Sometimes I can’t stand myself.” And then she hugged him so tightly he thought his ribs might crack. “Goodbye, Sammy,” she said and then she stood up and opened the door for him. As soon as he stepped outside, he heard the air conditioner go off. The house would soon be blanketed in heat.


He didn’t know why he decided to go home early from school that day. It was just after lunchtime, and he was on his way to the bathroom. You had to be responsible about it, not dilly-dally, and come back to class. He wasn’t really a dilly-dallier, but that day, he took his time, going the long way, exploring the bulletin board of Masks of the World, reading some of the essays about “What I would do if I were Robin Hood today,” but most of the kids said things like they would get a better costume instead of those stupid tights, or they’d steal candy instead of money and they’d keep all the candy for themselves. He stopped reading and idly walked past the long glass doors to the outside. He didn’t know why, but that day, he walked to the front door, and experimentally pushed it open, without even stopping at his locker first to get his things. You weren’t supposed to go outside by yourself, not even the sixth graders were allowed to do that. He didn’t know why, but he always thought if you did, a bell might go off. Ms. Patty, the principal, might run out and then you’d have to listen to one of her lectures about good behavior. He stepped out into the morning heat and then he was suddenly running, heading home, exhilarated and delighted with himself because there were no safety patrols to make him march right around and go back to school. Who would have thought he could do this?

He was very careful. He knew how to cross streets, to stop and look both ways and then look again, and not to turn toward any beeping cars. He knew if anyone spoke to him, he should just keep on walking, and if anyone touched him, he should kick and bite and yell “fire” because more people would respond than if you just yelled “help.” He had already had four lessons in school at the Safe Kids program. He had six lessons of karate in gym so he knew just the places to kick, how to break free of a grip, and how to find your power, deep in your belly like heat in a furnace. No one was going to kidnap him or hurt him, not if he could help it. There was only one thing that could hurt him and that was his asthma. An accident of the genes, his mother told him, and it always made him think of a car crash because of the sad, furious way she always said it.

Right, then left, and then left again and there was his street, and that was when he started to feel anxious, to worry that he had done something wrong. What would his mother say? She’d have to call the school, or maybe she’d take him back there and make him apologize the way she had when he had taken some bubblegum at the market, not really thinking. “All thinking is thinking,” his mother told him. “That’s no excuse.” And his father had said, “Give the kid a break, for God’s sake.” They argued furiously, the way they always did about him these days, and then he started to wheeze. “Great, just great,” said his father.

“You think this is my fault?” she asked.

He knew where the extra key was, tucked in a fake rock, hidden in the hydrangeas, because his mother was always losing her keys, but when he got to his house, to his surprise, he saw his mother’s car out front, the blue of it shiny, as if it had just been washed, and the front door wide open, like a mouth talking to him. She worked every day at the dress shop, so how come she was home? For a moment, he stood perfectly still, balancing himself on his heels, halfway between the front door and the car door. Down the street, he heard a motorcycle backfiring. He headed for the car, and when he got closer he saw there was a big suitcase in the back, which startled and disturbed him; as far as he knew, no one was going anywhere, and if they were, surely they would have told him. He jumped into the back seat and tried to open the suitcase, but it was locked. He glanced towards the house, waiting. Where was she going? And when would she be back?

The car was getting warmer, the air felt heavy with rain, which usually meant he was going to wheeze. Experimentally, he took a breath. It felt all right, but you could never tell. He was at the mercy of the weather. The winter chill could send him to the hospital. The summer heat wasn’t good for him. His doctor gave him something called a peak flow meter, blue plastic, with numbers in red and green. He’d breathe into the mouthpiece as hard as he could, and his breath would push a little arrow up towards the numbers, and if the arrow went up to the green numbers, he was fine, but if they moved to the red, then he’d have to see the doctor and no one was happy about that.

He crunched down on the floor of the car. There was a light cotton blanket folded there and he drew it over him. He’d surprise her, jumping out and calling “Boo.” And he’d ask her about the suitcase.

It seemed like a long time. He turned around twice, changed his position, and wished for a drink of water, or one of the biographies he loved to read, but that would spoil the game. He liked stories where people had something wrong with their bodies that they overcame, like Helen Keller. But when he said so in class, Bobby Lambros hooted, “Big deal, she got famous. But she’s still blind and deaf, dummy!” Then Bobby shut his eyes and waved his arms around and made grunting noises, saying “wa wa” like in that movie they made about her, and Sammy turned away, disgusted.

