When he was growing up, his mother always told him to take a deep breath, hold it for as long as he could, then let it out. Anytime anything upset him, he had to take a deep breath, hold it, and let it out before he did anything else.
Because he was a good kid, he did what his mother said. When he was picked on at school, he took a deep breath and held it, then let it out. He got beaten up, but because he took a deep breath before freaking out or telling on the kids who hurt him, they left him alone after the first time.
He grew older, and when girls didn’t like him, he took a deep breath. He held his breath, then let it out, and he saw things from their point of view: that he was really nothing special. He held his breath a lot as a teenager, but he never spread any mean rumours about the girls who turned him down.
Eventually, while he was at university, he found a girl who liked him back, and they went out for years. Sometimes they fought, but it was OK because instead of hitting her or calling her a bitch or dumping her, he just took a deep breath. Then they went out for some beers and forgave each other quickly.
They were still going out when they graduated and she became a teacher, and he got a job as an accountant for Virgin Media. The boss would sometimes make him work unpaid overtime, but he just took a breath, held it, then let it out again. He never asked for a raise or filed complaints behind his boss’ back.
He took a deep breath when his boss said, “I’m really sorry, but we have to let you go.” He held his breath and put all his stuff in a box instead of punching his asshole boss. He let out his breath on the drive back to the apartment he lived in with his girlfriend.
When his girlfriend said she couldn’t stay with him now that he was unemployed and had no prospects, he took a deep breath. When she moved in with her mother, he took a deep breath. He held his breath and let it out. Then he wrote her an email asking if they could still be friends. She didn’t reply. He took it as a “maybe” and took a deep breath.
Even though he was unemployed and had no prospects, he had enough money put aside to take a break, and he booked a flight to the Gulf coast of Florida to hang out in the sun and go snorkelling.
When his flight was delayed, he took a deep breath, held it, and then let it out. Eventually he made it to Florida. From all his breath-holding, he’d developed an impressive lung capacity, and could be out snorkelling for hours, staring at the fish and diving down to see the way the sunlight danced on the sandy seafloor.
Walking back to his hotel, he saw a barefoot woman sitting on the fence at the edge of the boardwalk. She was writing in a notebook, and kept glancing at him. When she saw him looking, she stopped writing and closed the book with a snap.
“What?” she said.
“I just wondered what you were writing,” he said.
“I’ll tell you later, if you come to my place,” she said.
She gave him her address and smiled and walked off. He thought his mother had been right and maybe all his patience and taking deep breaths was finally going to pay off. He went back to his hotel to shower and change.
He met the woman from the boardwalk at her house, and she told him she was a novelist and was writing about passersby as extras in her new novel.
“But that’s boring,” she said. “Wanna do some laughing gas?”
She had a canister, like a diver’s oxygen tank. It had one bar of laughing gas in it. She said that a bar is the distance between the ground and the ozone layer.
“What kind of measurement is a bar?” He said in a squeaky laughing gas voice.
“I don’t know. A diver’s one. It’s about atmospheric pressure, or something.”
They sat up inhaling laughing gas out of balloons and watching low-budget films on the horror channel. He was having fun. He started to put a move on her. Then she told him she had a boyfriend. He was a diver, which was why she knew about bars and canisters, and he was diving in the Red Sea right now. She was just bored and lonely and had wanted to hang out with him.
“Oh,” he said. “Well, okay. That’s cool too.”
It was really late anyway, so he didn’t have to make an excuse. She said she was sorry if she misled him, and gave him three laughing gas balloons for the road.
He went back to his hotel. He had some beers and some whisky from the mini-bar. The laughing gas balloons bumped off the ceiling and off each other. He watched them floating around his hotel room for a while. Outside, the sun was coming up. He took a deep breath. He could hold his breath for a very long time now.
He breathed in all the balloons without exhaling. His lungs inflated. He felt his ribcage resisting. It hurt, but he was quite drunk and he didn’t care much anyway. His sinews stretched out. Some of them broke under the strain of his expanding lungs. He winced, but he kept his breath held. His skin was getting stretchier.
Already feeling lighter, he bobbed over to the French windows that led to the balcony of his hotel room. He hopped up, then kicked off from the rail.
He floated gently, watching the sun rise over the town for a few moments, then a gust of wind caught him and he was lifted and carried through the morning sky.