"Lil Wheezy" by Annie Nishida
It’s a sunny day, but not so hot that it makes me want to stay inside and watch “Chopped” reruns all afternoon. I am surrounded by my peers—some I’m not too fond of, and some I’m even less fond of, but I don’t mind. We’re standing in the park behind our old middle school, where we would gather for gym class every month, so “the man” can judge our worth based on whether we can run a mile or not. The awful orange cones that signify running, and therefore, death, are laid out to tell us we better not cheat by running a shorter distance than what’s been given to us.
The whistle blows, and we’re off. A minute passes, and I’m still going. I pass the quarter-mile mark without having to stop and wheeze it out behind a tree. I don’t have to worry about anyone seeing me hide as I fight back tears of frustration and pain (mostly pain) that convinces me I’m a loser who’s never going to be able to breathe normally again and will have to carry around a tiny, but powerful respirator for the rest of my life. I pass the half-mile mark, and don’t feel like I’m going to pass out or puke or do both simultaneously, as a cohesive faint-barf work of performance art on display in gallery off Santa Monica Boulevard. I feel like I could keep going forever.
This is my most sacred recurring dream. Yes, I realize it’s literally just me being able to run. Don’t judge.
Since I was a child, I’ve been plagued with asthma. It’s not the kind of asthma caused by dust or pollen or ragweed (whatever that is); it’s the asthma caused by exercising. My mom would make sure I had the pastel-colored makeup pouch that contained my inhaler and inhalation chamber with me whenever I had P.E. or sports practice, and I would do my best to use it out of my peers’ sights if I did find myself out of breath after a light jog. While everyone was running through cones on the basketball court or skating power laps around the ice, I was the on the sidelines with my hands on my knees, firmly believing I was dying. To be honest, I didn’t mind this part that much. It got me out of a lot of conditioning and I felt like the special-est snowflake princess watching my teammates do what I couldn’t and/or didn’t want to do. Basically, it gave me an excuse to not exert myself, and that made me happy.
Of course, there was a downside. No one at basketball practice wanted me on their relay team for agility drills, especially when the ones who lost had to run as punishment. I very clearly remember being split up randomly into two teams for friendly competition and silently assessing how fast everyone on my side was, because if we won, I wouldn’t have to feel responsible for holding everyone back. I dreaded running from baseline to baseline because I’d always come huffing and puffing in five seconds after everyone else. I even feigned a sprained ankle once when we were using jump ropes to train because I didn’t want to admit that, yet again, I couldn’t breathe.
As much as I liked getting to sit out, I hated feeling slow and weak. I hated that everyone else was probably thinking the same thing about me. I hated my asthma and I hated that little plastic inhaler with a passion that burned as much as my lungs did after attempting and failing at completing a sprint a baby could do. I’d already felt different my whole life, whether it was because I was the weird girl in second grade who liked Dragonball Z more than Polly Pocket or because I was the weird girl in sixth grade who ratted out everyone who ditched after-school tutoring and went to get boba instead. I didn’t need to be the weird girl who couldn’t run and got picked last for every team, too.
Even though I haven’t come across an orange cone or P.E. teacher with a stopwatch around his neck in years, and even though I’m 90 percent sure I’ve conquered by asthma via getting older, I’m continually haunted by the pain of being the most-likely-to-be-eaten-by-a-bear-first-during-a-chase-in-the-woods freak. I still remember what it’s like to struggle over something that comes so easy to others. I may have grown out of my breathing condition, but I haven’t grown out of that fear of feeling incapable when everyone around me seems to be thriving.
Typically in dreams, people run from monsters, four-legged land sharks and that woman in the red coat at the end of “Don’t Look Now” (according to wtfdoesmydreammean.net), but in my dreams, I’m not running from anything. I’m not running to anything, either; not love, security, or a sandwich. And when I run, I’m not leading the pack. I’m safely in the middle. I can keep up and have no problem doing so. I’m not that wheezing loser hiding behind the tree to catch her breath; I’m moving forward with everyone. And I think what my dream is telling me is that’s all I’m looking for in life.
Or maybe I’m looking to far into everything, and I actually just want to be back in middle school gym class.