Mehdi Razavi is a cardiologist in where he specializes in treatment heart rhythm disorders and directs the innovations laboratory for new medical devices at the Texas Heart Institute. Writing has been a lifelong passion and source of creativity. He lives with his wife, Joanna.
TEN THOUSAND BREATHS
She had decided to ride her bike. It helped her relax. It was three hilly miles from her new apartment to the Naval Academy where she was meeting a friend of a friend's. He was a Plebe, a first year cadet at the Academy. Though most were fresh out of high school he had spent one year in the Peace Corps.
They had met at a church social: He was from Waldorf, on the southeastern tip of the state.
Though two years younger than her he had immediately caught her attention. He was physically robust and personally charming. His mission with the Peace Corps was more than just an empty attempt to build up a resume. He was decent and his motives altruistic.
Bobbie Rae's boyfriend had died eight months earlier. She was still grieving his loss when she met this dashing chap.
By then her parents had convinced her to move in with Melissa, her friend from St. Mary's City.
Though she had never been attracted to younger men, this one stood out.
Most of the Plebes realized that the possibility of deployment after graduation was not remote. He embraced the possibility.
Bobbie Rae had asked him how he could on the one end spend a year with the Peace Corps and then turn around and join the military.
His answer was revealing: "Sometimes the best way to help the good is by fighting the bad." She thought it a bit dogmatic but his conviction was nevertheless impressive.
The Plebe year is notorious for its physical demands. He was confined to the Academy grounds most of the time. Bobbie Rae took every opportunity to spend any available time with him. They enjoyed each other's company.
His had been her first date since her boyfriend's death.
She had felt guilty after that first kiss and had cried before falling asleep later that night.
But when she had woken up the next morning it was as if her first love's spirit had been exorcised from her. She still loved him, still kept a tender spot for him in her heart. But his was no longer the key to her lock. It was probably the kindest thing he could have done for her. To set her free to carry on with her life.
Since July she had been spending more and more time with her new companion and although the old one's memories were not forgotten, they were no longer the first thing she recalled after waking up.
Life is for the living.
They sat on the pier, holding hands, staring at the seagulls.
A gentle breeze caressed her hair.
After lunch they biked around downtown and then went all the way up to the stadium where the football team was starting its summer practice.
On her way back from the Academy that evening she had remembered about the National Geographic which was laying in the front basket of her bike. The two of them had had a bet: He swore that Bach, like Beethoven, had composed while deaf. He was convinced he had read it in last April's National Geographic. She knew better and had set out to prove him wrong.
Now that she had won she would have to return the magazine.
It had been a long day spent mostly in the sun.
It would have been nice to go home to a shower.
The library was two miles away from the Academy, adding a total of four miles to an already late evening bike ride.
She could just as easily wait a few more days.
* * *
How had this girl who he had met once, and only briefly, done this? He did not know the answer. It was not physical attraction, for many prettier faces had walked through those doors. It was not the desire for wealth or power, for neither she nor her family had either.
Was it his desire for a companionship which up to now had evaded him? If that was the case, why this girl? Why not any of the many other girls who had asked him for help, some much more flirtatiously.
He could not provide himself an answer. Perhaps a biologist could scientifically analyze it and conclude that she led to the release of some chemicals in his brain associated with overwhelming joy. And the biologist would probably be right. But the question which confounded him remained unanswered: Why?
Instead of explaining it he decided to describe it. And so came that first story. They were his feelings when describing the girl's emotions towards the guitar player: Her jealousy of the guitar. Wishing that hero would be paying attention to her with the same tenderness, he was describing his need for Bobbie Rae's attention. Perhaps it was too direct.
But Troy was also coming to another realization. Regardless of what the future held, regardless of what Bobbie Rae were to think of this older, engaged boy, regardless of their ultimate destinies, he felt the need to create something which would live on forever as a memorial and testimonial of his feelings towards this girl. He knew that if he did not the regret would accompany him to his grave.
Perhaps most challenging was his need, so far unmet, to reconcile his feelings with the realities of his life: He was engaged to a wonderful person who he had never been in love with. In his heart of hearts he knew, as did she, that they were not destined to live happily ever after. But, then again, not everyone gets to live happily ever after. He desperately wanted to do the right thing. But if the right thing meant wasting away in a life void of merriment and happy companionship then it cannot be the right thing, can it?
He knew what the right thing was: He had to tell his fiancee how he felt. There was no moral ambiguity on that front.
This was precisely where Troy's faltering moral courage failed him.
The most fancy love stories cannot veil the reality of wronging another human being.
* * *
Seven weeks and two stories had passed since their last encounter. He had written the stories, mailed them off, and anxiously awaited a response.
None had been forthcoming. Nor had she dropped by the library. His initial enthusiasm was turning into frustration.
