ISSUE 4 · SPRING 2010
William the Unready
William Powers, shrouded in his best blue silken robes and finest leather sandals, passed slowly through the United States Capitol crypt. He was killing the hour before his hearing with the United States House Education Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning, and Competitiveness a block away. As he walked, his fragile and inflated body burned constantly with a stretching agony. His existence was a meditation, each moment a constant focus and struggle to keep the demons of his new anatomy at bay.
The press surrounded him and his small retinue of supporters, swishing between one another on feral legs accustomed to fighting for photos. They remained silent in the crypt’s saturnine atmosphere, their only sounds the light scuffling of their shoes. And their breathing. That incessant inhale and exhale. It was painfully distracting to Will as he attempted to focus on the fineries of the crypt; “the cast-iron man,” John C. Calhoun, stood before him immortalized in marble. But their damned relentless breathing was a painful reminder of the fateful condition which had so terribly misdirected his life, setting him on his quest to Capitol Hill to amend the wrongs done to him and others like him. Will focused, ignoring the breathing and beating hearts of the animals among him, for he had then been holding his breath for nearly six months.
A camera flash focused Will’s attention. He turned toward the exit. The reporters stood between him and the pathway from the rotunda to the street. One woman finally broke the silence. “Will Powers, what do you plan to say at the subcommittee? Are you speaking on behalf—”
At once, the reporters erupted in a fury of questions.
“Why are you holding your breath, Mr. Powers? How have you been able to—”
“Will you accept ACLU funding? Will you—”
“Mr. Powers, Mr. Powers,” started the blond in the blue suit.
“Mr. Powers! Listen, Mr. Powers!” Shouted the dark man in red.
“Here, Mr. Powers! Mr. Powers, what do you think of the recent—”
“The recent article,” the light man in orange cut in, “which claims you’ve brought it on yourself?”
Will tumbled out of the crypt with his retinue past the reporters, a strange, inflated thing scarcely resembling his former humanity, his lawyer and spiritual advisors flanking him for protection. His lawyer shielded them with his attaché case raised like a Greek aspis, shouting, “Mr. Will Powers does not have to answer questions if he has determined not to do so at the present time! Mr. Will Powers can not be held accountable to your questions according to federal rights at the present and/or subsequent times before and/or after his subcommittee meeting!”
Outside of the capitol building, more of the press ambushed him and his retinue with their media machines. They brandished the lengths of their boom microphones to hold his retinue at bay as they exited, the entire spectacle recorded with precision on high-definition equipment. And on either side of the great stairway leading to the street, a mishmash of supporters and dissenters held the long line against the police, attracted to the scene by TV. They shouted about responsibility, about escape, about belief.
“He’s done nothing wrong! End the disrespect!” Shouted the fat lady.
And the pencil-thin man dissented with a thrusting finger, “He’s done nothing at all! Take some responsibility, all of you!”
“Freedom of speech! He has choices! You can’t judge him!” hollered the lazy man from his lawn chair on the concrete.
And the frazzle-haired punk, pacing in her pink boots and pointing, shouted out, “Freedom of speech! He has choices and fuck his choices! He’s a bum!”
And the fat woman surged forward, “Leave him alone! Don’t listen, William!”
And the pencil man shouted, “Do something, William! Do something!”
And the lazy man held a fist up, “They can’t do this to you, Will!”
And the frazzle-haired punk hurled a bottle at William—it missed him by an inch, tumbling past the line of policemen and exploding in the eyes of the pencil thin man, who screamed and ran with his hands against his bleeding face.
And the others surged forward, breaking the police line, toppling the lazy man, all of them trying their best to grab hold of the one who’d confused them so utterly, whose existence had become a living, alien unknown, who seemed to be defying them all for a reason they expected explained but never received. All the while, he only continued to hold his breath, moving painfully forward toward the street and the hearing a few blocks away.
. . .
As Will made his way through the crowd toward the subcommittee hearing, he recalled the years when he first mastered holding his breath. His parents had rightly encouraged his pursuits, and he was potent and noteworthy where he applied himself. But sometimes, he wondered who he was performing for.
. . .
