I Can Feel Him Breathing

Tara McGuire

I Can Feel Him Breathing is the honourable mention for the 2021 Creative Non-Fiction Contest, as selected by Judge Dr. Njoki Wane.

_____________

 

In the morning I stand in front of the bedroom closet, half-dressed, wrestling with the sliding door. The door won’t do what I want it to do. Nothing does what I want. 

Behind me, my husband pulls on his paint-covered work shorts.

“What do I wear to an overdose prevention site?” I yank, and the door derails in my hands. 

“Rubber gloves?” 

“Hilarious.” 

I struggle to re-hang the door on its metal runners. It’s been broken for months. We don’t have the energy. Christmas lights still lie in a quiet nest on the front lawn since the day I ripped them down screaming, “I fucking hate fucking Christmas.” 

When I say lawn I mean mostly dirt.

Cam pries the door from my fingers and props it against the wall. 

“I know, but you asked, and come on, this is a bit weird.” He says. He envelopes me. Chest, muscle, heartbeat, soap. 

“Is it? How else can I find out how heroin works?”

His voice vibrates against my cheek, “I assume you’ve tried the internet?” 

I had of course, but that didn’t seem real enough. My arms drop to my sides with the weight of wet towels.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?”

“You can’t miss any more work. And I’m not scared I’ll get hurt, I’m just scared it’s going to be sad.” 

“It will be. The whole thing is very, very sad.”

Warm air threads in through the open window feathering the skin on the back of my legs. My cheek scrapes against the dried paint on his sleeve. A chickadee sounds and we both turn to look but there’s no bird. Instead our eyes fall on the memorial garden we made for Holden under the Spanish chestnut tree. The rough chunk of granite we hauled from a logging road near Squamish, the white Buddha statue my sister gave us, the objects friends and family placed there—mementos you might keep in a box under your bed to remember something of another time—crystals, smooth heart-shaped rocks, a tiny ceramic pieta, the flattened spoon engraved with the words I rocked him to… 

~ because I’m so in love with you / i want to see you dance again / on this harvest moon ~ 

The ferns I stole last summer, dug up with a small shovel from the park nearby and carried home, mud under my nails, to transplant in the mossy shade around the slab, are uncurling. The solitary purple hyacinth, its scent ferocious, its waxy stars too heavy to bear, has fallen over.

“Will you please fix fucking the closet?”  

He kisses the top of my head.

 

I park on East Hastings Street beside a community garden, bountiful with lettuce, kale, and tall sunflowers. A girl, maybe six years old, pushes her scooter past me on the cracked sidewalk, one little piston leg propelling her along, braids streaming like kite tails behind her. A man, maybe her father, tries to keep up. 

“Yoona, wait for me!” 

The children rarely wait for you. 

I listen for two sharp chirps from my car then shove my keys and phone into the pockets of my shorts. My wallet is at home. I walk, looking into faces that used to be young, thinking about the suffering that has occurred in these few square blocks. Hundreds, no, thousands, of sons and daughters have birthed their last exhales in this postal code. I never cared that much about it before. Before, when these people were different from me. When they were just news stories or statistics I could ignore. Someone else’s problem. But I can’t look away anymore. I can’t pretend I’m better. I am not better.

In the year since Holden died I learned that heroin users are often filled with shame. They regularly use alone and die alone, without ever asking for help or confiding in anyone. The opposite of clean is dirty. 

When Holden died, a close friend slept near him. He loved and trusted her, but even she didn’t know what he was doing to settle his soul. Maybe he worried about what would she think of him? Maybe he was planning to quit anyway so why bother? Instead, she told me later, he said he wasn’t feeling well and asked if he could stay at her place. He was so tired, he’d said, too tired to make home. All he could think of was sleep. 

With hands calloused and arms strong from all the digging and planting at work, he set his alarm for early the next the morning. A pink sunrise he wouldn’t see. 

My phone blips, I’m running a little late, are you okay to wait for me there? It’s Sarah, the activist who runs Vancouver’s Overdose Prevention Site. She and I met through Twitter when I was 3:00am grief-mining about heroin. When I messaged Sarah that my son had died of an opioid overdose and I wanted to learn about heroin use, she asked his age. I typed the number two, and then the number one, and pressed the little blue envelope.  