The days were starting to get shorter and cooler now as the official beginning of Autumn had come and gone. The library hours remained the same but the flood of visitors changed its pattern: The days were quieter but the after-school hours saw a surge of students. Most came on matters related to school work. Some found it a convenient place to meet and banter. Still others came to roam the cavernous hallways in search of a literary distraction.
Troy was also suffering from distraction, but of a different sort. He missed Bobbie Rae: Every time a girl who frame matched hers walked into the library he would look up and for a split second anticipate the possibility of imminent exhilaration, only to be disappointed. Like a mother who sees the face of her missing child in every other child in a crowded mall, the anxiety and possibility of never seeing her became more real as more strange faces passed through the majestic entrance of the library.
Two more weeks passed. He could feel his creative energy dissipating. It had taken him almost three weeks to complete his last short story. He did not think it to be his best. The plot was too sentimental, he felt. But he could not avoid sentimentality as he thought of her. He wished to use his written words as a vehicle to reach into her soul. The results, to his chagrin, were beginning to give him the air of desperation. The intervals between manuscripts were increasing.
Another month passed. Halloween was approaching and the library was decorated accordingly. It gave it a festive feel. But Troy's eyes revealed other emotions. A sad hue had overtaken him. It was getting too cold for spontaneous bike rides in downtown. The library was overheated and this increasingly irritated him. His temper was becoming short. Though he never raised his voice, students were not as ready to approach him as they may have been a few weeks earlier.
His fiancee could sense him crashing back to his laconic ways. He was never unpleasant to her but she sensed a certain disappointment in the depths of his persona. She knew him well enough to be certain something was not right.
But she, too, was not perfect. She, too, lacked enough moral fiber to consider approaching him to offer a listening ear. She, too, took the immediate and easy solutions even they if meant silence in the face of his obvious melancholy.
* * *
Bobbie Rae walked into the library the first week of November. It was quiet and the sound of her entrance was minimal. He was absorbed in checking the inventory and first noticed a shadow followed by a gentle tap on his shoulder.
"Hi," she said, a twinkle in her eyes. "Do you remember me?" she said as she took her wool hat and gloves off.
Her cheeks were flushed. She smiled. She was not smiling at him, but at her surroundings as she looked around.
She was happy, he could tell.
"Yes, Bobbie Rae, right?" he tried to feign a casual attitude.
"That's right. Good memory! You must have so many people come through here..."
The tip of her nose was red, like an alcoholic's.
"You look like you're freezing," he said.
"I know, some day I'm going to move to Texas or Florida!" she answered playfully. She looked at him, sizing him up for a few seconds. "So what's new with you?"
"Nothing new. Everyone's pouring in to get their term paper's turned in before Thanksgiving. It's gonna be awful busy here the next couple of weeks." He looked at her, trying to read her expression. Had she received any of his stories?
Was she here to talk about the stories? To tell him how beautiful they were... Or to tell him that he must stop writing them... Was she dating someone?... Or had she just broken up?...
"I need to ask you a favor," she said, smiling widely, displaying a perfect set of teeth.
Troy's heart skipped a beat. "Sure, what's up?" He did not want to seem too eager but was sure he had come off that way.
"I've got a friend who is a Plebe and I want to check out a book on Naval history."
With those words she had taken the last breaths of the wind out of his sails.
He felt a wave of sadness overtake him.
He could not help being just a bit mean when he said, "You should go to the Naval Academy's library. I'm sure he can show you around." He realized he sounded like a child who was told he could not play with the toy trains behind the display counter and was now throwing a temper tantrum.
She looked at him quizzically. His answer appeared to have thrown her off.
"I'm sorry?" she said.
They were both quiet for what seemed like an eternity.
"You know," she continued, "I can't check out books from that library." She was trying to diffuse the tension.
"Sure! I forgot about that. Silly rule, isn't it?" he said, faking a smile. He knew he had gone too far and hated himself for it. "Let me show you."
As he led her to the Military History section he had no doubts about one fact: She had never read any of his stories.
* * *
That night he could not fall asleep. He told his fiancee that he felt sick and was going to turn in early. Despite the fact that she had moved in with a new roommate two and a half months earlier he had yet to visit her. She had always come to his place. He hated having to interact with her roommates.
As emotionally drained as he was he realized he had to make a decision: Either stop writing and give up on the whole thing or continue writing and use the process as a catharsis to rid himself of the overwhelming helplessness and hopelessness which had overtaken him.
He tried going to bed but could not. He tumbled over and over. He got up and tried to watch some television but even this failed to distract him.
Finally he sat behind his desk, grabbed an ink pen and a few sheets of paper, and started writing.
He wrote non-stop until sunrise, around six thirty in the morning.
He had written about pain and love. About love unrequited. About strength and the willpower to create it. About the need to find happiness in one's own heart and not in the eyes of another.