He tried to jimmy open the suitcase with a hanger he found on the floor, but all that happened was he bent the hanger out of shape. Yawning, he curled up in the corner of the car, the blanket tented over him, and then, despite himself, his eyelids began to droop, his muscles lightened, and there he was, on the floor of the car, rolling into his dreams.


The car was moving. Sammy heard the rivery sound of the road under him, and he sat up blinking, pulling the blanket from his face, and there outside was the highway. There were cars zipping past in a blur of color. And there was his mother in front, singing along to some song on the radio. “You are my speci- al someone,” she sang, her hands shaping the air. Her voice sounded bright, as if it had bells in it. The air seemed full of her happiness. She picked up the cell phone and dialed. “I love you, too,” she said in a voice that seemed both strange and wonderful to him. “I’ll be there around dinnertime.” Then she put the phone away.

His neck hurt, his legs hurt and he was now deeply thirsty, so sluggish with sleep still that he didn’t feel like saying “boo” anymore or playing any game. “Mom?” he said, and he saw her start, slamming on the breaks, pulling over to the side of the road and then jumping out of the car, tugging open his door, and making him get out, too. Her face was white.

She grabbed him roughly by his shoulders. “What are you doing here?” she demanded. “How did you get into the car? Do you know how dangerous this is? How stupid?”

Her eyes were bright as mica and she was wearing a blue dress and long hanging earrings he had given her for her last birthday. Her mouth was red with color and she looked different to him, as if the old Mom had been scrubbed clean. “Why aren’t you at school?” she said.

“Where are we going?” he cried.

She was quiet for a moment. She took a step toward him and wobbled and then he saw she was wearing high heels instead of her usual flats. “Honey,” she said, “we have to get you back to school, right now.” Her voice sped up, like one of his father’s old 78 records. She glanced at her watch and her face drooped. “It’s nearly three,” she said in amazement. “How did it get to be nearly three already? Maybe we can call Cheryl,” she said hurriedly, reaching for the phone. “Maybe that would work out.”

“Why do I need a sitter? Why can’t I stay with you?”

She dialed, cocked her head. “You can’t come with me,” she told him and then she turned back to the phone. “Come on, come on, come on,” she said, and then she finally hung up. “What am I going to do?” she said, and he heard the panic in her voice.

“Why? Why can’t I go with you?”

“Because you can’t,” she said sharply. She paced back and forth. She picked up her cell phone and then put it down. Her lower lip quivered.

“Mom,” he said. “Are you crying?”

“What are you talking about?” she said. She pointed to her eyes. “Dry. See that? Dry. No one’s crying here.” She stared down at her watch and then back at him, as if she were deciding something.

“Mom?”

“You’ll have to come with me,” she said finally. “We’ll figure something out later.”

He nodded doubtfully. “Where are we going?” he asked.

“Never you mind. Just get in the car and buckle yourself up.” He started to get in the back but she stopped him. “Sit in the front where I can see you,” she said.

“I thought I wasn’t supposed to. I thought I can’t sit in the front until I’m 15 or something—”

“Just do what I say and don’t argue,” she said. “Everything doesn’t have to be by the goddamned books. Sometimes the goddamned books are wrong.” He flinched, hearing her swear. She got in and snapped on her seat belt and took a deep breath. He tentatively got in and pulled on the seatbelt, and the whole time she made this restless tap with her fingers on the steering wheel. Being in the front seat felt so funny, so wrong, as if the world was upside down and he was hanging on by his fingertips.


Usually his mother drove carefully, checking the lights, keeping within the speed limit, always waving another car forward. Now, though, she drove like a crazy person, winding in and out of lanes, beeping her horn, and checking her watch every five seconds. The radio was off and all he could hear was the highway and his mother’s breathing, and his own, which was beginning to feel a little jumpy. His mother passed a car that beeped at her and the driver shouted something. “Oh, hush your horn,” his mother said.

Breathe, he told himself. Breathe slowly. Doctor Michaels was always telling him he had to relax. That learning to breathe right helped kids with asthma. Don’t hold your breath, he said, and all Sammy could think of was the time he had asked his mother for a pet—something that wouldn’t make him allergic. A turtle. A frog. “Don’t hold your breath,” she had said.

