? SLAB | Sound & Literary Art Book

Issue 4

Creative Nonfiction

Rachel Rosolina

Empty Lungs

We whisper to one another or stare at the floor, waiting. The forty of us barely fit in this small white room. Though jet-lagged, we are awake and jittery, trying to figure out what time of night it is at home. Out the window, the air is hot and smells of seawater; it has made our skin salty, our hair frizzy. A door opens behind us and the room falls silent. I turn as a dark tan Aboriginal man struts past to the center of our folding chair semi-circle. Almost naked, he wears only a breach cloth and paint. White dots and lines cover his dark body, defining muscles as they glide and squirm under his skin. His upper left arm is encircled in white paint rings; I can’t tell whether they are separate or a spiral.

Without introduction he raises the long, hollow didgeridoo to his parted lips and blows. A great vibration fills the small room and I grip my chair tighter, squeezing my knees together until they turn white. I hold my breath until my lungs burn. Now the sound is a hum, a drone, filling every corner. Up and down, the buzz stretches and tightens. I hear the whine of bees, or a car motor, far away then zooming past. People clap. People exhale. The sound opens the room wide.

I remember sitting in that white room, my friends fading into gray periphery. While watching, I tried to quietly imitate the Aboriginal man’s continual breath, picturing the loop of air recycling, blue and ethereal. Instead, my stunted breaths evoked the memory of climbing on the dogwood tree next to my house when I was ten. It was a short tree, with one long, low branch that I often sat on just because I could. On one such climb, after a rain, my slick sneakers slid down the wet bark. It happened so fast. I grabbed frantically at the branch, but ended up stunned on my back with bark under my fingernails and no air. That’s what my attempts at circular breathing felt like—empty lungs.

I was at Girl Scout day camp the first time I realized I wanted to visit Australia and New Zealand. It must have been a day on travel or other cultures because we were looking at oceanic guidebooks with glossy pages of turquoise water and coral reefs, Ayers Rock rising red from the flat outback, the white curves of the Sydney Opera House. I remember sitting on a splintery bench in the picnic shelter next to the pool full of loud, sunburned children and trashcans buzzing with yellow jackets. As everyone else opened their crinkled brown lunch bags and pulled out bruised bananas and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I turned pages, running my fingertips over bright colors, entranced. I’d never wanted anything so badly before. I was fourteen.

That was August. In October I received a letter from People to People, a student ambassador program that sends American high school students in matching polo shirts all over the world to learn about new cultures. Somehow I had been nominated, the letter said by a teacher or a government leader, though no one I knew had ever heard of the program. There would be a group of forty students leaving from my area the coming summer, a three-week trip to Australia and New Zealand. I applied immediately, writing the necessary essays, getting forms notarized, and raising money. Each People to People excursion had an educational focus; the purpose of this trip would be to study the unique flora and fauna of both countries. I checked out every relevant—and not so relevant—book in the Johnson City Public Library and holed up in my bedroom to read.

In the spring, all of those accepted met as a group once a week to learn about traveling, immersion into a new culture, and each other. Because I was homeschooled, it had been a while since I’d spent more than a couple hours with so many people my age; three weeks was a long time to be away from home. I was nervous, filled with anxious energy, shy about knowing so little of the world.

We are in a circle on the floor of Northside Elementary’s library and I know only one other person, Alicia—we went to science camp together three or four years ago. This weekend’s assignment was to bring three interesting facts about Australian or New Zealand culture. Those around me whisper to one another, looking behind them at rows of children’s books. Most of us have never left the country. I try to remember my three facts, try to picture the words on the index cards in my bedroom. Glancing around the room, I’m pretty sure no one else bothered with index cards. I wanted to share facts beyond the obvious, so I had read an obscure but intense book about Australian exploration. Now I finger the pages, wondering if it is even possible to fit all of the drama into short phrases.