I am so sorry. Sarah answered. How can I help you?

Perhaps Sarah could solve the riddles that keep me awake. Outwardly I probably looked like a fairly normal woman, but I was weeping for hours at a time and spending large portions of each day in bed unable to move or speak, obsessing on the same questionwhy would Holden turn to heroin? Especially when everyone knew the supply was being poisoned.

I wanted to know what had taken my son away. I’d been told he most often smoked, so I wanted to see it for myself—watch the clouds throw shadows across a person’s face when the heroin hits their bloodstream. But mostly, I wanted, needed, to ask someone young and alive, “Why?”

As I get closer to the site, the sidewalk itself seems to squirm in the rising heat. There’s a lot of chewing gum and garbage, many things for sale spread out on the ground—clothing, a lawn chair, half a bicycle, an electric fan. I consider buying the fan. Groups of people sit with their backs pressed against the brick buildings. Some lie curled and motionless; some stand or pace. Why is there so much chewing gum? 

A man sits on a flattened cardboard box with his stained pants pulled down below his boney knees, shooting a needle into his thigh while a woman crouches beside him watching. She is watching him and also, it seems, watching out for him. She rests her hand on his.

I wonder how it’s possible, or fair, that a man who looks at least seventy with scabs all over his face can still be alive while my young, strong, otherwise healthy child is not, a thought that is instantly followed by a nauseous torque of something like guilt low in the cradle of my pelvis. Maybe it’s my own oily shame. 

I wonder where all of their mothers are. I wonder if I should try heroin myself to truly understand. I wonder about that first mistake. I wonder if the cold brick in my chest will ever melt.

I reply to Sarah’s text, I can wait, and tentatively walk through the busy open air market toward a construction trailer and white industrial tents at the back of an empty lot between square, brick buildings. The space reminds me of a missing tooth. 

A light bulb of a woman in a blue vest greets me at the entrance. The air is laced with the smell of disinfectant, cigarette smoke, and those round white pucks they put in port-a-potties. 

“I’m meeting Sarah here. Is it okay if I wait?”

“Sure,” she smiles with bright pink lips, “grab a chair. I’m Cheri.” Cheri’s voice is a two-packs-a-day kind of hoarse. 

I sit on a stool with my back against the trailer. Yelling, laughter, people milling around and the grinding of shoes on gravel—if I squint my eyes to blur my vision, the scene could be a church picnic or a family reunion.

Cheri scans one of the tables under the tent. A frail woman in a winter coat, barricaded by three large suitcases, has buried her face in her crossed arms. I hope she’s sleeping. 

“Keep your heads up friends. If your head is down we start to worry,” Cheri yells then grabs a handful of the woman’s short cropped hair, lifting her head to inspect her face.

“Piss off,” the woman growls swatting a twig of an arm at Cheri.

“Fran, I’ve gotta check and you know it,” Cheri looks at me and winks. 

Fran is still alive.  

I look up at the slash of flawless blue sky between the brick buildings. Right now other people are at the beach, other people are riding bikes around the Stanley Park seawall. Two blocks away, on Water Street, other people are taking pictures of themselves in front of the steam clock, buying carved totems, and eating oysters.

“Would you like to see a guy fucking a donkey?” A lean, twitching man waggles his phone in front of my face, grinning. Before I can look away I see, on his small cracked screen, exactly what he just described. 

“YouTube! It’s awesome!” He laughs loudly, and specks of his spit land on my bare thigh.

I shift in my chair. I’m pretty sure that’s not YouTube.

“Cliff, leave her the hell alone,” a tall woman in a flowered sundress that exposes a pattern of bruises on her arms hollers, “get over here and hook me up, Sweetheart.” 

I nod to her. She smiles, shrugs, and returns to the urgent business of manacling her extended bicep with a length of thin rubber hose. Cliff obediently sits down beside her.

Two men jitter under the tent, coiled and restless, stepping from foot to foot with a pent energy that makes me nervous. They’re vibrating on a frequency I don’t trust. Another woman over in the corner appears to have shrunk, as if she’s a child playing dress-up in her parents’ clothing, her makeup applied with inexperienced fingers. 

At least she’s wearing makeup, I couldn’t be bothered, I don’t remember the last time I brushed my hair.

