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To A. B.
Do not show this script to anybody. It may benefit only the shades who, Confined to the Underworld, Are reborn endlessly in the breath of truth.
t s’aï n sensen (Book of Breathing), § 1
PALO ALTO, LATE WINTER 2000
For a long time I used to wake up early. My eyes closed, I would climb backward from dream to previous dream till I reached the last conscious breath I had drawn before falling asleep. My memory of this last breath was vivid and precise. The instant I dozed off, my diaphragm relaxed its grip on the lungs, my heart surrendered to its own drowsiness, and my conscience punctured an unfinished thought, always the same: my leave-taking from the rule of facts, of decisions, of consequences; my renunciation of free will. Feeling neither dead nor alive, I turned my back on myself and ran into the arms of an unknown woman.
Athu nifu em-bah au xu er t’eru pet: “I inhale air in the presence of the glorious God by the crests of the heavens.” This Hieratic exorcism was devoted to the transmission of breath in the afterlife. I never suspected, before sleeping with Dalya, that it hides the music of perfect respiration. The sentence is unpunctuated in the original; no sooner do I insert a comma in my translation, though, than a profane logic mars the rigor of the spell: “I inhale air in the presence of the God—comma—by the crests of the heavens.” Is the shade enabled to resume breathing in the very spot where the heavens crest like a wave, which happens to be the God’s dwelling or standing place? Or is the presence of the God that makes the spell work? Or should I dodge the problem by adding an arbitrary qualifier, absent from the original: “I inhale air in the presence of the God who dwells by the crests of the heavens”?—taking for granted what granted is not, namely, that the God, like any ordinary guy, dwells or stands in a given place rather than another.
These are but trifles, of course, smuggled in by the despotism of factual evidence whenever one tries to translate the language of the shades into the prose of the everyday. Where is one to locate the breathing fulcrum of the universe, between the free fall of dead bodies and aether’s perennial flight? What is the decisive factor in the respiration of the afterlife: the rarefied airs of elevated locations or the God’s benevolence? An intrusive comma or a whimsical qualifier suffices to relegate the transmigration of souls—a musical matter, infused with arias and harmonies—to the accidental geography of an artificial, man-made paradise.
“The secret is in the solar plexus, Gian.” This was Dalya’s constant answer to these unspoken questions, as I held her in my arms. To her, the antidote to my respiratory ailments was to be found in the muscle of the diaphragm. Gifted with the lungs of a long-distance runner, she could not suspect that the pace of my breathing depended wholly on the soothing mystery of her face. As I inhaled and exhaled by her side, I aspired solely to the proximity of her face; her long neck supported its beauty the way an Egyptian pillar supports the roof of a tomb or a palm tree the shield of the sky. Inspiration, expiration, aspiration, inhalation—it was all one and the same to me, in the early days of our affair. The room was aired by the pungent odor of our sex.
In the Book of Breathing, Dalya is Isis, the heron with open wings; unable to alight, even at the dead of night, the sacred bird screams strident cries at the funeral of her brother Osiris, gives the gift of breath back to his prostrate corpse, and is at peace with herself only when her womb overflows with his seed. But it is hindsight that makes me talk this way. Years ago, when Dalya and I met on a plane flying to San Francisco, I was only acquainted with a world ruled by tangible phenomena, by facts as concrete as cement: my breathing depended on a constant involuntary coordination of lungs and diaphragm, and my heart was but a poorly trained muscle. Later on, I sought the sense of my affair with Dalya in the raw facts of our adultery. But I devoted only the briefest meditations to this matter—guarded, ineffectual thoughts interspersed with the constant stream of our scuffle in bed. And I remained blind to the soothing evidence etched on her face. It was there for me, in bed, yet invisible; it denied the borders that keep us apart from the dead.
I fell asleep after making love with Dalya—however briefly, however lightly, since we had only the mornings to share. “A penny for your thoughts,” she would say, touching me some more as I dozed off. “Nothing …” I murmured disconnectedly. “I think of nothing.” Shuffling behind my retina, a kaleidoscope of images had sedated my conscience into a familiar mood drifting between remembrance and oblivion. In an instant, I would brusquely come around and piece together the remnants of a fugitive impression—but I could never discern more than its outlines, could never cajole this impression into disclosing its special relevance to our lives. And if I squeezed my eyes shut again, I saw, buried in some secret fold of my memory, the scene of a child with my face rushing into the arms of an unidentified woman.
