The Shortness of Breath

By the end of his thirteenth summer, John could hold his breath for over two minutes. He did so to impress Nancy Goldman who was a grade younger and small for her age. Nancy had a gorgeous smile, pale skin, dark intelligent eyes and jet-black hair that fell about her shoulders in lustrous ringlets. On windy days at Lee Street Beach, out in the sandy-bottomed lake, she rode waves’ swells on her back, attacking feet-first to get him around the waist in a leg scissors. Other times she’d chase him along shallow sandbars, relying on persistence more than speed to apply her hold. Sometimes she’d sit on his shoulders and squeeze his neck between her thighs and try to push other girls off other boys’ backs while he held her ankles. But she never attacked him from behind. Always maintained eye contact as she opened her legs. Then, when she had him, it was understood that he should try to get away. Her older, taller, bonier friend, Kate, whose humor tended more to sarcasm, who wore her hair short, a two-piece bathing suit, but whose smiling black & white photograph (cut from a strip of three taken in a Kresge’s photo booth for a quarter) would not grace his wallet for the next forty years, also approached him in this way. She might have even started it.

An experimental boy by nature, John discovered the trick to holding one’s breath was to not take too much air—the strain of containing more than a comfortable yawn’s worth tended to shorten his time. Hyperventilating also helped. All summer long, in endless chill water, Nancy wrapped her legs around him at every opportunity, again and again, squealing and laughing as he’d lunge and twist and shimmy like a rodeo bronc. Later, up on hot damp sandy towels, even though he didn’t believe in it, she’d put Coppertone on his back, and he hers. Yet it wasn’t until summer’s end, just before the leaves died but after they’d nervously kissed each other on the cheek and agreed to go steady while sitting on her porch swing drinking tall pink glasses of lemonade that he noticed the ugly white scars that stretched along both sides of her tanned knees and felt dizzy, as after too much air. She noticed him noticing and tried to cover them with her hands. Then she went inside to use the bathroom. Not long after she’d returned, her father, a very funny man, came out to see how they were getting on and if they needed anything. He suggested they not try to kiss each other on the lips until their braces were off. Then he made another joke about her talkativeness and another about some surgery she’d had when she was little having tragically left her a cripple. The next day at the beach John found himself more receptive to Kate’s attacks, and, though nothing ever came of it, instead of just holding his breath underwater until she got bored or anxious, struggled.