One day, Norma’s lung collapsed. She’d been working up the nerve to break up with her boyfriend when the pain hit. She didn’t suspect one of my lungs has caved without provocation. There was balder evidence: chest pressure, left side, arm numb. The earnest phrase, 50% of women resist the idea that they are having heart attacks. Norma was twenty-five, but there have been sadder statistics.
The boyfriend drove her to the emergency room, both of them breathing shallowly. The night before, she had told her best friend that the boyfriend reminded her of a fish: his liquid eyes, his cold hands. Now she gripped that ectothermic hand, felt the thudding of the heart she’d been about to break.
The doctors identified the culprit: a bubble on her left lung, pressing down on the tissue like a finger.
“It’s just a 10% drop,” they said. “We could insert a chest tube, relieve the pressure.”
“Or?” Norma asked, thinking chest tube? Thinking, pressure.
“Your body will reabsorb it,” they said. “It will take about a week. No exercise.”
She chose reabsorb. That night the boyfriend asked moistly if he could make love to her, and, penitently, Norma let him.
By her third spontaneous pneumothorax, Norma understood the failings of her body. She was familiar with the sensation that someone had threaded a damp cotton string from her chest to her guts, roiling her intestines with each breath.
She wished she had a condition that carried more social currency: Parkinson’s, or Lou Gehrig’s. But a collapsible lung! This was a different thing entirely. This was a party trick, or perhaps instant death. “My God,” people said, “It happens a lot? Does it hurt?”
“It feels like getting shot in the shoulder,” she told people, and one day somebody said, with a bit of a swagger, “Have ever you been shot in the shoulder?” And Norma, breathing shallowly: “Have you ever had a collapsed lung?”
Sometimes, after too many vodka tonics, Norma found herself sketching the respiratory system on napkins, on placemats. Saying, unsteadily: “These are your lungs.” A pair of balloons, residing darkly inside the pleural cavity, held in place by water tension. When something compromises that tension: boom!
“Like a collapsing balloon!” she shouted.
“Come on,” the boyfriend said, steering her away. “Let’s get you home.”
That was after the fourth episode. She had given up on paper, and had Sharpied the faulty lungs onto her horrified hostess’ breasts.
Here was the thing: she wanted to love the boyfriend. He made sense on paper. He was good with children. They tried having date nights, and even attended couples’ therapy. Norma felt the therapist was eyeing her in a judgmental way, as if to say, you’re 25 and not obviously pregnant; for God’s sake, just date around.
“Leave him,” her friends said. Her friend Marcia in particular. Marcia was just two years older than Norma but had been a heroin addict at sixteen, and now was wiser than grandmothers. “Do you even love him?”
“What is love?” Norma asked. “He makes really good breakfast. If we broke up I might never eat breakfast again.”
Marcia swatted her on the butt. “I think you’d come around,” she said. “There are eighty-seven different flavors in the cereal aisle for a reason.” Norma tried to imagine her life in eighty-seven types of cereal. Waking up to Cap’n Crunch, to Wheaties, to Life. The seasons turning like a marshmallowed kaleidoscope.
Her reasons for staying with the boyfriend: she was afraid of breaking his heart. She was afraid of being alone. She didn’t know how long it would take to find another man she could bleach her mustache in front of, and who wouldn’t ask her to just try anal. And now: because her lungs could collapse at any time and she did not want to die alone.
Her friends were mostly healthy 25-year-olds, worrying about finding jobs and what does it mean when he doesn’t text me back for three hours. During her episodes, Norma felt fragile and proud. She felt superior to people unhappy for nonlethal reasons.
“Get the surgery,” the boyfriend said.
Norma leaned against his chest. The doctor had proposed a procedure involving growth of scar tissue in the pleural cavity. “I’m scared,” she said.
“I’ll be there,” he said.
“I might die,” she said.
“I’ll still be there,” he said.
She slipped her hand into his, calculating her convalescence. Wondering how long before she could carry a gallon of milk again, go swimming. How long before she could leave the boyfriend, now caretaker-and-wiper-(she imagined and feared)-of-her-ass without feeling flattened by guilt.
She came home early from her pre-op and found the boyfriend in bed with another woman. She cried. The boyfriend cried. The other woman cried. She was a sweet girl, a redhead with a lisp. The boyfriend told Norma, in the tossed salad of moments after, that her name was Pearl, that she was waiting tables to get herself through school, that it wasn’t her fault, or his fault, that the whole thing had just happened. Like a bird shitting on your car, or a power outage just happened.
“I didn’t mean to,” he cried. He looked at the ground, at the table, and the door Pearl had fled through, wearing his shirt. “I was going to tell you, but then you got sick, and I felt—God, I’m the worst.”
Norma held her hands in her lap, feeling the pressure and density of bone. Later, stupidly, she would think, I’ll bet she has normal lungs, and would begin to laugh and then cry, hysterically, the two mixing and intermingling until they were inseparable, and she was lying on the floor inventing some new kind of breathing, one that involved shuddering and hiccupping and a jumping, jolting noise that went unh-unh-unh.
But for now, she sat very still, listening to her body. In her chest, her lungs rising and falling, slipping blindly over their wet red walls. Expanding. Contracting. Expanding.