There were many scribbles and corrections but he kept these and decided against re-writing a clean draft. He placed the writings in an envelope, stamped the envelope, wrote Bobbie' Rae's address on it and dropped it off in the mailbox.
By the time he was finished it was eight in the morning.
He was exhausted. He went to bed and showed up late at work where he was told another girl had been looking for him.
* * *
Melissa could be ruthless, but also calculating.
So it was that when she had received the first short story, one week after Bobbie Rae had moved out, she decided to inform neither the sender nor the intended recipient.
Bobbie Rae had never updated her new address at the library.
Melissa did not know the sender personally, only that he worked at the library.
She had read the story and found it captivating. She felt the angst of the girl and sensed a twinge of excitement at the conclusion.
Though easily distractible and rarely able to complete reading a single newspaper article without interruption she read the entire story in one sitting. The ending was satisfying but the story seemed too short. She actually read it over a second time before tucking it away in her desk.
Things had been getting hectic. Between Bobbie Rae's moving out and her new roommate moving in there was a lot of commotion. Her new roommate was engaged to be married the following spring. She seemed a nice enough girl. She had agreed to pay two rent payments upfront.
She did not talk much about her fiance, except to say he was in the literary field. She kept busy with her new job as a child psychologist for the Anne Arundel County health department and spent most of her time in the middle and high schools. The job, she told Melissa, could be very stressful but was also quite rewarding.
She especially liked the rare assignments she got at the elementary schools because she felt at that stage she could make a real difference. By the time students had made it to high school their psychological make-up was already complete. Therapy at that stage was only a temporary treatment, never a cure.
Melissa sometimes got the sense that her roommate was not necessarily in love with the fiance. She picked up on an air of indifference and found that quite ironic given her roommate's field of work. The girl had been talked into marriage more by her family than her future husband. Why the rush? She shrugged it off. It was not her problem.
When a month later Melissa received the second story she was surprised. She savored it. Again she tucked it away.
The third story was even better.
One morning she impulsively decided to visit the library in search of the author. This was an extreme departure from her normal stoic, methodical self. Something had drawn her to him.
But he had not been there.
She left disappointed but also a bit shocked at herself. She had stayed away ever since.
It was the fourth story that truly captivated her. The shortest story, it was her favorite. The angst was palpable in the black ink dotting the parchment paper it was written on. It made her shed tears.
And so it went on for another year, once every couple of months or so. She would look forward to the stories, clearing her schedule the day after receiving one. She would stay home, make herself a cup of tea, and read it. It usually took an hour.
* * *
Troy's fiancee was searching for a stapler. She had just completed writing a progress note for one of the rare fourth graders with whom she worked. She found her job much more satisfying when it dealt with the younger students. It made for a much more satisfying and lasting intervention. The high schoolers, especially the upperclassmen were often lost causes. They were ignorant enough to be confident in their sense of righteousness. The biggest losers were those who did not believe they had a problem. It is impossible to help a student unless they first realize they have a problem.
She had been giving some serious thought to asking for a focus on the pre-adolescent population. But there was a paradox: Even though it required an additional certificate which could take three months the pay was less. She did not understand it. Perhaps everyone else found working with the younger ones also more rewarding and therefore there was more demand driving down compensation.
She had tried to talk to Troy about it but he had seemed to be another world the past year. They had almost broken up a few months back but neither of them had had the guts to figure out what their problem had been or, should the problem be fundamental and not amenable to correction, to proceed with a clean break before marriage and, most worrying, children came along.
Where was her stapler? She always kept it on her desk or in the drawer. She looked all over her bedroom, ransacking her desk and its drawers two or three times before giving up on it.
She then turned her attention to the rest of the apartment she was sharing with her roommate.
She looked around the living room and kitchen first. It was a cursory and unrewarding search. She knew the stapler was almost certainly in Melissa's room but want to go through the perfunctory process of ruling out the other locations before trespassing into her bedroom.
She entered with her sight fixed on her desk. It was fake oak (like so many other things about Melissa, she thought wryly) and had three drawers arranged in a column on either side. Two drawers in between formed the keystone.
She checked the room thoroughly. She even looked under her bed and in the bathroom before focusing on the desk.
She felt guilty about prying but promised herself that she would ignore and forget anything other than the stapler.
Her hands were almost trembling as she opened the middle two drawers: They contained nothing of interest. Nor was the stapler to be found.
She stopped and was about to leave the bedroom when she decided she was going to check the top left drawer. It was slightly ajar.
Slowly and with great trepidation she opened it.
The stapler was inside. She felt a sense of relief.
She took the stapler and was about to close the drawer when, through no effort and despite her best attempts to ignore its contents, she caught sight of an envelope.
And then she had a mental disconnect. She was not as much in shock as in disbelief. The handwriting with its extreme slant was unmistakable: It was Troy's. He was left-handed and wrote with an extreme overhand angle which led to a marked rightward slant.
