The Year of Breath
I try to feel my lungs expanding and contracting, just to make sure they still are. There is something soothing, like the indigo of a fading day, in that reminder.
This isa column by Gabrielle Bellot about books and culture, the body, memory, and more.
A feeling, I’ve learnt, can live in your body for years, quiet and quiescent, like a sleeping volcano.
It isn’t just a memory of the feeling that lingers; it’s the thing itself, the sensation and all that surrounds it. We don’t always know the feelings that will live in us; sometimes, they are brief and mundane, fleeting as frissons, while others you just somehow know, upon encountering them, you will never be able to forget. You may even imagine that you’ll never be able to return to the life you had before this sensation, before you felt its wondrous or terrible weight.
But then, as always, life goes on, and the feeling seems to fade. You might think it has left you altogether, like the flecks of dreams you know you had but can’t quite grasp, but sometimes that feeling is still there even when it seems it has vanished. It has become an invisible presence in us, a quiet, phantasmal passenger.
Instead of evanescing away, it lingers, lengthens, loops around your edges, grows hard and sharp like old coral. In a way, it is preparing for us to feel it again, only it will be sharper the next time we do. We don’t know these old feelings are still there until something forces us, unexpectedly, against their edges again—and then, suddenly, we are amazed we ever thought they had left us.
I remember the feeling of Death’s hand.
I am twenty-three feet under the surface of a lake in Pennsylvania, kneeling, blowing bubbles.
It is the summer of social distancing, yet under this lake, a group of scuba-divers is arranged together on brown wooden platforms like a circle of praying monks; the platforms rise from the lake’s bottom like great sunken rafts, the only sounds around us the surgical inhalation of air and the gurgling of bubbles, which float back up to the surface like blooms of curious jellyfish. The surface is warm, but down at the platforms, my ears, which poke above my goggles’ strap, feel like ice.
We are doing exercises to complete our certification as scuba divers. Ten years earlier, I had been certified in Dominica, but I’ve become rusty, and so I’m here with my partner, who has never been certified, to refresh my memory. We have driven from Queens to Bethlehem, PA, a journey unremarkable except that it is a pandemic, and we have both already recovered from mild bouts of Covid-19. To scuba-dive seems extraordinary now, yet when we reach the lake, there is a refreshing, almost cathartic sense of normalcy, or something like it, minus our masks and distancing on land.
For three days, we practice in the water, ladies of the lake, its reek clinging to our hair and dive boots. I fall behind everyone else, surprised at how much I’ve forgotten. Diving is not like riding a bike, my instructor keeps saying, and though I remember some things well, the experience now intimidates me a bit. I have dreamt of diving with a hundred hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos, yet the sharkless cyan of this Pennsylvanian water makes me nervous the first time I see it, wondering what is down there now that I am almost a novice again.
And there are things in that murky realm of mysteries. Scuba-dive deep enough, and you will find sunken vehicles that seem frozen in a moment: a firetruck encrusted with barnacles, a school bus dotted with gray-green bass and silvery fish, even a vast helicopter. Down there, in the chill and silt of the lake, it is possible to forget for a few moments, under the mantra of your deep breaths, that there is a twin pandemic, one of a virus and the other of Black Death, not the bubonic plague this time but the systematic eradication of Black and brown bodies like my own by ravenously racist cops. You can even smile, letting the horrors of the outside world fade under the pull of the water.
How beautiful, too, it is to dive in the blue—the best of colors, I’ve always felt, for blue, to me, contains multitudes like no other: it is calm, balm, solitude, sky-lightness, the vastness of ocean deeps, the alienness of an ice crystal, the peculiar sadness of rainy city nights.
But I’m getting ahead of myself in this memory.
I almost skipped the part when I was sure I was going to die, when a hand held me so I couldn’t swim to the surface. The part where, months later, I still worry I will spontaneously stop breathing. Where, even now, I sometimes see I’m going to die flash across my mind when I hold my breath, when I kiss, when I push my face too deeply into a pillow. The part when Her blue-fingernailed hand touched my throat, and instead of air I got water.
I have to pause. I can’t tell this story yet.
In the famous frame story of One Thousand and One Nights, a fanatical king, Shahryar, learns that his wife has slept with another man. Incensed, the monarch decides to punish not simply her, but all women. In one of the most extraordinary examples of toxic masculinity imaginable, he resolves to marry and sleep with a new virgin each night, then behead her the next morning so that she has no chance to be unfaithful to him. After killing a thousand and one women, he finds Scheherazade, who thinks up an ingenious plan to prolong her life: by telling him a story, which ends on a cliffhanger. The king, intrigued, refrains from executing her in order to hear the rest. The next night, she does the same. In this way, Scheherazade keeps herself alive for 1,001 nights, after which point the king decides to spare her life—for she is out of stories—and make her his queen.
