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…