In the shindigs accompanying all of Will’s junior high events, he’d watch parents schmooze with other parents, the kids riding and screaming around the drive way and onto the blacktop as the street lights flickered to life. His mother, a petite, gorgeous Greek, spoke as much with her almond eyes and lush lips as she did with her hand and wine glass. His father had beer on his belly and in his hand, cross-bar glasses and a comb over, and the two of them would enter smiling into Matt Cooper’s garage, side by side, their drinks in opposite hands.
His mother was dazzling still in middle age, but his father came to rely on the tools of machismo and sports utility in the social world. He was always the one to stomp into the celebration, his cigarette hanging from his lip. Mr. Powers would call Mr. Cooper a “son-of-a-bitch” before shaking his hand with an iron-fucking-grip and slapping him hard on the shoulder. Will’s father would ask about Joshua Cooper, and Mr. Cooper would say, “Yeah, yeah, Josh has done just fine.” He’d relate the news on his sixth homer, the impossible grand slam that put the Mustangs up 8-0. They’d share this grin, this squinting, exalted grin, shaking their heads and gulping down beer, taking a long drag. It was the grin of elation. It was a return to the prideful, unbeaten memories of their own youths which were lost to their aging bodies, but not to their children’s. They hoped to revive those memories again and again through them.
“So how’d Will do last weekend? I heard they killed the Diablos over there,” Mr. Cooper would say.
Will’s father would recollect the polo game. He’d recall the hard fought defense and come back against the Diablos after their star player, Mica Hems-Salvo, was ejected in an uncontrollable rage after an illegal entry. Will found the net four times that night. He recalled the hours of practice, of patiently overseeing laps and drills. He recalled Will holding his breath. But once he thought about the total of the game, he only pulled his lips in a bit and nodded, his cross-bar glasses moving with his brow. He confessed dismissively, “Well—I’m satisfied with William.”
And Mr. Cooper would only reply, “Yeah, yeah.” The men would nod and look away and take a slow swig of Coors before focusing on the other game, the one on the TV.
Will would watch his father chat with the other fathers, seeing them share the grin again and again as they related the exploits of the other young men. But when his father spoke of him, he only saw the nod, the swig, the look away. And since he was getting older by then, he’d ask himself loudly what the fuck he was missing. He’d ask what else he could possibly do to find fulfillment and ease the pressure. All the while, he found himself holding his breath, trying his best to keep down his nerves.
. . .
He accomplished rampant overachievement in high school. He’d won lots of awards, the names of some totally lost to him. He realized most people hadn’t won enough to forget what they’d won.
But those accomplishments and his obsessive GPA, he thought, all seemed to be a product of momentum. They were not his, of his own volition. His world had pushed him to accomplish those things. His father had pushed him. He never had a chance to slow or stop focusing, and so the ball kept rolling.
He would have dated had he been able to relax, or partied if he’d had the time. Maybe he would have dropped everything one weekend and left to Mexico, had he known anyone who cared to go with him places. Maybe he would have tried pot with one of them, maybe on some beach, maybe riding a donkey, maybe with a joint in one hand and 40 ounces of Tacate in the other, and maybe he would have even asked them to teach him how to roll joints—teach a man to fish is what they say. Or, maybe he just would have watched the day escape over the Pacific Ocean in a fireball of sunset, stupid on his donkey with his pot and beer and friends, but blissful. But maybe he wouldn’t have been so reckless and so indulgent. His path could have been healthier. He could have read a book he liked because he wanted to. And he could have seen more movies and taken more photos of himself and others. He could have joined a club or founded one. He could have met someone—the right one, the one with the eyes and the heart and the vulnerability he could share. They could have both loved music. They could have made love for the first time. They could have slept together under the stars in the summer with Mars and awoken with Venus. They could have stayed together all the hours of every day. Back then, he was inclined to want so many things which he would never attempt; the momentum of his life was so great, he never knew how to resist its pull.
. . .
Those were the measure of his thoughts on one evening in the spring of his senior year. William posed up on the diving block, cold in his tight blue Speedo and silver swim cap. He attempted to focus solely on the water and that imaginary point before his chest and his hanging his arms, but his eyes darted through the audience of onlookers. A manifest tension resonated all around the pool, the whistle about to blow. As Will scanned the audience, he could tell everybody was focusing on the pool and the divers. But in their eyebrows and cheeks and lips, he could plainly read that everyone already saw the outcome of the race. For every supporter there was a different ending.
