by Marvin Shackelford

Quit smoking. Give it a while. See if it sticks. Eat too much. Chew gum and then eventually switch to mints. Give it a good while. Breathe so deeply you feel that small arc of cool around the peak of your shoulder blades. Think you just can’t draw as much air as you once could, and wonder if the air’s thinned or if you’ve grown shallower. You feel empty. Think back to childhood, elementary science and the tiny hairs they said grow up and down the hidden and tender length of your airways. Think sometimes you can feel them moving, waving just a little so it feels like someone’s humming in and out of your nose, behind your face, and they’re out of tune. That’s how you know you were a smoker. Tell everyone, Half my life. Tell them, Five years December fourth. Don’t count the occasional puff from a joint against yourself. It’s the nicotine turned your insides brown and kept you coming back. Worry about the damage. Pay for a checkup, a scan, every other year. Breathe so deeply your shoulders lift, an involuntary shrug, as the doctors sniffs the cold nose of his stethoscope around your back. Force all the air from your lungs to show him how it makes you wheeze a little. Just say okay when he tells you try an antihistamine, maybe lose some weight. Unknit your eyebrows. Smile. You’re fine. Whistle in the car. Sing in the shower. Cut soda and potatoes altogether from your diet and order an expensive, electronic-faced stationary bicycle online. Sweat like a hog assembling its parts, the best workout it ever gives you. Start taking allergy pills with your morning coffee. Try, but you can’t drink enough water to lose the dry, rubbery feeling they leave at the back of your throat. Think of those tiny hairs again, and remember their name: cilia. Not quite hairs but hair-like. Take to walking around the neighborhood. Huff and puff along the edges of the streets and wish for sidewalks. Wave to the old men and tired mothers and children mowing their yards, watering, playing. Quicken your pace as you go. Think of all the life passing through you, all that makes you up. Press beneath your jaw for the pulse. Hold your breath a moment—its rattle distracts from the blood though it’s all flowing together, to meet at the heart. Breathe easier, head clear. Find you can sing a little higher, just a note or two. The hymns in church, a couple songs on the radio, return you to youth. Wonder at your body’s restoration. Wonder what else may return. Search for what’s lost. See what you have left. Take a long, deep breath, and release.