The circle begins. With halfhearted shrugs and fingertips mussing the carpet, one by one these new acquaintances rattle off facts in bored tones. “They have wildlife indigenous only there.” “They eat mutton.” “They began as Polynesian communities.” I feel my chest tightening, my stomach churning. My words—about the failed Burke and Wills exploration, miscommunication between adventurers, and surviving and dying in the outback—will not fit here. I’ll stick out before I’ve ever left Tennessee. Leaning over to Alicia, I slide my book under my crossed legs and ask her for three facts. “It is the smallest continent,” I hear myself saying. “Many farmers raise sheep.” “James Cook is supposedly the first European discoverer.” And then it is no longer my turn.

If you had asked me back then, I would have told you that culture was everywhere but home. Like accents, I could hear anyone’s but my own. African culture. Australian culture. European culture. Culture was exotic. I knew American culture existed, but it was in bigger cities with subways and skyscrapers, or quaint Midwestern towns where everyone knew everyone else, not in my rural corner of northeast Tennessee. I needed to travel to experience culture. While other places had beautiful architecture, my neighbors lived in tiny frame houses, fixed-up barns painted blue, or, in one case, a school bus with black curtains. Cultured places had delicacies. We had deviled eggs. Cultured places had museums of art and history and science. The first museum that comes to mind in my area is the Hands On Children’s Museum about a half hour from my house, though it does have a pretty awesome indoor slide. People came to our corner of the country to get away from culture, to get lost on trails carpeted in pine needles and tulip poplar leaves, to see rhododendrons burst into sticky pink and white blooms on the Roan Mountain balds. I wanted to leave the winding back roads and experience Culture for myself.

When I got my chance, flying halfway around the world, the differences and similarities captivated me. Having never been out of the country before, I had no idea what to expect and I promised myself I would take in every moment, I would constantly be aware of the fact that I made it. By the time we landed and filed into a Sydney airport lobby, I had already forgotten this promise, instead wondering why a new guy friend was paying attention to another girl. I barely remember riding around Sydney our first day. It was all I could do to keep my eyes open after the twenty-four hours of flying. At first—except for traveling on the opposite side of the road—Sydney seemed like it could be any city in the U.S.: tall buildings, people milling around, traffic. And then I caught a glimpse of the Sydney Opera House.

We were across the Darling Harbor from the majority of the city. As we got out of our tour bus at an overlook, I saw the AMP Tower and then, down and to the right, the Opera House’s smooth lines. It took my breath away. It’s a beautiful building, of course, but its curved white outline against the cloudy sky forced me to realize how very far from home I was. I was actually in Australia. We all gathered in front of the overlook so a professional photographer from Boomerang Photos could take our picture. Behind a People to People sign reading 15 June 1999, all forty of us are standing in four rows with the Opera House behind us, small and white across the harbor. I am in the front row wearing my staple purple zip-up jacket, my name tag around my neck, my mind trying to wrap itself around my location.

After a day or two in Sydney, our group drove just north to a small town called Tamworth. We were told we would each be staying with a college student and their family. I worried whether a college student would be annoyed by my fifteenyear-old presence. I was assigned to the Rees family: Sam, Meridie, and their daughter Emily. When we met, I realized Emily was not college-aged at all; in fact, she was barely older than me. It took me days to figure out that high school to Australians is referred to as “college.” After unloading my bag in their back bedroom, which had been Emily’s brother’s room—he was off at university (their college)—Emily called all of her friends and had me talk to them over the phone.

“You have to hear her accent!” she would say, shoving the phone to my ear. “Say something.”

Overwhelmed and still a bit jet lagged, I said, “Hi, my name is Rachel.” Giggling ensued from the other end. One boy said I sounded cute. How could they not hear how much cooler their accents were? Mine was so plain with hard r’s, while their vowels stretched and yawned.

Emily then gave me a tour of downtown where we met up with my friends and their host students. On our way we compared vocabularies. She talked about my lack of fringe and laughed when I explained that we call them bangs. She asked if I wanted chippies, and was surprised I called them fries. As we crossed a bricked crosswalk, Emily stopped in the middle to tie her shoes. Horns honked impatiently.

