asphyxia

It started out as a niggling thought, one that wasn’t terribly important but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Hanging out in the darker corners, it sat like a cougar on a rock over a trail in the upper reaches of the Montana wilderness waiting for the next likely morsel to come sauntering down the path. An advertisement on a website claiming to bring lovers closer together through photography, possibly salacious and maybe exactly what I was looking for. I was browsing through one of those news aggregator apps and my finger hovered a little while longer over this particular page longer than the others.

The copy read like something out of a science fiction story, albeit a bad one, claiming that when two people were in this studio, they would be closer than either had imagined than when they walked in. I saved it and kept on, looking for a specific story that I heard on the radio that afternoon and tried to find, much later that night, for my class the next morning. I found what I was looking for and shut down my phone, sleep came but I dreamed about this little blurb. Was it a boudoir photo service? Wearing lacy clothing the lovers would pose in vaguely sexy ways for later perusing alone or in each others arms? Could it be some kind of special film that would transport a pair of lovers into the future to see what they looked like 25 years ahead, older and possibly grayer around the temples but still enamored?

When I woke up in the morning, I scanned through my newsfeed checking for anything that might have happened since I had gone to sleep a mere five hours before. I lay blame for my news obsession on one instance in 2001 when I was awakened by my college roommate to see a deranged pilot crash into the second tower of the World Trade Center in New York. I had slept through the first crash and since missing that pivotal moment in world history, I swore that I would never miss an important news story as it happened. This morning, there were the usual bombings in countries I would never visit, more decapitated drug mules outside of northern Mexican towns and this article that I saved from the night before. It shouldn’t have been in the newsfeed, but it was there looking back at me. Photographer seeking couples. I clicked on the link and filled out the form on the website thinking that these things never really worked out the way they were supposed to but it couldn’t be any worse than the way things were.

On my lunch break at work, I checked my personal email and there were a few new messages promising cheap designer clothing, the newest running gear and a message from Clint. I knew a guy in junior high named Clint but since then, my life has been Clint-less. It was the photographer. He had an opening on Saturday and was interested in meeting with me. I flagged the message as important and forwarded it on to my significant other. “Fun thing to do this weekend?”

We had dinner that night and talked like we usually did about each others days and the gossipy, bitchy women that she inevitably worked with, no matter where she worked. I chewed thoughtfully on the fast food pizza that we were both pretending to enjoy, took a sip of my lager and looked up. The grease on her lips was not…inviting but it seemed to lubricate the next thought. “Did you see that message I sent you?” “Yeah, I’ll pick up the dry cleaning in the morning!” Her mind always focused on the mechanics of our life. “I’ve got yoga on Saturday, you know that.” I felt bad for the minute that it took for her to realize she wasn’t doing what our therapist had suggested. Flexibility. Spontaneity. These were the traits that I was looking for and that she lacked. “Ok, I might be able to fit something in. These are nudie photos, are they?” I told her that I didn’t really know for sure, the photographer had only a few examples on his website but they didn’t look like the usual stuff. “This isn’t going to end up on one of those revenge porn sites some day, is it?” I smiled like I knew what she was talking about.

Driving into the industrial part of town, we passed the burned out shells of buildings and into the parking lot of Clint’s studio. He had told us to bring a change of clothes and some water bottles, his water was cut off. I grabbed our duffel bag from the back of the hatchback and we knocked on the door. After a few seconds, the buzz of the electronic lock let us know that, indeed, we were expected. We walked up to the loft, three flights of stairs and a little hard breathing, and came into the loft. It was a wide open space with a bank of windows on one side letting in the early morning light, clean and new.

Clint was waiting for us next to his set up, tall and wearing a pair of beat up jeans and a white tee. “Hey guys, welcome to my space,” he said with a relaxed tone. “Go ahead and get ready!” “Do we…?” “Yeah, go ahead and get naked.” She looked at me, betrayed. These would, indeed, be nudie pix. “I’m not talking to you.” I looked apologetic but went ahead and took my pants off. Clint had put a couple of robes over in the dressing area and we put them on. They looked like he had stolen them from a hotel or something. Thick, terrycloth that smelled a little medicinal. Dressed, we came into the space and saw what he had waiting for us. There was a large plastic bag, like one of those vacuum sealed packing bags, lying on the floor and an assistant that we hadn’t seen when we came in adjusting the lighting. Clint was messing with his camera rig, getting the tripod set up over the bag.

