Monday, October 1, 2007

A Story That Ends with Me Breathing into a Paper Bag

This weekend our department is going on a hike. We're planning to scale the mountains around here.

I've never hiked before. I know nothing about hiking, except for what little I gathered from reading short fiction pieces written by one of my graduate school professors, and those didn't really paint the whole act of hiking in a "good" way. In fact, after reading those stories I had the suspicion that hiking trails were inhabited by perverts, the socially inept, and people who like to get naked.

Hiking, though, isn't the only athletic-ish thing that the department has discussed in the last few days. Just this morning one of the faculty members announced that he's one hundred percent sure that our department is the craftiest department, the most physically fit department, the most skilled department, and we could take on any other department at any sport and wipe the floors with them.

Not everyone looked convinced.

"What?" he asked. "Come on. Who are you afraid of? We can take them all. Tennis, golf, a mile run--we could beat them at any of that."

That's when I had to interject. I might look fairly tall and aerodynamic, but I'm really not. I also have a really bad track record with running miles. "Let me tell you about gym class in middle school," I said.

I told them about how we were forced to do the awful Mile Run/Walk twice a year, and I hated that more than anything. I wasn't a good runner, but most of my friends were. They wouldn't hang back to chug along at my dismal pace. Instead, they would power past me and run full-out from start to finish. Me, I was near the back huffing and puffing and trying not to notice when the really cute boys lapped me, the soles of their expensive sneakers smacking the ground of the soccer fields and saying, You'll never catch me. You won't, you won't, you won't.

My beautiful friends were glittering backs far in front of me. Their ponytails bounced in the afternoon sun. They couldn't turn around and worry about me or how I was staggering along in a half-run/half-walk. The fat girls, who didn't run at all and whose thighs chaffed from their casual mile-long jaunt, were right behind me. I was only a little better than the really fat girls.

And one time I sort of worked myself into a fit over it. I was in a horrible mindset. I didn't want to run, walk, or anything in between. I didn't want to participate. I hated gym, I hated that our severely overweight gym teacher (who was married to our severely overweight music teacher, both of them girls) got to stand by tapping a pen on her clipboard and consulting her stopwatch.

And so after she blew the whistle and everyone took off, I started off with a black lump of hate turning itself over and over in the pit of my stomach. With each stride I kept thinking of reasons I shouldn't have to put myself on display like this, and the best reason I could think of was I had a heart murmur. I couldn't get my teeth cleaned without taking special medicine because of the condition, and here I was being expected to dash up and down the soccer fields just because of some presidential council on physical fitness said I should? If the presidential council on physical fitness had gotten an eyeful of my gym teacher, they would've realized they had bigger problems on their hands than a bunch of not-obese twelve year-olds.

Well, my thinking about the heart murmur got me feeling the heart murmur. See? I was thinking to myself. My heart feels like it's going to thump its way out of my ribcage, and then what? I kept thinking that and thinking that and thinking that, and then I realized I was gasping for air. I was staggering over to my gym teacher and flapping my hands to indicate I couldn't breathe. Of course, my angry thinking got me out of nothing. I'd groused about it for all three giant laps and finally collapsed when I reached the finish line.

The gym teacher called to a group of my friends, who were resting underneath a shade tree. They'd been done for four or five minutes, and now they were fanning themselves and looking peachy-cheeked and fit as all get out.

When they reached me, bending over to try to talk to me, to see if I was okay, the gym teacher jerked her finger in the direction of the school. "Someone take her to the nurse's office," she said.
"I can't feel my fingers or toes," I said, and I couldn't--but probably not from any real affliction. I'm still fairly sure I talked myself into hysteria.

My friends, unaware of the serious psychoses that had driven me to near collapse, flanked me and brought me safely to the nurse. They volunteered to stay with me, even if that meant missing lunch, but the nurse dismissed them. She said she needed to examine me--and in her world, "examine" meant making me lean over and put my head between my knees, then sit back up and breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, and breathe out of a paper bag. Afterward, she told me to lie back on a cot. This would be the extent of her services. She didn't ask me about any pre-existing health conditions or what might have triggered such an odd reaction to running a mile. She just snapped the curtain shut on my cot cubicle and went about her business of filing paperwork.

A few minutes later the curtain hissed back against its metal rail. There, on the other side, was the assistant principal--a man we all hated, a man who was foul and cruel and evil, a man we would later nickname The Walking Penis.

He came in, zipped the curtain back up behind him. He sat on the end of my cot, where my feet were held aloft at a strange angle by a stack of blankets. He said hello to me, pretended he was really interested in what was happening to me, but he didn't even get my name right. "Jennifer," he said, looking me over. "You gave us all quite a scare, you know?"

Anyone could tell he was pleased I didn't die on his watch because he for sure would've been the one held accountable if the next day's headlines in the Buffalo News read Local Girl Dies During Gym Class.

"Your feet need to be higher," he said, and he added more blankets to the pile. He patted my shoulder awkwardly and then stood. "You're fine," he proclaimed. And then he was gone, leaving the curtain open behind him. Some of my friends were standing just outside it, though, and they'd smuggled me small snacks left over from lunch. They wanted to know just how long I thought I'd be down there, if I was going to get to go home, if I was going to get to miss math.

But nothing happened. Shortly thereafter the nurse also proclaimed my fine-ness and signed me back to class. I had to walk back down the hall and into class and face everyone after what had happened, and such a fast release made me look like a faker and a freak, but I suppose that was fair. I was probably a little bit of both. But I do remember there being a few minutes that day when I thought maybe--just maybe--this was a real problem, that something bad was going to happen, that I would never be able to find my breath, and the last memory I would have of life on earth would be the way the it felt to round the last curve and see everyone else except the fat girls sitting under trees and waiting for you to finish so they could go inside and eat a bologna sandwich.

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