Between Breaths by Donia Carey

In our separate apartments we circle our telephones like prizefighters. Should I call Helen or wait until she calls me? The phone rings. I sit down and listen for the machine to pick up. Wrong number. I let out the breath I've been holding; it makes a jagged sound.

She's sure to be hobbling around in that fourth-floor walk-up, the place an oven in this heat. I've been
telling her to move out of there for years. She keeps bugging me, too. "The mould in that basement will be
the death of you, Annie. You think it's cheap, but let me tell you, that dump is no bargain!"

I picture her shaking hand, reaching for the receiver, picking it up. Then I see her putting it back on
the hook. I've known her so long, know that she's thinking maybe she'll check on me tomorrow.

Who will win this Russian roulette?

The phone rings again. I can' t get my breath and rummage for the inhaler with hands that are slick with sweat. But it's not Helen's wispy voice on the answering machine, just my deaf sister shouting into the phone to tell me about a sale at Macy's. Her daughter's been there already and has brought back fabulous bargains. "It's about time you got yourself a new winter coat," she yells out before she hangs up. "You can get it on the Installment Plan and it'll be paid for by the time winter comes."

After my breath settles down, I get up to straighten a doily on the coffee table, plump the pillows on the sofa nobody ever sits on anymore, pick up the TV Guide and settle myself in an armchair. When I click the remote, instead of looking at the screen, my eyes focus on a picture of Helen wearing a smile and a wide-brimmed hat in a small photo that sits on top of the set. I snapped that picture the year we both took
the train to Boston for the Flower Show. She bought me an Amaryllis that still lives on my windowsill and
sends out a flower once in a while, usually on a gray day when I'm expecting nothing.

Okay, okay, I'll call her. Later. This afternoon for certain. Maybe early tomorrow morning. But what if
I get her machine-how will I know whether she's in the bathroom, asleep, at the grocery store. . .or
someplace else? Someplace unthinkable.

The Amaryllis needs water so I fill a pitcher at the kitchen sink. The plant thrusts itself bravely toward
the dim light of the basement window and I smile to see that overnight it has surprised me with the swell of a bud.

Catching my breath, I pick up the telephone and dial Helen's number.


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