Why had Melissa tucked away his letter to her?
And then she noticed the intended recipient's name on the letter.
* * *
It had been one year since he had first laid eyes on Bobbie Rae. Twelve long months since she had walked through the doors of the main branch of the Annapolis Public Library.
She had stopped by infrequently but regularly, without any ulterior motives. They would talk about things. She never again brought up her friend at the Naval Academy.
He had told her he was engaged, but also that there were days that he had his doubts. Perhaps this was not the right thing to do, but he felt that he had to let her know. As time went on he realized that his had not been an infatuation. He enjoyed every moment with her even if they were discussing the most mundane subjects. He never tired of her company, casual as that companionship may have been.
He told her of his fiancee because, at the age of thirty-seven, he was finally beginning to develop the beginnings of what could be called moral courage.
Unfortunately for him, he had met the right person after his engagement. More importantly Bobbie Rae had never given him the slightest clue to having any interest in him.
He had continued to write because he did not know what else to do. Not writing was not an option.
She told him she had moved but would not volunteer her new address since she had stopped checking out books. She would simply come and browse the library every couple of months, sitting down by herself for an hour or so to read a particular section. He did not want to ask for her address because, he reasoned, if she started receiving the stories it would have meant she had not received the previous ones. The most desirable assumption was that she had been receiving the stories all along. Perhaps they were being forwarded to her. The logic was flawed but so was his perspective. In our lives the most pleasing assumptions are usually the least likely to be true.
It was in mid-August of the year after he had met Bobbie Rae. He had written her eight stories.
On a Tuesday evening as he was getting ready to supervise a session for high schoolers on how to find reference materials in the library he heard loud, forceful foot-steps. They were angry foot-steps.
He looked up.
It was his fiancee. She was crying and screaming at the same time. Her neck veins were protruding through the skin. Her face was as white as a bed sheet.
Thinking that she had come to him for help or support he immediately got up and held his hands open to give her a hug.
She approached him and before he could say anything reached back with her right hand as if a side-armed baseball pitcher in his full wind, gracefully arced her arm in a perfect semicircle, her fingers completely extended, and landed her hand in a whipping motion to complete a resounding and humiliating slap of his left cheek. It sounded like a firecracker. It was a wet slap. Her finger marks left their red imprints, as if a series of lipstick glossed kisses had been pecked on his cheek.
Troy had never been slapped before. It was physically and emotionally jarring. His left ear was ringing. He could only hear the sound of his heartbeat as it swirled, blood rushing in his chest, up his neck into both jaws and ears. He was stunned. Every eye in the library and the newly minted coffee shop above was on them. He did not know which was more embarrassing: The slap or the stares.
"How could you? You have no shame?" she was screaming hysterically.
Snot was running down the sides of her mouth. Her usually stoic eyes were bloodshot.
He was dumbfounded.
"Do you think I'm an idiot? Sending those letters to the girl who stayed in my apartment before me? I can't believe you," she was almost incoherent, taking deep breaths between loud pangs of crying. Every time he thought it had stopped it became obvious that she was merely breathing deeply before another chorus of tears and screams.
He wished he had never been born.
"You thought I would never get these?" she pulled a pile of sheets out of her pocket and laid them before his eyes. To his horror they were the envelopes in which he had mailed his stories.
He would later find out that Bobbie Rae had been Melissa's roommate prior to his fiancee moving in. He would also find out that their apartment's street address was based on the archaic system used in Annapolis, such that the back entrance which was on the adjacent street and never used was the official mailing address. He had never figured out that the address he was mailing the stories to was the same as his fiancee's new apartment. He had thought he was mailing the letters to an apartment in the street next to hers.
"Why didn't you ever write me a love story?" she was pounding on his chest. "Was I never good enough? I didn't deserve one?!" The pathos was turning into rage.
He hated himself.
"Why didn't you tell me you don't love me? Why?" she was running out of tears.
"Three goddamn years we've been together and I've never gotten so much as a flower. You didn't even get down on your knees to propose to me. How could you do this to me?"
He could not think of an answer.
The answer, of course, was obvious: He was afraid to fight the current into which he had been thrown. Afraid of the consequences of telling her and others how he felt. He had been weak and selfish.
He sat down and put his head in his hands, tugging on his blond wavy hair.
All he could say was a pathetic, "I'm sorry." He figured it quite reflected him as a human being.
Years later he would look back to that moment as a realization of what happens when you let the tides of life run you over: While less resistive for a brief moment you will eventually drown.
His moral compass had been turned upside down. He realized that the deceit and self-serving he had displayed made him a lesser man. That he had hurt another human being who did not deserve such hurt. That two lives were ruined.
She stormed out of the library and his life without another word.
* * *
TO BE CONTINUED