He noticed a number of them imagined him hurtling through the water, and after wrenching himself out of the pool, he saw the coaches and the girls and dudes in the bleachers rush out, lifting him up against the setting sky. And others focused on his lingering in the pool, the girls and dudes rushing out to somebody else. He noted that a few even focused on his limp, baby-soft body floating to the top, bobbing around face down while Joey Persiana in the leftmost lane received the girls and the dudes. Will shuttered a little, but he continued scanning.
His eyes settled on some familiar girls in the first row ahead of him. The three of them tittered excitedly, snug in their blue and silver school windbreakers with paint on their faces. But he saw the dark haired one, Brea Taft-Busso, intent on him, motionless with all humor blown from her face. They made eye contact. Her vision focused on him alone in the pool, swimming easily to the other side. He lifted himself from the water and crawled across the concrete. And she had this look like animal revenge, and suddenly he had a jacket on, which she grabbed roughly at the collar, pulling him in and biting his lip—
He broke eye contact. The vision was lusty and completely distracting. At that moment, he only wanted to finish the 100m and not be standing in his Speedo on the diving block anymore, people staring at his ass.
But something brought his eyes back to the crowd. He found himself staring at his parents.
His mother and father were side by side. He watched his mother and in her gaze, he saw himself winning again. But he also focused on himself with his father through her gaze, practicing, swimming in the neighborhood pool, shooting skeet with him another day, riding their bicycles, and he saw himself smiling. He saw himself with her before a birthday cake. He saw himself at the Olympics. She smiled at him and gave him a thumbs up and, considering her kindness, he couldn’t help sighing, the corners of his mouth silly with a smile.
Then he looked beside her at his father. He sat in his flannel jacket, dumpy and pallid with this strange stare, this stare ahead at Will. But he was and wasn’t looking at Will. Will squinted at him, trying to make out that gaze he had. He seemed sick about something. And as Will focused on his father’s gaze, he realized that his father couldn’t see him at all! Will wondered about the man’s glasses, if he literally couldn’t see him, couldn’t observe Will. He realized that wasn’t it. That didn’t make sense. Will realized, considering it again, that he looked through his father’s gaze and in it saw his father’s gaze imaging himself. His father saw only himself in Will! That’s what it was! An egoistic hall of mirrors. He saw his father’s gaze through his father’s gaze, his gaze trained on him sitting in the bleacher’s training his gaze on himself—
“What! You’ve got to be kidding me,” Will shouted. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me! ” He straightened up. The divers beside him glanced at him uneasily from their starting blocks. His mouth was open, bare muscles trembling and eyes squinting beneath the tight goggles. “But that doesn’t make sense! How do you—how do you spend so much goddamn time, all this time building someone up, and while they’re focused on you, you’re focused on—”
The whistle burst.
Will’s body hurled him into the water; the screaming audience suffocated as he entered. His arms shot before him, his hands clasped. He kicked like some crazed, angry dolphin. As he came closer to the surface, he resolved, in defiance, to hold his breath for the full two laps.
His body operated with the momentum of his training and more so, fueled by the anarchistic hate of sour realization, and he couldn’t feel his body at all, just this mad thing, some mechanical, unwinding fireball in the water, some wild flaming animal hating gravity and water, and his head broke the surface, but he refused to breathe as his arms circled, pounding ahead into the water again and again and again, and he pulled through the pool, for an infinite, hellish moment, his being confined to a focusing spirit, a single entity, a furious star burrowed deep within, and coming to the edge of the pool, he sprung off, hurtling back through the lane, chasing it, those arms pulling him pulling him pulling with an uncontrollable rage, an indescribable thing ripping him through the water and tearing through his rushing head with the strength of every death and loss and the feeling of all people waking from the dream—
He slammed his head and shoulders into the other end of the pool, and in one movement, ripped himself from the water up onto the concrete, gasping, reaching irrepressibly across the ground for the thing he had lost with realization.
And everybody rushed forward for him from the bleachers. He wanted to lie still. He wanted to catch his breath. But he couldn’t, for he had won. The masses were too thrilled at his victory and new record to pay attention to his enervation; 52.66 seconds. He was the winner! Fifty-fucking-two point sixty-fucking-six! They celebrated his steamrolling athletic prowess, lifting him up, limp and nearly naked in their arms, wheezing and gasping for air and grasping into space for the lost thing. His eyes and head rolled lifelessly, the world passing around in a sickening, hissing tumble, faces and yelling and eyes and lips, lights, deafening noise. And he remembered closing his eyes, tight tight tight, curling up. He’d have held his breath if he could, but he couldn’t stop gasping for air once he left the water. He couldn’t hear anything save for an insane ringing with the static in his eyes. He’d won, but he didn’t know he did, and had he known, he wouldn’t have cared any more.
