Writers are ghouls. We pretty up our nasty habits with labels like “literary” or “commercial” fiction. We call using our life experiences “enhancing” our stories, but we are cannibals. We take our experiences, good, bad, or the confused in-between visceral things we can’t name, and craft with every piece of them like Native Americans use a slain buffalo. Hide, guts, meat, bone, teeth…nothing’s wasted.
I once gave CPR to a young man who committed suicide by throwing himself head first off the balcony of a restaurant in downtown Anchorage. The second story balcony from which he’d fallen didn’t seem to be high enough to kill anyone, but he’d thrown himself over the railing head-first.
I’ll use that experience in my writing someday. Make good use of the image of everyone standing around, not offering to help. I just stood there too, gawking at the young man who seemed dead, not redeemable for a come-back-to-life coupon, with the dark blood thick under his head within a few blinks.
A twenty-something woman in a white dress leaped from the crowd, got down on her knees on the asphalt parking lot next to the spreading blood and began resuscitation attempts. Breath, breath—compress, compress, compress…
Shame rolled over me. I had CPR training too, but I hadn’t even thought to help until she threw herself into battle. I found myself kneeling on the other side, not sure how I’d gotten there. “How can I help?”
“You breathe for him, and I’ll do the chest compressions,” she said.
I tilted his chin, pushed on his forehead, pressed my mouth over that youthful, clean-shaven skin. I blew, heard gurgles in his chest, tasted blood and cigarettes in my mouth. I thought of stopping, it’s a good excuse to stop. But The Samaritan in White kept compressing the young man’s chest. Not a man…a boy, really, he didn’t look old enough to buy beer.
Pulled in the wake of the Samaritan’s courage and determination, I continued to blow into the young man’s mouth when it was my turn. The world narrowed to only us and our hard labor to nurture whatever life might remain in the boy after he’d done his best to be dead.
I searched for a spark of life in that slack face every time I raised my head, and knew he was surely dead from the blood that spread like sand from an hourglass until red flowed under the knees of the little Samaritan In White.
My breath started to crackle in my lungs. My allergies were reacting to the cigarette residue on his lips. I coughed, blew, coughed.
“Trade me places,” I said. “I can’t keep breathing for him. He’s been smoking, and I’m terribly allergic.”
We traded. It was hard to keep the rhythm going smoothly. She was so much better at it than I was. “One, two, three…” The Samaritan helped me keep count of the compressions, it was easy to lose track when my own breathing lagged far behind.
The ambulance arrived, and we ignored it. We kept up the rhythm we’d worked out like two parts of a CPR machine, until two EMTs ran up to us, saying in stereo, “We’ll take it from here. You can stop now.”
Feeling dizzy, my lips burning and swelling, I stood on trembling legs. My husband took my arm, urged and supported me away from the center of my temporary world.
“Are you okay?” my husband asked.
“No,” I said, and leaned into his side. He slung a heavy arm around me and we watched the EMTs put an oxygen mask on the boy’s face. They loaded him up in the back of the ambulance so fast I was envious of their speed. I’d done my best, but I couldn’t match their professional skills. I chided myself, You and the Samaritan in White did the best you could. I stared over at my teammate, the better half of our CPR machine, but could only see her back. Her group of pretty friends, twenty-something boys and girls bent around her like groupies, charming and solicitous of her wellbeing. She led her group away across the parking lot without a word or a glance in my direction. My chest was too tight to call out and ask her name. Tell her mine. I’d disappeared, already forgotten, my usefulness ended.
Eric helped me get to the pickup where it was parked on the street, and I climbed inside with his assistance. My lungs were gummed up and I could barely breathe—snap, crackle, pop--like Rice Krispies. I scrambled around in my purse which I hadn’t taken into the restaurant with me, found my inhaler and took three hits like a junkie, breathing as deep as the band around my chest would allow. My lips were on fire, and when I rolled the window open, the chill autumn air couldn’t cool them.
Yeah, I’ll use that someday. I’ll be in anguish. I will taste the blood of a hero or an enemy in my mouth. I’ll have a partner who’ll leave me bereft. My lips will catch fire, and my chest will go tight again, as though it’s filling with lead a teaspoon at a time. That moment will be cannibalized in dripping red bits. Perhaps I’ll throw whole chunks and severed fingers curled like question marks into the pot to stew. What are those floaty things? Push them back in. Taste for flavor--not enough blood. Give it another stir with my big writing spoon. Let the stew simmer until done.