“They have to stop for pedestrians and they hate when I do this,” she giggled. The palm trees lining the street were filled with pink cockatoo-looking birds. She said they were galahs and were pains in the butt because they poop everywhere. I told her the only birds equivalent in my area are crows and they aren’t nearly as pretty.

“And those palm trees,” she said, “they brought those in from somewhere to make the street look more tropical, but this is Tamworth for God’s sake. It’s much too cold for them.”

She was wearing a heavy sweatshirt even though it was sixty degrees out. “This isn’t cold,” I said. She laughed.

We’ve just met and I only remember a few of the eight or so new names, but I can’t stop smiling. Half of us are American. All are teenagers. We are in Tamworth in the furniture section of a place like K-Mart or Big Lots except next to the couches and armoires are bins of framed and matted calligraphy prints about “Mum.” Even back in Tennessee my friends and I wouldn’t dare hang out in the furniture department, wouldn’t dare to put ourselves in a situation where we might be fussed at by adults. Every time an employee passes, I hold my breath for a second, waiting for him or her to boot us out of the way of paying customers. My mother would kill me if she knew I was here.

I’m sitting on the far end of a very soft couch, careful not to touch anything if I don’t have to. One host girl, who has just come from some dance performance as evidenced by her exaggerated makeup and tight bun, has her boots on a footstool. I’m afraid a store employee will bark at us and I keep asking Emily if it is all right for us to be here. She nods and waves a hand in dismissal. I’ve only been in her house for a day, but I can’t picture her parents getting upset. They seem to mind their own business.

Quiet, listening, I watch those around me, forcing myself to remember each second of this experience, reminding myself to always be aware. Emily tells a joke, and I lean forward on my section of the couch to hear every inflection of her accent.

When I first came back from the trip, I tried to live as the Aussies and Kiwis do. I ate cereal out of a serving spoon as my New Zealand host family had done. I asked when we were having “breakie” in the mornings. I called fries “chippies.” I drove my parents crazy talking about how tiny kiwis are in the States every time we walked through the produce section of Ingles grocery store.

“In New Zealand, they are the size of softballs,” I would say. I even talked my mom into taking mashed pumpkin—a dish I had near Wellington—to Geography Day at a homeschool meeting. Later that evening, we ended up dumping the orange contents of the still-full Crockpot in the back of the Target parking lot.

I had never been one to curse, but after being around Australians and Americans who did all the time, the words seeped into my vocabulary. I think it began on the night of Emily’s school dance. I only went to school through third grade; after that, my parents began homeschooling me, so a school dance was something out of a book or movie. Especially a costume dance. A “medieval disco.” I soon learned that a disco did not necessitate bell bottoms or a disco ball. It was simply a dance. My host was a fairy; I went as myself, having packed no alternative.

As Sixpence None the Richer’s song “Kiss Me,” came on, I wandered into the courtyard where a group of students, both Australian and American, had gathered. I recognized Reid. He lived about forty-five minutes from me back home and seemed almost as quiet as I was. I stood beside him, listening to the conversation.

“What’s the worst cuss word you guys have?” one of my friends asked. Motherfucker, someone whispered.

My parents were shocked when, once home, I liberally added damn or shit in conversation. I quickly outgrew that habit. For the most part, my parents weren’t excited about the little bits of culture I tried squeezing into my life, and by extension, their lives. Or at least they didn’t understand how much I had wanted to be influenced by this new way of looking at life. It’s not that the people I met and the families stayed with were so very different from my own. It was more about suddenly becoming aware of options outside my little world in Tennessee. Of seeing what life could be. I had seen the other
side of the planet and found a new side to my own identity in the process. I just wanted to show that.

I am hyperventilating. The wet suit they put on me is too tight and smells of someone else’s sweat. I try to think back to the pool in Tennessee where we practiced with snorkels and goggles. I did fine then, but I forgot to expect the obvious—deep water, waves, salt. My lungs are climbing up my throat
to stay dry. But I came halfway around the world to see this, dammit, I’m not getting back on that boat yet.

