Three Times I Breathed Other People’s Breath and No One Worried about Death by Nicole Haroutunian

There was the time Lulu and I took the train three stops further into Brooklyn from her place, navigating off of directions scrawled on the back of an envelope, finding ourselves in front of an unmarked door that looked like it couldn’t be anything but a place we weren’t supposed to be, but when we pulled the handle, the door opened and there we were. It was an absolutely enormous space that offered, even more amazingly, almost no room to move, stuffed wall to wall and up to the ceiling with all manner of used furniture and household detritus, as if all the world’s garage sales had been consolidated into this one place. We’d sneezed and then sneezed again. The strong summer light barely filtered through the filthy windows near the ceiling of the place, but once inside its dim rays split into rainbows every which way, broken into color by the humidity and the dust and the mirrors and plate glass and old crystal vases crammed into each and every available spot.

            We almost bought a splintering rowboat; “close” we said. “Almost.” I made her walk away from a yellowing wedding dress she was fingering a little too wistfully. I was sure things wouldn’t work out with Jimmy. When we found the claw-footed bathtub, we both knew that was it. She disappeared into the forest of things, reemerged with a team of Hasidic men who hoisted the tub and deposited it on the sidewalk for us. The problem of what to do next hadn’t occurred to us until we were standing there, two girls and a bathtub on a Bushwick street at the very height of summer. Two girls who had been asked to make an artwork for a party and who, drunk and flattered, had said yes. “We aren’t artists, though,” I’d whispered to Lulu and she’d said, “Says who?”

            Twenty minutes later we had the tub up on two dollies and I was in front, arms behind me slipping off the bathtub lip, sweaty hands making it nearly impossible to keep a grip. Lulu was wearing platform slides and kept tripping as she pushed. When we hit the stretch of Metropolitan where it narrows into a strip of grating over Newtown Creek, a line of cars and trucks built up behind us as the tub vibrated right off of its makeshift wheels. “Fix it” we shouted at each other, each of our efforts less successful than the last, until a man dismounted his cab, hauled the tub to the other side of the bridge, and left us to it, a round of applause from other motorists in his wake. We didn’t make eye contact for a moment, Lulu and I, but when we did, we couldn’t stop laughing.

            Later, at the party, we folded into the tub together, drinks in hand. I ran my pink-manicured fingers over the cracked porcelain. The network of fine black lines sprawling across the white reminded me of river deltas. Lulu said capillaries. Macro and micro. We were wearing little dresses, as we generally did back then, our bare legs entwined. I reached down to scratch a mosquito bite and got her calf instead. We were like one girl with two heads.

            All night long, people traded places with us. First, she climbed out and this guy in an ill-fitting suit climbed in, giving me a sip from a flask he produced from inside his jacket. He was wearing a t-shirt under there. I waited to learn something from being too close to him, but the cheap fabric of his suit itched where it rubbed against my legs. I wiggled out of the tub and so did he, raising his eyebrow at me like he’d been cheated. Lulu got back in with some girl she knew from college, and so on. One guy tripped getting out of the tub and gave himself a bloody nose. Lulu snapped a picture of it on the disposable camera she was keeping tucked under the spaghetti strap of her dress. It wasn’t much later before it was the two of us in there again. The party was background noise. We tilted our heads toward each other, recapping, talking about how everyone had smelled, who kept their hands to themselves and who didn’t.

Jimmy, fifteen years older than us, owner of the loft where the party raged, commissioner of our artwork, object of Lulu’s thrift store wedding dress fantasies, crouched down beside us, and said, “Huh.”

            “Forced proximity,” I said.

            Lulu continued, “You can’t help but slide together in here.”

            “You two look too comfortable,” Jimmy said. “No one else has a chance.”

Lulu and I had been enjoying ourselves, drinking our beers. We’d been in there a while. Jimmy was right; that wasn’t really the idea. So, I flung a leg over each side of the tub, did an improbable hip thrust to lift myself out. I remember the move so well, my back arching, my dress falling up. Oh the sounds my bones would make it if I did that now! 

            Standing up, I realized just how much I needed to pee. The backs of my thighs were red from where I’d peeled them off the porcelain. I clasped my hands and raised my arms in a stretch. Jimmy was in the tub with Lulu, his lips on her neck, and I already missed my friend. I was no artist. I went to find the bathroom.

There was the time Jesse and I saw that a band we really liked was playing at the venue just a short drive from our place and we threw on our shoes and rushed over, only to realize they’d played there the night before. That night, they were in Philadelphia. It seemed like another near miss. We’d almost gotten to see the band. We almost loved each other. This was almost working. Jesse leaned against the brick wall, the summer sun already fading into evening, his eyes on his phone. There was a bump in the bridge of his nose that was only visible in profile. How many people noticed that about him? I said, “Philadelphia isn’t that far.”

            The drive should have taken two hours, but it was three with traffic and when we got to the show, they were already halfway through their set. We rushed in, full of the adrenaline of being late, of being a little lost, and somehow, we were able to let it all hit us just the right way: we rolled that feeling over into the sound of the guitar, the momentum of the music, the pounding pulse of the room. The heat of all the bodies inside it turned it animal. We pressed into that heat, that mass, and it enveloped us. Holding hands, we jumped in time with the music and the floor shook. It wasn’t a real venue, not a legal one, but the upstairs of someone’s rickety building and thinking back, I wonder if they even had the exits marked, but that wasn’t something I worried about back then. It was like sweat was raining from the ceiling; never before nor again did I have sweat in my eyes that probably wasn’t even mine. I threw my head back as I sang along, unselfconscious about my terrible voice because it was so loud in there, the band was so loud I could feel the music in my teeth. Jesse shouted in my ear that I had to open my eyes and I did even though they stung with salt, watching the guitar player hang backwards off the stage, her hair as wet as if she’d stepped out of the shower. She was borne aloft by the crowd, carried only so far before of course her guitar unplugged and she had to be returned the stage. The music was so strange in that moment without her, that the crowd, that we, we started singing the guitar part, becoming the instrument. When she was hooked up again and played her first note, we just screamed and screamed. We emptied our voices into that room, we turned ourselves inside out.

