Breath & Shadow

A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature




Air Apparent

Aisling [ASH–zling] is thirty–one and has bad lungs. She is sickly and constantly cold, and her poor lung function and hypoxia worsen through the play.

Production note: if an oxygen tank prop is used, it should remain hidden behind her. When specified later, she should step aside to reveal it, connect the cannula tubing and turn it on. If no oxygen tank is used, the actor may simply leave the connection end of the cannula tubing in her pocket when she puts the nasal prongs on. Colour–blind casting welcome and encouraged.

Aisling: The air was fine. They said so. The air was positively good. The E.P.A. said they did test after test after test — it was apparent; perfectly all clear, so the air was fine.

And all I did was live in my little half–studio over a guy and his family that runs the bodega downstairs. Half dog–walking, half social assistance — it's all I can do to give the guy rent every month. Not a bad guy, poor, but nice family, cute little kids. He works like a dog and I can't believe people pay me money to walk theirs.

In terms of the map, we're just off Cedar Street, right next to the financial district. Half his business comes from there. For all their five–grand suits, you wouldn't believe how many of those high–finance snobs would rather hoof it over here to the bodega for their coffee, just to save a buck or two.

Mere blocks from the pile. Two jet airliners, a sad rain of jumpers and about a half–dozen buildings all became a giant boiling, belching cloud. It engulfed us, inches thick of grey — we tried desperately to see, to think, to move, to breathe. That "air" — impossible.

We weren't some of the hundreds of guys digging in that toxic rubble with their bare hands, trying to unearth the mangled scraps of body parts or whatever the hell else they were looking for. But day after day, me and the family downstairs, and all those same guys, we chewed the same "air." "Air" that covered everything, not just outside, but inside — in our apartments, and his store, everywhere downstairs; trying to clean up that damn grey dust that lay everywhere — the windows, the sills, in the curtains, even on the kitchen stove — dust as caustic as oven–cleaner. It just kept accumulating over and over. Even the apples and onions and potatoes in our bins — covered in the dust, day after day.

Our lungs full of the dust, the debris, the asbestos, the lead, the fibreglass, the plastics, the jet fuel, the transformer oils, the freons, the P.C.P.s, the P.O.C.s, the dioxins, the mercury, the super–heated glass, the pulverized concrete, the hundreds of toxic chemical compounds, the flesh, the blood, the shit, the piss, the spit and the tears.

She coughs violently and hereafter is very short of breath and begins to gasp for air as she speaks, progressively fragmenting the sentences.

I remember wandering around, and finally getting taken somewhere to get interviewed, assessed, tested, to see if I'd suffered any detriments from events of that day. Forms and questions and proof–you–are, determination–you–aren't. When the official rejection was cast and I tried to appeal, I couldn't get any further because I couldn't supply proof that I didn't have bad lungs before that day, that date, that sunny blue–sky date. No compensation, no free treatment or care. My growing medical bills would remain my responsibility.

I finally got some doctor at the hospital to let me see my chest x–ray and C.T. scan, all lit up and hanging right next to tests from normal, healthy ones. Even a blind monkey could see the differences. Where the right lung was supposed to show up nice and clear and looking black with all sorts of invisible healthy air inside, mine was all honeycombed with big white blotches, through all three lobes.

As her breathing and speaking become more laboured, she hooks herself up to an oxygen tank — she puts the nasal cannula prongs into her nostrils, then loops the tubing around her ears and tightens it under her chin. She turns on the silent oxygen flow.

My two left lung lobes were full of white, irregular ridges, like some kind of grotesque moonscape. Who the hell knows about having five lung lobes? I always thought, a lung on the left, a lung on the right, that makes two. Now we speak of lobes. And now we speak of new terms: nodules, lymphoma, tumours, lesions, tuberculosis, cancer.

But we thank god our government was Johnny–on–the–spot, testing and re–testing that air. None of us were expecting Purple Hearts for taking a deep breath. All we wanted was for the "experts" to find out how safe or unsafe that air was and to let us know and to fix it. And they assured us that we were safe — officially, unequivocally, perfectly unsullied and positively, not–even–a–home–renovation–dust–mask–required safe. That's peace of mind, they said. A piece of whose mind, I said. It was at least one thing we didn't have to worry about, they said.

Why, even ol' Rudy himself, with his giant posse following everywhere he went, marching around without so much as a hanky to his nose. If Rudy could breathe, so could we all. But let me tell you, as soon as the TV. cameras stopped rolling, his body guards were doing the breathing for him. I mean, he couldn't get into his air–conditioned limo fast enough. And for the rest of us lowly residents, Rudy could say the E.P.A. had assured him, the air was fine, and not even the dogs were in danger.

The fragmentation of sentences worsens as she must take a second or third breath in between.

Now I can assure them that I can't breathe without an oxygen tank. I can't keep from turning blue without extra O2. I can't speak without gasping on every sentence. All the time, I cough up tons of horrible, disgusting thick, sticky junk — you can actually see the flecks of dirty black oil or whatever the hell it is all streaked through. That's all we do, me and the bodega family, we can hear each other every night, cough and cough and cough. It's getting worse and more frequent every day. Yesterday, I coughed and there was some blood.

No more dogs to walk. I can't keep up with any dog anymore. And the rescue dogs, some three hundred of them were deployed, and now they're getting sick and dying. I can't hardly make it down the stairs, the full three floors. And except for going to doctors and getting tests, I can't go out at all any more. I just can't do it.
(as her agitation increases, she gets more short–of–breath and gasping) The tissue in my nose is damaged. I can't smell any more. My eyes are red and burn all the time. They got so dry and damaged, my tears can't come out normal any more — the nasolacrimal duct is damaged, so now tears can only come straight down through my nose. Who the hell knows about nasolacrimal ducts? I'm thirty–one, I have the lungs of an eighty–year–old, and the only way I can cry is through my damn nose.

(She tries to regain her composure) So me, and the bodega guy, and his family, and all of those hundreds and hundreds of smoke–eaters and cops, and the hundreds of dogs working on that pile of rubble, we're all going to be perfectly a–okay. The air was fine, positively good. Rudy himself had the E.P.A. doing test after test after test — perfectly all clear, so the air was fine. And we're all of us perfectly normal — each and every one of us, a perfectly normal air apparent to our own very limited near future.


Sandra is youngest of twelve, and born of proud Irish ancestry. She is a professional playwright and a popular, dynamic performance–reader of her works, despite her severe lung and bone disease. Her writing is uncompromising and vital; powerful, compassionate and impassioned. Website: http://www.SandraDempsey.com

Tell us what you think about this author's work or about this month's issue in general. Email: breathandshadow@aol.com

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