That Thursday afternoon, at Paris-Charles De Gaulle airport, I was the only international passenger sporting a breathing mask. Would they take me for an environmentalist, I wondered. I held unfolded in my hands a copy of La Stampa, bought earlier that morning in Turin, but I could hardly read it in the white noise surrounding the boarding gate. The Air France personnel aimed suspicious glances at my mask, and so did the mass of smokers gathered at the gates. Some of my fellow travelers kept swarming in and out of the boutiques lining the walls, seemingly intent upon an elaborate ceremony of separation from earthly goods. Voices from the public announcement system echoed against the walls like a litany. After 96 sleepless hours, a sensation of bodily extinction flitted intermittently through my mind.
In spite of the breathing mask, I coughed persistently from the smoke in the air, one poisonous cough after another. I was breathing with my usual sensitive bronchi—proof enough, this tremor in my rib cage, that my body was no less alive than it had been since I saw the light on this planet, thirty-five years before. But for the last 96 hours, I could hardly stop thinking of death.
A week earlier I was still my old self, dealing with death in the professional manner of an archeologist. Years of excavations in exotic sites had acquainted me with the mortality of strangers—corpses impossible to exhume: kings, pharaohs, and princesses buried in unreachable crypts. But four days ago all airplanes in the sky had started moaning the same muffled, unfamiliar lament. The evening of my mother’s death, in the futile attempt to make it to her funeral, I had bought an Air France flight, San Francisco-Turin via Paris, at an exorbitant price. Before take-off the plane had idled on the runway for five hours, and then the captain announced that an engine was malfunctioning and everybody was to get off the plane. I spent the night in a funnel-like line at the check-in window, and the next day they landed me at Milan-Malpensa airport instead of Turin-Caselle. Three hours after my landing, a taxi left me at the gate of our mansion in the Crocetta quarter of Turin, just in time to see my father and my sister climb out of the car that had driven them back from the cemetery.
Three days... It felt as if I were a bird of passage caught between destinations. Three days of wretched conversations, spaced out by two nights without a wink of sleep and tar-thick intervals of silence. For the first time in years, I missed my customary visit to the Director of the Egyptian Museum in Piazza Carignano. And I was at present on my way back to Palo Alto, in time to give my end-of-the-week lecture, on the Troy of Homer and the Troy of Schliemann, at Stanford University. In spite of those flitting impressions of physical extinction, I knew I was alive; but I felt as if my blood supply was rapidly drying out. At Malpensa airport, to buy myself twelve hours of sleep, I volunteered to undergo a further extortion from Air France and upgrade my Milan-Paris-San Francisco flight to a business-class seat, but to no avail.
My affair with Dalya began on that plane flying us both back to the States. Reciprocal attraction struck in a split second—gratuitous and irrevocable, just like the last-minute fluke that assigned an economy-class seat to Dalya, in transit from Cairo and on the waiting list at Charles De Gaulle, as I was failing to secure a business-class seat for myself at Malpensa airport. A fluke? I chose to believe in a coincidence at first, confident that it was a very old game the one Dalya and I were playing, and there was but one safe way of playing it: you decommission the seat of emotions and teach your heart to cooperate efficiently, like the serviceable muscle it’s supposed to be. Unbeknownst to me, meanwhile, two furtive hands were about to tear my heart out of my chest and pump all the oxygen of the universe into it... But here I go again, speaking by hindsight.
Who can tell when, or how, the adventure of two lovers has begun? Or what struck the spark of the neurotransmitter that triggered the blast? I had always attributed this kind of curiosity to prurient minds, the fuel for the chatter of post-coital depletion. I succumbed to the torture of these reflections two years after that flight from Paris, when I found myself at a standstill in my affair with Dalya. She refused to see me: I had not talked or made love with her in three or four weeks. It is at this juncture that my story begins.