“Fuck you, fucker!” A deep shout flares from over in the corner. 

“I told you, I didn’t take nothin’!” 

A burly security guard saunters over to break up an argument along the tall chain link fence that runs the length of the alley. The guard takes one of the men by the arm and escorts him out through the gate. 

“You know the rules, Tommy. You can come back tomorrow.” The guard eclipses the entrance with his large body.

“Eat my ass and die.” Tommy limps away down the alley.

I feel like a plus one at a very strange wedding.

“Hi, sorry to keep you,” Sarah brushes toward me in a long, flowing skirt, “budget meeting.” She reaches for my hand. A large tattoo of a delicate, blue feather runs from her wrist to the crease of her elbow. Her green hair is tied up in a bandana, “Are you okay?” Her warm fingers squeeze mine.

“I think so,” I say, relieved to have Sarah’s presence, her protection. “I just got to watch some porn.”  

“Oh, these are not the most charming people,” Sarah says. “We can talk inside, would you like to have a look?” 

I don’t want to have a look. I don’t want to need this information. I want my son to be alive and heading over for dinner after working hard all day. I want to hand him a big glass of ice-water, hold his face between my palms, and laugh at his jokes. I want him to tell me about his weird boss and fire up a reggae playlist. I want to insist he eat salad. 

I follow her up the wooden steps. 

Inside, the trailer looks the way I imagine a portable triage unit in a disaster zone might —clean and bright with rows of open shelves filled with boxes of medical supplies and a wall of locked cabinets. A coffee machine sputters on the counter. Beside it a stack of paper cups and a box of sugar cubes. A couple sits at a table against the wall, huddled over their spoons and needles, a collection of plastic grocery bags around their feet. Her erect angular body makes her look both young, and old. His posture seems more crestfallen, as though he’s just dropped his keys down a storm drain. A man in a blue vest and baseball hat mops the floor. He lifts his chin to me. His name tag says Cecil. He looks too young to be a Cecil. I smell bleach.

“So, what would you like to know?” Sarah leans against the counter casually like we’ve just been introduced at a kitchen party and there aren’t two people injecting heroin six feet away.  

“I, um… well, I’d like to see… how you…I mean… how to… smoke it. Heroin. I’d like to talk to someone while they do it…if it’s possible….to…” I don’t know how to form these words in my mouth.

“Let me see who’s here,” Sarah slips out the door and down the stairs before I can finish. Maybe this is a mistake.

If Holden’s robust heart hadn’t stopped beating that night, where would he be now? Would he be under the tent outside with the other not charming people? Or would he be at the beach playing guitar and throwing a frisbee with his friends? 

And there he is—standing barefoot on the hot sand, curled fingertips dripping salt water, pink of the afternoon on his cheeks. I can hear his throaty laughter, see his eyes glinting with the sea’s reflection. He shines.

Sarah touches my shoulder. I notice my hand pressed flat to my chest.

“You okay?”

“This is harder than I expected.”

She nods, “Calvin has agreed to speak with you” more nodding, “if you’re still up for it.”

I’ve come this far. 

Sarah leads the way through the crowd toward a young man with blue-black hair and a carved jaw sitting straight-backed at the end of one of the long tables under the tent. His checkered shirt is ironed and buttoned up to the collar. The whites of his large, brown eyes are creamy, his few long, black whiskers very far apart. 

“This is Tara, she’d like to stay here you while you fix, if that’s still all right.”  

“It’s all right,” Calvin says, and he shifts to make room, as if I have asked to sit beside him on the bus. Sweat leaks out from under my bra and runs down my stomach. I wish I had some water.

“Thanks for letting me sit with you.”

“You’re welcome,” his forehead contracts, “why do you want to?” 

His movements are slow and methodical. I study his smooth face to try and determine if there is some way I could tell Calvin is a heroin user, if I didn’t already know. He has what I am starting to recognize as a common curled posture, as if someone is pulling a string in the middle of his back. 

“Well,” I exhale, bracing my hands on my knees, “my son died of an overdose and I’d like to see how this works.”

“That’s bad,” Calvin puts his lighter down on the table and turns his face to mine. His eyes swell with tears, “My sister did, too.” He looks down at the gravel between his feet, shakes his head.

“I’m sorry about your sister. What’s her name?”  