“Here is how this works,” he said. “I’ll get you guys situated in the bag and you’ll have a few minutes of discomfort before we suck all the air out and get the pictures. You won’t have to hold your breath for more than 30 or 40 seconds and then it is over.” She looked at me again, still not speaking. Her eyes said something like, “Um…fuck you. Dishes for a month, asshole.” We dropped our robes and I realized it was the first time I had seen her naked in months. It was unkind of me to notice but she had put on some weight. I was training for a race and I was in the best shape of my life. I walked to the bag with the confidence of someone who knows they look good and she followed behind me using me as a shield. I was the first one in the bag and I shimmied my way into the back corner. The assistant helped her get down and she crawled in front of me. She was laid on her back and her arm was under my head. I became the clothing she had shed, my arm across her chest, my leg across her waist.

The smell of the bag wasn’t overpowering but it reminded me of the one time I had tried to kill myself by putting a plastic bag over my head and duct taping it down. I had, of course, chickened out before I died but the memory lingered and was triggered by our current setting. She was calming down now, I was the one feeling awkward now. “Ok, guys. Just breathe out completely a couple of times and we are gonna do this on the third breath.” The assistant stood by with a vacuum hose and we breathed in and out together a couple of times before Clint called “Three” and we breathed out for the last time.

The bag was sealed up and the vacuum sucked the air out of the bag first and then out of our lungs. Plastic was up against my face and tight against our bodies like a second skin. I had closed my eyes as the last of the air was sucked out and I was only aware of the feel of her sweating skin under my arms and her slow, steady heartbeat. My own heart was speeding up as though I was hitting the speed portion of a training run and even though I couldn’t breathe, my lungs were starting to burn. The seconds ticked by and I could tell that I wasn’t handling this as well as I thought I would. Black spots started to dance across my closed eyes and my toes started to curl in panic. She shifted under me and I became aware of the heat pouring off of her. I had started spending more and more nights on the couch recently, because of my training schedule I told myself, and had begun to forget what she felt like lying next to me.

Tears welled up behind my closed eyes and I knew I had to get out of the bag before I completely lost it. Seconds more passed and I could hear Clint and his assistant talking quickly through the plastic. I don’t know how many more seconds passed before they opened the valve on the bag, it could have been hours by this point, and the air rushed in. They had to remind me that it was time to start breathing again. She rolled over and popped me on the cheek and I took a deep breath in. I think Clint showed us the pictures, I think we dressed in silence and I think I handed her the keys to drive home. I stared out the window on the way home watching the city pass by. There were surprisingly few people out on the sidewalks as we got closer to home and as we pulled into our parking garage and the lights came on, I found the tears from the bag had pooled in my beard. I wiped them away and we got out.

“Do you want some coffee?” I didn’t answer but she handed me a cup anyway. “I’m going to go to a later yoga class, you need anything?”

To do that again. To be that close and wrapped up again. To spend 30 seconds closer to you than I have ever been. That. That is what I need. Of course, I didn’t say it. She went to her class and I went for the hardest run I have ever gone on. I threw up twice along the way and each time, I tasted the bag on my tongue.

When I got home, there was a bag on the landing with a note. “Go spend some time up at the cabin. I need a few days.” And that was it. I never tried to come back to the house.

She shipped my things out to the cabin and sent me a long letter that I only read the greeting:

Dear John,


The Pooka

"Old people used to say that the Pookas were very numerous...long ago..., were wicked-minded, black-looking, bad things...that would come in the form of wild colts, with chains hanging about them."

