There is a danger zone somewhere between the second and third week of September for asthma sufferers. Every year at this time, the allergens of summer join the allergens of fall to steal the breath of millions without warning. Allergists call it "Peak Week" because the highest number of asthma sufferers die at this time every year.
Nine years ago today I was raped and it's been hard to breathe in late September ever since. I never knew there was an environmental cause. I'd always attributed it entirely to the way my muscles tense as the seasons start to turn, more like a warning than a remembrance.
The night before I was raped, I strolled along the Mississippi River. I remember feeling kind of uncomfortable walking by myself at night, wondering whether this particular part of New Orleans was OK. I remember deciding not to care--the view was too pretty, and I had no other choice, anyway. I remember thinking: what a great city, what a great time of year. And I made it home safe.
Because rapists are rarely strangers, and the man who raped me was no exception. The man who raped me was not lurking in a dark alley in New Orleans and he did not look like a rapist. He looked like a friend, was a friend, was more than that. He was a man who told me he loved me and stole my breath without warning.
Last week, John pulled into a gas station I hadn't been to in years--9 years, to be exact. Oh no, I whispered. This is it, the gas station where we stopped before we left for New Orleans. We can leave, he said. But it was too late. The memory was there, unexpected, like the first bloom of color on a tree in autumn when it's still 95 degrees--startling and out-of-place.
To survive is to know that these small moments will happen forever, most of all when I'm least expecting them. To survive is to learn to breathe through them, to ground myself to this specific piece of earth, this specific place in time, this specific set of circumstances. To survive is to grab the hands of the millions of other survivors and to count their breaths down until they've learned to do it themselves. To survive is to acknowledge that I was wrong to trust a man who loved me, but right to trust the man who loves me now, right to call this the thing that makes surviving worth it.
To survive is to speak it, to break open a million hearts, to sew them shut with reassurances--that I am fine, that I am safe, that I am kind in spite of it. That we all are. To survive is to smear my bloody hands on leaves and turn the whole world into a new season, to look up in October and say see, we made it, we can breathe, we can lay down our inhalers and pull on our scarves and settle into winter.
That we, ourselves, can generate our own heat, survive the eternal winter. To survive is to hope fervently for a spring in which there are no new wounds and only flowers bloom. To hope that we are the last survivors, to work until we are.