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Living Where the Air Is Thin
by Ben Plotkin

I don’t mind hurricanes; it’s the waiting that drives me crazy. I hate waiting more than anything. There’s a sickening swirling in my gut. I go out on the balcony and smell the wet air. It smells like creation. In the distance, a flicker of lightning charges towards the ground and vanishes, leaving an echo of thunder rolling towards me. I lean over the balcony and stare down at the twenty stories that separate me from the beach. I throw an orange off the balcony and watch as it explodes into a sandy crater.

I go back inside and pick up one of the tourist magazines the hotel thoughtfully furnishes. I flip through the colorful ads that show tables arrayed with seafood and steaks. I decide I should actually eat at some point, despite the fact that I’m not hungry.

The bed is still dirty from last night. I call downstairs and ask them to come up and change the sheets. I wonder if everyone else in the hotel is going as crazy as I am. I wonder if they mind being trapped on this tiny island just waiting for a storm to run us over.

While I shower, I stare out at the sea. I see the waves cresting and collapsing into a churning mass that resembles an ocean painted by Monet. The wind blowing against the glass sounds as if it is whispering to me.

I don’t want to be here when they come to make over my room. I change into a pair of faded jeans and my old UCLA sweatshirt and head downstairs.

The lobby is big and empty. There is no one in the comfortable chairs. I wander over to the bar and sit on an empty stool. I feel as if I’m in a Twilight Zone episode where the entire population has mysteriously disappeared and all that remains is the mysterious bartender.

I order a beer and watch as he pours it into a chilled glass. I don’t drink it.

I want the storm to come closer. Even buried in the bowels of the hotel, I can still hear the thunder. I want it louder. Maybe the power will go out. Maybe they’ll have to evacuate us off the island. If only something would happen…

***

Something did happen. Something always happens. The universe is designed that way.

I close my eyes, wrap my hands around the glass and listen. There is a voice whispering in my ear. It sounds familiar.

“You don’t remember me, do you?”

My eyes were still closed.

“I know you don’t, but it’s ok. I wouldn’t expect you to. It’s been a long time.”

The voice smelled like jasmine, if it were possible for voices to smell. Maybe my neurons were being cross-contaminated.

“Open your eyes,” the voice said.

I did.

There was only the bartender standing in the corner, listlessly eating the stuffing out of olives.

“What do you see?” the voice said.

I looked around. The bar was still deserted.

“I don’t see anything,” I said.

The bartender looked up at me. I ignored him. He probably was used to people talking to themselves.

“You still don’t know who I am, do you?”

“I can’t even see you,” I whispered.

“That makes it that much more exciting, doesn’t it?”

“I’m not sure what that makes it.”

“Close your eyes again.”

I did.

“Now kiss me,” the voice said.

“Where?”

“Anywhere you like,” the voice said, “though lips are traditional.”

I leaned in and waited for an imaginary kiss. Had I not been stir crazy from being cooped up in a storm battered hotel I probably would have immediately gone upstairs and drunk myself into a coma.

My mouth met lips that tasted like her voice; they were soft and melted into mine.

I opened my eyes. Translucent blue eyes stared back at me. She smiled and pushed me back onto the barstool.

“I was hoping you’d do that,” she said.

She was pretty; she wore a beige sundress.

“Don’t look so confused,” she said. “Buy me a drink?”

I waved the bartender over.

“What’ll it be?” I asked.

“You pick for me, see if you remember.”

I laughed and ordered her a strawberry daiquiri.

“Is that what I look like to you,” she said. “A girl who likes fruity drinks.”

I nodded.

She smiled. “See, you do remember—my favorite drink. Now let’s dance. I haven’t danced for ages.”

“Of course I remember,” I said. “I could never forget you.”

She pulled me up off the stool, went to the jukebox and smiled at me. “I know the perfect song,” she said. She slipped a coin in and a moment later, a Radiohead song came on. “You still like this song, don’t you?” She danced over to me, twirled around. She was lithe and skinny, built like a ballet dancer. Something about her filled me with an indescribable joy.

The music played. She moved close and I wrapped my arms around her neck and sung along with the song, whispering the words into her ear.

“It’s nice to have you back,” she said. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too,” I said.

“I knew you would remember.”

The world dissolved into melting electronic notes that fused with the storm outside.

