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LUNGS

By Stephen Lewis, Published in North Atlantic Review, No. 14, 2002/2003

After quitting the last of a long string of therapists, who all proposed different theories to explain his personality deficiencies, ranging from classic Freudian emphasis on restrictive toilet training to the last a New Age type who recommended that he just smile at himself every morning in the mirror, Joyce reached his own conclusion: his problems could be traced to the course in English Lit in which his parents met while they both wrestled with the intricacies of Ulysses.  Their efforts to solve the Irish novelist’s massive work proved a failure, but they found comfort in each other’s arms, and when their son was born they commemorated the basis of their union by naming their bouncing baby boy after the writer they could not understand and had come to despise.

From kindergarten on, every teacher looked at the girls in the class after having come to his name while reading the first day roll, and he would try to deepen his voice, which remained stubbornly soprano well into his teens, when he responded.  The fact that he had been named after a famous writer did not impress the boys on the street as they chose up sides for a stickball game.  Since he was quite near sighted, and uncoordinated to boot, he missed the ball when he swung at it and dropped it when he tried to catch it.  According to the cruel rules of choosing up sides,  he would be picked last as an act of mercy, tinged with contempt, his shame compounded by the lisping pronunciation of his name as he was selected.

As a young man at college parties, he found that only profoundly unattractive women, generally either anorexic or seriously scarred by acne, often both, were amused enough by his parents’ literary pretensions to talk to him, but then they only wanted to know what he thought of his namesake, and as he had not read any of the writer’s works, he had precious little to say at these rare opportunities of connecting with a woman whose bony frame and cratered face made her the female equivalent of himself as failed athlete, both ignored leftovers at the feast of life.  He practiced his bedroom stare for hours before his mirror, but all he could produce was an imitation of somebody lapsed into coma.  He wore expensive Pierre Cardin aftershave, but always nicked himself when he shaved, and a woman he had approached at a club once asked him if he had been eating chicken soup, proving that the smells of his mother’s kitchen outweighed the most expensive cologne.

When he started law school on a full scholarship, he shared a tiny apartment with George Wilkins, who remained his one good friend.  His grades earned him entry into a top law firm, but he saw how other, less gifted attorneys, were invited to play golf with one or the other of the partners and he knew in his heart that he would never join that club.  He lived on the fringe of  fashionable Brooklyn Heights, but his brownstone seemed stuck in its century old decay, utterly immune to gentrification.

He plunged into dark despair.  The kids on his block snickered when he walked by. His career was a dead end.  He had no love life.  The attractive paralegals gravitated to the other attorneys on the track to make partner.  He contemplated either suicide or opening a bike repair shop in a small town in South Dakota.  He rejected the first because he could not yet admit such abject failure and the second when he realized he had difficulty remembering which way to screw in a light bulb.  But then at the nadir of his hopelessness, he discovered his body. He had been practicing his narcissistic smiling in an attempt to improve his self image, but the image that peered back at him only deepened his gloom.  His chest seemed to sink into his spine while his belly appeared to puff out like a bloated corpse.  He decided to redistribute his flesh by jogging on the Promenade overlooking New York Harbor.   At first, he had come home bone weary, but then he experienced his first endorphin rush. He felt his chest rising and his belly sinking, and he could almost hear his refreshed blood gurgling in his enlarged arteries and veins.

Because he was now breathing more deeply as he ran, he became sensitive to the quality of the air.  He noted how he swerved around the benches on the Promenade on which sat individuals, who with criminal indifference to his lungs, filled the air with noisome tobacco smoke.  He stopped once, it is true, with mixed motives to talk with an attractive young woman who had a cigarette dangling between her otherwise luscious lips, but her response to his earnest plea to cease poisoning herself and everybody near her was one deep drag and then a well aimed billow of smoke that had him coughing for the next several hours.  He decided, then, to focus his efforts on more arable ground, his old college roommate George and his wife Kate.

And now this Sunday morning, sitting on the first train to Medleyville, he was happy.  Kate had agreed, and George more reluctantly, had also consented after a long telephone conversation Thursday evening.  He settled down with the weekend crossword puzzle, and only gagged once or twice as the ancient diesel blew its black smoke into the sky and began to pull the short train of three cars toward the suburbs and fresh air.  As soon as the distance between stations began to widen, and the green leaves of trees replaced the weathered bricks of buildings, he wrestled with the window, cemented closed with the city’s smog until he could raise it a couple of inches.  He inhaled to capture the breeze from the scented countryside, holding his breath so long that the conductor dozing in his seat at the front of the car roused,  looked at him with concern, and reached for his CPR manual. Joyce exhaled and smiled at the conductor, who shrugged and closed his eyes.

