In racing to the edge, pushing himself to go faster, pigeon chested with undeveloped arms furiously driving, drenched in sweat dripping down from off of his Romanic nose, the sky above him bleached in crackling heat from the unusually hot summer, once past the line, whether finishing first or second or far behind the spurts of sandy dirt kicked up by the heels of the other’s stained trainers, the boy would heave for breath, his throat sandpaperishly dry, unable to muster enough saliva to spit onto the track and clean the field’s dust from off his teeth. He would cough and rake his lungs with rough and clawing bursts of sound as he tried to catch his breath and see it as a triumph, a victory against all physical limitations.

In that at age fourteen, he would choke on massive gulps of bud-sweetened air, with the crumpled mutilation of half of a two-litre plastic bottle before him, the bottom of which had been cut open with his six year old sister’s safety scissors and replaced with a plastic carrier bag, the bag then forcibly emptied of its air by his friend’s inclining fist, the very name of the plastic instrument itself a lung and that the desired and understandably realistic reaction of his body to this treatment was to gag, to choke down its reflexes and to cough, the splutters of which were tapered by swinging rough pats with open palms on his back from the others in their circle, in that very collegiate form of male bonding, telling him all the while to keep it in, to go, just don’t let it out.

So that the man when as a boy and a youth had coughed and often associated it with pride, achievement, social bonding and acceptance, that the reaction of his body to irritants or unwanted guests had garnered no more thought or attention than the closing of his eyes to blink, that lapsing eclipse of a lid, or to laugh unashamedly at a well timed joke. It was not a thing that kept him up at night, well into the hours that accompanied his wife’s heavy breathing, of which he was not allowed to refer to as the more manish; snoring. He didn’t used to notably wince and pause every time he saw another carry out the same automatic, expulsive action. His eyes at that time had not begun to fix psychotically upon the strangers whom he shared each day’s subway carriage with. But now they did, and yet more than that, the act of coughing for the man had brought back something else into the internal routine of his inner-monologue; it had brought back something much more firmly rooted in what made him the very man he was.

He had felt it forever since in someplace deep and wholly private

With each rising chest, the exhalation of bitter air, the roughness of his throat and the ache that came within the pit of his stomach that caused him to remember a thought that had first appeared some three decades ago, first felt when left alone to wait for an incoming train to Doncaster while his mother bought water and snacks for the departing journey to a new and unknown home and the boy, just now reaching adolescence, had stared firmly outward, down the
tracks and then had paused, feeling gut wrenchingly alone, and had felt it forever since in someplace deep and wholly private.

It was in moving, a self-estrangement out of the way from comfort and safety that had led the man, then a young and egger graduate to venture out and start a life in a country which required him to learn a new way of speaking, to develop a whole new complex systems of intercourse and communication for the very most basic sustainable level of self-survival that found him some twenty years later to still be living in the northeast district of Beijing, nestled almost that most monstrously sprawling of metropolises and to be sharing a modestly sized yet ingloriously expensive one room apartment with his wife and infant daughter, not to leave out the abandoned dog which on December the 20th of the previous year his wife had found and felt pity for and whom she now fed and kept clean and took outside to run furiously around the community’s gated park. And it was here, that at times with an almost nervously tainted quality of revulsion towards his loyalty, a feeling of anxious hesitancy towards the city and it’s noxious atmosphere and not against his life experienced and lived behind the apartment’s door, for it was here in this city that the man had truly begun to cough and for it to mean something more than it ever did or could have done so before.

He came to understand and recognise the taste of sulphur and distinguish the winter remnants of coal dust on his lips separate from the stains of black coffee.

When walking to work, he wore the Capital’s standard attire of a construction worker’s dust mask wrapped around the backs of his ears and tightened by a steel beam across the crooked emphasis of his nose. That the mask promised to protect him from roughly 95%/97% of the particles in the air gave him little comfort. For his wife he bought one that promised all but one lacking %, but still this made him feel only slightly better. So then when at work, while the others went out into the noirish hubris of the hour, he would skip lunch and instead sit at his desk reading article after article on what it was exactly that he was consuming, sucking in and breathing. He read about black carbon, learnt refinery practices that exhaled arsenic and various paired dioxides. He came to understand and recognise the taste of sulphur and distinguish the winter remnants of coal dust on his lips separate from the stains of black coffee. And each time he coughed, he would pause once again and feel in a very understood and conscious way, the very hour of his own death, felt in a moment that then blossomed into a permeating fear that with each breath tightened the rope around a little further. To breathe was to step further forwards an ending ledge, that in the act of living he was fixated on its overture. He became a body defined by its expulsion of air and its intoxicants. But it was not this that frightened the man.

In every coughing jag he felt something more impersonal and lifeless than the moment of death itself. It is to become and experience, to understand the sensation and to know in a very real and physical sense; what it is to cradle the innermost protected centre of your being, all that is left from years of adult care and careful sculpture. To actually feel a tangible, heavy presence against your chest; that infantile you, to really see it, smell the sour warmth of its breath brushing waves against your own and to watch this child close its delicate eyes and disappear to far away in a sleep so ever distant, that it becomes, over time, impossible to rise from.