            After, once we found our car again—three blocks over from where we thought we’d left it, we stood outside of it dripping. I said, “I think I have to ring out my shirt.” So we stripped off our shirts, then our jeans, and twisted them, flapping them over our heads, laughing our faces off. We hadn’t even had anything to drink but we were giddy off of the show, the dehydration. We couldn’t bear to put those damp clothes on again. We drove back to New York in our underwear. Mine was a set—plain black cotton—but Jesse’s boxers were a bright turquoise, darkened at the waist with sweat. He was making up a silly song about being naked and in love on the Jersey Turnpike as the city appeared, far off, a string of lights on the horizon. My ears were still ringing, but I thought he sounded pretty good. 

There was the time I thought my water broke. On the phone, the nurse asked me to smell my pants to make sure it wasn’t urine. My heart was beating so fast, I was searching wildly for the Chapstick someone had told me I absolutely had to have in my hospital bag, but I knew I hadn’t packed, and she was asking me to smell my pants. They were my favorite maternity leggings, the ones with just enough stretch. After the whoosh of water, I’d peeled them and my underwear off, thrown them right into the tub, and called the doctor. Jesse had already left for work. With the nurse still on the phone, I picked them up off the damp shower floor with two fingers and sniffed. They smelled like my cherry blossom body wash. They smelled like that because I’d squirted it all over them. But whatever—I knew what it felt like to pee! I’d been doing it my whole life. This was different so I told her, no way—definitely not urine. My due date was a week away and my pants were wet. The baby was coming. I remember being absolutely sure, in that moment, that I would never, ever tell anyone about how I had to smell the crotch of my leggings to see if they smelled like pee. How mortifying. I thought I’d even forget it myself.

            Outside on Roosevelt Avenue, I tried to flag down a cab. The train was roaring overhead every few minutes, drowning out Jesse’s voice on the phone. He kept saying he was going to come pick me up, but the car was here in Queens and I was worried about driving; what if my contractions started and I drove off the bridge? Recently chunks of the actual train tracks had been shaking loose and falling onto cars or at the feet of passersby, so I kept looking up in case I had to dodge metal; each time I turned my head back to see the tail end of a lime green cab disappearing down the street. I was starting to panic. Lots of things about what was going to happen when I gave birth were still a mystery to me, but everyone had been quite clear that, if my water broke, I was to report directly to L&D. I had some sort of blood thing, what was it called? Strep? The baby would need antibiotics. I was in clean leggings, with a washcloth folded up in them because I hadn’t bought those post-partum pads yet that I was supposed to get, and I had the go-bag sans Chapstick on my back, and I got on the bus.

            It was still rush hour; the bus was filled with people on their way to their jobs. Working from home, I didn’t have all of those stories so many women in the city have about doing exaggerated belly-rubs and back arches to get a seat on the train; a friend of mine wasn’t offered one for the duration of her pregnancy until the day of her work baby shower when she boarded the train carrying a balloon that said, “Baby on the way!” I was prepared to announce to the bus that I was in labor and needed to sit, but as we lurched into gear and people looked up, they were falling over themselves to get me situated. Of course, the front of the bus is where the old ladies sit in the section reserved for them; I wasn’t about to displace an old lady. But I also wasn’t about to fight one. Two women had their hands on me, on my elbows and belly, and they lowered me down to a seat.

            “It’s time?” one of them said. She had a face made soft by lines, grey hair in a bun. I nodded. They could tell just by looking at me? I was sweating so much. She and the other woman spoke to each other over my head; I missed what they were saying but imagined they thought I was an idiot for being on the bus. And it was true; the train probably would have been faster. Or I could have called a car service. The other woman, she had a handkerchief and she literally mopped my brow. I felt like the dying heroine in a movie. It wasn’t until she blotted my cheeks, too, that I discovered I was crying. This was the last time I’d be on the bus as a woman who wasn’t a mother. The last time I’d pass by the good grocery store as a woman who wasn’t a mother. The last time my baby would be a part of my body. The last time I wouldn’t yet be a mother. I didn’t even know the person I’d be the next time I was here; I would be a mother, a stranger. These women would know me as well as I knew myself. My eyes closed, hyperventilating with the strangeness of it all, maybe I did look like I was in labor. I don’t know where those women were going, but they stayed with me, on either side, holding my hands and murmuring to me like mothers, until I got off the bus. I was blocks away from the hospital still, because I hadn’t paid any attention to what bus it was I was boarding, but I was in Manhattan and I could still walk.

            A few hours later, I was in a cab with Jesse, headed home. My water hadn’t broken. The baby wasn’t born for another two weeks. It was something I could have felt silly about, the time I peed my pants and was convinced I was in labor. But no, I didn’t feel silly. Those mothers on the bus thought it was happening, too. I told the story to anyone who would listen.

Nicole Haroutunian is the author of the novel Choose This Now (Noemi Press, forthcoming 2024) and the story collection Speed Dreaming (Little A, 2015). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Bennington Review, the New Guard, Joyland, Post Road, Tin House‘s Open Bar, and elsewhere. She is an editor of the digital arts platform Underwater New York and cofounder of the reading series Halfway There. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Woodside, Queens, New York City.