. . .
He was drifting through the tumbling world for so long until, finally, he was laid to rest in a quiet, painfully bright place.
Will opened his eyes. He saw the shiny, corrugated metal roof of the cavernous, white-washed weight room. The weight room was well lit with florescent lighting but cramped with a terrible sloping ceiling. It was situated beneath the bleachers—he could still hear the muffled, beating feet of the mass above him preparing for the swimmers in the next event. A battered sign on the wall read in bold letters, “Pain is temporary. Glory is forever!” He was heaped on a leather bench, perpetually winded and aching from his self-mortifying race. A long white towel covered his damp body, and his swim cap and goggles lie strewn beneath his head, his blonde hair.
“You were great, Will,” Brea said, her voice a tinny whisper.
Will’s eyes shot in her direction. She sat on the seat of the inclined bench press, her eyes darting away for a moment, but returning with a hungry, focused gaze. Her eyes and her hair were so dark he felt he could see a limitless oblivion in her.
“They said you set a new record for high school, you know?”
He opened his mouth to say, “Oh,” but only a dry cough emerged. He moved to sit up defensively—his arms were bloodless, completely limp. His skull and neck throbbed. After seconds of strain, he collapsed on the bench again, exhaling, staring at the ceiling.
“That’s really something. Will, you’re a star now, you know? They said you could make it to the Olympics.”
“I know,” he said. And that much he did know. His mom had noted its possibility in her imagination.
“Are you an Olympian, Will?” He heard the sound of nylon sinking into a heap on the incline press, slow footsteps slinking toward him. Then there was the swish and slump of cotton on the cold floor.
“You’re an Olympian. You seem like one. You’re strong enough. You’re strong enough for a thousand prizes.”
“I guess I did some stuff.” His head was pulsing hard. He could hear her breath now, though his own nearly drowned the sound out.
“You’ll do a thousand more,” Brea whispered to him. He saw her face over his now, her bare ashen shoulders and breasts, and she ran her hands over his neck and across his chest, slowly feeling the inches of his skin pass beneath her wandering fingertips, and she moved down across him, stealing him into her hands, into her mouth, into her body.
So passed William Powers’ virginity into the possession of another. It was something he enjoyed a little, in a certain way, but mainly he related to it with confusion, like the athletic fame that happened upon him by virtue of gratuitous social physics.
. . .
Will baked in the endless California sun. California never rained, only roasted him in his sunglasses with Brea and other girls on his arms. They liked him because he’d become stoic and kind of an asshole. Although he mildly suspected they mistook his “asshole stoicism” for “firm knowing,” he certainly didn’t think of himself as either an asshole or knowing of himself. He was nobody, or he was just somebody. But to them, he was somebody.
There were letterman jackets. There were obnoxious, pushy dudes telling him to drop everything and go to Mexico, to blaze on a donkey, to pound a 40. When Will didn’t, they didn’t, but they chastised those who did and called them “pussies.” They asked him to score with them in numbers of ways; fiestas grandes, yeyo, chicas. If he broke down and gave in, they were happy and called him “bro.” When he didn’t, they admitted they hadn’t wanted to anyway and said, “I was just saying.” But, regardless of what he did or abstained from, he couldn’t find this lost thing which he couldn’t name, the thing that had made him ignorant to the push and pull. Then, he was acutely aware of the wild rush around him, and each day was a new, violent focus to remain standing, to not trip and tumble away with the unstoppable juggernaut of unilateral fellowship.
. . .
But he could not continue—he could, but he wouldn’t do it!
He ran, like he ran from high school and dad and water and Brea.
. . .
Brea said that she needed him. Will said he needed someone who talked about something other than sports and body parts because it was too gruesome. But he left her and spoke to no one.
Then he spoke to his dad about college. His dad said he needed to accept his scholarship from Stanford and play water polo with the Cardinals. Will said he’d apply to University of Phoenix and play for nobody. But he applied and was accepted to University of California Santa Barbara with a swim scholarship.
