Nadja Lubiw-Hazard: "Between Breaths"

Savasana. Body flat on the mat, shoulder blades to the floor, arms and legs extended out, palms up and open. Corpse pose, still as death.

    Inhale. I take a deep breath in through my nostrils. The air travels through the cartilaginous rings of my trachea, divides at the bifurcation of the bronchi, rushes down smaller and smaller pathways. It expands my lungs, widening my ribcage, stretching my diaphragm, raising my collarbones. Seconds pass before I release the breath, letting it stream out slowly, whispering away to nothing. Exhale.    

    The past pulls insistently, randomly, at me. Minutes ago, planting the soles of my feet and the palms of my hands onto the mat and arching into wheel pose, my stomach and breasts skyward, my braids sweeping down; a day ago, tracing the curve of Carmen’s laughing mouth with a finger, a tongue, her black eyelashes fluttering closed; hours ago, eating a bite of salad from my brother’s outstretched fork, the sharp bite of the balsamic vinaigrette; years ago, changing Maddie’s diaper on the beach, the startled look on her face when I placed her naked bum on the sand; months ago, euthanizing a copper coloured cat with kidney disease, the sudden slump of his head as the euthanol took effect. 

    Inhale. I breathe in again, slowly and steadily, air that’s warm and humid, saturated with the smell of sweat and incense, of wet dog. The dog smell is me, or at least my yoga mat, which Friday sometimes sleeps on. Maddie once told me she could smell sunshine on a dog, happiness too, and mud. She loved dogs, almost more than I do. I miss her laugh, falling on me like snowflakes in April, miss the scent of the crown of her scalp, miss her smile. Exhale.

     "I like this one best," Maddie said, pointing at a slate grey dog in my Dogs of the World book. He has coffee-coloured eyes and tangled fur, v-shaped ears, one standing erect and the other flopped over. She tapped her finger on his nose and then ran it in circles around his body. "What’s he called?"
     "He’s a Pumi."
     "What do the words say?" she asked, her finger sliding across to the opposite page. 
     "Well, let’s see, it says here that he’s good at herding sheep."
      She stared at me for a long moment with her mis-matched gaze, her left iris a
startling blue, the right a brilliant green. "Why does he hurt them?"
     "Oh, he herds them, not hurts them. He circles around them and barks at them, encouraging them to go in a certain direction, maybe to the barn at night. That’s herding."
     "I could name him Hairy Legs." 
     "That’s a good name."
     "When could we bring him home?"
     "Well, maybe you’re old enough now. Maybe we can get a dog soon."
     "Can he be that one? That Hairy Legs?" she asked, as she plopped down between my legs and curled against my chest. 
     "Sure he can," I said as I wrapped my arms around her smallness and tugged her close. 

    Inhale. I suck the air through my open mouth, let my rib cage expand up towards the ceiling and then out to the sides. I reposition my hips on the mat, clench and unclench my hands. They both stare at me, Maddie’s blue eye icy with frost, the Pumi’s gaze sharp and fixed, a low rumbling growl starting in his throat, like distant thunder. 
     "Stay," Maddie murmurs, but the Pumi has already started weaving around me with eager precision, wrapping me in tighter and tighter circles, his eyes bright and unwavering, herding me back to the present, leaving Maddie behind. I release my breath with a quivering sigh. Exhale

    I did a splenectomy once on a Pumi with a hemangiosarcoma. I love surgery. I even like all the preparations required: the three minutes of meticulous hand washing with chlorhexidine, followed by the nail brushing, rows of hard little bristles tingling against my fingertips; the ritual of gowning up, sterilized hands in the air as someone else ties you in from behind; the texture of powdered latex tight against each finger; the anonymity of the mask and cap and gown and gloves; the surgical instruments lined up on the tray—needle driver, scalpel blade, spay hook, mosquito forceps, towel clamps—with their needy gleam, waiting for their turn in my grasp; the drapes fluttering down into place, until all that’s left is a ribbon of helpless skin, shaved hairless; the breathless moment before the scalpel, held raised in my gloved hand, slices into the skin and the blood starts to flow. 

    Inhale. The woman next to me sniffs loudly and then coughs, a deep, rasping bark. My eyes flicker open. I’m staring at the wide metallic air duct that crosses the high ceiling above me. Without moving my head, my eyes follow it across the room to the wall, where it turns at a sharp angle towards the window. I picture the scene outside the second story window: the hydro wires, the tree tops, the Starbucks sign on the building across the street. When we do our balancing poses I train my eyes on the letter 'S', the second one, use it as my drishti to help me keep my equilibrium. I breathe out like a horse, a swift snort through flared nostrils, and then squeeze my eyes shut. Exhale

