To Breathe Absent the Presence of Others

To Breathe Absent the Presence of Others

To Breathe Absent the Presence of Others 1920 1058 Cheryl Skory Suma

If you dance with the devil long enough, you start to pick up some of his moves. Some lessons are harder to inhale than others. I have come to realize that if you are not careful and linger too long, you may breathe in the messenger along with the message.


When the call came, I was leaning on the windowsill, watching the elderly couple across the street weed their garden together. Five am, and already they were up and working, quietly yet harmoniously expelling invaders. Like long-time dance partners, they moved in unison, anticipating when to go forward, when to go sideways. I envied their harmony. Their quiet acceptance of their task, and of each other.

“Good morning. Is this Katherine?”

“Yes, who’s calling?”

“My name is Detective Wilson.”

As the detective spoke, I nodded along without speaking. I knew I should react but didn’t know how. I wasn’t surprised you’d been in a fight, so I couldn’t offer him the expected defensive rhetoric when he said you were the instigator — the flame that licked at open wounds until they split wide open, igniting a brawl.

I was just glad you and your rage had not been home with me.


The night we met, I liked how small my hand looked in yours. All my intellect, all my accomplishments — diluted down to the delight of my hand in your hand.

I have always preferred to hike alone. To breathe absent the presence of others. Only then could I find balance and hear my own thoughts. So far, I hadn’t met anyone willing to weed the garden quietly with me. So instead, I walked, seeking the silence between breaths. When we met on the trail, I was staring at a rock wall that had let her children fall. Baby boulders come to rest at their mother’s feet, their demise blocking my progress. You offered to help me climb over them. I shook my head no but took your hand.

My hand in yours. Soon after, I forgot how to listen to the quiet spaces. I liked this new noise.


“Hello, are you still there, Katherine? Sorry if this call is causing you any distress, but we need to get to the bottom of things. I’m not sure I’m even calling the right person about this bar fight. The guy we have here has no I.D. The responding officers found a picture lying nearby on the sidewalk, with this number and name on it. Since you’re clearly the girl in the picture, I’m hoping our guy here dropped it, and you can tell us who he is?”

I knew that picture. You kept it in your back pocket to show men you met at the bar. To brag about your hot girlfriend and how lucky I was that you put up with all my shit.


You laughed when I laughed. That, and my hand in your hand, was enough for me to agree to a start. The early signs, your anger that flared out of nowhere — drowned out by the noise of you wrapping your arms around me. I became a cliché; I told myself I was safe. I pretended that the butterflies hadn’t seized control of my decisions. I could still go for walks alone if I wanted to, I told the butterflies.

If I wanted.


I was living with friends when we met. You moved me into your apartment, then teased that I was only there because you wanted me there. The punchline — the insinuation that you might not let me leave.

“Of course, Detective. I can come down to the hospital and see if I recognize him. I’ll head out now.”


When I didn’t share everything, you invented a past for me. Then you accused me of denying it when you offered it up, all shiny and new. So, I learned to give you a good story. You needed my secrets, even if I didn’t have any left to give. Where was I going? Why? You began to monitor my every movement. Jealously was your demon and anger your brother. I lived with three men, and only one loved me.

Sometimes, most times, I was afraid I was losing myself. Yet, just like that horrid expression, a deer in the headlights, I was frozen. I couldn’t move, couldn’t think clearly, couldn’t act. You claimed you loved me, yet I could never please you. No longer wanted to please you. Had to please you. Soon, that’s all there was — building a better me in your eyes. So it could end.

Then the delight of my hand in your hand would return. When we picked up the pieces together.


From the moment I entered the hospital emergency room, the detective stood close. Watching me.

“There’s a lot of swelling, so he might not look familiar to you at first. Take your time.”

Nodding, I leaned closer until I smelled your cologne. I read somewhere that scents can trigger memories, bring us back to happier times. I smelled beatings that went on until I fell unconscious. Until there was just the dark, my fear, and your cheap cologne. Now, here we were — the same horrid smell, only you were the one who couldn’t wake up.

Suddenly, the air was too thick to breathe.

I picked up your hand, rolling your fingers between my own until I revealed the tattoo of thorns hidden in between. My hand in your hand. I was grateful the detective had called. Called me first. The air felt suddenly lighter. I could breathe again. Ah, and then — there it was. A little piece of you, just floating around inside me.

So, I let it out.


“I don’t know this man.”

“You sure? Take another look.”

“A friend of mine must have dropped the picture. I’ve never seen him before.”

He frowned. So, I danced a little more.

“He has a tattoo, though, between his fingers. You might want to mention that to anyone else who comes.”

“Uh-huh. Very unique.”

I was through the door before he could finish thanking me. There was a lot to do before you woke.


I want to regret the lie, but I can’t. Even after I packed up and moved, I didn’t feel the urge to find out what had become of you. Six months with you taught me so much.

I’ve come to accept the piece of you that now drifts inside me. It helped me forgive myself, after all. For misplaced offerings. I’m even grateful for your temper — I might have never learned to put myself first without it. I might not have remembered that I could still breathe absent the presence of others.

All I had to do was let go of your hand, and walk.

An abbreviated version of this piece was previously published online by Spider Road Press as an Honorable Mention piece in their 2020 Flash Fiction Contest.


Header photograph by Yasmin Nadiyah Phillip.


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