-Thomas Crofton Croker

The first time it happened, Jolene thought nothing of it. Corby often woke himself up in the middle of the night and this time, it was no different. He called out for her from his bed and when she didn’t come right away, as she woke slowly, he would cry himself quietly back to sleep. This time, the difference came in his reaction to her absence. Cor began to cry louder, by the time she made it to his bedroom door he was chatting with something as though there was something in the room with him. Jolene stood outside the door reveling in the childish nature of the conversation. “Where did you come from?” he said. “Oh, I’ve always been close by,” the voice replied, “close and watching.” And it was this, the watching that set her teeth on edge and forced her into the room with more urgency than she meant to show. Cor looked up at her standing framed in the doorway and simply smiled a mischievous smile, he was hiding something in his sheet and when she walked over to him and put her hand comfortingly on his head, he seemed to burrow it deeper into the bed. “What have you got there? A new friend?” she asked. “It’s just pooka.” He said matter-of-factly. “He hear me crying and came to see what was wrong.” “Oh.” She said. “Well, can I meet him?” Cor looked at her as though from a great distance and said, “He says you already know him.”

After she had tucked him back in, checking and finding nothing out of the ordinary in his bed, she double checked the lock on the window and found it as she had left it; locked. She went out of the room and left the door open a crack, walked into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of red from the bottle nestled in the refrigerator door. The witch balls hanging from the ceiling chimed in the disturbed air, she must have brushed too close in her haste to reach the wine. She drank her wine slowly, savoring the mellowed nature of the old red, and tried to think if there was anything she could have said that might have triggered tonights episode. In spite of his age, eight years, Cor often spoke of things in a childlike, almost prescient tone. He knew before his grandmother fell ill that something was eating away at her from the inside. Reaching up to touch her hand, he looked into her eyes and said, “I know it will hurt but it won’t last long.” Jolene’s mother had died within three months of that day, stomach cancer.

And now this new thing, Pooka. The name had a silly quality that didn’t seem at all threatening but there was something in Cor’s face that suggested something else. When she was a child, Jolene often had trouble sleeping and her mother and grandmother (there were no men in the house) had always made her milk with nutmeg to help her get back to sleep. There was one instance in particular that she remembered when her mother, instead of going back to the room she shared with her grandmother, had stayed with her through the night. This, in itself, was strange; her mother had always tried to get her to be independent regardless of the instance. She always talked about how “you have to be strong to make your way in this world,” and so staying in the room through the night was in direct conflict with what seemed to be a strong set of beliefs about the strength of children. When she woke up that morning, her mother sat, still awake, rocking slowly in the chair muttering to herself. She couldn’t remember exactly but she thought that her grandmother had been outside putting bottles in the oak tree that stood outside her room. She finished her wine and rinsed out the glass, putting it in the dish drain beside the sink. In the morning, she would talk to Cor and try to get more information from him, tonight she would try to sleep.

When she finally drifted off, she dreamed of the bottles in the tree outside her childhood window and the witch balls that hung in her childhood home, their tangled filaments of glass and swirling colors designed to attract and trap evil spirits. In her dream, she walked through her kitchen again and this time instead of the happy chime, the orbs started to glow and hum like they were filled with hornets. There was a nasty nature to the buzz as though someone had hit the hive with a stick, as children often do to try to destroy the hive. As the buzz became louder and louder, she tried to walk away from the sound and found that the kitchen was full of orb, ten times more than there had ever been, even in her grandmothers house. She woke up with a gasp and found that her alarm had been buzzing for ten minutes. She turned it off and went into the bathroom connected to her room and washed her face; she had work this morning.

Cor was already awake and dressed, his hair combed perfectly and a bowl of Cap’n Crunch sitting in front of him. The milk was out and he was staring intently out the window as though something had interrupted him while he was getting ready to pour. The cap was off the carton and his hand was frozen in the air, midway between the bowl and the milk. When she walked in the room, she could smell coffee already brewing and when she said his name, he completed his gesture and poured out the milk into his bowl. He always poured out just enough milk, never more than he needed. He was a neat child, sitting in his school uniform, tie tied and his crisply pressed shirt tucked in. “How did you sleep, Mom?” He asked Jolene. “Not well. Does it show that clearly?” He looked at her tallying up her tousled hair, the dark circles under her eyes and the faintly stained red of her lips. “You’ve looked better,” he said. “Honesty is the best policy, right mom?” “Yes, honey,” she said. “I need ten dollars for the zoo trip today,” he said. “Remember?” “Of course!” She hadn’t remembered but she went over to the cupboard and pulled out a crisp ten dollar bill from the flour jar. She never baked but kept the jar out of nostalgia. Her own mother had kept the jar filled with finely milled flour for the biscuits and scones that always graced the table when she was growing up; a skill Jolene had not acquired through her teenage years. Now it was too late.