I have always liked the idea of turning her name into a verb: Scheherazade, meaning to tell stories to survive. Perhaps we last after traumas by telling our stories when, finally, we can. It is a curious feeling, realizing that you are keeping yourself going by turning to other memories and stories first, because you cannot tell one story without first telling the others, and you can only survive if you tell them all.
Earlier this year, I watch a video of a white police officer in Minneapolis jam his knee into a Black man’s neck, the man’s face pressed against the pavement. The cop keeps the terrified man, whose name is George Floyd, there for minutes that feel like the eternity of a horror movie, because I know I am seeing a man’s slow execution. I can’t breathe, he says over and over, but the cop keeps the knee on his neck. I want to dominate you, the gesture says. Do what I say, boy, and die slowly while I watch.
It leads me to another video. On May 24, 2019, almost exactly a year before Floyd’s death, two white police officers grab Breona Hill, a Black trans woman. They punch her savagely in the face, then press their knees into her neck, ribs, and torso. She, too, must be dominated, the men’s violence suggests, for this is what so many men seem to believe of women’s bodies, all the more so if a white man wants to feel that rush, that sharp-toothed grinning glee, in pressing down a Black body, his knee pushed against her neck like the Fates’ shears against the thread of a life. That Breona is trans amplifies this—if too many men wish to control women’s bodies, trans women like me are punished with violence, in turn, for not being the “right” kind of woman.
2020, I’ve come to learn, is the year of breath. It is our cruel, funereal leitmotif.
Eight weeks after George Floyd dies, puts his knee into the neck of a Black man. Like Floyd, the restrained man yells that he cannot breathe; only when a crowd with cameras forms does the officer finally remove his leg. Remarkably, this knee-on-neck technique is not one taught by the area’s police force, so it was a conscious decision by the officer, as if he had been inspired by Floyd’s killer. “I was worried he was going to get executed,” an onlooker told the BBC. “That’s just how George Floyd got killed. If not for the crowds filming the police they could have suffocated him or broken his neck.” Would this man, too, have lost his breath if a crowd hadn’t come?
2020, I’ve come to learn, is the year of breath. It is our cruel, funereal leitmotif. A respiratory and vascular virus, which has killed over 210,000 Americans, makes breathing harder for those it hits hardest, yet our President callously dismisses its danger; unarmed Black people are choked into homicidal submission by police officers in Britain and America.
As I write this, I become aware, again, of breathing. Normally, we don’t feel ourselves breathe; it is one of our body’s nonconscious functions, like the beating of our heart, that occurs without our conscious attention. Yet this year, I keep trying to feel my lungs expanding and contracting, just to make sure they still are. There is something soothing, like the indigo of a fading day, in that reminder.
I think I first felt it ten years ago, scuba-diving thirty feet under the lapis-lazuli surface of a patch of Caribbean Sea in Dominica. By this point, I had fallen in love with scuba-diving, with being swaddled by the blue, with the crowds of corals colorful as crotons, even with the slow, constant breaths that reminded me, vaguely, of Darth Vader. Until then, I had never had anything go wrong on a dive.
Suddenly, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I tried to inhale through my regulator; nothing happened. I looked at the surface, a sun-dappled thing thirty feet away, and tried again. Nothing. My dive buddy, who could have offered me his air, was a black shape far off in the blue—a mistake on both our parts, because you should always be near another diver, just to be safe.
I panicked. I can die, I remember thinking. It’s a cardinal rule of scuba-diving: Don’t hold your breath. Another is to avoid rushing to the surface in a panic if something goes wrong. If you hold your breath and shoot to the surface, you can fatally injure your lungs; to ascend in an emergency, you need to continuously exhale. I braced myself, then kicked up to the surface, letting out a long ahhhh like some Amazon of the mermaids with the little breath I thought I had left.
At the surface, which now seemed choppy, I had someone check my gear. Bemused, they said everything looked fine. I felt strange, more flummoxed than flustered. Why couldn’t I inhale in that moment? Had something malfunctioned, or had I inexplicably invented the issue in my mind? Would I even know the difference, really, if I couldn’t breathe?
I decided to retry the dive, and this time, it was fine. I tried to forget that curious feeling, that fleeting frenzy of death-panic, when I had suddenly become aware I could stop breathing, and tried to focus, instead, on how remarkable it was that a human could ascend on a single breath.
