November 07

The Other Air

Dalia Rosenfeld

I had been sighing a lot. A breath would rise from within me, then slowly release itself, like a failed note from a broken instrument. I took myself to the doctor. On the bus, I watched the driver insert a straw into a bottle of ginger ale. The bottle was too big and swallowed it up. At the next light, the driver tried to fish the straw out with his mouth. He tipped the bottle towards him until the long plastic stalk bobbed to the surface, then jammed his tongue into the hole like a suction. The straw caught, and he drew it out with his teeth. Then he set the bottle in its holder beside the steering wheel and forgot about it.

The doctor came into the room on crutches. He was missing a leg but otherwise appeared to be in good health. Without introducing himself he handed me a cardboard tube and told me to blow into it. As I blew, he pointed to a series of fidgeting numbers on a computer, and a jagged orange line climbed steadily across the screen. When it could climb no higher, the doctor assured me that my lungs were in good order, clear and strong, and suggested that my frequent sighing was connected to a heightened emotional state. I stared at the empty space where the doctor’s leg should have been and felt a twitch in my knee, as though it had just been tapped with a hammer. I thanked the doctor for his diagnosis and hobbled home.

At home, I called my mother. She works as an immigration lawyer. Every time we speak she has a different accent. Occasionally I receive a letter from her, addressed to me but meant for someone else. I readdress the letter and send it back, unread, in the same envelope. Our correspondence consists of copying down each other’s names like this. The similarity in our handwriting is uncanny.

Over the phone, my mother reminded me that I had never been happy as a child, that during the first five years of my life I had fallen into the toilet twice, once with a shiny penny emerging from my bowels. She told me that on her side of the family there was a history of catching one’s breath, but that nobody had ever called it sighing. To prove her point she described a picture taken years ago of my grandmother swimming in the Danube, her head tilted back toward the sky as she came up for air. On either side of her swam two young men reaching playfully for her shoulders. One of them would later send my great-grandparents to their deaths, but my mother couldn’t remember which.

After I hung up the phone, I went for a walk. As I walked I thought about my boyfriend, whom I had not seen for several days and might just as easily not have seen for several years. Stopping at a familiar building, I climbed a set of stairs in search of a friend. Rabbi Kogan met me at the door, stood before me with his arms crossed and led me inside.

His beard was longer than I had remembered it. I stared at it, wishing it shorter. I said, “Reb Kogan.”

Rabbi Kogan nodded. He pointed to a chair stacked with leather-bound tomes. “You’ve got a difficult question for me today?” he asked hopefully. “Sit. Ask.”

“And the books?”

Rabbi Kogan cleared the books from the chair. “Ask a harder question,” he said.

While I tried to think of a question, I stared at the Rabbi’s beard. It was a big beard, thick and black with sporadic strands of gray. Like a beard. The rabbi saw me staring. He said, “A Jew is forbidden to remove even a single white hair from his black beard.”

Before I could respond, I felt a cold draft inside of me, and a sigh escaped. “Actually, I came to make a donation today,” I said. “To the physically handicapped. To Jews with only one leg.”

“Very good, we’ll send it to Israel. What else?” Rabbi Kogan asked.

I handed him a twenty-dollar bill. “Nothing else,” I said. “I’ve been sighing a lot, having to catch my breath. It’s exhausting. I’d like it to stop.”

The rabbi waved the money under my nose like a jar of smelling salts. “You’re a Jew, you sigh. It’s a fact. Don’t try to change it.”

At home, I wrote a thank-you note to Dr. Wilson. I wrote, “Dear Dr. Wilson, thank you for seeing me on such short notice the other day. Best wishes, etc.”

The post office was closed, but a small line had formed outside, and I placed myself in it. I read the thank-you note again before sealing the envelope. It read, “Dear Dr. Wilson, thank you for seeing me on such short notice the other day. Best wishes, etc.” Sticking the envelope back in my pocket, I waited for the man in front of me to stuff a pair of socks into a manila envelope, then quietly removed myself from the line.

