Oxygen

Heather Gardewine

She heard me open the door and she turned, surprised. She was always there, in her dimly-lit bedroom. My grandmother was brittle. She couldn’t do much anymore. The small metal tank was an extension of her own body now, and it anchored her to a small radius. I stopped seeing her without plastic tubes feeding into her nostrils, pulsating audibly with little bursts of air. The grandma who was once an active participant in my life had been reduced to a single location now.

 

Many years earlier, I hid in the closet of that same bedroom, tucked behind her clothes, waiting for her to finish counting and come find me. I didn’t think she heard me tiptoe down the creaky stairs, but I wasn’t sure. It was a big house, and our game started on the opposite end. I stood in the darkness, pulling her cotton cardigans and “blouses” as she exclusively called them, in front of my body strategically. I had trouble controlling the sound of my breathing in the tight confines of the little, wood-paneled closet. I eventually heard her coming down those loud steps, slowly, one by one.

 

From the top of the stairs, she said my name in a sing-song voice and let it trail, drawing out the last syllable. She soon pulled back the clothes, and I was revealed. Though defeated, I was relieved. She was satisfied in finding me, and I saw that on her face. It was a game that was nearly impossible for her to lose. There were only so many places to hide, and I found them all long ago. It was just a matter of how long I could stay concealed. I was excited to see her win.

I always just wanted to make her happy.

 

She settled in now, relieved to have a visitor. I was one of the few visitors she ever entertained in her small world. It pained me to visit, honestly. My hands always trembled, and my mind nervously swam, trying desperately to plan a route through our conversation. What I would say had to be carefully executed. This was especially difficult. Her emotional stability, her peace, depended on my ability to lie, or at least dodge the truth.

 

As I sat down next to her, on her quilted bed, her eyes lit up. Before, maybe she thought I was just saying hello or bringing her something in passing, as I sometimes did, avoiding eye contact and smiling distantly so I could quickly get away. But no, I was past due for a conversation. She was visibly delighted in an affectionate, maternal way.  She gazed at me, examining me for a long while. Then, finally, she said, “I’ve missed you.” I knew that much.

 

“I’ve missed you too.” I smiled back at her reassuringly, as though this proved the sentiment.

 

“Tell me everything,” she said, just like always.

 

My throat closed in on itself.

 

Tell me everything used to be easy. She’d pick me up from my house in her rusty old pickup truck and bring me back to her kitchen. I’d be giddy, eager to share anything and everything that had been going on in my life. Information tried to find its way out of me before I even sat down. There was endless material to cover, endless conversations to be had. Tell me everything was different now. It was difficult to think of things that I could tell her. I repeated the list I put together on my drive over. I ran over it again and again in my mind, making sure I wouldn’t freeze up and forget.

 

Today’s safe topics of discussion:

 

1. Grades

 

But avoid specifics—so not what I’d learned. I studied science. Science countered religion, one of the only things that brought her joy and comfort. I tested the waters before. Any theories about the way things in the world fit together and why made her uncomfortable. That was the content in most of my classes. Anything that seemed too complex would trigger disapproval, even irritation. Worst case scenario, this would lead her to ask me about religion. How is your relationship with God? I had to focus on the hands-on things I did in school, if she asked. But I’d try to steer us towards grades and class names only.

 

2. My dog

 

But nothing that would make it seem like I really loved my dog. A normal, distant, dog appreciation was really all that was acceptable. According to my grandma, there was a hierarchy on Earth, and animals were there to serve people. She was angry when she told me this, having found out I was becoming a vegetarian voluntarily in the fourth grade. She wasn’t much of an animal person. So, too much emphasis on pets would prompt her to instigate a conversation about wanting grandchildren, not a dog. And wanting grandchildren would prompt her to ask about my relationships. The goal was to keep us focused on the absence of vet visits and maybe a funny story or two.

 

3. My parents

 

Their general goings-on, but not the fact that I hadn’t spoken with either of them in a while. I would have to recycle old stories and not let on that I hadn’t seen them in months. This secret, especially, would break my grandma’s heart.

 

It was an inconceivable feat, and I knew that. But I suffered through this many times before. If all else failed, I could close up and reduce the conversation to uncomfortable silence, because even that was better than being honest. I couldn’t possibly do that to her.

 

“Well,” I began, “School is good. I’ve been getting good grades.”

 

A smile broke across her face. Her smile was more genuine than that of any person I had ever met. No part of it was a formality. “You always do!” she replied.

 

Actually, I didn’t always get good grades. Clearly, no one in the family told her about how I failed a number of classes and was barely scraping by for the longest time. Because telling her about my struggles would lead her to ask why I was struggling, which didn’t seem like a conversation she was strong enough to have. I couldn’t tell her about how proud I was to be getting my grades back on track or about how exciting biology was. I held my theatrically-positive expression, wondering if she knew I was withholding information, and if this made her sad.

 

“Three As and a B,” I added for good measure. She nodded and remained silent, smiling, observing. She did this a lot during our conversations. I wished that she was better at segueing, at small talk. I felt transparent as I struggled to find my next words.

 

I remembered the thick, hot air in her old truck. The seats were cracked and the stuffing was popping out. I’d run my fingers across the sharp seams while she drove. There was a spider web pattern on the windshield where a rock once shattered the glass. I used the crank to roll down the window and let some air in; the air conditioner didn’t work, but an open window was better anyway. We were headed to a restaurant, a store, an event. It didn’t matter. I was happy just to be there with her.