I shouldn’t say that Dalya was refusing to see me. In a refusal, there always transpires a predisposition to justify one’s own action, to set forth one’s motives. A month earlier, instead, Dalya had merely erected a wall of silence between us. I found it incomprehensible. Like the scribes of Mer-en-ra, who were tasked with the transcription of ancient hieroglyphs that they could not decipher, I was hopelessly trying to divine our future in the light of two uneventful years of adultery. As I was soon to realize, Dalya and I shared a past that was three decades longer than that. I was thirty-seven at the time of this crisis, Dalya thirty-two. An accidental glance at her photo album would soon convince me that our relationship had begun long before, on a day when I was about five years old, still living in Turin, and Dalya, a new-born baby in Cairo’s Garden City, set eyes for the first time on her older brother, Rammy Michel.
Dalya, her Japanese husband Seto, and their son Ayako lived in an apartment building on the south side of Cowper Street in Palo Alto. I lived in the apartment next door. If it was truly over between Dalya and me, I was ready to move out of there in a blink. I wouldn’t be caught dead among those walls, pretending to translate, as usual, from the Book of Breathing, pretending to rehearse, as usual, one of my lectures by the side of our bed, or gazing disconsolately through the window that looked into her kitchen. If it was truly over, I’d leave. Meanwhile, I wasted interminable hours sitting at my desk by the bed, facing an idling laptop, lost in contemplation of the wallpaper: each square inch of it was watermarked by Dalya’s viscous specter, coiled around mine.
Dalya: the Dalya I met on the plane from Paris, the Dalya I slept with for two years—that woman is impossible to conjure up. Shall I confine myself to the looks anybody could extract from an ordinary snapshot? An attractive redhead, tall, slender, with perfect ankles, her face made noticeable by the imperious Arab nose she inherited from her mother. But this list is a two-dimensional deceit, and my direct experience of Dalya was altogether different: try hard as I would, I could not visualize her face in three dimensions. Her body I could see... Her slender, palm-like, three-dimensional body I discerned in glaring distinction: the breasts, the buttocks, the legs, the pubic bone, or the boyish nape I kissed under the hair. How many times, morning after morning, had I taken in the freckles, a genetic gift from her Belgian father, running the rounded length of her belly?
Even in the elite circle of Silicon Valley’s top executives, her husband Seto was considered a Croesus. Before they married, Dalya had to sign a prenuptial agreement. One day, in bed, she said to me, “What’s his is his, what’s mine is mine.” I asked, “What do you own that’s yours, exactly?” With the fingers of both hands, she stretched her body’s most tender part, showing it to me in the indecent manner that is tolerable only to lovers. I have a vivid memory of her slit; the way it tasted that day still lingers on my tongue. Yet, her face I can’t say I ever truly saw, in those days, except in pictures of it.
Things have changed since then. Her visage has settled into firm and distinctive features by now. My disorientation before her elusive looks is gone. But I’m paying a disconcerting price for it.
I’ve learned to walk daily among specters, even in broad daylight. They cross paths with me, walk by my side, rush through my heart in sudden icy gusts. I don’t know whether Dalya’s face will ever show itself again in those inscrutable features. There are nights, in bed, when I catch a glimpse of that ghostly profile, revived by some echo in Dalya’s voice; piqued by that echo, I linger for an instant in the indecision between sleep and dream; faintly, I hear her talk of the most terrifying love there is. A love not of this earth.
At first, on that plane, I saw Dalya from behind. She was exchanging heated words with a flight attendant who kept casting furtive glances in my direction. I had an immediate premonition that this passenger was complaining because she had been assigned the seat near mine. Instead of feeling annoyed by my arbitrary foresight (which was correct, as I learned later), I rushed to the restroom, took off the breathing mask, and brushed my teeth with alacrity. Back in my seat, I couldn’t help feeling on edge. It wasn’t so much that, instead of the unfriendly reception I expected, the strange woman seated by my side flashed me this wide smile and, taking for granted that I spoke the language of her father, she told me, right away, her own name: “Je m’appelle Dalya Nadeau”. Nor was it that she gave me, then and there, the unsolicited information that she was coming back from the funeral of her brother Rammy Michel in Cairo. During takeoff, most perplexingly, she lifted the armrest between us, laid mechanically her head on my knees, as a child would do with her mother or sister or brother, and fell asleep. I had plenty of reasons to feel uneasy; or resentful, considering that a few minutes earlier she didn’t seem to like the idea of sitting by my side; or even scared: I might be dealing with a deranged person, after all. Instead, I was distraught by the sight of her face. As Dalya slept in that incongruous position, her head on my knees, I scrutinized her face with growing attention, trying to persuade myself that it was a face like any other—just more attractive than most faces on that plane. But I could not fix it in a precise physiognomy; her features kept changing before my eyes. By the time we landed in San Francisco, twelve hours later, after the two of us had managed to exchange much inconsequential talk between cat naps, I hadn’t grasped the secret of that face yet.