His mother told him he needed to be happy. Will said he already was. But he left still feeling like he’d lost something.
He ran to college. He ran to escape the juggernaut, the water, the bros and chicas, the yeyo, pot and donkeys, all of it. And, all the while, he grew confident in his absolute determination to escape the things he could not face.
On his first day of college, with his grinning and his combed blonde hair, his backpack, he found a great number of interesting things. He found the beach in the morning: crisp, blue, serene. A young man approached him with bloodshot eyes, lips goofy, his red and green flannel opened for his bronzing chest. “Hey bro,” he began, laughing, and—
And Will ran. He was determined to run, to have no part with any such “bro!” He would not let the prying stares of anybody deter him as he rushed from the beach back to campus and across the quad to class.
His face had flushed once he found class. He guessed there were over two hundred students, the auditorium classroom glowing in glorious florescence.
He sat in an empty seat in the second row and turned to the girl beside him. Her eyes were trained to her pink Sidekick, her thumbs weaving and volleying incessantly. “Hey, hi,” he whispered. “What have I missed? Did she call roll?”
She stared at her thumbs, her chin tilting slightly in a vague acknowledgement. After a moment, she looked up, shaking her head and squinting at him. “What?”
“What have I missed? I was late.”
Her eyes grew cold. “What? Wait, missed what?” She tossed her hair. “Like, what would you miss at the beginning of class? Wait,” she snapped her phone shut. “Wait, did I miss something? Has she called roll?”
And Will rose, excusing himself. He sprinted back across the quad to the safety of his room. He would have no part of it, simply no part—he was determined, resolved to escape the foolish girls and silly boys, their gluttonous social steamroller!
. . .
“I refuse to be a part of all this indulgence,” he shouted a week later at his roommate, Chris Kandmin, who sat hunching over his desk, the sunlight streaming in over him. “Chris, I mean—I’ve got to stick to my guns. I made a choice to resist what this world is doing, and I’ve got to stick to it. It’s like, there’s this momentous force all around me, pulling me along, forcing me into every situation. And I’ve got to run from it! I defy it and its people—they’re everywhere! I can’t back down, ‘cause I am resolved, you know?”
Chris shot up with a long, protracted sniff, tossing his copper hair back with his head. He exhaled loudly, like he’d just woken up from a terrible dream, or maybe an unbelievable one. He rubbed his nose and his face before whirling around. “What?”
“Okay,” Will began again, his hands frustrated and gesticulating. “Let me tell you what I’m feeling. All I’m saying—”
“Start over again, please,” Chris said, shaking his head. “Now—okay, I was, I was listening—would you just, one more time?”
“Okay! What I’m saying is that my life has been this, this, momentous—”
“Hang on!” Chris interrupted. He gazed at Will, his mouth ajar.
Will waited for Chris to speak. Chris didn’t blink, his eyes simultaneously on him, through him, and nowhere. The light streamed through the window over his gaunt face, casting strange shadows. With the look in his dilated eyes and his mouth, Chris had an insane, hallowed appearance to him. To Will, it seemed like Chris was aware of and felt unspeakable truths in every pore of his body. Will felt he must listen, quite afraid to break eye contact.
“Now,” Chris finally began. He held out a finger, wagging it at Will. “I think I’m beginning to understand this. I think . . . that I don’t understand a word you’ve said this entire time.”
Will squinted at him, running his hands through his hair. “What? You didn’t hear me.”
“I heard you. You’ve said many things. You said a lot. You could fill ten pages. Lots of things about, um,” he twirled his finger through the air, tracing a strange winding drawing, “About chasing stuff. Momentum. Gazes. This emotion—emotional business. Now, Will,” he shifted in his seat, setting down the dollar bill he’d been holding in his other hand. He placed his palms down on his knees firmly. “I’d like you to listen to me, Mr. Powers William . . .” he slowed with the final syllable and laughed hoarsely, pointing into the air, relating the joke to some invisible countenance.
Will only stared at him.
“Okay, okay,” Chris began again. “So, listen. Let me explain this thing. You have this resolve, this . . . strength of will, if you will, Will.”
“I do!” William shouted, pointing at Chris with both hands. “Yes! I know I can do it. I have the strength—”
“No. Okay, listen now! Listen. This is what I understand.”