The train slowed, and Joyce spotted George behind the wheel of his new Bronco, an unlit cigar clenched between his teeth.  Joyce clucked to himself as he watched George maneuver his paunch from behind his steering wheel.

“Do your five miles this morning, buddy?” George asked.

Joyce grinned.

“You know,” George wheezed, “I’m getting too old for these early morning runs.  Kate was just saying how much easier it would be if you came out for the whole weekend.  Then we could take the train out together on Friday evening.”

“But...” Joyce began.

George took his cigar out of his mouth and waved it while his face formed an expression of mock disgust.

“I know,” he said.  “Your meeting Friday night with your tree hugger friends, and then your run through Prospect Park on Saturday morning.  But you know, we do have trees out here you could run around and through.”

Joyce reddened.

“Maybe I could do that some time.  But I have offered to take a taxi from the station.”

“Wouldn’t hear of it.  But one of these days maybe they’ll make a car that runs on bottled rhetoric or something, and then you’ll be able to ride up to my house like a proper man of leisure, and I’ll sleep in.”

Joyce contented himself with a nod.  He looked out of the window at the pink and white dogwoods, the yellow splashes of forsythia, and took one deep breath after another.

Kate met them on the driveway and threw her arms around Joyce.  He felt her press against him from knee to shoulder, and he smiled over her head at George, who waited by the front door, cigar stub in his beefy hand.  Kate punctuated their embrace with one more press of her middle and then waved toward her husband.  Joyce thought he saw a little smirk on George’s face, but decided he must be mistaken.  There was nothing funny or untoward, he felt, about Kate’s warm greeting.  She was, after all, his best friend’s wife.  Still, he noted with shame that he enjoyed the press of her body against his.  He coughed to cover his embarrassment

“Too much good clean air, eh Joyce?” George slapped him on the back, and his paunch shook like a bowl of jello, and Joyce found himself remembering that Christmas rhyme.

Brunch was over an hour later, and Joyce pushed himself back from the table.  He looked over the platter still heaped with bagels, the plates of cream cheese, the slices of pungent lox, the stack of pancakes, and pitcher of Vermont maple syrup.  He permitted himself a contented burp. This was the one day of the week he let himself eat for enjoyment rather than nutritional correctness.

“Well, how’s the campaign going?” he asked.

George picked up the stump of the cigar, a large ash still on one end and the tobacco chewed ragged on the other, and stared at it.

“Still need my crutch,” he answered after a long pause.

“But he’ll make it,” Kate smiled, “and I keep telling him how much better I feel since I gave it up.”

“I’ve always meant to ask you,” George said. “Why are you so passionate on the subject? Why, as I recall, you never had the habit to give up.”

“I smoked once, but like somebody else you know I never...”

“Inhaled,” Kate said .  A bemused smiled played around the corners of her mouth, and her eyes seemed unusually bright.

Joyce threw back his head and howled, a strange, almost noiseless, choking laugh.  He had to grab his heaving sides.

“I heard that one at the last Non-Smoker’s Alliance for Pure Air meeting.”

George groaned and chomped down on his cigar, but Kate smiled even more broadly.

“I thought it was cute,” she said.  “And after all, his cause is our cause.  Don’t you think so George?”

George only snorted.

“You really should come to a NAPA meeting, George.  It’d do you a world of good to see others fighting your fight.  You, too, Kate.  Even though you’ve won your personal battle, you know the war goes on for others, like George, and millions like him in the grip of addiction.”

George’s eyes began to glaze.  His cigar rolled from one side of his mouth to the other.

“I’d love to go, sometime,” Kate smiled, “especially if you would be there to introduce me to your friends.”

Joyce beamed.

“Next week we’re having a special action workshop.  We’ve decided to become more aggressive.”

George leaned back, his eyes closed in contemplation of someplace known only to him.

“Aggression is sometimes good,” Kate said.  “If it’s in the right cause.”

“We intend to take a page out of the sixties.  Sit-in smoking sections of restaurants.  Action speaks louder, they say.”

George’s lips curled behind a snore.

“It surely does,” Kate replied.