***

I open my eyes in a dusty room. A noisy street vendor is yelling loudly in Spanish. He is only drowned out when the light changes and traffic roars past. I am on the fifth floor. A lonely futon mattress sits in the center of the room. A bookshelf made of planks of wood and cinder blocks is against the wall. I’m humming a Radiohead song. I have a headache. I walk over to the window and shout down at the street vendor, “cayate,” I yell. He glares up at me and shouts back even louder. The light changes again and a new wave of traffic comes. I close the window.

The phone rings.

***

It is almost dark when I hear the key turning in the door. My pulse accelerates. She opens the door and steps in, letting the bag of groceries fall to the floor. She runs her hand over her beige dress, smoothing out the wrinkles. She looks at me.

“Don’t worry—nothing breakable,” she says.

I smile at her.

She looks exhausted. Bits of her frazzled blond hair jut up at all angles.

“Glad to see me?” she says.

“Always,” I say. I stand up and walk towards her. She collapses in my arms and I hold her, listening to her breath. Even after a day of being buried under the grease and smoke of a kitchen, she still smells sweet to me.

“I’ve got some good news,” I say.

“You’re going to make me dinner?” she says.

“I’ll take you out to dinner—I sold a script today. Someone actually bought my movie. Can you believe that?”

She looks up at me, grabs my face, and kisses me. I forget to breathe, but nothing else matters at that moment.

***

We walk down the street, our hands wrapped together. We are shower clean, powder fresh and everything else the ads tell us we should be. We smell good. There is the scent of jasmine in the air. The outside world dissolves around us. We are oblivious to the silver Lexus that speeds through a red light.

***

I wait over the hospital bed. I had never felt the absolute physical necessity to cry, but now the urge overpowers me and like a drowning man who finally must take a breath of water, I cry.

***

We sat in a dark corner of the bar, our hands wrapped around each other with the force of a vice grip.

“Vacation?” she said.

“It was supposed to be—we weren’t counting on the hurricane.”

She leaned in while stirring her drink. I could see the reflection of the table lamp in her eyes. “Remember that day up in the observatory. It was just the two of us because it looked like it was about to rain. Of course, it never did. We had the place to ourselves. You took my hand and we just stared; just stared out at the city. Watching the cars buzz by, the lights change, the sunset. We watched it all. When it got dark. You kissed me, and led me back to the car. You didn’t say anything, but I felt closer to you then I had ever felt before. It was a perfect moment.”

“I remember. I never wanted the sun to set. I just wanted to sit up there forever,” I said.

“Why didn’t we?”

“I don’t know. We should’ve.”

“I wish we could be like this forever,” she said.

“Why can’t we?” I asked.

“Because life’s not fair.” She looked as if she was about to cry. “You didn’t miss me,” she said.

“What are you talking about? Of course I missed you.”

She smiled. “You did?”

“More than anything.”

She took a sip of her drink while eyeing me coyly out of the corner of her eye. “Still like me?” she asked.

“I’ve always liked you.”

“Then do something for me.” Her voice cracked. A tear lingered.

“Anything.”

She leaned in and whispered into my ear. I wanted to kiss her.

“I’m living where the air’s thin. It’s hard to breathe. But you get used to it. I don’t mind so much these days.” She lifted her drink up and put it down without taking a sip. “I don’t want you to ask any questions,” she said. “I need you trust me now, even if it sounds weird. I don’t think you ever really trusted me before, but trust me now.”

“Of course I trusted you.”

“I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just that I need you to listen to me this time, even if you never listen to me again.”

I nodded.

“You can do that?”

“Of course.”

“It’s important. It’s the most important thing you’ll ever do.”

“Anything. Whatever you need,” I said.

“Then come back. In an hour. On the beach. I’ll be waiting.”

“Is that it?”

“You’ll come right?” There was and edge of desperation in her voice. She gripped my hands harder. She felt cold. I told her I would come. She gave me a weak smile and leaned in to kiss me but our lips never met.

***

The storm threw off my internal chronometer. I couldn’t tell what time it was. It had been the same shade of grey all day. I stood on the beach ignoring the splinters of rain. The ocean was angry now, a massive cauldron of grey, green and white. It looked like a creature determined to free itself from its shackles. I wondered what I was doing here. Even the rows of lounge chairs had been evacuated from the beach.