I knew Dalya’s city well, from the days of my early chase of Hieratic and Demotic papyri. As a doctoral student, I had been assigned the survey of a minuscule archeological site south of Saqqara. “The problem with Cairo is that one can hardly breathe because of pollution,” I said. “Too many taxis, no emission control whatsoever.”
“But don’t you breathe with your eyes when you walk the downtown streets swarming with people? Don’t you breathe with your imagination when you spend a good portion of the night talking in a café? Palo Alto feels like a morgue, compared with Cairo.”
“I almost lost a piece of a lung in your charming city.”
Chatting with Dalya and sharing airplane food in our minuscule vital space didn’t help. During our conversations, I glanced at her face from innumerable angles: innumerable partial sights, each claiming for itself the integrity of a distinct optical phenomenon. But as soon as I stopped looking, I couldn’t assemble in my mind a whole picture of her. During my naps, I had the constant impression of an imminent revelation: behind my lowered lids, her face appeared bathed in an elongated halo, as if it was being gradually distilled, condensed to the single drop of its own essence, made ready, almost, to deliver itself. I distinguished a thousand different faces in Dalya’s face, and there wasn’t a single one among these different, these sensational faces that wouldn’t... But I see that the time has come for an important qualification. It’s a commonplace that a sensational visage leaves one breathless; a thousand sensational visages ought therefore to provoke a sensation of suffocation. The opposite is true, however, for somebody who pursues breath with incessant devotion, and kisses each atom of inhaled air—I still do—with the passion of a lover. For somebody like me, the coup de foudre brings neither palpitations nor the bite of asthma. It was from my oddly regular respiration, impervious to the odors and perfumes and recycled oxygen that were gradually turning the plane’s metal cage into a defective iron lung, that I understood I was in front of a miracle.
One rainy night, Dalya’s husband paid me a visit.
I was browsing through the writings of Vivant Denon, the Egyptologist who discovered the Book of Breathing in the wake of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, when some instinct made me stop reading. I climbed the stairs down to the vestibule and threw open the door to the inner courtyard. Seto was standing on my doormat, in the downpour. A corner of a fat tome bulged out from underneath his dark coat. When he saw me, he made an obsequious bow, Japanese-style.
“Mr. Sasanuma, what are you doing in this rain? Come in, please, come in!”
Seto walked into the vestibule, shaking himself and rubbing his eyeglasses against the lapel of his coat. “Professor, I need your advice,” he said abruptly. (He always addressed me with the same epithet, “Professor,” pronounced, who knows why, in his best imitation of a German accent.)
I walked him into the kitchen and offered him a drink to buy myself time to think. Did he know something about Dalya and me? Could Dalya have lost her head and confessed everything?
I put his glass on the kitchen table. “Here you go,” I said, speaking in the condescending tone I couldn’t help adopting when I was with him. We sat in front of each other. “Drink up.”
“You don’t keep me company, Professor?” he said.
He grabbed with both hands the tome he still held under his coat and put it on the table near the glass. It was an old-fashioned, oversized volume with a marbled front cover. I couldn’t play for time any longer. “Tell me what worries you, Mr. Sasanuma.” For two years I had easily persuaded myself that he was the kind of husband who turns a blind eye. I wasn’t too sure of it anymore.
“Look here,” he began, pointing vaguely toward the tome in front of him. Then, instead of opening it or explaining himself, his face broke, just the briefest perceptible instant; the following instant, his eyes shut tight, he took to crossing and uncrossing the fingers of one hand with those of the other. I reached out impatiently, pulled the volume toward me and opened it at random: an album of family pictures. I could hardly contain my irritation. “What’s this!” The pictures, ordered two by two, reminded me of the days before my divorce, when my entire life seemed to unfold in a rosary of snapshots—birthdays and anniversaries, Easters, Christmases, and New Year’s Eves.
Seto had taken my question literally. “This is Dalya’s family album,” he said.