It felt to him as if they were driving forever. It didn’t feel like any of their usual drives, when she would encourage him to sing along with the radio (singing, the doctor had told him, opened your lungs), when they stopped at every little place for ice cream, always ordering whatever flavor seemed the most exotic. They sometimes played a game where they were outlaws on the road. They took different names. She was Gladys and he was her son Pete. She was Annie and he was her nephew Simson. They lived on a farm in Oklahoma, a high rise in New York, and once in a traveling circus. They would walk into diners and talk about their lives, making up details as they went along, introducing themselves to the waitresses or anyone else who might listen, who might want to play along with them. “Isn’t this lying?” he asked once and she laughed. “Honey, it’s educational. It’s like language immersion, you know what that is? You sink yourself in a whole different world and then it becomes real to you. And what we’re doing here is life immersion. Studying geography.” She was better at it than he was. She was always someone exotic: a lion tamer, an actress, an opera singer. He was always just a boy who didn’t have bad asthma.

“Where are we from today?” he asked.

“What?” She glanced at him and then, distracted, peered back at the road. He smelled something. Perfume. He was allergic to perfume. Stores were minefields for him. Before she could even read a magazine that came to the house, she had to check it for perfume cards and throw them out.

“What state are we from? Who are you? I think I want to be Carl.”

She was silent for a long while and he was about to ask again. “I don’t know,” she said and then she beeped the horn angrily.

He saw the blue sign that said a fuel stop was ahead. “I have to pee,” he said, but instead of taking the exit, she pulled over along the side of the road. “Come on, you can go here,” she said.

“Why can’t we go to the rest stop?”

“Because there’ll be way too many people. There will be lines. And we don’t have the time.”

“Why not? Where are we going and why do we have to rush?”

“Pee,” she ordered.

Cars were whizzing by. Reluctantly, he stepped out onto the grass. “Go there, behind those trees,” she said, tottering on her heels. “No one can see you. I won’t look.” She looked past him at the road, the blur of cars. “Quick before a cop comes,” she ordered. “It’s all I need, getting arrested for your indecent exposure.”

He stepped back from the road and unzipped his corduroy pants and then quickly peed and zipped himself up again. When he came out, she had a bottle of water. “Hands,” she said, and splashed the water on them like a fountain.

She shooed him into the car, and then got in herself.

“I’m hungry,” he said. She dug into her purse and gave him some cheese crackers.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do with you,” she said, resting her hand on the top of his head. She got that worried look which made him feel smaller than he already was. “Don’t look at me like that,” she told him. “You know this doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”

He flinched and looked at her, but she was staring straight ahead at the road.

“I played endless games with you,” she said. For a moment it seemed to him that she was talking to someone else and not to him, that she was reeling off a list. “I let you play hooky and took you out to movies that weren’t age-appropriate.” She glanced at him and then looked back at the road. “The whole time I was pregnant with you, I sang you the same song every day, ‘Got to Get You into My Life’ by the Beatles. I rubbed you through my belly and talked to you as if you were there. You were small as a minute and I loved you. I did. And I do. How many times did I take you to the emergency room? How many nights did I sleep on the floor beside your bed and argue and plead with all your doctors? But don’t I deserve a life, too? Don’t I deserve happiness?” She turned the wheel.

He knew enough not to ask too many questions. Especially not now, when she had that look on her face. He watched the road ahead, the world turning into something unfamiliar.

He studied the clock on the control panel. One hour passed, then two. They had been driving more than two-and-a-half hours when the fog came in. “Damn,” she said, craning her neck. “How am I supposed to see through this?” He opened his window, letting the fog in. “Don’t do that!” she said, and he shut it, but the cool air collected and his lungs tightened.

He sat up straighter, stretching his chest so that his lungs could take in more air, the way the doctor had told him to do. He couldn’t help it. He coughed and his mother turned toward him. “Take your inhaler,” she said automatically, and he reached into his pocket, pulling out lint, two pennies, and then he reached for the metal in his pocket but found, instead of his inhaler, a big metal math puzzle. He glanced at his mother in horror. She was frowning again, hunched over the wheel, then turned to him.

“You don’t have it?”

That morning he had checked for it, he had felt the metal in his pocket, but it must have been this puzzle. Instantly, he felt panicky. “You didn’t take your inhaler?” His inhaler was supposed to go everywhere with him. The school nurse had an extra one locked in her cabinet, but he avoided her at all costs because he didn’t want her embarrassing him by asking him loudly, “How’s the old asthma today?” as she did the last time, when all the other kids had laughed. “How’s the old asthma?” they asked him, as if the asthma were a person. Extra inhalers were in the house—in his room, in his parents’ room, even in his mother’s dress shop. They were everywhere and nowhere because he’d never let anyone see him use it; he never gave anyone the chance to mock him about it. If he felt wheezy, he’d tell the teacher he had to pee and then he’d go into one of the stalls in the bathroom and, even if no one else was in there, he’d flush the toilet to mask the whooshing noise that the inhaler made. Some kids outgrew asthma and so what if he was trying to help it along by leaving his inhaler in school, hidden under his sweater in his locker? He folded his arms across his chest.

