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Sophomore Breaths MAG
I. Rain pours. The Sky sweats after running a thousand miles in a thousand degrees, weeps after losing its lover of a million years. I stare at the car’s passenger window, watching as individual drops splatter, then slowly slither to the bottom. I’ve always thought of this as a sort of race, but in reverse: which raindrop can last the longest, resist succumbing to the ubiquitous force of gravity. One drop clings to the middle of the window, exactly eye-level with me. I’ve been watching it for at least five minutes. Every drop around it has been falling, sliding, zigzagging down and then disappearing into the growing blob of like-minded drops, indiscernible from each other. But this drop hasn’t budged.
“This Chem test is going to kill me. Like, I’m legitimately going to fail. And then I’ll have a B in the class. R.I.P,” she says. I turn to her and laugh, and it sounds like I’m choking and coughing and breathing at the same time.
“Same.” Chokecoughbreathe. Chokecoughbreathe. “May God have mercy on our souls.”
I turn back to the window and relocate the drop, just in time to see it plunge into the void, the pool of weaker drops that had fallen before. Gone.
II. Annie’s turning 16 so she’s having a birthday party at The Melting Pot. Dinner’s fine, and when dinner ends, we go outside, and we stand in front of the brick wall, and we take pictures. Or, they take pictures. They take about a million pictures of themselves in one position, and then a million in the next. I stand to the side, and I chokecoughbreathe a few times when they laugh, and I double chin and cross my eyes when I happen to be in the picture and they’re taking it.
“Wait wait wait, let me take it again, I look terrible in all of these,” Sherri says, her thumb a windshield wiper swiping across the screen.
Then Emma tells me to get in a picture with her, and it’s a nice picture. So no double chin.
Go on then. You look great, it doesn’t matter.
We stand in front of the brick wall, wrap our arms around each other, smile at the phone. Sky as black as Annie’s hair, sidewalk bathed in velvet yellow from the streetlight, and a lightning camera flash blinds me. I see the picture: my face shines in the bad way, my cheeks puff out like I’m a chipmunk, and next to Emma’s tiny body, I look like a deformed pumpkin.
I should have made my stomach smaller. I should have breathed in a bit more.
III. I have a crush — a good, old-fashioned, middle school crush — on him. He’s funny and unashamed and immature in a way that makes me feel light inside, like I’m a balloon and I’ve breathed in five gallons of air and now I’m floating. But he likes her, and I think she might like him, and she’s my friend, so he’s off limits.
IV. It’s a bit of a rush, failure.
You know that feeling when you lay your hands on the piano keys, and the lights are shining on you, and two thousands eyes are looking at you? Or when you line your feet up with the starting block, and rest your hands on the ground, and focus your eyes on the white lines of the track? Or when you’re watching that movie and the girl goes in the closet and you know she shouldn’t go in that closet because something bad is going to happen?
That’s failure, too.
Wind and ocean roaring in ears. Heart pounding bones, begging to be free of this godforsaken body. Thoughts blank. And then the ocean from my ears reaches my eyes, and I think that’s the worst part. Because if that ocean crashes to shore, drips out even a little — then I’m pathetic. Even more pathetic.
I knew I didn’t stand a chance. But I clung to that hope, let that hope devour me. And that bright little flame that warmed me and guided me? It betrayed me. It was actually a forest fire, waiting for the signal to grow and explode and burn down the trees.
Lungs so preoccupied with clenching air that they forget that they’ll burst if they don’t let out a little breath. Fire makes carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is toxic if you don’t breathe out.
V. It’s 70 degrees out. The sun turns the gray sidewalk white, but it’s not so bright that it’s blinding, because there are some clouds, too. I’m wearing my favorite blue t-shirt, the one that makes my shoulders look thinner and boobs less bulgy. Lily just told a joke — what joke, I don’t remember. But I remember how my smile stretches my face so much that I probably look like a chipmunk prepped for hibernation, cheeks full with a dozen acorns. I laugh and laugh and laugh and it turns shrill, a soprano opera singer in glass-shattering falsetto. I’m exhaling too much to breathe. And I don’t want to stop.
I finally catch a breath, and then I catch Lily’s eye, and just like that it’s gone again.
VI. A drizzle of rain mists the air, tickles my face, stains my hair. The muffled purr of the bus’s engine as it drives away. In the damp, the world speaks more vividly; the curving pavement glistens dark black, the trees wave their emerald green leaves, and the sky shines diamond white. Silence, but for the pattering of drizzle on solid surface, but for the echoing tap of my shoes against the road.
Rain sprinkles. The Sky sheds a lone tear as it smiles, seeing the light at the end of a thick, shadow-draped forest.
Petrichor: the smell of the air after it has just rained. I breathe it in. I breathe in the calm of the universe, the calm of the trees and the wind. I breathe in the Sky whispering to me, telling me that if it can survive, so can I.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Poughkeepsie, New York
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"If not me, who? If not now, when?" -Emma Watson, Gender Equality is Your Issue Too, Speech at the United Nations