“Lois,” He slowly raises his eyes again, then shrugs, and reaches for a square of tin foil about the size of a piece of bread. “That’s how it goes.”

“How did you get here? I mean, how did you start using?” I ask, because there is no point in being subtle now.

“I came down to be with my Dad,” I lean closer to hear his soft, lethargic voice, “When I got here he was going to a party with my auntie and they asked me to come. So I went with them. At the party my Dad asked me if I wanted to try some.” 

Jesus Christ, I don’t say.

“That must have been really hard for you.” I do say.

Calvin pauses and tilts his head, as though he’s back there again, on that day. “I had to decide if I wanted to be with my Dad. So I tried it.”

“When was that?”  

“About a year ago, I think.” He looks up to the white canvas shrouding us, creases gathered at the corners of his eyes.

After a moment, “And your Dad?”  

“He’s around. I don’t see him too much.” 

Calvin fishes in his pocket and pulls out a small, flat plastic bag—a miniature sandwich bag. Inside is a brown blob, about the size of a pencil eraser. It could be gingerbread. He squeezes the little chunk between his thumb and forefinger then divides it into two parts putting one half back in the bag and pressing the other half onto the tin foil. Calvin digs a plastic tube out of his pocket and wedges it between his lips like a cigarette. 

“You just put the fire under here until it burns. Then you catch the smoke.” 

Calvin’s long fingers work without thought, this is reflex for him. He holds the flame under the foil at eye level. Soon the heroin starts to liquify, it bubbles and smokes, then begins to slide diagonally across the trough he’s made in the tilted foil. I think of a snowflake melting on a windshield. He follows the trail of smoke with his tube sucking in the plume until all of the heroin is gone. So this is chasing the dragon. A dragon that’s impossible to catch.

What was once a small knob of brown tar heroin is now a black streak of ash across the sheet of foil. Calvin moves like syrup, placing the lighter, foil and tube onto the table in front of us then leans back in his chair, holding his breath. His eyes are open and glassy; his face seems to have lost interest. He exhales and I smell something foreign—a combination of road paving and burnt sugar and gasoline and sauna steam. 

Calvin has not outwardly transformed into anything other than a quiet young man sitting on a folding chair, perhaps daydreaming. His mouth is slightly open, jawbone slack. He is still.

I wait. 

Where has he gone? This is the place I lost Holden to. This is the place that’s so much better. I will never see this place, but I hate it anyway.

After several minutes he licks his lips and turns to me, “That’s about it.”

“How do you feel?” 

He blinks, surprised at the question, as if he’s just been shaken from a dream and is trying to recognize where he is.

“I just feel warm and all wrapped up. Like everything’s good.” His expression deadpan. “I know it’s not, though.” He says, “I know I’m tricking myself.”

I nod and wait for him to continue. 

I wonder what will become of Calvin. He holds such a natural gentleness. I wonder where his father is. I feel protective. I consider taking Calvin home with me and making him dinner, but I picture my daughter’s young face and the thought vanishes. 

“Do you think you’ll ever quit?” I ask.

“I’d like to. Probably. I just don’t know what else to do.”

I nod, “I don’t either.”

I am inside something with Calvin. Something too big, too difficult to hold. I feel embarrassed to have invaded his intimate world. He is sweet and generous and thoughtful and I realize I have no right to pour my pain onto him when he has so much of his own. I am an intruder. My ribcage tightens, and I know I should leave. I stand and extend my hand. 

“Thank you, Calvin, this has been really helpful. Please take care of yourself.”

He straightens, ruffled, as though he’s just remembered the manners his mother or grandmother taught him. Calvin is much taller than he seemed when he was sitting down and I’m caught off guard when he steps toward me and pulls me into his lean, strong arms.  

“I’m really sorry about your son.” His voice resonates through his chest, vibrating against the side of my face. “I’ll see ya later.”

His shirt is soft against my cheek and smells like laundry detergent. We stand there, together for a moment, a woman and a young man, and I can feel him breathing.

 

Tara McGuire is graduate of The Writers Studio at Simon Fraser University and holds an MFA from the UBC School of Creative Writing. Her forthcoming book—a hybrid work in memoir and fiction exploring grief, motherhood, and the opioid crisis will be published by Arsenal Pulp Press in the fall of 2022.

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