“Are you sure it didn’t fall out? It isn’t in the back seat?” She slowed the car and felt around in the back seat with her free hand, bringing up fistfuls of air. “It’s all the fog, the damp,” she said. “I’ll turn on the air conditioner and you’ll be able to breathe again.” She shut all the windows and turned the air conditioner on, but all it did was make them both cold, and this time, when he coughed, the wheeze was louder.

“Can you hold on?” she asked him. “We can call your doctor and get a new prescription phoned in somewhere, how about that? Can you wait?” She glanced at her watch. “It’ll be fine,” she said, “it’ll be just fine. I’ll call your doctor, have him phone in a prescription.”

He coughed again, felt his lungs narrowing, which always made him panic. “Mom—” he said.

“We’ll find a hospital, then. We’ll go to an ER.” She made the car go faster.

“I can wait,” he said. He hated the emergency room. You never knew if they were going to make you stay overnight, and they fit in an IV and there you were attached to it and the medicine they gave him always made his heart speed like a bird wildly flapping in his chest.

“I’m fine—” he said, but he could barely get the words out. They both heard the accordion sound of his lungs, the thin gasping wheeze, and she suddenly seemed to deflate.

“You’re not fine,” she said.

She wrenched the car around, startling him, making him bump back against the seat. “Okay,” she said. “Okay. We’ll circle back and find a town. We’ll come back. There’s still time.” She picked up the cell phone and dialed. “Pick up, pick up,” she said and then she clicked the phone shut and looked at the map again. Suddenly she was spinning the car around, changing direction, and all they could see was the fog. “If I could just see a bloody sign—” she said, and then he coughed again.

The fog was so heavy now he couldn’t see any signs along the road; he couldn’t see the road in places. “Mommy,” he said, “I’m sorry!” and then he coughed, and it was like breathing through a straw.

“I’m sorry, not you,” she said. “I’m the one who’s sorry.” She grabbed her phone again, she punched in some numbers. 911, he saw. The numbers he was supposed to call if he was in trouble. She put one hand on his shoulder and shouted into the phone. “If I knew where we were I could drive to a hospital!” she yelled and then suddenly stared at the phone and threw it out into the fog. “Okay,” she said, drawing herself up. “Okay.” She looked at him. “Someone will be here,” she said.

“Who?”

“Someone,” she promised.


They both heard the car. She leaped out and he started to unbuckle himself but she shook her head. “Stay in the car,” she ordered. “Don’t get out until I tell you to,” and when he moved to the door, she jerked his hand away. “I said, stay in the car! Don’t make yourself sicker!”

Then she drew herself up, as if she knew what she was going to do, and for one moment he couldn’t see her. She was swallowed up in the fog. And then she moved closer and looked back at him and then there, coming toward them were headlights, and she lifted up one arm and waved and waved.


There were two men in blue uniforms who put him in the ambulance, in the back, on a cot. There was a battery-operated nebulizer for him to breathe into, the familiar bubbling sound of it, and he felt his lungs grow bigger. “That’s it, breathe,” said one of the men, and Sammy did. And even though he felt better, they said he had to go to the hospital.

“Where’s my mom?” Sammy cried.

“She’s following us in the car,” one of the paramedics said. He lifted Sammy up and tapped at the window. “See? See the car?” But all Sammy saw was the fog.

“You’ll be fine. Good enough to pitch a little league game.”

“I don’t play baseball.”

“What? Now that’s a crime!”

“Rest easy,” they told him, and they said he just had to see a doctor at the hospital, to make sure that he was all right, that his father had been called and was coming right away. “Just a little asthma attack,” said the paramedic. “Happens to the best of us.”

“Does it happen to you?” Sammy asked, but the paramedic shrugged. “My cousin,” he said.

Sammy lay still and thought about the fog, and how it could fool you, how it was like all those stories he and his mother told in all the diners they had ever visited. He thought about what he could tell his dad when he came to the hospital, when he saw Sammy all alone, when he wondered where she was. Sammy would say he bet she had gotten lost and would be there any moment. He’d say probably the car had broken down and she had to wait for help. He’d say he felt clear-lunged and healthy now, and he had ridden in the ambulance without her because it was a big adventure.

He wondered what his dad would say back.

“Is she behind us?” he cried and the paramedic gave Sammy his hand and let him hold it tight.

“Of course she is,” he said. “Of course.”