“I understand that I don’t understand this.”
“What?” Will deflated.
“You’re not making sense, okay? I mean, you’re winding around, long winded, chacha chacha,” he stood suddenly, mimicking the Chacha with sharp movements, “Chacha—you get it? I’m feeling great. Anyway, Yes? No?”
Will’s eyes burned with his face. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“You are obviously resolved, chappy,” he pointed firmly at Will, “but to do what? You are resolved only to be resolved and have thus resolved nothing!” He surged forward with eyes wide shouting, “I am Will Powers! I’m motherfucking Will Powers! Where there’s Will there’s a will there’s a way and get out of my way I’m on my way—” he charged fist first across the room.
Will topped his lungs, throwing his arms out. “You’re not listening! What the hell are you saying! What the hell is your point at all?”
Chris halted. He turned, slowly, and returned to arms length of Will, placing his finger on his forehead. “Got it. This is exactly what I’m saying.”
“That’s what I’m saying!” Will crossed his arms angrily.
Chris crossed his arms, mocking him. “That’s what I’m saying! ”
“Cut it out!” Will whined.
“No, you should cut it out! Just stop this thing! End it! This inane crusade. That’s the whole idea—” he stepped back, throwing his hands out, conjuring mad, invisible forces. His hands shook. He balled his fists and bellowed, “Will Powers, you are doomed! You shout to the stones in the pavement! You shoot arrows to your gods and hope to defy the weight and momentum of the world and space! You want to kill your shadow! You chase every boogieman ever imagined by anybody as they chase you—you’re running after the thing that’s running after you that you imagined! You’re gazing at yourself gazing at yourself resolving to be resolved forever! And you haven’t found the thing to resolve! You’re deadly focused—no, you’re fixated on fixating on fixing yourself but you haven’t found the fucking thing to fix! ”
Will began to breathe in great heaves. He sank to his knees on the stained carpet, tightening his gut and shouting. “No! You cannot beat me down, Chris Kandmin! I have drive, I have willpower—”
Chris jabbed his finger into the air. “No! You are Will Powers!”
Will’s eyes widened. He couldn’t imagine it. The egotistic hall of mirrors! He could not think it, or he thought it, and he kept thinking it; he thought of thinking to stop thinking it and he couldn’t stop the thought, this unwinding fireball erupting in every synapse of his mind—he had to keep it in! He had to keep it together!
Will inhaled, taking in as much air as he possibly could, bringing the entire minute into his lungs, and, finally, he stopped. He ended it. He held his breath. He resolved to keep it under his control, away from the spinning, violent world that tugged and shoved him from every angle.
Chris stared at him for a moment, for a minute, for two minutes, for three minutes. He squinted at him, glancing nervously out the window. He jumped up from the floor and walked to the door, staring out the peephole, moving his head about to check the hall from different perspectives. He crossed his arms, uncrossed his arms, cleared his throat, sniffed loudly, and stared for six minutes, for seven minutes, for eight minutes. Finally, he returned to Will.
Will remained on the floor, his lips sealed. His skin shone horrid shades of red and purple.
Will looked up for only a moment, then closed his eyes. He focused on the air he guarded deep within his lungs.
Chris’s breathing became shallow. His eyes darted about the room. He tore the dresser open, shoved clothes in his backpack. He took the third book from the stack on his desk, opened the compartment cut into its pages, and entrusted the baggies to the backpack.
“Will,” Chris began, zipping the pack and heading for the door. “This is insanity. Will without understanding. The gaze turned inward. Man, I don’t have time for it,” he said. “I don’t understand it and I don’t have time for it. You and your—what the hell does it all mean, Will? What are you trying to do? ”
Will pumped his trembling fist, holding it before his bulging, purple cheeks.
“Stay strong, huh? You’re trying to stay strong.” Chris shook his head and reached for the door. “All might and no direction. You longing little fascist. What will they do with you, Will Powers?” With that, Chris left the room, leaving the door open behind him and he quickly put on his sunglasses and fled the campus, realizing UCSB was a disastrous decision after all.
. . .
Will sat in the room, self-contained, thinking nothing so as to remain together. He had absolutely no idea what to do, but he knew he was more resolved than ever to do it.
The pain was unbelievable, a searing rug burn over every inch of his body. Every atom seemed to contain Hell, its legions fighting to the death to escape him. But he relegated the pain to some silly worldly indicator which had nothing to do with his conviction.
