FAILURE TO BREATHE by Emily Withnall

The diaphragm wheezed and gasped. It was a broken accordion and with each push, the squeaking and squawking that emerged were evidence that it should surrender. There was no hope and what’s more, the attempts were painful—and embarrassing.

The diaphragm felt defeated. This was an old, familiar feeling. It had never lived up to its full capacity, but over the years, awkward swimming lessons and less awkward singing lessons had strengthened it. The diaphragm knew what it was like to be useful and strong and to provide the satisfying, deep inhale and long sustained exhale. It was capable and even when it didn’t live up to its full potential, its self-esteem was always growing.

The diaphragm had never liked roller coasters but it had to admit that the roller coaster was the best metaphor for its trajectory. Roller coasters were clichés though, so the diaphragm felt it had to reconsider this framing. Maybe it was like hiking a mountain. It had done well with hikes, but not with hikes over 10,000 feet. Pumping air through asthmatic lungs was a tall order. Still, the diaphragm had done the best it could. What had all appeared like an uphill path, leading past the stars and to the very edges of the ever-expanding universe, was just like everyone else’s path. A lovely, if arduous, ascent… but with nowhere left to go but down.

The diaphragm felt guilt in admitting defeat. What would happen to the body if it just laid down and took a forever nap? Would it be accused of murder? It had never heard of a diaphragm being accused of murder, but there was a first for everything. An accusation would surely lead to conviction. A life behind bars. That wouldn’t do the body any good, but the criminal justice system further breaks what is already broken, so such an outcome would be in keeping with history.

The diaphragm was glum at this point and wanted to rewind time, but time was like a cassette tape with all the ribbon hanging out and knotted. Even if the diaphragm could untangle the ribbon and find a pencil to slowly wind it back in, would reliving the pain be worth it for the joy? Especially if it turned out that the tape was Alanis Morissette. It would even be worth caterwauling to “You Oughta Know” if the diaphragm could just fix some things. If it could go back and choose not to self-sabotage. If it could go back and do deeper therapy.

The diaphragm had been rendered a sad, flat balloon because the body was wracked with grief. Love, the kind that seeps in and stays, had alchemized between the body it belonged to and the body containing another diaphragm. The other diaphragm was even weaker and rarely provided its body with a full breath. There were sad reasons for this but also hope for breathing at full capacity. The two bodies felt promise and possibility and a love with family in it—a new feeling for both of the bodies. Together, both diaphragms experienced breathing that was deeper than ever before. The future was full of the richest oxygen.  

Then, the other body walked away. The love stayed behind because it was too late to get it out. Love had spread everywhere and filled spaces not occupied by organs. Love blocked the middle of the chest like a bandage applied so tight the wound festers and skin dies at the edges. 

The diaphragm supposed that it should blame love, or the chest, or the lungs. Or maybe it should blame the air, so filled with coal dust and exhaust and micro-plastics. Maybe, in not trying, it was actually saving itself.


Emily Withnall is a writer and educator and lives in Missoula, Montana, with her two teens. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Gay Magazine, The Kenyon Review, River Teeth, Indiana Review, and Fourth River, and has been anthologized in “Greetings from Janeland” and “We Leave the Flowers Where They Are.” Emily is a writing fellow with Center for Community Change, and she is currently writing a book about domestic violence and hydraulic fracturing. Read more of her work at emilywithnall.com
 

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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