A Single Breath
By Dana Quell

Outside the apartment, early morning in the small city smelled of new spring rain - winter was on its way out, finally, and ponds of ice in the street were beginning to thaw into puddles of murky gutter water.

Inside, however, their love was beginning to do the opposite.

It was his apartment that they now shared, now when their hearts were beginning to turn to stones of ice, wrapped in each other under a crash site of blankets that had fallen like empty, ejected parachutes from a plane. Now, when they were lost in who they used to be.

His arms were curled around her waist so tightly they might have been liferings keeping her afloat, but in reality, it was the feel of her warm body next to his, breathing in and out, in and out, that was keeping him from sinking into anything other than the present. But even that could not work forever. He disillusioned himself with her steady rhythm; it was not her in the little scene in his mind's eye but some other girl, two some other girls ago in his past now.

He remembered holding her like this, and he squeezed his eyes tighter to shut out the present, to better recall the past. To remember the time before she grew thinner and more emaciated and left an emptiness in his arms he had never felt, before she began coughing up clumps of bloody phlegm, before the hospital trips that seemed to last longer than the one preceding, trips that seemed to occur more frequently as time passed. He tried to block out the memories of her lying pale and fragile on the hospital bed, life diminishing with every minute that ticked and tocked into the right hand side of the heart monitor, her dark hair a stark contrast to both her fading skin and the etoliated pillow she rested her head on.

But for all his attempts at remembering her alive, healthy, breathing, he could not erase the day of her funeral from his mind. It was too cold, too overcast, and too typical of a November day to have it, let alone a wake - and too typical of a November day not to mourn. He remembered watching the late birds fly south from beside the hole she would soon inhabit, thinking of how much she would have hated the over cliched day.

He felt the woman beside him shift slightly, stirring in her state of half-sleep, bringing the soft eulogy of memories to an abrupt halt. He stared at her for a while, mentally comparing her with the previous owner of his heart. But he knew there was no comparison to make, no real competition between the two women. The only one that had ever mattered, ever would matter, was dead, and there was nothing more to it than that.

As for the girl within his arms, she was trying to forget the string of other men before this one wrapped around her now, long drawn out freak show of losers and dreamers who never made anything more of themselves than hot dog vendors or investment brokers. In his arms, she was content -- as content as anybody these days could be -- despite what she knew of him. Oh yes, she knew his dreams were of someone else, some ghost half forgotten in the past, but then again, her dreams were of being someone else.

Often, she dreamed of the ideal life that had been drilled into her since birth -- the white mansion, large expanse of green lawn yawning before it, the exciting and debonaire man who had struck it rich early in life, and the five unrealistically perfect and adoring children whom she only saw on the nanny's day off. Sometimes she allowed herself to dream more realistically -- for a comfortable enough life and a comfortable enough love, some perfect unity with a man where only a glance was enough communication and where his arms were warm and for her only. It was this latter, more practical ideal that she had let guide her most of the time, and last week, it had led her to move in with him here.

The curses of an angry commuter on the street below coming through the open window jarred them both out of their contemplative moods, and she unwrapped herself slowly to get up, to begin the routine that they had established over the past week. She was out of the bed, almost halfway across the room when he brushed her arm with his callused fingertips, stopped her with a simple, single movement.

She turned and studied his face for a moment, watched his eyes as they flickered back and forth in their hollow cavities. She nodded once and sat back down next to him. She knew what was coming. She knew by the tone of his silence.

He began to speak, but she stopped him with the whisper of her fingers upon his lips, and in a few short, halting words they had used everyday, she told him of her understanding and her acceptance. He would go to the grocery store, and when he came back, she would be gone. It was simply that.

He nodded and she rose from the bed again, this time to dress and then to pull out her suitcase and begin to pack. He watched impassively from where he lay on the bed, emotionless because this one leaving him now was of no consequence to him, just as he was of no consequence to her. Just two lives, two birds flying intersected and intertwined for a little while and then pulling apart again to fly to different lands.

And it was of no matter. Tonight he would go to that little bar just down the block and find some other girl - one with whom he had no past and no future, only the present. And he would take her back here, where they learn something from each other and then once again go their different ways.

And she... well, she would continue the search that had led her to this apartment in the first place, the never ending quest for some sort of perfect love. Time was drudging past her, one man at a time. Time, being the paradox it always had been -- needed to cultivate the perfect love but diminishing her chances at finding it as it marched on in the measure of a heartbeat or a single breath.

But it was of no matter. They were both victims of themselves and they knew it -- ticking timebombs of regret and sorrow and flawed logic that would ultimately take them down. And they did nothing about it except continue as they had been.

After a few minutes of watching her, he rose and dressed himself. Then he took his keys, as if announcing that he was going out for a few groceries. As a polite, non-confrontational gesture, he asked with a glance if she needed anything. She shook her head.

Minutes after he left, she placed her spare key on the table and lugged her suitcase out the door, holding back the sigh that would only serve to remind her of the numbered breaths left in her lungs.