Was he hoping to move me to sympathy with this collection of domestic images? Why not show me, instead, the snapshots of their honeymoon in the Bahamas? Dalya kept her virginity till their wedding day. If I knew this much of their family history, this much and not much more, it’s because she had told me—had insisted, in fact, on telling me of it. My acquaintance with her past life didn’t go any farther back and I didn’t care. The perfection of adultery, I would’ve told Seto, if I could, doesn’t resort to domestic memories. No photo albums for clandestine lovers.
As I waited for Seto to explain himself, I kept turning the pages of the album in a noncommittal way, eager for an opportunity to kick him out and go back to Vivant Denon. But after a few pages, I found myself concentrating on the snapshots before my eyes: they were not what I expected.
“Dalya has a lover, Professor, I’m sure of it.”
I do not know what sadistic impulse moved me to pat Seto on the back with gentle solidarity. The cotton of his dark coat was drenched like a sponge. How long had he lingered by my door? But I kept my eyes glued to the pictures in the photo album. Why did I have the absurd impression that I was recognizing snapshots I had never seen before in my life?
“What makes you think she has a lover?” I asked.
“I hired a private investigator... two months ago...” He flipped through the pages of Dalya’s album and fished out a huge manila envelope hidden inside. “He brought me his report this afternoon, a moment before Dalya and Ayako came back home. I hid it in this album.” Within the envelope there were several blown-up, black-and-white pictures showing Dalya in the company of a mustachioed man in his forties, a very dark man. “His name is J. J. Bernhard, a neurobiologist from Rome, Italy.”
“J. J. Bernhard?” I echoed in disbelief, recognizing the name. Had I missed my cue? When had our triangle been reshuffled into a quadrilateral melodrama? “But... Isn’t J. J. Bernhard a theologian?” I protested. I wasn’t too sure we weren’t sharing some kind of a joke, after all. That winter, J. J. Bernhard was a guest lecturer at Stanford University. I had met him at a couple of semi-official functions. “As far as I know,” I repeated, “J. J. Bernhard is a theologian.”
“J. J. Bernhard,” Seto uttered soberly, in a tone that told me he wasn’t in the mood for jokes or melodrama. “Dalya is taking his seminar on endophasia, whatever that is. He is a neurobiologist... from Rome, Italy.” He spoke of Rome, Italy in a faraway tone, as if it were a city from the Arabian Nights.
I snatched the black-and-white pictures out of his hands and spread them on the table. They’d been taken on different occasions. Dalya arm in arm with the dark mustachioed man. Seating at the table of an outdoor café in Palo Alto. Walking side by side with him on a lane of the Stanford campus. As I looked at these images, I had the extravagant impression that neither Seto nor I were really in my kitchen, that the kitchen was empty, and this squalid conversation was not taking place at all.
“Why are you showing me these photos?” I inquired with unfeigned indifference, as I turned my attention back to Dalya’s family album. I could not take my eyes away from the snapshot of an unknown young man. Where had I seen his face before?
Seto gulped down some of his whiskey. “You are Dalya’s friend,” he implored with a submissive smile. “You can’t imagine how deeply Dalya has changed, Professor, in the two years since you became our neighbor.”
In different circumstances, I would have burst into laughter; in spite of his reputation as a genius of information technology, I had seen through Seto’s stupidity the moment I met him, two years earlier. But I couldn’t muster the energy for this kind of sarcasm. All I wanted to do was take a calmer look at the snapshot of the unknown young man in Dalya’s album. Why did Seto think that Dalya had a lover, I asked him again. What made him think that it must be J. J. Bernhard? He pointed at the detective’s pictures spread on the table with a questioning expression on his face. I slapped the air to divert his attention: “Who is this boy?” I asked. As I tapped my finger on the snapshot from the album, my throat started throbbing with a sense of foreboding.
“He is Rammy, of course, Dalya’s older brother,” Seto answered me in a puzzled tone. “I was under the impression that you knew Dalya’s family well, Professor. Didn’t you teach in Cairo for a while?”
This was the face of Rammy Michel, Dalya’s dead brother? Not that in the backdrops of my dreams I hadn’t felt his presence all along, not that I hadn’t felt this same stab of recognition earlier on, on previous occasions, perhaps even on the plane that flew Dalya and me to San Francisco two years before... Yet, face to face with the evidence, I could not find any room for it anywhere inside me. “Never met any relatives of hers!” I said brusquely.