That the coughing man knew this, knew it way before he’d had time to unlock the doubly bolted door on returning home from work, that it existed for him in a relentless and pressing fashion, someplace once quietly nestled in the recesses of his thought, in the very shaping of his ideas. It had since then been steadily rising forward, pushing itself to the front of the row of every semblance of lucid thought that he, the coughing man, had been able to muster. It held a hold of him, so that way before he’d had time to close the door, never mind fighting off the ludicrously open and loving hysteria of the family dog as it paws manically at the backs of his knees causing him to buckle, or licks at the stained hem of his trouser leg with its long and dextrous tongue, it was this idea, this projection of an optimistic and open-minded spirited himself and of what is and still retains the promise of to be and become, all within in a projection of which he had held onto and maintained daily within the closing seconds of each night. With his pupils fixed rigidly, dilated at a crack in the ceiling’s plaster, or with lids tightly closed, wrapped shut and buried deep into the unfairly soft and pleasurable embrace of a bed sheet and pillow with nostalgic scents seeking refuge in memories of a clean bed climbed dangerously high into as a boy, he was acutely and attentively aware of this much maintained and necessary vision of himself, breathing softer and visibly fading.

And what could be worse than the experience of knowing and reminding yourself that this sensation of distance felt between your present now and what now was for so long meant to be, is not unique nor rare and is in fact a very common, painfully mundane and a daily mental ritual for so many, is that it robs the experience from ever truly validating your pain as your own. It feels too shared, too universal. That it if shared with so many others, all slightly differential variants all running tangentially along the same line is true, in then giving into it and placing any sort of time or attention upon it feels vulgar and somehow steals from you the ache; it makes the burning real invalid, cheapened. The coughing man, removing his dust mask from his face with beads of perspiration still dripping from the mask’s soft cotton interior, chin wet and lips acrid with sweat, wants desperately to be the only person standing within this moment, feeling this pain and experiencing it solely.

That he despises the knowledge that others, in any temporal or spatial location may be also wanting, desiring its release, to buckle over and clutch at their stomach, dragging their nails through shirt and vest, ripping open something more primitively rotten within them and scream in low guttural moans that rise to a crescendo where they beat their sore temples with closed fists and then cry and and really cry to the point in which they lose themselves in choking fits and have to gasp out for air. That others may do this, or want to do this he despises, for then what is his pain, if not something shared and commonplace and in no way special, nothing to be celebrated as personal, nothing to be owned or kept or protected, just another thing to lose, to be taken away. To have to watch his very own, very real and physical self fade and to have it take and steal with it, the pain that it used to fill that greatness, leaves the coughing man with less than nothing. It leaves him little more than a vacuum in a human mould, a physical anomaly, impossibly present and yet not, denied the self-importance in which to make that very leap into non-existence. It robs him of a chance to not be.

What has come to be more affecting than an all out rejection of the air, is that in so many ways its qualities the coughing man has come to identify with as his own.

In stepping out of his shoes and rubbing the back of the dog’s head with the tips of his fingers, the buds on the animal’s tongue rough and noticeable when it tilts its head back and covers his wrist with affection, the coughing man stares forward through the apartment, past the table and the sofa littered with chew toys and clothes piled up to form nests and blankets and stares out into what should be a view across the city but appears to be little more than a window carved in stone. What has come to be more affecting than an all out rejection of the air, is that in so many ways its qualities the coughing man has come to identify with as his own. The pollution is present, and so for the time being is he. It is both subsisting on this earth and is all the while, a dead thing. It is clearly visible and yet to try to reach out and touch it, to make contact, either to restrain or hold it close, in trying you will find nothing there. It is the remains of something made, something much better, a promise set never to be kept. Its possibility used up and depleted, left ghost-like and hauntingly present, it is a thing and nothing, all the same.

The coughing man takes off his jacket and washes his hands in the kitchen sink, the dog following closely at his heels. And that his wife is lying on the bed reading and that the room is quietly still and calm should please him and it does. For just that moment it does. And yet so why, he asks himself, as he lies down beside her with his head nestled against her neck as she carefully turns the pages reading from left to right, why here even now, here and wholly present, does he cradle his arms before him and feel them fill with such a heavy weightlessness? How does it feel to breathe in, to draw in air and find that there’s no longer any room for anything else?

His wife closes the book and smiles towards him and so he returns it with a look of warmth that is perfectly sincere and painstakingly real, something genuinely true and from the lung of emotional breath. And he wants to tell her, to try and explain what’s inside. But to know only that she will most likely understand and that she too is a conscientious and thinking person whose values are similarly attached to the same wandering dreams of future plans and pre-pubescent aspirations of what I can be and what I can become should I chose and that still I have choice, I have that. What digs in deeper than he had felt or thought possible to exist within a good, honest earnestly thinking person’s mind is that of the selfishness of wanting his pain to be his and his alone. And it seizes him and keeps him closed down, shutting off any connection that there is there to be made between the coughing man and his wife and the rest of the world, as the pair align their legs together, each one of them nestled against the physical breathing body of the other, smiling genuinely and with love, and still for all it its worth, alone.

Author: jameskramerblog

James Kramer is a fiction writer currently based in Beijing. His writing has appeared in Your Impossible Voice, as well as various Poetry anthologies. He currently writes a monthly-ish column for LeftLion magazine on China.

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