Mabel cried in the provincial airport in Puno. She thought the mountain air might be just the thing, but it felt almost worse than the swampy air of the Everglades or even the scorching pain of the Saharan air she had already tried. Despite her best efforts, her lungs cried out for more and more and more. They were insatiable.
She first noticed that her lungs would not fill up all the way at work. At first she thought it was the drone of a PTA meeting that set her off yawning. Everyone was doing it. It was contagious. And then it was happening all the time — it was as though her lungs suddenly took up her whole abdomen and her mouth was helpless to fill this new kind of void.
Mabel went to the doctor and blew in the gadget that measured the strength of her breath. She was not confident she could even make the little ping pong ball hover, but one sigh and it shot to the top. See? The doctor said. Perfectly healthy. Very robust. He did not hear her when she protested which confirmed the fear that her body could not support her voice.
When she said he didn’t have to stay if he didn’t want to, he slid his arm out from under her neck and went. Just like that. Like he had been waiting for the command all along. And maybe he had. From the cavern of their down comforter she watched him collect the things that were his — the shirts, the hangers they lived on, the map of the Maine coast above the toilet, his toothbrush, the cup they put the toothbrushes in. But most importantly he took half the air in the room. She didn’t realize how it would hurt to know he was a walking inventory, an expert nomad.
Sitting in front of fans helped for a while. As did driving with all of the windows open. Mabel drove around town with her mouth flexed into a silent scream for as long as it was helpful. But eventually her lungs grew accustomed to even this. As a school nurse she had access to a supply closet full of children’s inhalers. She snuck puffs from each, tearing them one by one from their velcro mounts on the cabinet door, lovingly labeled with each child’s name and dosage. The light mist succeeded only in making her heart race like a hummingbird’s.
At her local mountaineering store she found cans of oxygen designed to revive climbers and bought their entire stock. As she loaded them into the two canvas totes she had brought, the cashier asked what she was climbing. Because her true intentions were too hard to explain, she pointed to the poster of a mountain with a beakish peak behind the register. “The Matterhorn?” the cashier said, scratching at his beard. Flakes of dry skin settled into the folds of his performance fleece. “Nice.” Mabel hefted the bags onto her shoulders. “Nice,” she repeated.
The trip the Matterhorn did not do the trick, not like she had hoped. She was in reasonable shape for a woman her age, and was able to climb it successfully with a guide. And after all that, the crisp, sharp oxygen seemed to glance off the surface of her lungs. She decided that maybe it was heavier air that she needed, something to sink to the bottom of whatever was inside of her. She stood on the banks of the Amazon, dripping in sweat, the humidity pressing against her ear drums, and listened and listened and listened for the feeling of fullness to hit like a pebble thrown in a well. The peak of Kilimanjaro succeeded only in squeezing her out like a tube of toothpaste.
With each place she wondered what had been taken from her when he left — what source of calm, what depth, what ease. She read self help books and wondered if maybe by virtue of the travel alone she might find some version of fulfillment. She stared hard at the Mona Lisa, breathed the same air as Van Gogh and touched palms with the first cavemen in Spain. Her friends and family marveled at her newfound independence, nodded approvingly at her decision to “take her life back” after he left.
“You just need to relax,” her sister said when Mabel asked if she had ever felt such shallowness. Mabel gripped the stem of her wine glass between her thumb and her forefinger, as though to snap an icicle from a cave. “Relax,” she repeated.
No one seemed to have the answers.The wanting drained her. She didn’t want to be any of these places. She just wanted to take a deep breath, just one. To feel the sharp twang of air filling her to a bursting point.
The next morning, a limp, sweatered thing was pulled from Lake Titicaca. It seemed a woman, impatient for the daylight tour that would have taken her to one of the small islands in the center of the lake, swam out as far as she could and drowned in the middle of the night. The locals agreed that it was the bluest corpse they’d ever seen, the heaviest body they had ever dragged from the Lake’s depths. They pressed the water from her as best they could before sending her home. Mabel bloated slowly, each cell exhaling its last, and was at peace.