A single breath may seem short at first, but it can be extended, I’ve learnt, until that one inhalation can be held for amounts of time that boggle the mind, and you begin to realize, as Blake said of a grain of sand, that there is a universe in a single breath; and on that note I am watching a YouTube clip of William Winram, a record-setting Canadian freediver, the folks who cruise through reefs and wrecks for minutes at a time, all on a single, expansive breath without any breathing apparatuses; they mesmerize me, these thalassic thaumaturges, but Winram seems particularly extraordinary, for on a single breath this man clutches a platform and then hurtles down into the depths like a passenger on some infernal elevator hair lips cheeks flapping furiously all the way 145 meters down to the edge of the deep sea where it is always night and where the vast squids of legend wait and then he is hauled back up face pinched up like a caricature caught in a storm with little indication he is still alive but for the fact that he has not let go of the platform and then he begins to slowly swim back to the surface and breaches, sputtering but grinning, all on a single, unpunctuated, impossible-seeming breath, and that, to me, is as absurd as it is awe-inspiring, a human shot down to the realms of the sea we shouldn’t be able to survive in; and yet here he is, back again, for breath, it turns out, is the vehicle that carries us, and it is, indeed, more durable than most actual cars, at least until we become aware that we have stopped breathing, and then it becomes an inexpressible marvel, like a blue glacier in the Caribbean, that we have ever breathed at all.
In Pennsylvania, I am trying to do a routine exercise I have done many times before. To dive, you inhale through your regulator, a mouthpiece attached to a tube that connects to your tank. Normally, you want to keep your regulator in your mouth, but if it gets knocked out for some reason, you need to be able to recover it underwater and put it back in. While the regulator is floating beside you, you exhale a stream of bubbles until the regulator is back in. You also take your regulator out to practice buddy-breathing, where you rely on the secondary regulator that all divers have for emergencies because your own has malfunctioned or you’re out of air. The exercise is notable because you can die if you make a serious mistake.
I think of white policemen suffocating bodies like my own. I think of people my age, hospitalized because the coronavirus gave them a stroke or worse.
I’m already nervous this morning. The water feels too cold. The air in my throat is dry. I imagine tumbling underwater over the edge of the wooden platform. I’ve forgotten the love I had for diving; it has become something that intimidates me.
I fail to get the regulator back in. My exhale has been too rapid; I already feel out of air. I try to get it in again and fail. I swallow water and panic.
Suddenly, I realize where I am. I am over twenty feet down with no air coming in. My lizard brain takes over. I might die, I remember thinking, and then in a frenzy I go against every rule of diving and rush towards the surface, writhing, flailing, eyes wide like a rabid raccoon, for I have become nothing but an impulse to survive.
Something arrests my motion. I’m reaching for the surface but can’t get there, can’t go up at all. I’m clawing at the water like I want to rip it, reaching for the light above, the light that is at the end of this tunnel I cannot reach because I cannot go up, and I have no air but am still clawing, clawing, and then suddenly I can move again and in a burst of energy I breach the surface. The sky feels too bright. I cough and taste blood. But I’ve made it. There is breath, there is breath.
My dive master, who has surfaced beside me—it was his hand holding me down, I learn later, because he was trying to offer me his regulator rather than letting me rush upwards, and in my feverish rush I had not even seen him—is calm-voiced, but I can sense his unease. What I did, after all, could kill me if I got water in my lungs. After getting me to shore and having a nurse check my vitals—my heartbeat is “very fast,” she says—he sends me to the hospital with my partner to have my lungs X-rayed.
My body, fortunately, is okay. I swallowed rather than inhaled water, and I apparently escaped serious damage to my lungs by having exhaled before my ascent. I try to smile for the rest of the day, but I cannot get the feeling of believing I was going to die out of my mind. For a week, it keeps coming back to me. I imagine letting my regulator out of my mouth and then start shaking. I wonder if there is water in my lungs the doctors missed. One night, I cannot sleep because I keep being haunted by this ghost of the water: me, flailing, swallowing water, believing I could not make it to the surface.
For years, I’ve admired Neil Gaiman’s personification of Death in his Sandman graphic novels: a kind, smiling, Goth girl who can be terrifying in the rare moments she needs to be but is usually gentle and compassionate as she leads people to “the sunless lands” of lifelessness. She wears a signature ankh, the symbol of life, around her neck, and takes on human form one day a year to feel what it’s like to be alive; she may be Death, but she has an endearing interest in trying to understand the living. Unlike the often-masculine images of the Grim Reaper, Gaiman’s portrayal of Death is not some generic skeleton with a scythe; she feels, instead, like a true embodiment of the complexities of dying.