I focus on my hands gripping the metal ladder leading down into the dark blue water. I can do this. Behind me is a now-familiar voice. Reid. “You’re doing great,” he says. “Come on out, I want to show you what I found.” Gulping air, I let go of the ladder and feel myself sink into the warm waves. Turning onto my stomach, I push my face beneath the skin of the water and, after a long hesitation that burns my lungs,tentatively breathe through my snorkel. It works! Through my goggles I see Reid’s boney ribs then his face as he slides underwater himself. Smiling around the mouthpiece of his snorkel, he motions for me to follow.

Below me the coral rises. Now I understand why they call it table coral; it is like swimming above a tabletop, two feet from the surface. I feel Reid swimming next to me, guiding me. Parrot fish that shine the full rainbow of colors swim through my shadow. I see anemones, sea cucumbers, and zebra looking fish. The water is bright teal, like postcard beaches. We stop and tread, watching bubbles emerge from a clam with a fuzzy, green mouth. Then I feel Reid’s hands against mine, his fingers between mine. I almost forget to breathe—a boy is holding my hand. Pulling me to the left, he points. Between rocks I see a royal blue tentacle. Slowly, the tentacle grows, pushing coral and rocks away until the full starfish is visible. Reid’s grip tightens. A royal blue starfish.

I can’t say I didn’t want the romantic overseas tryst, but I certainly wasn’t expecting it. Before we ever left, Betsy, of the chosen forty, had a party at her house to give everyone a chance to mingle outside of the elementary school library. I don’t remember much from that night even though it was the first real party I’d gone to without parents. The evening was calm enough, but romances began early.

Reid was the guy I didn’t notice until we were already in Australia. Perhaps because he was my height—and I am 4’11’’—I avoided the jokes that had already begun. But he was cute and nice and had a calm, but raspy voice. The boy was fit—he had a blackbelt in karate and the abs to prove it. He kept his hair buzzed so that it was difficult to tell the color. He had piercing green-gray eyes.

The whole being-around-boys thing was new to me, though I had been through enough school to have crushes who had no idea I existed. After I started homeschooling, I still had guy friends I thought were cute, but being around a boy all day long is a different experience. Years later I would think how my hormones stole Australia and New Zealand from me. Instead of admiring the orange and blue crusted sulfur springs at New Zealand’s Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland, I worried why Reid chose not to stand with me through the tour. I faintly remember the bumpy four-wheel drive trip up the side of a hopefully dormant volcano, instead recalling the way another girl focused all her attention on Reid, petting his buzzed hair. Now I see that those moments have become an unavoidable, and just as beautiful, part of the landscape.

His hand is on my thigh under the table, intertwined with my own hand, feeling each finger individually.
We are in a large hotel ballroom having a bush dinner of traditional New Zealand fare: emu sausage,
barbecued kangaroo. The sausage is greasy, but the kangaroo is tangy and delicious—until I realize
what it is. Everyone is dressed up for the first time on the trip. Everyone looks stunning. I can’t
concentrate on the food or the conversation because of the warm feeling sliding through my body, disabling my brain, my mouth. This is new.

Bonnie, sitting across from me at our round table with its clean white tablecloth, clears her plate and excuses herself to the restroom, as she does with every meal. I barely notice. Reid rubs my fingers harder as he says, to no one in particular, “I’m worried about her.”

Alicia, without looking up from her plate, says, “Don’t judge. You don’t know what it’s like.” At first I don’t understand what they are talking about; my head is still in the cloud of Reid’s hand. I’ve never encountered an eating disorder before, never thought about someone I know being affected by that. Reid glares at his plate. I tighten my grip on his hand, and though I don’t know if I should, I quietly say, “That doesn’t keep us from worrying.”

I’m not sure why that memory sticks out to me the way it does. When I think about Bonnie, that night is what comes to mind. Nobody I know is happy with their body. But until that point, I’d never met someone that unhappy. In reality, I probably just wasn’t aware of it. Bonnie made me aware. I’d begun to realize that I’d never eaten three meals a day with people outside my immediate family before. Despite all of the extra-curricular activities I was involved in, I was a sheltered child. This trip blew the cover off. I was exposed, and it was uncomfortable at times.

