Breathing Exercise

Raven Leilani
Abstract ink dots
Jayne Wilton, Drawing Breath (Inspire), 2010, detail.

When she began to have trouble breathing, Myriam tried to wait it out. She monitored the daily pollen count, bought a Neti pot, and tried not to think about the gallerists who no longer returned her calls. After an opening of her new work which had only three attendees—a pair of Danish tourists and a woman who wanted to know if the toilets were free—she went to a party in Poughkeepsie and received a crushing pep talk from a sculptor whose assistants were always under the age of twenty-three. You’re still young, he said, and all night people offered similar condolences for her career. Later the host of the party corralled everyone into a room with an old tube TV. When he turned it on, she could hear the crackle of the cathode. He adjusted the antennas and said he was going to show them a documentary. It was about competitive tickling; as they watched, a hush settled over the room. A man looked into the camera and described being bound and tickled. They told me it was about endurance, he said; I was thirteen. It made Myriam uneasy, and she excused herself and took the earliest Metro North into the city that she could find.

As soon as she got on the train, she put her head between her knees and tried to breathe. She called her mother, and they had a nice conversation until they came to the subject of her work. It had been eleven years since she’d left home, eight since she’d graduated from a mid-tier art school and made her name showing audiences how much abuse the human body could withstand. It isn’t sustainable, her mother said, and, technically, she was right. As Myriam was getting off the train, the first email came. Hack bitch, it began, before segueing into a surprising deconstruction of one of her more recent shows—soft depictions of black women in ornate Victorian dress: horsehair crinoline, ivory boning, bantu knots. Subtler than her larger body of work, meaning it involved significantly less self-harm. Why not just kill yourself, the author wrote, after a long treatise about the Round Earth conspiracy.

At home, she tried to open up her airways with peppermint oil and steam. She took a Xanax and walked around in circles with her arms above her head. A man was playing trumpet across the street, and she opened the window and asked him to stop. Not for the first time, her apartment felt as if it was too small. It was 545 hyper-utilized square feet, a one-bedroom in Bed-Stuy that she could afford only because the closest subway station was five blocks away. She regretted going to the party, but invitations were not coming the way they had when she was twenty-five—when she fed yam and pig intestines through a cotton gin and could still be someone’s age-inappropriate girlfriend, when she rigged a voting machine to a hose and stood in a glass tank as patrons cast their votes, when the confluence of an unimpeachable pelvic floor and a strong debut made her into a wanton, Brooklyn-dwelling monster; those were the days. Days when her mother called and asked why she would do these things to herself in public for white people.

Myriam didn’t have a good answer, only that there was something pure about force, about a fervent belief in her own body, which could be technically boiled down to such clichéd maxims as Mind over Matter and No Pain, No Gain. She found a place in her mind that was dark and cool and still, and then she opened a show at the Domino Sugar Factory and let herself be repeatedly pushed down a flight of stairs. Now she was twenty-nine, and her career was not going as planned. Myriam Says Relax, a show in which she sat for two hours with a lye relaxer in her hair, had not been received well. After an hour, the sodium hydroxide had begun to eat through her scalp, and she was hospitalized. The reviews were embarrassing: articles on the vague hotepian undertones of the project, on the self-inflicted martyrdom for a problem as tired—as nineties—as western European beauty standards. And finally, the criticism which at first felt shallow but now worried her as she moved beyond an age where it was good enough just to shock and awe: that she was making a spectacle of black pain, feeding the machine she loathed.

She made attempts to remedy this, projects organized in secret with scrappy, progressive galleries unfazed or actively down for the legal repercussions of not letting white people into her shows, of charging them double, of making them wear signs around their necks that said, I am not welcome here. She put on shows like George Washington’s Teeth, in which she collected the teeth of white patrons and made bespoke silver grillz. But ultimately how she explained it to her mother was that she had somehow broken into an industry in which she was not particularly welcome, and she was just doing what she could to survive. She had made a Rube Goldberg machine—fifty dominoes, eighteen gumballs, seventy rubber bands, and one glass of warm salt water poised above a synthetic hymen to terminate in the utterance of the n-word. She branded herself with erasure poems she’d drawn from excerpts of Huckleberry Finn. White people came in giddy droves, excited to say the few words they were not allowed under the guise of discussing art.

A few days after the party
, there was another message. She knew it was from the same person because of the email address, a generic dot org with no corresponding organization, but this time he signed his name. Tragic Negress, it began. I read your interview with ______ and I had a few points. She imagined he was normal, indistinct. To imagine him grotesque somehow felt less true, like a child’s idea of evil, in which there is no dissonance between the heart and the face. It was just as likely that he was a competent and active community member, a new father, a guy on Lexapro with a dog waiting for him to come home. Of course Hitler’s dog must have loved him too. The only thing she knew was that he was local, as he spoke obsessively about an exhibit he’d seen recently at Hauser & Wirth, in Chelsea. Dear Richard, she wrote, You think you hate me but you are actually obsessed with me and that is the thing you hate, and even this made her feel out of breath.