My own version of Death in my fiction, a girl with blue corkscrew girls who sometimes rides a pink Vespa, also smiles when she appears to others; she came to me in a daydream a decade ago, and I have always loved writing about her. Yet the week after the incident in the lake, I feel on edge to invoke her, or any personification of the same; all I see when I think of Death is my whirling arms, my manic fear. Blue, once my love, unsettles me, like the whiteness of Ahab’s whale.
It is that feeling, that death-frenzy, that haunts me the most.
I realize, now, I felt it all those years ago in the Caribbean, when I thought I also might die, but it was muted, Now, the feeling is wild, vast, loud as the mind of an insomniac. I hate it, but it won’t let me go.
After this, I think more often of images of white policemen suffocating bodies like my own. I think of people my age who thought they were invincible, suddenly hospitalized because the coronavirus gave them a stroke or worse. Once, I kiss my partner and feel, suddenly, like I cannot breathe and am returned, alarmingly, to the thrashing feeling of airlessness in the lake.
It is too much. I feel like a sinking thing. I have suffered from depression and suicidal ideation before; the twin pandemics and my near-death experience bring it back in bursts.
I often think and even hear in colors. America, for me, is usually a mélange, but in the immediate aftermath of the lake incident, America seems a sad, dissonant blue, the shade of a policeman’s uniform, a blue even I recoil from.
I imagine another story, where I am a witch. I imagine being faced with a cop who has decided I am his target, a brown girl to harass, harm, hurt, and I will transfigure him through the grimoire of my anger, yet were I Circe I would not even be able to turn him into a pig because he already too closely matches the part, and I realize that, at the end of the day, the witchcraft I want most to wield is the quiet magic of passing by unobserved, unfollowed, unhunted, because to be a trans girl of color in this asphyxiating America is to always know you may be in danger, no matter how mundane the setting, be it from cop or civilian, and though I abhor that all-encompassing uncertainty I must live under, this, above all, seems to be the story I cannot escape.
There is a curious grief in feeling you’ve lost a color—or perhaps not curious, really, because the colors that resonate deepest in us are almost like loved ones.
The witchcraft I want most to wield is the quiet magic of passing by unobserved, unfollowed, unhunted.
Two weeks after the incident, I return to the lake to redo my dives, so I can finally confront my fears, so I can dive again and feel the ultramarine peace it used to provide.
At first, on those platforms again, I cannot do the regulator exercise. My dive master understands. He takes me to see one of the sunken vehicles, flecked with flickering fish, then to a shallower place to practice the exercise once more. His pedagogy has worked: I’m calmer, now, both by the joy of seeing the underwater monument and by being in a different spot from where the death-frenzy grabbed me. I complete the exercise multiple times, and do it again on my next dive, which takes us the deepest we’ve yet been to see another sunken beauty. It is freezing forty feet down, a far cry from the heat of July, but I’m smiling like someone in love.
Being down there, again, feels like a kind of simple, natural mysticism, a kind of meditation by being in the blue. It is that simple spell I’ve sought.
I’ve finally begun to reclaim diving and learnt to respect my place in the water anew. I’ve learnt, too, to calm myself in the blue. The death-frenzy is still in me, but it’s quieter, and I accept it, like a shadow. It is a feeling I won’t let myself forget because it has become a part of me; acknowledging it makes me a better, more cautious diver, and trying to overcome its grip has helped me appreciate the beauty of the blue even more, the beauty of figuring out how this story goes.
Before we surface, I think of the world beyond the lake. So often, I’ve lived in fear as a trans woman of color of being misgendered, ostracized, arrested, attacked. This entire year, moreover, is a sepulchral feeling I will not forget, where Death seems to be working overtime. It is a story none of us, least of all those of us who are Black and brown, can escape. This viral pandemic will end, to be sure, but the other pandemic, the one targeting nonwhite bodies, has no ending in sight.
But in the water, I feel free, for a bit. It is salvific. The water accepts us all. I smile before we ascend, grateful for such small moments of brief, sacred peace—and that is the new feeling I know I will remember, and cling to, out of the water.
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub and the Head Instructor at Catapult. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Cut, Gay Magazine, Tin House, Guernica, The Paris Review Daily, them, and many other places. Her essays have been anthologized in Indelible in the Hippocampus (2019), Can We All Be Feminists? (2018), and elsewhere. She holds both an MFA and PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She lives in Queens.
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