 

Now, I wanted some of that air. I wished I could just roll down a window and breathe a little easier. Squirming in the silence, I finally said, “Larka’s doing well.”

 

My friendly, 60-lb dog was at the center of my life. She gave me a sense of purpose, a drive for being, when the world had otherwise grown dark. She was high energy. To deal with this, I took Larka on at least three walks or runs a day. We played constantly. She was accident-prone and often ended up at the vet for silly reasons, and her long hair seemed infinitely hard to manage. My girlfriend and I had gone through three vacuums in the years we had been together, two failing to work after sucking up one too many wool-like tumbleweeds.

 

“Your dog?” she asked patiently. I nodded. She had asked for this clarification before. It wasn’t that she had forgotten, but I’m not sure she ever took the time to register the information to begin with. Larka wasn’t of importance to her. Not like she was to me. I took Larka in from a local kill shelter the day she was supposed to be euthanized. We were two peas in a pod, partners in crime, and all of the other twosome clichés. She went everywhere with me. Except to Grandma’s. She was too much for the slow-moving environment. She would try to get on the bed. The oxygen tubes would be torn away. It just wasn’t the place for a dog. I left Larka behind, at home. She was confused when I grabbed the car keys and pushed her away from the front door, trying to escape alone.

 

“My parents are doing well, I think.” Shit.

 

“You think?” she interjected immediately.

 

“Yeah, I mean, I assume.”

 

I’ve really done it now. I should have just made something up. Now her eyes widened, pushing back her wrinkles, forming an expression that nearly appeared satirical. “You haven’t talked to them?”

 

“Well, I actually just called up my mom last week,” I added quickly, trying to redirect the conversation. Her expression relaxed.

 

Last week, I ignored my mother’s hostile text as I prepared for the party. I pulled the curtains closed and checked the time, noticing the waning daylight. Just then, a pair of headlights illuminated the driveway—the first of my small circle to arrive. It was another post-high school soiree. Something about this time was fresh and exciting. We all moved out of our parents’ houses. We were decorating our new lives and filling our spaces with only our things, string lights on the walls and posters in fresh, new frames. My girlfriend let our friend inside, making a show of over-the-top hospitality. The others arrived shortly thereafter.

 

The kitchen was soon cluttered with bottles and cups, empty, full, and somewhere in between. It was a temporary messiness, freeing and uncontrolled. My fingers were intertwined with my girlfriend’s as we sat on the couch, in a circle with our guests. We talked about everything. I talked about what had been happening since I was outed, months prior, the trickle-down repercussions of a couple people finding out. My friends and I all took turns grabbing from the open pizza box on the coffee table while swapping stories. We were all trying to figure out who we were going to be. I mentioned that I finally started writing that book that I always wanted to write. I just wanted to create something about my experiences, to connect with and help other people like me. My friends understood. My girlfriend squeezed my hand three times. It was hard for me to share personal things like that, but it was getting easier.

 

“And how’s your mom doing?” Grandma pressed, desperate for familial gossip. She wanted to be in the loop, but the loop was messier and darker than she could have imagined. My relationship with my family was not good. Being outed in my small town brought immense shame to my parents. No amount of conversation calmed them down. We just couldn’t talk about it anymore, which meant we couldn’t talk about me anymore. I avoided them.

 

“She said she really likes her job. Told me about her students this year. Stuff like that.” A conversation my mom and I had over a year ago, but good enough for this purpose. There was a long silence while she tried to decipher my evasiveness. “What else is new?” she pressed.

 

I shrugged. “Nothing, really.” I desperately wanted her to know me again, but she wouldn’t like me if she did. Not only that, I was at the center of her world. I didn’t want to poison the little time she had left by telling her things she didn’t want to hear. Still, information tried to find a way out of the cage it was locked away in, but I forced it back down into submission. I was me, for the first time, but she couldn’t know. I didn’t know it was possible to feel so confident in who I was. I was happily in a relationship that she knew nothing about and with someone she could never meet. I made new friends, better ones than I’d ever had. I felt truly alive, surrounded by support and a self-created family. My friends were a safe place for me. I was trying to figure out who I was in everything that I did, and it was working. But grandmas don’t want to hear about parties, or about the sort of friends I had, or the things I wrote about in my book.

 

She smiled again, this time wistfully, searching my face. “Are you sure? Nothing at all?” I looked up to meet her eyes just as she winked. She never lost her sense of humor. “You know I don’t get out much. Any ol’ thing would do.”

 

“No…I can’t think of anything.”

 

She nodded and leaned back in the bed, disappointed, coming to terms with our noncommunication. I could see that she had gotten her hopes up, that she wanted to connect, and I let her down. I told her I loved her, asked her if she needed anything, and then I left her there, bound to that machine and to that room.

 

I didn’t know this would be the last time I would see her. I suspected that I contributed to her loneliness. Or, maybe someone in the family visited her at some point, filling her in about my life, and she was always just waiting for me to be honest with her. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I’d like to imagine she’s there anyway. It’s what she always wanted. And someday, if I could join her there, she’d ask me to tell her everything. And finally, I would.

Heather Gardewine is a creative writing graduate student at Eastern Illinois University and will be graduating in May of 2021. She enjoys writing both fiction and nonfiction, as well as video game scripts. Her writing often focuses on ordinary relationships in extraordinary circumstances, and she particularly enjoys emphasizing a struggle between internal and external conflict. She currently works as a tutor in the Writing Center at EIU and holds an undergraduate degree in environmental biology.