I had a good childhood. You didn’t do anything wrong.

She hoped she might feel better after going to the gym, but after two minutes on the treadmill, she had to stop. It took her aback that her body, which she had punished thoroughly for years, was now incapable of accommodating such a small request. She started the treadmill again, but it was too much. She had the sensation that there was something hard and insoluble in her throat, like a diamond or some amalgamation of the microplastics in New York’s water supply. Her trainer took her aside and asked if she was all right. He was a jarhead from Staten Island who didn’t believe in excuses, and sometimes he pinched the fat that still remained around her stomach and made her keep going until she cried. But now he put his hand on her shoulder and told her to breathe, and she shrugged off his hand and said, I can’t.

The next morning, she took the train to a clinic in Sunset Park and told her primary care physician that it felt as if she had wool in her lungs. While she described her symptoms, he kept glancing at his watch. In a way, this comforted her. If the situation were dire, she imagined, he would be a better audience. So she was relieved when he simply told her to go home and get some sleep. But a week later, she felt worse. As if every valuable organ in her chest were distended with dark city air. She logged into her health insurance portal—a poorly designed bit of JavaScript for patients insured through her Artists Union—and sent messages to her physician about the state of her health that did not receive a response. Richard kept in touch. As she expected, her response had not deterred him. It had encouraged him. I’ll find you, he wrote. It would be nothing to find your address. Maybe this is why your work has gotten so tepid? Maybe you feel a little too safe?

She couldn’t pretend that some of this didn’t hurt her feelings. Comments about her cunt, about how her head might look on a stick—whatever. But the comments about her work, she carried them around with her all day. Although he was not alone. This particular critical response was familiar—that her level of self-exhibition corresponded inversely with her level of safety. Who is this for? her mother asked, and within the question was an accusation: that her work could not be for black people, for black women—creatures so powerless that to invite further subjugation was redundant, perverse. Myriam stammered when she tried to explain herself. She did not feel powerless. She felt searingly present in the world, and sometimes she wanted to be reduced.

When she didn’t respond to his message, Richard sent a photo of a scimitar, then a Glock. She tried to report him. She put on her least threatening clothes and went to the precinct on Lafayette with a handful of printed emails, but as he hadn’t actually done anything, there was nothing the authorities could do. After two days they sent an email to say that the ticket was closed, and she bought three cameras and mounted one in each room.

A few days later, she met with a pulmonologist. She sat in the waiting room for forty-five minutes after her appointment was supposed to start, and then a nurse ushered her inside and weighed her in a room with an overflowing garbage can. When the pulmonologist came, he did not make eye contact. He mispronounced her name and prescribed an antihistamine. The copay was two hundred dollars, the deductible a distant, four-figure number that she could not hope to touch, the Artists Union’s HMO a collection of inscrutable fine print that covered only routine checkups and visits to in-network gynecologists who said things like Very pretty about her transvaginal ultrasounds.

She took the pills and wrote a few emails to her mother that she didn’t send. I had a good childhood. You didn’t do anything wrong, one email began, before she filed it away in her drafts. When the pills didn’t help, she found a nebulizer on eBay and hooked herself to the machine twice a day each week. This is what I’m going to do to you, Richard wrote after sending a link to an upsetting pornography. Okay, Myriam wrote back, lank from an hour on the nebulizer, the mask still strapped to her face and sputtering mist.

Of course, this only made him angrier. In her unfortunate tenure as a heterosexual woman she had learned that men, more than anything, did not like to be surprised. They did not like there to be any place inside you they could not touch. They were allowed to be certain of things, and they expected to be certain of you. Even her ex-husband, a performance artist whose oeuvre involved significant self-mutilation, had ideas about how she should conduct herself once they were married. When they were dating, he was happy to do joint projects in which they lived under surveillance in a room made entirely of Kanekalon hair. Happy to take turns spanking each other over clips of Bill Cosby’s “pound cake” speech. But when they married, he felt differently. Your body is a temple, he said three days before he nailed his scrotum to the floor of the Guggenheim.

While she was out and about, Richard sent another message: I can see you. I’m behind you. She asked him what she was wearing and he said, a blue dress, which was right, and then sandals, which was wrong. She kept two knives in her purse. She didn’t walk down ill-lit streets or ride in train cars that were insufficiently populated. If she had a husband, there would at least have been someone there to know if she didn’t come home. When she got up in the morning and felt her body working against her lungs, she knew she was an easy mark. She looked around her apartment and took in the entirety of what it cost to breathe sparingly. To preserve energy, there were tradeoffs, things that were left undone. The garbage, copious and cooking in the sun. The weapons fashioned from household items. The sink and shower, slippery with bacteria. Bed shirts and underwear, heavy with sweat from the exertion of breathing consciously. She took the cameras down, looked at the footage and could not believe the person she saw. She made a copy of the footage and sent it to her manager, and in a few days her manager wrote, Is there any more?