Her mother had passed away while she was away at college studying something or another and when she went to the house for the wake, there were two things waiting for her. The jar and a strange old man. It turned out the man was a long lost uncle recently of Ireland and he was sitting next to the body of her mother with a hand resting lightly on it’s chest. She had walked in on something that she didn’t fully understand then but she realized it was older than she was, ancient even. After the wake, she had gone up to the man to thank him for sitting with her mother’s body and he smelled faintly of the earth, musty and dark. He stood apart from the crowd gathered to send her mother off and would not let Jolene get too close to him; simply waved and said, “God bless” in his comforting Killarney accent and then he was gone, out the door.

She handed Cor the ten and tousled his hair; he hated that. Cor must have picked up his particular nature from his father, a robust, wandering man who Jolene had spent six months with when she was in college. It wasn’t until they had broken things off that she realized there was something left of him growing inside of her. She thought about contacting him to let him know but by then, he was off somewhere, Patagonia or Tibet. Regardless of where he had been, Cor’s father had always looked like he had stepped out of a Calving Kline Purple Label ad. Cor had inherited his strong chin and leanings toward obsession with neatness, even his room was in perfect order. He took the ten dollar bill and folded it neatly in thirds, tucked it neatly into his book bag and drank the last of his orange juice. “Thanks, Mom.” He said. “I’ll see you this evening when you get off of work.” She looked up from her coffee, distracted for a moment by what looked like a halo around Cor’s head. “Honey, can you spare a minute? I wanted to ask you something.” Cor stopped as he reached for the door handle and turned his head over his left shoulder to stare directly into Jolene’s eyes. “He won’t be back.” The Pooka 4 Jolene looked at him, startled. He knew exactly what she wanted to ask, had hoped was simply a bad dream and in one phrase confirmed for her that indeed, he wasn’t going to forget the previous night’s disturbance. Smiling, he waved and stepped out the door. The door closed behind him and then the screen slammed shut, it’s loud “clack” making her eyes blink with the violence of the moment.

She watched him as he went down the front walk touching each ornament that he came across as he usually did. This time, rather than pass by the statue of the imp that Jolene had found one day in the garden, he stopped and squatted down next to it and whispered something she couldn’t hear to it. He touched it on the head and she couldn’t help but notice the similarity to her own tousling of Cor’s hair only a few minutes before; oddly familiar. She took a few steps toward the door and pulled it open to yell something to his back as he went to the corner for the bus but he was already too far down the street to her her say, “Be well, my only boy.” Before she knew what she was doing, the phone was in her hand and she was dialing his school. When the receptionist picked up the phone, she didn’t remember why she had called and simply said, “Wrong number,” before hanging up again.

She finished her coffee and set the cup in the drainboard next to her glass from the night before. A moth had found its way into the upturned glass and she picked it up by the stem to release the insect. It fluttered away and stuck on the window until she opened the sash and it wandered outside to whatever fate waited for it. The shower didn’t wake her up as much as it usually did but it was enough to motivate her into her standard work uniform; nice jeans and a T-shirt from her college days as a DJ. She worked most of the morning at her desk downtown taking breaks now and then to stare out at the city skyline. She had taken the job at the record label shortly after Cor was born to make ends meet and had quickly risen through the ranks of office drones to the head of A&R. Spending less time at the office than most of the others, she was still able to pick out the next hot act coming in from the Midwest. A Texas band was creating a path through the charts that was unprecedented and she felt, at least a little, responsible for their rise from the dive bars of college towns to the swanky clubs and small theaters they were now selling out at a blinding pace.