        Last night, waiting with Carmen at the bus stop near the Starbucks, a woman approached, strutting with sharp jerky movements. She was wearing tattered red overalls, a black winter coat and flip-flops, her dirty blond hair was flat and greasy, pulled back in a limp ponytail. "Where’s my sunshine? Did you take my friggin' sunshine?" she screamed at no one in particular, but then she zeroed in on Carmen. "You!" she said, jabbing a dirty fingernail at her. "Have you got my friggin’ sunshine?" 
     "Naw," Carmen said, smiling disarmingly with her hands extended. The woman stared at her for a long moment and then laughed, a sharp cackle that showed a mouthful of rotten teeth.
     "You got money for a coffee, for something to eat?" the woman asked, her hand fidgeting restlessly with nothing. Carmen reached into the pocket of her jeans, offered out a five-dollar bill. 
     "I’ll pay you back Monday," the woman said, grabbing the five and stuffing it into the pocket on the bib of her overalls. "Monday, I swear."
     "That’s great. Monday’s good." Carmen winked ever so slightly at me, a little half-smile tugging at her lips.  
     "What else you got for me there? You got something else a gal like me could use?" She asked, clutching on to Carmen’s arm. 
     "Sure I do,” Carmen said, slow and easy, patting the woman’s hand and then easing it off of her arm. She reached into the zippered pocket of her black shoulder bag and pulled out a pack of smokes, put one in her mouth and cupped her hand around it as she lit it, then passed it to the woman, who took a long drag.
     "You tell Sunshine I’m lookin’ for him," she said as she left, waving the cigarette at Carmen.
     "I didn’t know you smoked."
     "I don’t," Carmen said, with the same disarming smile she’d given the woman. I thought for a moment that there was nothing more to the explanation, but then she continued. "I have a brother who does. He lives downtown on the streets." She shrugged. "He’s schizophrenic, off and on his meds. I see him now and again," she said in a far off kind of way, and I was pierced with an acute awareness of not really knowing her, not knowing her at all, despite eleven weeks of sleeping with her. 
     "I guess we still have a lot to learn about each other," I murmured.      
     "What else do I need to know about you Sophie?" she said, laughing lightly. "You’re a vet, you live with a hairy black dog called Friday, your favourite T.V. show is a reality show about a chick who runs a tattoo parlour, your birthday’s in November." Her half-smile danced across her mouth. “And you’re cute,” she added, tugging playfully on one of my braids.    
    I wished suddenly that we had years behind us, that we had already mapped out the geography of each other’s hearts. I wanted to ask her if her brother had the same colour eyes as she did, like water flowing over moss-covered stones. I wanted to know the song that made her think of her first kiss. I wanted to find out if she’d ever heard the wolves howling at night in Algonquin park, if she’d ever seen a baby being born, if she’d ever read Margaret Marshall Saunder’s book Beautiful Joe, and if it had made her cry. I wanted her to whisper all her secret sorrows into my ear. 
     I should have told her about Maddie then, but I didn’t. Instead I told her about my own brother, Theo, about how he dislocated his shoulder on the weekend. 

     Inhale. I gasp air in, as if I have just surfaced from too long underwater. Theo’s face appears, and then Carmen’s, the sharp angle of her jaw bone, her thin black eyebrows dancing up and down, her lips, a single breath away from mine the moment before we kissed. The seconds slide away before I release the breath, my abdominal muscles contracting and my chest tightening as I expel the last of the inhaled air. Exhale

     "My shoulder’s killing me," Theo groaned, flopping down on the grass on his back beside Maddie’s tombstone. I sat down beside him, then leaned back so my head rested on his stomach. We lay there in the sun, not speaking for the longest time. 
      "I miss my Saturday mornings with her," Theo finally said. "She was so sweet. I used to feed her crap—a hamburger bun with peanut butter smeared on it, noodles from a tin, leftover cold pizza. 'Uncle Theo,' she would say, 'you’re such a good cooker.'" He laughed, his stomach bouncing my head up and down. "Nobody thinks I’m a good cook."                                                                                                                                                                                            "That’s ‘cause you’re not, Theo." He swatted my head, but then his hand stayed there, stroking my hair. He told another story, but the words lost their meaning as they travelled between us, so that I only heard the low drone of his voice, the familiar language of comfort. A sound escaped my lips, the sound that a sick puppy might make, a tiny, pitiful whimper.     
    "Steady, Soph," Theo said. "Steady." 

    Inhale. "Steady," I murmur under my breath, hearing Theo’s husky voice. A smooth stream of air skims into my mouth, bringing with it the taste of courage. I run my tongue across my lips, swallow carefully. As I release the breath, I whisper the word again, like a mantra. "Steady." Exhale.

    Inhale. My hands melt, disappearing into the floorboards. I’m no longer solid, I’m liquid seeping out through the pores of my skin, I’m vapour swirling and then dissipating into the humid air. My grief and my courage disintegrate, shattering into little jagged pieces that scatter, swept away like falling snowflakes caught in a gust of wind, until all that’s left is my breath, moving in and out, in and out. Exhale.

      Inhale. I follow my breath in, rush through my lungs alongside the molecules of oxygen until I reach the alveoli and cross over into a capillary, change from air to blood. My heart beats steadily, sending the blood pulsing through my arteries and I travel with it, whirling and spinning among the lymphocytes and erythrocytes. Exhale.

       Inhale. Maddie appears. She’s swirling there too, inside of me, back inside of me, just like she was at the beginning. She’s the sweetness of a tiny wild strawberry, ripe and full of summer sunshine; she’s a sea turtle, migrating across thousands of miles of open ocean, enduring, enduring; she’s the tongue of a loyal black dog, licking away the salt of my tears; she’s hope, a handful of hope that’s spilling over. She’s everything I ever
wanted her to be. 
    "Stay," I tell her, and she smiles up at me, her mis-matched eyes shining bright with leaves and sky. Her hand slides into mine, like a swallow gliding into a nest in a cliff, swift and sure of its place. Exhale.

Nadja Lubiw-Hazard is a writer, educator, and veterinarian. She studied creative writing at the Humber School for Writers and completed a mentorship with Diaspora Dialogues in 2015. Her creative non-fiction has been published in Room, and she has a short story in the upcoming issue of Dalhousie Review. Nadja is currently working on the final draft of her first novel.