I once knew a boy named Max whose parents had named him Max after deciding he should become a grocer. Five years after Max became a grocer, I received an invitation to the opening of his sixtieth store. At the opening, Max led me through the store to his favorite aisle of canned vegetables and soup mixes. He said, “Have you ever seen so much shit?”

He told me that his parents had envisioned him selling black bread and kipper snacks from a dark room on a residential corner. Their dream was to live upstairs, above the store, and listen to the traffic below, the ring of the cash register, the crunch of a pickle. When a customer couldn’t pay in cash, he would pay on credit, the pinnacle of Max’s parents’ fantasy. At the end of every month, they would descend the creaky stairs to help restock the shelves and smooth out the wrinkles in their son’s apron.

“I’ll stop at a hundred,” he said.

I was still sighing. Sometimes I looked into the mirror when I breathed, opened my mouth and peered inside as the cold air brushed against my gums. I didn’t like what I saw very much, two rows of teeth that had resisted years of costly orthodontia and a dark tunnel at the back of my throat through which all of my sighs passed before exiting. There was usually nothing more to do but close my mouth again and wait for the next sigh.

Then one day my mother called to tell me that my grandmother had died, and that I was to give the eulogy at her funeral. I thought it was a crude joke, a horrible misunderstanding. Wasn’t my grandmother already dead? Hadn’t she suffered a heart attack years ago while waiting for a bus in the middle of winter, when my mother refused to drive her to the hairdresser to dye her hair blue?

My mother scolded me for rewriting history. She reminded me that as a child I had scraped the prune filling out of my grandmother’s palatschinken, cried when a cloud of paprika settled in her hair, screamed when I sat on her knee for a story and the ‘r’s came out rolled. “’Just as the dead shall be called to account, so shall the eulogizers be called to account,’” my mother warned me, quoting from the Talmud.

In short, I was to give the eulogy because I had known Magda best.

I prepared for the funeral by seeking comfort in the arms of my boyfriend. First he held me one way, then another, straining his back both times to try to give me the help I needed. When he finally found a comfortable position, I was being cradled like a baby, my legs hanging by his side, limp and useless. “Is this it? Is this how she used to do it?” my boyfriend asked, wanting to get it right. I burrowed deeper into the crook of his arm. “It might be,” I said, slowly beginning to feel the strain in my own back. “There are only so many ways to hold a baby.”

We stopped seven times on the way to the grave. Rabbi Meyer explained why. “We pause to reflect upon the vanities often mistaken for a meaningful life,” he said. “What is human existence?”

At the graveside service we tossed spadefuls of earth over the grave. When Rabbi Meyer bent down to pick up the pen that had fallen out of his pocket, everyone bent down. After the Kaddish, my mother announced that I wished to say a few words about my grandmother. She turned to me and stroked my face with the back of her rough hand. She said, “Magda would have pinched these cheeks until they bled.”

I stepped forward, out of the tight circle. I looked around for my Bubbe. “Bubbe?” I called out. “Magda?” I stepped back into the circle.

Before leaving the cemetery we washed our hands. Rabbi Meyer explained why. “We are clean,” he said. “We have done everything in our power to keep the deceased in life, to ease her distress.”

I felt my mother’s fingers climb up my back like a spider. “That’s not technically true,” she whispered.

My boyfriend was waiting for me in the living room when I came home. He said, “Why are you so dirty?”

I looked at my feet, caked in mud, and said, “I just buried my grandmother in a deep grave.”

We sat in separate chairs. We didn’t speak much. Instead, we made sounds, pushed the air out of our lungs, then pulled it in again with equal force. Soon my boyfriend was asleep, and my head was spinning with loneliness. In my giddiness, I shut my eyes and reached out for something stable. When the room righted itself, I got up to close the door and listen for the sound it always made: the cough of someone waiting to come in.



Dalia Rosenfeld is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her stories have appeared in Atlantic Unbound, Tikkun, Midstream, Shenandoah, and in a forthcoming issue of Covenant. She is at work on her first novel, What Comes Around, set in Israel.