Caleb Martin-Rosenthal

Photo Credit: Warren/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Despite fixing her disposal eleven times, repainting her peeling bedroom walls with a favorite shade of blue, and buying (on a whim, last week) a sprawling cactus for the foyer that she promised she wouldn’t let die, Avery’s apartment didn’t feel like home. She wondered if perhaps it had something to do with the architecture of the place. High, echoey ceilings evoked a soundstage, each room a different set, dressed up to resemble something lived-in. The narrow hallway to her bedroom, which she often thought wouldn’t be out of place in a hedge maze, begged for the family photos that after eight months, still sat untouched in their boxes at the back of her closet because she wasn’t sure if she could nail into the wall and even if she could, she didn’t want to be a nuisance to her neighbors.

A sudden text from her mother reminded Avery why she had wandered into the kitchen.

— hi, land at 6 pm Sunday.

A pang of anxiety. Her therapist would chuckle at the whole situation. At how, in a panic before work this morning, she had dusted all the furniture and bought a month’s worth of toilet paper on her way home, just in case. She needed Mom to know that this was working. She tapped out a quick reply.

— great! excited!

She hesitated for a moment, wondering if that sounded too childish. Her mother hadn’t used any exclamation marks. She made a change.

— Wonderful. Looking forward to it.

Avery understood that not everything could be perfect for Sunday night. However, one thing could come close. The meringue. The meringue could be perfect. She imagined this moment, after dinner, as her mother carried on about something from a magazine nobody reads, when Avery would duck away into the kitchen and return with this beautiful, gravity-defying creation. An adult’s dessert. Sophisticated. She exhaled as she set up her stand mixer (a gift) and cracked three eggs into its bowl. A soft, patient whir filled the room as she switched the machine on.

The teacher of the cooking class Avery had taken when she first moved had monologued about the beautiful, sacred process of aeration. “Fold careful little pillows of air into the eggs. Two minutes exactly,” he would say.

After nearly ten minutes of waiting, Avery furrowed her brow. She didn’t see any aeration. She didn’t see any bubbles at all. Just a loose, yolky puddle still slinging around the bowl. She stared at her watch, puzzled. Why couldn’t she get this right? As she reached for the egg carton, expecting to find an overdue expiration date, Avery was struck, suddenly, by an alarming realization. She couldn’t breathe.

It was a maddeningly confusing sensation. Her lungs didn’t burn, her eyes didn’t water, her throat wasn’t swollen shut. She opened her mouth in an attempt to slurp up the muggy kitchen air, but there was nothing. It was indescribable, unbelievable, a complete lack of intake. There was no air to breathe. Wiping her palms on her shirt, Avery wasn’t panicked. This explained the meringue, but as she poured the egg mixture slowly down the sink, she thought just how inconvenient it all was, especially with respect to tomorrow’s plans. So, although it was late, she decided to call her landlord.

He picked up after a few rings. “What.”

Avery opened her mouth to speak but, unable to draw breath, found she couldn’t make a sound. She rolled her eyes and marched out into the hall. “Hi. I’m calling about an issue in my apartment.” She felt a bit silly. This was how her mother talked. “I’m having trouble—”

“What’s the unit number?”


“And what’s the problem?”

“I can’t breathe in my apartment. There’s no air.”

The line was silent for a moment.

“And it’s unacceptable,” she added, with a cautious shred of finality in her voice.

“I can have someone up to take a look by Wednesday at the earliest,” the landlord said, launching into a speech about how the building has lots of tenants and that she’d need to wait her turn like everybody else because if he started giving her special treatment, he’d have to give it to everyone.

“Thanks,” she grumbled, and hung up.

As she lay in bed, ceiling fan spinning uselessly above her, Avery noticed the silence. It was heavy and thick and eerie. She couldn’t hear the bustle of the street or the hum of the fluorescent bathroom light. For a moment, she considered calling up a friend with a couch and asking to spend the night, but she couldn’t think of anyone. Under her covers, with no need to inhale or exhale, Avery’s chest remained perfectly still, which made her feel useless, like a corpse. She thought about her cactus in the foyer and wondered if it might die. And then Avery wondered if, on Sunday, her mother would notice right away a dead cactus next to the door. She probably would.

In the lobby the next morning, after checking her mailbox (nothing), Avery ran into Diana, the curly-haired woman from twenty-seven.

“Oh, you poor thing,” Diana said.

“I’m sorry?” replied Avery, looking up from her slippers.

“Your apartment. The air? Everyone in the building is talking about it.”

Avery felt her face redden.

Diana continued, “It’s appalling, frankly, if you ask me. I mean, what happened to tenant’s rights? Even if it was your fault, I think there are ordinances that protect you from this sort of thing.”

“It wasn’t my fault, I—” Avery started, but Diana didn’t hear, having pivoted to a dull anecdote about how, with her husband and her kids, sometimes she also felt there was no air.

Back upstairs, and sufficiently mortified, Avery tried to think of another dessert for tonight. She wanted to cry. Or move away and set this lonely, unlivable tomb on fire, though she wasn’t sure that would even work. Avery felt a tear leak from her eye. She needed so badly to gasp and scream and yell, but she couldn’t.

Wiping her face, she walked to the window and noticed thousands of little dust particles suspended in the morning light. It was sort of beautiful. Avery wondered if this was what outer space felt like, a moment frozen neatly in time. Maybe it didn’t matter what everyone thought. This was her apartment and her life. Her work in progress. She thought about the gossipy neighbors, the landlord, and her mother (probably boarding by now) and started to feel a sort of calm. They were out there and she was safe in here, swaddled by quiet and the warm yellow-white sun.

Later in the afternoon, as she watered the cactus by the door, Avery noticed a slight jiggle of her doorknob. She swung the door open to find a green balloon tied to the outside. Attached was a note.

air from the park. thinking of you.

It was from the family in nineteen. Avery tugged the balloon inside, casting a vibrant green shadow on her living room floor. A few minutes later, to her surprise, another arrived. A nylon purple one. Then another, and another. By five pm, the fading evening light glinted off of dozens of balloons of all colors, shapes, and sizes, suspended majestically throughout the silent apartment. Each had a note from a different neighbor and they contained all types of air from all over the city, from the sea, the museum, the subway. Avery felt appreciated, if a little embarrassed.

Suddenly, her ears perked up. A slight hissing cut through the silence. Avery followed the sound, ducking past balloons (careful not to get tangled in string) until she reached its source. Her cactus had punctured a small, yellow balloon. She leaned down slowly, feeling the cool jet of air on her face, and took a euphoric breath. Avery plucked a spine from the cactus and set about popping every balloon, watching the dust swirl as the room shuddered slowly back to life.

As she pushed the last of the balloons into the trashcan, she reveled in the sound of their soft crinkling. Avery inhaled deeply, smiled, and noticed a text from her mother, who, rather excited to be in the city, said she’d prefer to eat at a restaurant and then go back to her hotel, if that was all right.


Caleb Martin-Rosenthal is a writer, composer, and filmmaker from Boston, MA. He writes short fiction, screenplays, and songs—sometimes all at once. He recently graduated from Tufts University. Twitter: @_calebmr Email: c.martin.rosenthal[at]

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