Class was out of the question. Who would understand his choice? He was alone. He drew the blinds and stayed in the dark room, the door still ajar. Occasionally, the brave would peer in through the opened door from the hallway. They would tread in quietly on their tiptoes. Their eyes would finally adjust and they would see a strange stuffed man, his skin all splotchy and stretched out. And, totally unknowing of what that crazy, unpredictable thing in the chair was, they ran, fleeing back to the game of beer pong in their respective dorm rooms.
And thus time passed. Will wondered occasionally about eating, drinking, but his willpower was so great, he knew he could easily overtake all his fundamental bodily forces. If he could successfully resist breathing, then what was eating or drinking or excrement to him? His agonizing pain became only a focal point for his brutal meditation and unshakable resolve.
He wondered if he was truly alone. “Am I really the only one?” he wrote to himself on a realtor notepad. Was he the only one with enough resolve to hold their breath forever? The world was a complex place with myriad social networks. He was determined to find others like him. He sat up in his chair, opened his laptop, and logged into his Facebook account.
He wasn’t alone. After hours of searching Facebook, he discovered exactly what he was looking for. There was a group of others just like him, based out of Washington D.C.: Humanity Under Breath Regulation Insistence. H.U.B.R.I., a group for those suffering the terrible side effects of their choice and forced to endure the misgivings of society. Some were fired from their jobs, expelled from school, and all were condemned by their loved ones for their supposedly abusive decision. But they were determined. Hyper-inflated, but not willing to back down.
He found Dee Wilflat, a breath holder from Michigan who’d been at it for a month longer than Will. In the profile picture, the skin and muscles in her face seemed transparent like a bubblegum bubble. He thought she must have been a fantasy in the past, before she held her breath, but she still had nice hair from what he could tell. The group’s leader, Wren Pollowi, was a like-minded Floridian guy.
He began a regular correspondence with Wren. Through their writing, Will learned of those in the group. Over 100 worldwide, they were terrible victims of the fallout from the fateful decision they’d made. They suffered injustices from the callus for a choice they’d made that nobody could understand—they only chalked it up to “abusive lifestyle.”
As Wren explained, their choice of holding their breath indefinitely was irreversible. He said their ballooning bodies had something to do with the oxygen to nitrogen conversion in cells—something way over Will’s head. “You see, for us William, there is no longer an option of returning to the old ways,” Wren commented on Will’s Facebook wall, “due to the possibility of deflation. Because the breath has been held for so long, releasing the air now will literally deflate your entire body, as in the balloon. Your body can’t handle the release, William.”
Will was determined to do something. The injustice was ridiculous! Wren had already gone public with the cause, selling their stories to Rolling Stone, The National Inquirer and The New York Times. He was tentatively scheduled to appear on The O’Reilly Factor. But they needed more. Wren suggested that they appeal to the United States government. He insisted Will could use his influence as a swim star with a record and Wren’s scheduled appearance on Fox News, as well as the published articles, to attract attention to the cause. He told him they must defend their decision, their “lifestyle.” Will was unsure about the “lifestyle” labeling, but, believing in Wren and in himself, he agreed. Someone with the kind of determination Wren had, Will reasoned, should hardly be challenged.
. . .
As Will left his memories and fled from the chaos outside the United States Capitol building with his lawyer and spiritual advisors, hired for him by Wren, he noticed four white vans. It must be Wren, he thought.
And it was. Will and the retinue approached with the bickering reporters and angry demonstrators in tow. Several people shrouded in blue robes rushed around to the sliding door of one of the vans, wrenching it open. Two of them held umbrellas open above the door. Another slid a ramp out from the van. With their free hands, the two with the umbrellas gestured for Wren.
Wren’s countenance was awesome, silencing the reporters, police officers and protesters who all stared, sheer terror, as he slowly emerged from the van. Having held his breath for over a year, his flesh was inflated beyond recognition. He was seemingly just a skeleton surrounded by a strange, fleshy bubble and flowing, silken red robes across his shoulders and legs. His vein covered skull and rib cage were utterly naked to them all. The reporters and onlookers shrank away on their springy little legs, talking in hushed chatters among themselves, terrified of the thing they didn’t understand.
