“Breathing” by Joan Hanna

Image by Dawn Estrin

Breathing can be severely compromised if your soon to be ex-husband’s knee happens to be in the middle of your chest, pinning you to the couch, as he wraps his fingers around your throat and squeezes.

It’s funny the things that run through your mind. You think about the already packed bags and boxes ready for their escape at the front door. You think about the empty apartment waiting for you. You imagine the rooms and how safe you will be there: alone. You wonder what the police will say because you are wearing these old lady pajamas with lace on the edges of the sleeves and pant bottoms. You wonder if your daughter will see you and be embarrassed that you are wearing the ugliest pajamas in the world when your body is found and she will have to live with that image burned into her brain for the rest of her life.

The snowy affect that signals you are about to lose consciousness flickers in the corners of your eyes followed by a swishing sound drumming in your ears. You realize this is your heartbeat as you gasp to get oxygen into your blood stream. You think your life is going to flash before your eyes like a sleek and dark thirties noir montage. But that doesn’t happen. Out of the din two very clear, decisive thoughts will rise to the surface as you feel your eyelids begin to close. The first is that you realize you are going to die. Which is rapidly followed by a voice somewhere deep within you that says, “You ain’t going out like this, not at the hand of this little motherfucker.”

You don’t know this now, but for years, you will wake up in the middle of this nightmare, and hold your breath, unconsciously. Your throat will close and you will not be able to breathe. You will have to think about letting out the air you are holding in your lungs. You will try to expel this memory when you exhale. Then you will try to flush it with a deep cleansing breath. But this memory will persist as if it has been encoded within the syntax of your DNA. It is always with you; in your breath; in your lungs, clenching at your throat like these fingers that grip you now. You will always wonder if this memory is real and when you touch your throat, you will expect those finger depressions to always be there. You wonder if the purple finger shaped bruises will rise to the surface again and again, changing from red, to purple, to green, to yellow.

When you get out of bed from the nightmare those marks will not be there. You are no longer in that time or place. Your breathing softens; comes easier. Your chest unclenches. Your knees stop wobbling. Sweat dries up. Your hands stop shaking as you splash water onto your face, chest, and wrists. You will tell yourself “It’s okay. You are safe now. You can breathe.”

You also don’t know that it will take seventeen years before you will be able to get close enough to anyone to remarry. That this future husband will never think to wrap his hand around your throat, or pin you down with his knee. His hand will gently hold yours, caresses your face; hold you close while you sleep. His knee will fold into the back of yours in a spoon that holds you tenderly and for the first time you will feel safe. And although you do feel safe, you wonder if he senses your urge to run when a sudden movement spikes your flight reactions. Does he see you break into a cold sweat when you realize you are standing in a hallway and he has moved his hand in a harmless gesture that you catch in your peripheral vision? At these times, you will be caught in the grip of memory from this moment. You will have to remind yourself, constantly, that his hand, his knee is not the other. You are safe, here. You can breathe. And then, you will quickly run out of the hallway, just in case.

But right now behind this knee, this hand, this theft of your breath is the person who promised to love and never hurt you. Promised he would never hit you.

“I would never hurt you like that, ever.” He says, ironically, after the first slap to the back of your head. The second is your fault, he tells you, because you get him so mad. The first push is in a supermarket because you don’t agree on the brand of peas to buy. Your six-month pregnant belly bouncing in front of you as cans fall from the rack he shoves you into in the local PathMark. You assure the janitor rushing to your aide that you are fine. You must have tripped. You keep losing your balance because you are so big and pregnant. You giggle and hold your breath, afraid that the janitor will call the police, which will only make it worse when you get home.

“Mind your own business.”  He says to the janitor.  “Stop talking to my wife.”  And the janitor exits into the shadows of the back room through the strips of thick-clouded plastic hanging in the doorway that clap together in a dull, distant noise.

All of these followed by the delivery of flowers, flourishes of he’s so sorry, please don’t leave, and promises that it will never happen again: until it does. Next, it will be a hand wrapped around your throat, shoving your neck against the wall. He will catch you in the hallway, halfway between your bedroom and the living room. His lips against your face telling you how easy it would be to just squeeze all the breath out of you; and that maybe, then, you will shut up. You will feel the veins and arteries pumping against the pressure. Feel the power of his palm against your throat. When you swallow, the muscles will contract as they push their way through the constriction as if you are swallowing a baseball. You will gasp at air, unable to breathe.

You will notice your two-year-old, sitting up in her bed, watching. Your eyes will meet for a second. But you will look away from her. When you look back, she is lying down, with her back to you. How can you let her see this? How can you let her think that this is acceptable behavior? One night, looking into her eyes, you think maybe it’s time to go. You realize if she sees this, she will grow up thinking it’s okay. You will make the decision to leave because of her, not because of you. You are stubborn and have become used to living your life without breathing.

So, this is what you have come to: the knee that once bent to the ground in adoration with a marriage proposal now pins you down. This same hand that slipped on the wedding ring vowing to love and honor, wraps itself around your throat constricting airways and speech. These hands and knees are now enemies stealing your breath and threatening your life; this is the worst theft of them all.

So, you lie here and think that this is the end. You are going to die, at his hand.

In this place, there is no breath. This marriage has led to this deathbed.

So, this is where your life must begin again.

You tell yourself don’t give in now.

Take in a deep breath and push—him—off.

You ain’t going out like this: not at the hand of this little motherfucker.



Joan Hanna was born and raised in Philadelphia. She has a BA in Writing Arts with a concentration in creative writing from Rowan University and is currently attending Ashland University’s MFA program in Creative Writing for poetry and creative non-fiction. She recently had the poems “Dragonflies” and “Ghosts” published in Common Threads. Joan is a reader for River Teeth and writes reviews for Author Exposure, Poets Quarterly and Examiner.com.