 _______

A mist hovered over the sullen waters of the harbor, and the air hung damp and cool after an early morning rain, but Joyce felt warmer than he had in years, even as his sodden running shoes sloshed through yet another puddle.  The workshop had gone better than he could have hoped, with plans laid to equip protestors with bottles filled with pure mountain spring water with which to douse offending tobacco products.  Even George had seemed a little motivated, if that is what his grin indicated, and Kate, well she had positively glowed with enthusiasm.  He remembered how she had jumped to her feet to applaud the keynote speaker’s attack on the cigarette companies’ continued, obscene use of sex to sell their lethal products, particularly to hormone driven adolescents.  He had never seen her so moved.  Her whole body had trembled, and it was as if all the energy for good in the room had coalesced incarnate in her.  He recalled, with a blush, how her breasts had heaved beneath her new T-shirt, which bore the logo of the organization, a pair of obviously clean and healthy lungs, the red of the image expanding against the white background with each excited breath.

He shrank from this distracting image and turned his mind instead to the unfortunate moment he had caught George lighting his stale cigar in the men’s room.  He had come in just in time to see the beatific smile spread across George’s broad face.  One puff, and then George had extinguished the cigar under the water faucet, and  returned the wet butt to his mouth.  Joyce had coughed as he entered.  George had smiled and clapped him on the back as he passed by.  When the door shut behind him, Joyce washed the ashes down the drain.

His thoughts, unbidden, returned to Kate just as he approached the lamp post that marked the point on his run where he turned back.  However, instead of circling the stanchion as he usually did, he saw, too late, that he was heading right into the pole.  He threw out his arms and caught most of the impact on his extended right forearm, but his momentum carried him forward until he stopped with his arms in a clumsy embrace about the post, his knees buckled and astraddle the fat lower portion of the stanchion and his face pressed against the cold and fog moist metal.  He rubbed his bruises and bent down to retrieve his glasses.  The right lens was shattered.  He turned to jog home, and tried to shut out the pain in his eye with images of Kate.

 _______

“But Joyce, you must tell me what happened to your eye.  Were you in a fight?”

Kate steered the SUV out onto the road and glanced again at his black and swollen eye.

“No, it’s nothing, really,” he said.  “George didn’t tell me anything about a business trip this weekend.”

“The trip came up last minute,” she replied.

His knee ached, and he rubbed it.  She watched his hand’s motion with interest.

“There, too,” she said.  “What did you do?”

“I’m a little ashamed to tell you.”  He paused.  “A lamp post.  It was foggy, and I ran into a pole.”  He stopped himself from completing the picture by saying how he was thinking of her right before impact.

“You must ache all over,” she said, and he heard much more in those words.  “We’ll just have to try to make you comfortable.”

Brunch started out as usual, with Kate slicing bagels and pointing out the different flavors of cream cheese.  But as Joyce was about to bite into a cinnamon raisin bagel, thick with strawberry flavored cream cheese, and while he was planning how he could tell Kate that it would be a good idea if he took an early train home, Kate pushed his hand away from his mouth, leaned across the table, and ground her lips against his.

“I’ve tried to fight it,” she said.  “George asked me to call you and tell you he’d be gone, but I didn’t.  I wanted you to myself.”

She put her hand behind his neck and pulled him toward her.  He lost his balance and his elbow landed in the dish of strawberry flavored cream cheese.  He struggled for a moment, but then he threw his other arm across the table, and knocked over the pitcher of maple syrup.  They kissed, and he felt the warm and sticky liquid ooze onto his lap.

“You don’t know how lonely I’ve been,” Kate declared when they broke apart.  “George has become,” she shut her eyes as though in a dream, “so distant.”

“I had no idea,” he stammered, and brushed at his pants.

Her eyes snapped open.

“Here, let me do that,” she said, and ran a napkin over the stain until he gasped.

“Am I so wrong to find you attractive?” she asked, and continued to rub.  “Is there something wrong with me?  Do you find me ugly?”  She rubbed harder.  He found himself deprived of speech.  “I know I’m not as slim as I used to be.”  Her words stopped but not her hand.  He struggled to regain the power to form words.

“You are,” he announced, “the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Kate beamed and gave him a squeeze.

“We will be very careful.  George will never suspect a thing.”

 _______

Joyce looked at Kate.  He knew he was blushing.

“It’s just that I was so excited,” he said.

“Don’t worry, baby, the sheets can be laundered.”  She rolled over onto her stomach and settled her head on her pillow. “Would you do my back?” she asked.