Will was awestuck. The resolve, the absolute willpower, was completely overwhelming. He approached Wren, writing on his notepad in a shaky hand, “I’m so happy to finally meet you, it’s an honor Mr. Pollowi.” Wren looked to Will, his eyeballs totally naked. Wren’s movements were restrained, each degree calculated. He took up the mini white board hanging around his neck and the pen and began writing. “William Powers, I am impressed by your dedication to our cause, to our struggle. You must prepare yourself for what’s to come, for I cannot accompany you into the United States House Education Subcommittee on—” He wiped the whiteboard clean and continued, “Higher Education, Lifelong Learning, and Competitive-ness. Are you prepared to accept the challenge, Will Powers?”
Will Powers bowed his inflated, over-extending head. He wrote, “Without question, Wren. I am prepared.”
Wren continued, Will focusing on his skeletal face beneath the red hood. “We are fighting for the rights of people everywhere, people like us, who were punished just for making a choice and sticking to it. This is about freedom. Nobody should be punished for their choices.”
With that, Will moved away, holding his palms together, trying his best to smile for Wren, though his face was inflated and silly, his eyes wild in two directions.
. . .
And so, sitting at the dark wood desk before the tables of the 23 members of the subcommittee in formation like a Macedonian phalanx holding the line before him, Will poured his heart out. Over hundreds of pages of realtor note pads, he related his life, his struggle to overcome momentum, to find the thing he’d lost, his escape, his choice, his inevitable mortal fate having made a choice he could no longer reverse. He impassionedly decried that the Americans with Disabilities Act needed to be extended—people just like him and their families were facing grave injustices just for being determined and sticking to their guns. It was unjust, it was about freedom and nobody, he argued, should be so punished for their choices.
After the third hour in the hearing room, Will, sinking slowly into his seat, rested from his plea.
A heavyset man, perpetually angry and balding, grumbled and cleared his throat for recognition. He pulled a wrinkled handkerchief from his coat pocket, and, dabbing at his glistening forehead, began to speak in a nasally voice. “Let my position be known on this committee, to this committee, to the American people, to the world and to the press in the back of the chambers,” he began, “that these people seek to utilize the ADA in ways which, by their doing so, would unjustly, unrightly, unacceptably undermine those who—”
“Now wait a minute—” another voice cut in, the pencil thin woman with a wild tuft of black hair.
“—ADA was originally intended, be—”
“I’ve got a question for you, I’ve got a question—”
“—and we cannot— oh, you’ve got a question for me, Mrs. Speaker from—”
“How can you say ‘those people?’” The pencil woman was standing now. “How can you say that, Mr. Speaker, you and your party—”
“Of course ‘those people,’ those people over there—” He stood and pointed directly to Will and his spiritual advisors.
“Issues of racism!” a blue suit suddenly cried.
“Now, Mr. Speaker, you’re dead wrong—” a red suit replied.
“—have taken out far too much of our time already, and—”
“—discrimination is the proper word, if you’d pay attention—”
“—the mess they’ve caused, if only they’d stop holding their breaths!”
The floor erupted in senselessness and weasel words and self-assured truthiness, fingers pointing, the dust shifting about the room with the momentum of the chaos all around. Will again felt the terrible strain of outward pressure of the breath that he could never exhale. Why were they fighting, he asked himself. To what end could this terrible bickering arrive? Why does there have to be so much pressure? What did I do to have this happen to me?
A tiny microbe of dust made its way through Will’s overstretched nostril, settling on the tiny hair follicles. The tickle surged through his body.
. . .
Without warning, William Powers sounded a shrieking sneeze, a short, sharp wail. He erupted in a sickening POP! before the committee and the press, and the overwhelming force blew his advisors yards away, his lawyer screaming as he plunged through the house speakers, their table splintering like a nail bomb with his impact. Will’s sticky flesh and sinews and giblets and pair of eyes and pools of thinned blood splayed out from his imploding skeleton to coat the vomiting members of the floor like exploded bubblegum.
Matt Carney is a young man hailing from Orange, California. Like Richard Nixon, he is an alumnus of Whittier College, which awarded him a BA in creative writing and the 2007 Newsom Award in Fiction for work published in the Whittier College Literary Review. He is presently a part-time bookseller, recording artist, and free-lance editor. Matt is a level 13 traveler, having lived abroad in India and wandered through several other countries.