Her bonus from signing the act had paid for the landscaping in the back yard that recreated her grandmother’s garden almost exactly, down to the catnip and clovers that rested next to the back door. Cor loved to run through the low lying plants in his bare feet in the morning on weekends and, if she squinted, she could almost see herself as a young girl running through the same yard a thousand miles away. The phone ringing broke through her reverie and she answered as she always did, a fake sounding, “Yeah, it’s Jolene” that served to connect her with her most frequent callers. Her personal assistant, Josh, cut through at “Yeah” and said in a bored tone, “It’s his school. Something happened.” This, in-and-of-itself, was not a cause for great alarm; Cor often found himself on the wrong end of a confrontation with another kid, said something wrong or found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. She told him to put them through. “Ms. Croker, there has been an accident. We need you down at the zoo as soon as possible.” She didn’t hear much of anything after that, the phone dropping to her desk, her boots slipping over her feet and the sound of her keys scraping into the ignition in her car.

Somehow she didn’t get pulled over on her way to the zoo, there were a few lights that turned red just as she roared through the intersection and a few times she whipped around a car a little too closely. Middle fingers and horns followed her to the front gate of the zoo where the police cars were already blocking the entrance. The door of her car stayed open as she rushed to make her way through the press of bodies surrounding the ticket booth demanding money back. “My son” is all she had time to say before a sergeant came up and guided her through the crowd by the elbow. There was something in his grip that made her want to pull away and run the opposite direction but she knew that Cor was counting on her not to make a scene, she had to keep whatever shred of dignity remained to her in hand as they made their way through the eerily empty zoo. There was a small group of kids from Cor’s school huddled in a picnic area but he wasn’t with them.

“Can you tell me what is going on?” She asked, not a little brusquely.

“Ma’am I just need you to keep moving, there is something that you need to see,” the sergeant said to her.

As they came around the corner, Cor’s teacher stood looking at his shoes. He was a mousey man with a drooping mustache dressed a corduroy blazer. He was talking to another police officer who was taking notes in on a pad, nodding and reaching out to put his hand on the teacher’s shoulder from time to time. Jolene began to move quicker, almost outdistancing her escort. Around another bend in the trail, she saw Cor standing next to a low fence enclosing an exhibit. He was looking around at the commotion taking place all around him but he was standing alone; she stopped and stared for a moment before walking up to him.

“Honey, are you ok?” She asked.

“I tried to stop it before it happened but there was nothing that I could do. He was already over the fence.” He looked like he was about to cry. “They keep saying I pushed him but I was trying to stop it.”

“It’s ok, baby. What...”

She didn’t finish the last sentence because she could see something of what was happening. A woman stood hugging herself as the paramedics wheeled a gurney past her. A small bundle was covered by the clean, white sheet. Strapped down, what could only have been a young child was shepherded through the press of the crowd. She looked back at the woman and vague recognition struck her. She knew this woman from her neighborhood, she was the stay at home mother to a young boy who lived three houses down. Before she could stop herself, she walked up to the woman and wrapped her in her arms, cradling her head into her shoulder as the woman finally broke down and began sobbing into Jolene’s T-shirt. “I only left him for a second.” She said. The Pooka 7 Jolene looked up at Cor and saw a flash of light around his head. She realized it wasn’t a halo as she had thought but a brilliant corona ringing him. “He’ll be fine.” She said and realized she wasn’t talking to the woman but to herself.

In the following months, Cor retreated into himself and she often heard him in the night speaking to the unseen presence that had woken him up the night before the accident. Even after the reporters had gone and she had transferred him into another school, she got evil looks from the neighbors when she walked him to the bus. There was something happening, she didn’t know what it could be. Somehow, Cor would move past this, he had to.

On the night before he started the fourth grade, Jolene stood outside his door listening as he woke up again in the night. She barely breathed as she listened, not wanting to miss anything. “Do you think the new kids will like us?” Cor said into the blackness of his room. “They will.” The voice said. “They will or...” She couldn’t hear the last words but there was a faint jingling sound, like the tack of a horse, in his room. She opened the door to see what could be making the sound and only found Cor, asleep. The look on his face was sweet and relaxed but around the witch ball she had hung in his room, a fierce glow broke through the blackness.

He would be fine, she thought. He had to be.