He massaged her back for ten minutes.  His hands began to tire, but she showed no signs of wanting him to stop.  If anything , her murmurs intensified as he labored.  He straddled her naked buttocks and was again ready.  He had his first orgasm inside a woman in more than three years, and he did not care to remember the circumstances of the last occasion.  Kate smiled up at him, and he breathed a sigh of relief.  At least one thing in this crazy day had gone right.  Right?  What was he thinking?  What about George?  But Kate snuggled into his arms and he closed his eyes.

She stirred and whispered in his ear, her breath moist and content.

“Reach into the drawer, babe.”

Joyce felt for the drawer, his eyes still closed.

Hurry up,” Kate demanded.

He forced his lids open and stared into the drawer.  It seemed empty except for a copy of a recent Cosmopolitan. 

“In the back,” she said. “Under Cosmo.

He reached in and pulled out the square glass object with its unholy burden, and he held it toward her.  She extended her palm.  He stared and dropped the ashtray as though it were flaming.  The pack of cigarettes fell onto the bed next to the ashtray.  Kate retrieved the pack, set the ashtray on the table and lit up.

 _______

The decision had not been easy, and the pain lingered.  After a week of double jogging, a dusk run added to his morning schedule to chastise his rebellious flesh, and an emergency visit to the shrink he had finished with six months ago, he had made up his mind.

George had agreed to the meeting with impatience.  He had a lot of work to catch up on after his trip, which had not gone well, but if Joyce insisted he would find the time.  He waddled into the plush, empty conference room adjacent to his office.  Joyce looked with a pang at the diplomas on the wall that documented part of their shared past, but still he had steeled himself to do the right thing.

George furrowed his brows.

“Well, old buddy, what’s so important?”

“I’ve got something to tell you, George.”

George glanced at his watch.

“I hope so.  I have a client scheduled in five minutes.”

Joyce was happy to hear that.  As bad as this was going to be, it would be interrupted by business that George could not, and would not, ignore.  Joyce paced around the table.

“You’d better sit down, George,” he said, before noting that his friend had already lowered his bulk into a chair at the head of the table.

“For God’s sake,” George muttered, “out with it.”

“It’s about Kate,” Joyce said.

George’s face relaxed.

“What, another affair?”

Joyce did not fully process the question.  He had his speech all prepared.  He paused to gather himself.  He had never been very good at thinking on his feet.  He sat down for a moment.  When he stood up, he felt again in command..

“Worse than that.”  His tone was crisp, as though he were talking a client through a pre-trial examination.

“With two men?” George wondered.

Joyce began to understand, but he pressed on.

“Worse.”

“And another woman?”  George whispered.  “I can’t believe she would do that.  Not again, anyway.”

“Far worse.”  George took a deep breath and reached into his jacket pocket.

“She has been untrue to you.”

“That’s what I’ve been saying,” George declared.  “Haven’t you been listening?”

“Yes, but not that way.”  Joyce’s fingers found the evidence he had protected in a cellophane envelope.  He opened the envelope and pulled out the cigarette butt.

“With this.”

George’s expression changed.

“She didn’t,” he muttered.

Joyce did not hesitate.  He knew his friend would have difficulty believing what he must tell him.

“I saw her.  I was there.  In your...” but his courage faltered.

“In my bed.  With my wife.”

Joyce reddened.

“Yes.”

“Well, I’ll be damned,” George said.  He shook his head in disbelief and anger.  Joyce felt panic.  Perhaps he had gone too far, pushed his friend to the  precipice.

“What are you going to do?  Leave her?”

George rose and clapped him on the shoulder.

“Hell no.”  He pulled a fresh cigar out of his suit coat pocket and lit up.  “I have to thank you for exposing Kate’s infidelity.  All the time I was smoking in the garage, she was lighting up in the bedroom Don’t that beat all?”

“You mean, you never,” Joyce stuttered.  “You didn’t quit?”

“Never, not for a moment,” George said.  “See you on Sunday, as usual?”

Joyce did not answer.  The intercom buzzed.  George’s client had arrived.

“I need the room,” he said in a gentle voice.

Joyce nodded and walked to the door.  He paused long enough to drop the butt, held by his fingertips, into a wastepaper basket.  He reached for his cell phone only to remember that he had erased his therapist’s number, not only from the speed dial list but the directory.  There was only one thing to do.  He would start with the early stories and work up to Ulysses.

It was either that or file the papers to change his name, to something like Ernest, and then he would learn how to fish, or maybe go on safari.  And if that didn’t work, there were a lot of other names he could try.                                

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