In the span of a breath, everything changed. Only I didn’t know it then.

Before, back when I was just plain Renée and things were easy, I’d walk into a place, score another notch on my belt. I’d bring them home and let them leave. And that was okay. It was more than fine, because everybody leaves Renée. My father did it, when he died. My grandma too. My sister made it pretty clear she didn’t want to have anything to do with me, and my brother just disappeared. Who knows where he is now?

And my mother, she left me years before I brought her to St. Andrew’s, years before she shuddered out a breath, called me Ken and asked me where I was going and why. She was so small, huddled in that chair. In that moment when my mother called me by my father’s name, all I knew was I was leaving her, just like he did. I don’t even look like him, much.

From the first time I fumbled with the wrong-way buttons on my shirt, I knew I wanted to be the one who left. It was safer. I didn’t call myself Kenneth. That would be weird – what girl wants to be her father? But I loved the memory of him, and so I remembered him in the only way that made sense to me.

I never would have hit on Barbi if I hadn’t been out with the boys that night. She wasn’t my type. I could tell right away, she wasn’t the type to leave before breakfast. But I was wearing my best three-piece suit and was feeling a little high on borrowed male energy. I fed her line after line, and she was so vulnerable, she ate them up. It wasn’t my finest moment. I took her home and I didn’t touch her because I knew, I already knew I didn’t want her to leave. And everybody leaves Renée.

You have to understand: it’s not about the clothes. It’s not about anatomy. It’s about control. I sabotage myself, because it’s easier to know that it’s my fault than to wonder what I did to make them leave. And if, as Ken, I drive someone away, it’s maybe not Renée they are leaving. It’s not my fault.

Only she didn’t leave. She didn’t leave Ken, and she didn’t leave Renée. And how the fuck do I deserve that kind of loyalty?

And this is what terrifies me. Because in the span of a breath, everything changes. There’s no slow withering. Love comes and goes. Friendships are made and broken. People die, or are killed, or go on to live some endless lifetime somewhere else. I’m just waiting for the next exhale.

13 thoughts on “Exhale

  1. Splendid Empress says:

    I made the connection between this and the other two stories before I had finished your second sentence. What a skillful and interesting way to deal with the exposition. I hope you two plan to share more with us!


  2. Meg says:

    Wow. Masterful — so much story here, Christine. The juxtaposition of Ken and Renee, the one leaving and the one being left, and how they become one because of Barbi, because of acceptance — all of this is brilliant. More stories, please!


  3. Silverleaf says:

    The link from the Gargleblaster made me happy, but when I got here and realized what it was a link *to*, I was even happier. I love the philosophical aspect to this piece. It’s a great way to share the backstory and get intimate with the character without simply telling.


  4. Pat says:

    What an extraordinary piece of writing. So much territory so artfully covered. I keep scrolling back up to re-read that last paragraph.
    I’m curious–how did you chose your characters’ names?


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