“Sorry, I had this dim recollection... Didn’t Dalya tell me that...? You attended Rammy’s funeral in Cairo, though?” Seeing me shake my head in disbelief, Seto took it for a negative answer. “Perhaps I’m confusing you with somebody else who was there...” He took a sip from his glass. “Dalya and I had this joke about your resemblance to her brother,” he said in a contrite tone. I waited; he wasn’t finished yet. “You and Rammy were impossible to tell apart.”
The boy in the snapshot, twelve years old or so, was my double. I kept skimming through the album with a sense of déjà-vu. It was a little like seeing pictures of myself when I was a teenager: wearing a wide beret and a pair of round pink sunglasses; sitting with some schoolmates on a patch of grass, the Eiffel Tower hovering behind; standing on the field of a soccer stadium in London for a rock concert. Two pages and a dozen snapshots later a teen-age girl appeared at Rammy’s side, posing by the gates of the Cairo Museum. At first I didn’t recognize Dalya; those freckled adolescent features hardly matched the nebulous idea I had tasseled together of her face. I lay a tentative finger on the picture. “Dalya,” I said.
“Dalya,” Seto confirmed automatically. From that sheet onward, page after page, there wasn’t a single picture in the album that didn’t show the two siblings side by side.
“My investigator always sees them together,” Seto said. “When Dalya goes out, it is to meet J. J. Bernhard. Always him. Even tonight, I’m sure of it. I told her, ‘Dalya, it’s raining too hard!’ But it was like talking to a wall. So I put Ayako in bed and came to see you, Professor.”
“Ayako is too little to be left at home alone by himself,” I said.
“He’s almost eight.”
“Right, he’s not even eight yet. In California it’s illegal,” I commented futilely.
“I needed to talk,” he replied with a tragic gesture.
I raised an eyebrow without a word. “Where do they meet to have sex?” I said with deliberate cruelty. And then I saw it: me at twenty-two, sitting in a long chair on the terrace of our Crocetta quarter mansion in Turin, gazing sideways at the garden where, as a child, I used to play with the future heiress of a tire-making empire. This wasn’t my double, this was I. Dalya must have stolen the picture from my desk; I had never even known she took it. And this was where she kept it hidden, in her photo album, near the pictures of Rammy.
“There’s no way to find out,” Seto said.
I cleared my throat, as I realized that the rain’s sibilant noise in the background of our conversation had faded away. I walked to the window and opened it, to get the room rid of the stale smell of Seto’s wet clothes. I cleared my throat a second time, surprised by the silence of my lungs’ usual wheezing. I had again the feeling, like a distorted perspective, that neither Seto nor I was really in this kitchen, at this hour, exchanging this conversation. And as I felt this, I inhaled the air from the open window and a calm sweet peace penetrated my entire being; it filled my lungs, bidding them to breathe and to expand. What could J. J. Bernhard possibly offer Dalya, aside from his questionable fame? I would fight back, I wouldn’t give her up. Our late-morning sex, as the Californian sun burned the negative of Dalya’s tanned body on my white bedsheets; our bittersweet moments before parting, as she stood at the window brushing her hair, already dressed, framed in a perfect square of dove-blue sky... I would claim back all that was mine of her.
“There’s no way to find out,” Seto was telling me again. The lenses of his eyeglasses gave him the magnified eyes of a sea bass.
I cleared my throat again, puzzled by his words: “Find out what?”
“The place where they meet to have sex.”
That night I didn’t go back to Vivant Denon. I walked quietly through my apartment, stepping across each room with exaggerated caution, in a ceremonious gait that brought me punctually back to the bedroom. Dalya used to dive back into this bed after a quick snack in my kitchen, her mouth still full of half-chewed food, and I would hunt for her lips, sucking nutrients from them as if they were nipples. I was determined not to touch a thing, in my pacing, not to displace any of the objects that had witnessed our lovemaking. Her freckled nudity dripped in creamy folds through the wallpaper, her specter coiled itself, slippery wet, around my legs. I concentrated my attention on the splendid absence of pain that had settled in my lungs, set off by deep regular breathing and a secret sense of resiliency.