I saw her walking down the beach emerging from the mist of ocean spray. She had changed. She wore a flowy white dress. Her long hair was matted around her shoulders. She smiled when she saw me, but it seemed forced.

“Nice day for a walk,” I said and took her hand.

“It’s a nice day with you,” she said.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“You mean that?” she said.

“Of course, I always loved you. When you left, everything just fell apart. I sat in the corner drinking generic cola and watching infomercials for weeks. I was a mess.”

“You never did well by yourself.”

“I never did well without you.”

“Neither did I,” she said.

The rain seemed to be subsiding. I rolled my fingers around hers. Her nails were turning blue.

“You’re going to get sick if you stay out here like this.”

“I can’t stay long, but before we go, you still have to do something for me.”

“What is it?”

“Follow me.”

“That’s it?”

“Just follow me, no matter what happens you have to follow me.”

“Okay.”

“You promise—no matter what, even if the world starts to crumble around you, you’ll follow me.”

“I promise.”

Her eyes glistened. Her dress billowed in the wind.

“You can’t let me down—it means the world to me. I can’t be without you again, but if you do this for me then everything will be right again.”

Her hand caressed my arm. I felt the chill from the wind and the rain beginning to work its way inward. Her fingers trailed away, the last touch resting on my thumb before she turned and began walking towards the waves. “Just follow me,” she said. “It’ll be okay.”

She walked slowly, her back straight in a steady line. Not even the gusts of wind could deviate her from her course. I walked behind following in the imprint left by her bare feet. As we got closer to the water, she began to walk faster. Her footprints were quickly washed away by the incoming surf. I had always been the more physically active, teasing her when she couldn’t keep up with me on our hiking trips, but now I felt her disappearing in front of me. I tried to keep up but walking through the surf was like trying to drag my feet through tar. The receding tide flowed beneath me, doing its best to pull me under.

She kept walking into the ocean. I could barely see her head above the waves. She kept on going, in the same straight line. The waves had knocked me off my feet. I paddled towards her. I called out. I begged her to wait, I begged her to stop. Her head disappeared beneath the waves followed by the filaments of her hair. I swam faster towards her. Salt water filled my mouth. The tide pulled me under. It was all I could do to breathe. I swallowed water and coughed it up. A wave surged over me, pulled me down and slammed me into the bottom. I opened my eyes. I saw her white dress disappearing out to sea. Her hair billowed behind. I swam towards her. I wanted to yell out, she just needed to let me catch up. I kicked off my shoes and swam faster.

My lungs burned. My muscles ached. Underwater, the currents ripped my body in all directions. For each stroke forward I was pushed back two. My body screamed for air. I kicked harder. Her back was to me, but she held out her hand behind her, beckoning me to take it.

I kicked closer. Around me the ocean pounded, the waves focused their anger against me. I ignored them. She was getting closer. I held out my hand. I could see her walking along the bottom of the ocean, still walking in a perfectly straight line. The currents didn’t seem to trouble her. My body writhed in pain as it tried to extract the last bit of oxygen from my blood. I heard her voice in my head. “Just follow me,” she said. “We’re almost there.” I gave everything I had in one final kick, propelling myself towards her. I reached out; my fingers grasped hers. “That’s it,’” she said.

It was it. My body rebelled. I had to breathe. The urge was too strong. I had to breathe, be it air or water.

I chose air. It was all I knew.

As her fingers slipped away from mine, she turned her head. I saw a flash of her blue eyes before she faded into the dark waters.

I kicked to the surface.

I gasped. I swallowed more water than air. A wave crashed over me. I dove back under. I looked for her white dress, her blond hair. But the ocean was dark. An eddy spun me around and kicked me back to the surface.

I cried out.

I screamed.

I dove back under but she was gone.

I would have drowned. I didn’t care. I wanted to drown, but that wasn’t my fate.

The man who pulled me out said I must have been crazy. He said he saw me just walk right into the ocean and keep on going.

I didn’t say anything. I stared off into the sea. All I could see was its fury of color and then even that turned to grey.


Ben Plotkin is a medical student who strangely enough still finds time to write. He has recently had a short story published in the anthology DIME. In a previous life he lived in Hollywood and worked on movies. As you may imagine, it was glamorous.

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