Part of why that memory is so clear all these years later has something to do with my response. I feel guilty for saying we were worried. Not because I wasn’t worried—I was, and scared for Bonnie, too. I couldn’t imagine making myself throw up after every meal. What I feel guilty about is putting in my two cents to back up a boy I had known only a few weeks, instead of listening to Bonnie in a hotel room with just me and Alicia. I felt guilty for putting the “us” in that sentence, for feeling the need to defend him, or at least claim his side when something else needed to be said. I’m still not sure what that something should have been. I hadn’t even noticed the pattern.

I’m not sure what to expect. The People to People group from Oregon that we ran into earlier in the week said the Maori chief welcomes every guest by touching noses. It sounds extremely intimate for strangers. As we pull in, I see immediately that the Marai—the village temple—is breathtaking; everything is created out of an intricately carved, deep red wood. We aren’t allowed to take pictures of the Marai’s inside, the Maori—native New Zealanders—believe a photograph captures the soul. I snap a photo of the outside while I can, so I don’t forget the color of that wood against the green of the landscape. Inside, the walls are carved from floor to ceiling; the Maori chief sits in a chair at the far end of the Marai, waiting for our arrival. One by one, we file forward and greet the chief by gently touching his nose. When it is my turn, I lean in and smell earth. His nose is greasy against mine.

That evening, as we wait for dinner—roasted chicken and potatoes—to cook in underground pits, we sit on the floor in front of the tribe’s historian as he recites the story on the walls, which is passed down orally from one generation to the next. We hear of seven canoes sailing from Polynesia, each carrying a tribe. They land on the shore of New Zealand. The historian follows his tribe’s genealogy from one of those canoes through time. I trace carved lines on the walls and columns with my eyes as he speaks, wishing I could run my fingers over the emerging faces, hands and feet. Every surface is covered in this story.

After dinner in a nearby dining hall, the men and women of the Marai perform traditional haka dances for us. The men stomp with their legs spread wide, their hands on their upper thighs, like sumo wrestlers. They wear only a woven, grass skirt-like kilt. As they dance, their eyes roll and their tongues stick out. They grunt and stomp to the beat in unison. Andthen the women take the stage with woven tops and the same kilts, their Umbro shorts peaking between the strands. They use strings with balls on either end, poi, which bounce and spin off their bodies and around their arms.

At the end of the performance, a tribe leader explains it is the chief’s wife’s birthday. Wanting someone to sing her “Happy Birthday,” he points at Reid. With a red face and a shrug, Reid climbs the stairs to the stage where he is directed to kneel on one knee at her feet, while holding her hand. Everyone is laughing, enjoying themselves.

I had a hard time sleeping in the Marai. All forty of us were there together, lined up in cots next to blood red walls with smooth, carved curves that I was afraid to touch. Lying there in the darkness, I tried to remember the history, tried to recall some of the names the historian had told us. Instead I tasted the green soup, the most amazing soup I’ve ever had, and pictured Reid up on stage. I smelled the chicken roasting in bags in the rich earth and heard the conversations at dinner. In the dark of the hall, whispers rose from various cots, but I lay silent. The wall would not give me names, so I focused on the smell of the chief as I greeted him, the moment our noses touched, until I fell asleep.

Most of what I remember from the visit to the Marai is sensory. Without a camera to frame memories, my mind picked up on different details. I can still smell that dinner cooking underground and taste the saltiness of the mysterious green soup. I see the deep reds of the Marai surrounded by evergreen trees and grass that crunched under my sneakers as I stepped off the bus. I hear the grunt of the dancing, and the hum of the poi zipping through the air. Perhaps it is better not to have a camera; I remember more from that overnight than I do about a lot of the trip.

