James Morena

Breath to Repeat

Have you ever been nearly choked to death? Your chin sitting in the V of forearm and bicep. Your larynx viced. Your arteries no longer carrying essential blood to your brain.

You whispering, “I can’t breathe.”

Your fingernails ripping into someone’s forearm. Your legs flailing like if the faster you move them the more likely you will be let free. You gasping and wheezing until you are still.

Have you ever been nearly choked to death as a child? You six then seven then eight years old. You crashing Matchbox cars or Tonka trucks into couch- or coffee-table-legs, shouting “varoom” and “pow” and “kapluck” with each explosion. You eating cereal or a bologna sandwich or white rice doused in soy sauce in front of the television or at the kitchen table or on the floor of your messy bedroom.

You shouting, “Get off me,” before you must conserve every ounce of breath.

You watching your bowl or plate flip. You trying to avoid stepping and grinding the mess into the carpet because you know that when you wake you will have to scrub the floor.

You twisting and turning and tucking your chin because you know that if your chin rises, you are done.

Have you ever been nearly choked to death repeatedly by your white father? You wondering if it was your brown Filipino skin that led to the attempt because he, once more, spat racist words on you. You questioning if you failed to hurry back in time with his scolding-hot coffee or ice-cold Budweiser or third-helping of dinner. You trying to recall if you forgot to refer to him as “sir” or if you forgot to sweep behind doors or if you picked up the dog’s poop from the backyard.

My father started watching the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) when I turned six. He loved Hulk Hogan with his twenty-six inch guns and Jake “The Snake” Roberts with his python and his signature move the DDT. Father growled like Randy “Macho Man” Savage. He especially liked The Honky Tonk Man because he reminded Father of Elvis Presley.

Father loved Elvis Presley.

I, on the other hand, gravitated to Tito Santana and Haku and the flamboyance of Koko B. Ware. They wrestled as the underdogs. They endured the most: piledrivers, Nelson holds, and suplexes, but they rose to their feet again and again even though blood trickled down their faces or metal, folding chairs had just smashed their heads. My favorite of all WWF characters was Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, who specialized in tag team competition, forming a tandem with Jay Youngblood.

I adored Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. I wanted to be him. He won matches with less glamorous moves: the Sunset flip, the Inside Cradle and the Diving Crossbody. His work rate was admirable. And, “The Dragon” carried a real dragon, a komodo dragon, to and from the ring. There was even a time when Jake “The Snake’s” python and “The Dragon’s” komodo kind of battled each other. I squealed in glee, wide-eyed watching.

Most of all, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat looked like me. We both had brownish-yellowish skin. Our eyes more almond than round. Our nose somewhat flat. When I found out that he too, as my father reminded me, was mixed blood – half Japanese, half white – he became my superhero. I wore my Filipino mother’s colored – pink, black, white – tights around the house. My chest bare. I shouted, “I am Ricky ‘The Dragon’ Steamboat,” then climbed the back of our couch or onto my parents’ bed or up four of our staircase steps then jumped into the air with my arms extended to the sky and my little legs flared wide.

The first time Father choked me he had asked permission.

“Let me show you,” he said.

I didn’t think twice, “Okay.”

“This is how you do the Sleeper Hold.” He sat behind me. He pulled me close. He gently wrapped his right arm around my six-year-old neck.

I sat still. I scooted back. I lifted my chin.

“Now. All I have to do is squeeze,” he whispered into my ear.

I listened to his slurring voice. I smelled his beer breath. I wriggled until everything turned black.

The second time Father choked me, we were watching a Wrestlemania match.

“Ricky,” I yelled, “is going to win it all.”

I had just sat down after having danced – flapping my arms, hopping like a bird – along with Koko B Ware then throwing my hands in the air as if I had just been crowned champion.

I didn’t see Father approach. I didn’t know what was happening until I was kicking and heaving.

“Go to sleep,” he whispered.

When I woke up crying, he said, “Act like a man. Get me another beer.”

For two years, Father surprised me with his chokings. When I washed dishes. When I played with my electric train. When I had bites of pizza in my mouth. I found myself waking naked and still wet after having just finished a bath. I sleepy-eyed, lost and confused, my crumpled homework, wondering what had just happened. Sometimes I pondered if I had fallen down the stairs after coming-to bruised and sore at the bottom of the staircase.

Then one day it stopped.

He no longer watched WWF. You no longer sat watching TV with him.

Then, you eventually moved away. Joined the military. Rode a navy ship around Asia. Eventually, returning to live on the opposite coast.

Today, you do your best to avoid family gatherings. But when you cannot, you flinch when he enters the room. You look over your shoulder when he’s near. You sit where you can see his every move. You still bring him his Budweiser or whiskey.

When he again asks, “Why don’t you want to be around me?”

You say the same thing, “I no longer have the breath to repeat myself.”

James Morena earned his MFA in Fiction at Mountain View Grand in Southern New Hampshire. His stories have been published in storySouth, Defunkt Magazine, Litro Magazine, The Citron Review, Pithead Chapel, Rio Grande Review, and others. He also has published essays and poems. You can interact with him on Insta: @james_morena.