And there were bills. The insurance company called once a week and then twice a day. She changed her voicemail to say that she was opening a show in Beijing and not answering her American phone. She dreamt it was true: low-lit, narcotic dreams in which she walked an adult panther though a Chinese tobacco factory and people flocked into the gallery and filled the air with Mandarin. In these dreams she could breathe again.

She used to live for the summers in New York. The stinky, shimmering avenues and everyone getting cooked underground. The body resisting a solid white arm of sun. Now it was hell. There were too many people and not enough air, and her chest burned no matter how carefully she drew breath. Now she drank barium as another specialist monitored a live X-ray of her throat. Everything looks fine, he said, and for two days all her meals tasted alkaline. For the next procedure, an endoscopy she spread over two credit cards, they lowered a camera into her esophagus and found nothing. She did not have an escort, and when she tried to hail a cab, three went by before one stopped.

No news did not feel like good news, and the longer there were no answers the more she was sure the answers were bad. It was not insignificant for her to believe so totally in a thing she could not see. Because she was a woman, she had been taught to distrust herself, and there was no certainty she held that had not been vetted for the cute, indelible madness of female error. To be able to insist fervently that something was wrong meant that all alternatives had been thoroughly explored. It meant defying the more natural inclination to defer and allow herself to be seen as crazy, and so she needed to be right. She had seen the news stories about richer, more powerful black women. Dark, luminous women who always kept their faces partly out of view, who were emblems of what you could have when the long game was cautiously and brutally played. Even these women were sent home with aspirin as their brains were hemorrhaging.

She sent an email to her primary care physician and attached an article about respiratory illness and city smog. I have done everything I’m supposed to do, she wrote; please, help. It wasn’t just that she couldn’t breathe; it was that she still had to go about life. The errands, the electric bills, the sexually violent found poetry of loitering men. It was odd to be sick, to have the sensation her lungs were full of blood, and still have to be wary of men. It was odd to feel as if she was dying and still have to field comments about her breasts. She went out to buy mucus thinners, and a man trailed her from Seventh Avenue to Dekalb. When she stopped to confront him, a group of men looked on and laughed. As she climbed the stairs to her apartment, another message came. I’m going to pay you a visit soon, Richard wrote, and outside, the man with the trumpet was still playing “Hot Cross Buns.”

For two days, she didn’t sleep. She cleaned the apartment, took out weeks’ worth of recycling, and pulled hair from all the drains, and then she wrote her own obituary and addressed it to the biggest critic of her work, a prominent blogger who could not be pleased. She tried to make a case for some of the pieces he’d deemed irresponsible, but as she wrote, she wondered if he’d been right. Giving private dances to patrons for a nickel a pop had not been about anything other than being oversexed and twenty-six. Letting patrons choose between giving her a rose and holding an unloaded gun to her head had been, despite her cynicism, a severe miscalculation. The critic claimed to be among one of the faceless men who chose the .22, and in his review he wrote that there was nothing radical, nothing avant-garde about a black woman’s proximity to death.

She thought about this when she went for a full body X-ray. She put on the lead apron, and a nurse warned her that the quarters would be tight. When she was inside, the radiologist noticed she hadn’t had a bowel movement in a while. He joked that he could see an entire cherry tomato in her large intestine, and she pretended to laugh. The imaging took forty minutes, and she fell asleep. The technician shook her awake, and then the doctor took her into a room to tell her that nothing had been found. When she began to cry, he touched her shoulder and said, Yes, it is a huge relief.

For an hour, the city was entirely without sound. Everything was a labor—the stairs, the turnstile, the MetroCard machine which wouldn’t take any coins. It was the most humid day of the year, and not even the city was indifferent to the heat. Across Brooklyn wires were melting and lights were going out. There were fires and stroke victims and women wilting under parasols. She walked through the city and paid attention to everyone, and when she got home she began to adjust the cameras.

One camera by the door, another in the bedroom. A bowl of apples with their bruises facing out, an open window, a book cracked along its spine. She put on the nicest dress she owned. Sheer blue chiffon studded with discreet zirconiums. Four years earlier, she’d worn it on the night of her debut. It had never been washed, and now it was two sizes too big. The insurance company called while she cinched the bust with safety pins. They left a voicemail with the information for a debt collection agency. She called her mother while she was doing her hair. I don’t have any more ideas, she said when it went to the machine, and then she sent Richard her address. She wasn’t unafraid. As she knew it would, the city had opened to her the very moment she was leaving it, given her a sense of optimism that did not comport with the project ahead, and yet there was something else. The excitement that always preceded a new project, the composure, the freaky certainty about how the pieces fit together. A feeling that came from the chest and became a thing as inevitable as breath, an insatiable resolve to live beyond the body that she had tried again and again to turn into art—which she would try to do now, one more time.

Raven Leilani has been published in Granta, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Conjunctions, The Cut, and New England Review. Her debut novel, Luster, is forthcoming in 2020.
Originally published:
January 1, 2020


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