It’s our last night and I am sitting on my hotel room bed trying to write in my journal. I’ve been so bad about keeping up with everything and now I’m surrounded by pamphlets, trying to remember everything we’ve done over the past week. There is a knock on the door; it is Reid. The group leaders are strict about guys being in girls’ rooms, so we stand in the doorway, fidgeting. Alicia turns on the television. She comments again about how fancy it is that we have a towel warmer in the bathroom while flipping through the channels. Reid puts on chapstick and I wait in silence, letting him think through his words. Behind me, I hear Alicia suck in air as she lays the remote on the comforter. Glancing over my shoulder, I see she’s found a porn channel. I’m embarrassed and my face shows it. Reid holds my cheeks,
raises my eyes to his. They are so green it is distracting.

He clears his throat, puts on more chapstick. “Will you go out with me?”

My first kiss was in the middle of the night on a 747 over the Pacific Ocean. It was messy and awkward, as I imagine most first kisses are. Everyone around us was asleep in uncomfortable positions, wrinkling their trademark red People to People polo shirts. I was glad no one was awake to watch. Reid excited me, but I was sad. Being so removed from my life in Tennessee almost made me forget I had to go back. All night, I kept a careful watch on the little plane emblem scooting along the dotted line on the big screen at the front of the cabin as it moved closer and closer to California, ending the trip. And so I let Reid kiss me.

I wouldn’t see my friends for a long time; in some cases I would never see them again. But with Reid, I had a guarantee; he’d be around for a while. He had been with me on Bondi Beach in Sydney, he had ridden the luge in Rotorua, he sat beside me on the eight hour train ride all the way up New Zealand’s northern island. He’d experienced the magic of this place, he knew the people I now held dear. I guess I felt that by dating him I could steal a bit to take home.

The relationship ended three months later over the phone. I’d seen him maybe twice since we’d been back. We sent letters back and forth with funny memories written in the margins, but I lost interest. I couldn’t lie to him anymore. What I wanted was Australia and New Zealand; Reid just wasn’t enough.

There is a rhythm to the Aboriginal man’s breathing, and I watch his stomach muscles move in and out. Just when his lungs are nearly empty, he breathes in through his nose, so the sound never stops. He is completely in control, lost in the motion. The white paint rings on his biceps bulge as he holds the long wooden tube, breathing into it. The sound of the didgeridoo flows until there is no room left. I feel the buzz in my head, in my chest. The vibration is different from anything I’ve ever known—I want to exist in the sensation, live in its ripples. Something inside me shifts.

For years I dreamed I went back. It would be so real—on the bus looking out at the perfectly sculpted trees, at Bondi Beach watching people surf, in the water snorkeling over blue starfish, or horseback riding through the bush. And then I would wake up confused, in my own bed in Tennessee, disappointed and tired. I often pictured the places I had been, and spent hours pouring over my photo album and souvenirs, trying to remember every detail of all twenty-one days.

Nearly ten years later, most of what I remember fits in the four-by-six confines of those photo album pockets. Small, still shots of an earlier self with a koala bear at a wildlife park or friends on a chair lift. For the most part, I look happy, energetic, uninhibited, innocent. Sometimes, though, since I’ve seen those images over and over, I feel like I’m looking at someone else’s memories. I was just a child.

I still have the purple zip-up jacket that I wear in nearly every image, but I’ve thrown away the fanny pack. I have no idea where my Sydney Hard Rock Café shirt went. When I flip through the album, it seems like a dream that I have to reach for to remember. But each picture recalls small forgotten moments like trying to order a cheese pizza, the argument over make-up, the cold pumpkin soup. Sometimes the sounds come back too. I hear people’s voices, or laughter. I feel the buzz of the didgeridoo.

After the Aboriginal man’s performance, he let the guys in our group have a go at the didgeridoo. The girls weren’t allowed—it could make us pregnant. Leaning against the back wall, I scoffed at the boys’ attempts, but didn’t dare question tradition. Instead, I wondered what the smooth wooden tube would feel like in my hands. How heavy it would be. Whether the buzzing hum would tickle my lips. It was longer than I was tall and was painted like the man’s body, white stripes and dots and zig-zags. I could see nicks where the wood had been carved and worn patches where the man’s hands rubbed the paint off. The sound still vibrated in my head. He had never stopped breathing, the buzz of the didgeridoo sustained.