Love is a Heavy Thing by Jen Basch

Jen Basch's character has a severe panic attack while there is an intruder in her house - and the criminal is the only one who can help her.

I am twenty-four years old and I have forgotten how to breathe. I hear them slam the door open to my house. They're rummaging around in Marisa's room across the hall - moving things around, heavy breathing, heavy footsteps. I'm wheezing, dizzy. Goddamn these panic attacks. They're walking down the hall now. Getting closer. I'm going to die, they're going to kill me. I need to keep quiet or they're going to find me. I'm choking. I need help.

I can either a) stay quiet in here and hyperventilate or b) get their attention, hope they'll help me, and risk getting stabbed.

Fuck it.

I pound on the floor with sweaty palms in between the gasps. Shit. I see the white dots in my vision, I'm going to pass out. I bang harder and harder. I hear my door fling open and all at once I am relieved and terrified. They see me. I see that They is a Him. A big guy. He's holding Serena's pillowcase over his shoulder. His eyes are dark. He's chilling. Jesus Christ, what did I just do? I need to call 911. I picture my phone beside my bed but I know I can't get to it.

"Shit. You're not supposed to be here," he says, eyes wide, brows high. I kick and pound and try to gulp the air but it's not enough, I can never get enough. He observes me and his eyes are bulging out of his skull. He's scared of me. I breathe faster. He relaxes his face and comes over to me in the bathroom, only making my breathing heavier and quicker. He drops Serena's pillowcase full of electronics. He puts his hands on me, holding the backs of my hands in his large sweaty ones. I'm going to die, he's going to kill me. I feel his hands on me, but I need him to have his hands on me.

He sits me up, back against the tub, and places one of my hands on my chest, on my heart, and the other on my stomach. Every nightmare, every scary thought, or frightening moment in my life up until this point is nothing compared to the terror I feel now. As I comprehend the feeling of this man's hands on my body my mind floods with sickening considerations of what's to come. With my hands on my chest and abdomen however, it becomes inescapable for me not to feel my heart beating wildly and my stomach going up and down and up and down. I close my eyes that are soaked from tears. I hear him get down on his knees. I feel him reach past me and chills consume my body. I feel him moving his arms behind me and I hear the water from the bath begin to run. He's going to drown me. I feel liquid dripping on my knees that are hugged against my chest. I open my eyes to him cupping his hands in front of my face like a bowl and his hands are full of water. He feeds me the water and I choke on it. He pulls away. And says, "Listen to me, I know you're afraid but I can help you. My daughter, this happens to my daughter. Let me help you," and I stare at him with protruding eyes and blurred vision. Until he goes on, "You're hyperventilating and you need to stop it or you're going to pass out," but I don't listen because I can't listen, so he walks out of the bathroom and I've now totally rethought my decision to get his help and I think This is my chance, but I can't move and I lose my opportunity - he is back with the white paper bag that was in my room holding the candle I bought from Antigone's today, hoping it would help me relax. He hands the bag to me and says: "Take this and breathe into it as slowly as you can. It will help, I promise," and I can feel my body tingling, every inch has little ants running around inside just below my skin, my body and mind combat for a millisecond to decide which one should take precedence in this moment. Survival instinct takes over and wins the argument as I reach out for him and grab his arm; it's muscular and I want to vomit. I squeeze it and dig my nails into his leathery skin, so coarse I'd swear I was holding onto a reptile. I squirm; I don't know what else to do so I do what he says. I let go of him and go for the bag. I hold the bag to my mouth and begin breathing in, breathing out, inflating, deflating the bag. Surely enough, my breathing slows.

It's working. He's helping me.

"Talk to me please," I say through gasps, still choking. "I need you... to... talk... to me."

"Okay, okay keep breathing into the bag, think about your breathing and breathe slowly," he says.

"You have a... daughter... tell me," I'm breathing so fast. "About her."

"Alright. Um, well she's sixteen years old. She lives with her mom because that's what the judge said would be best about a year ago. She's a good girl, my daughter. Don't see her that often anymore though, she, well she's busy. But she's a good girl," I blow out hard and noisily. "She likes dancing," he says a little louder now. "She loves it actually. Been dancing since she was two, always twirlin' around the living room, back when we all lived together." It's helping. This usually helps. I'm breathing a little better but not much - I'm breathing just okay enough to be able to picture his daughter, who's not much younger than me. I'm picturing it all, everything in this moment. A criminal is walking me through my panic attack. I see him watching me and I'm wondering what he's thinking, what his next moves will be once I don't need his help, but I also want him to keep talking so I can stop thinking about him being so fucking close to me.

"Keep talking," I exhale out in one breath.

"You're getting pale, you have to think about your breathing. When I used to help my daughter we would talk about her favorite dance routine. She would take me through the steps. I know you want me to do the talking, but you got to talk to me. It will help normalize your breathing. Tell me something. Anything. Tell me about your day," he says.

And I cry. I start sobbing because since I have been trying to remember how to breathe, I'd forgotten about today. I forgot why I was home alone and why I am in this situation. Why a robber is helping me with my panic attack, rather than my boyfriend. Fuck you Brad, this is all your fucking fault. It's getting worse; I feel like I am going to throw up into this damn paper bag.

"Today has been shit!" I don't think I can get the rest out but I force the words past my lungs: "Pure and absolute shit," I spit out.

"Why, what happened? Tell me. Give me all the details, just keep talking," he says, and I try to breathe in deep but it doesn't work because he's staring at me, trying to help me breathe but he is why I can't breathe. He is so much bigger than me. He looks like he could be a killer, like he would know how to kill me. His body, and his eyes, and his body language as he holds his left hand in his right, continuously making the movements one would make to crack their knuckles but no noise is exerted. He looks like he could kill me. Like he's getting ready to do it and like he would be okay with it if he does it. But I need to breathe so I try.

"My boyfriend broke up with me today," I choke and taste a tear as it drips and quickly disintegrates into my dry mouth. "I really thought he was going to be different. I thought maybe he'd be less of a short term boyfriend and more of a 'we start making future plans' kind of boyfriend." I put the bag to my lips and breathe in and out as his deep black-hole-like eyes watch me, "it never... gets any easier to have him leave. To have them leave me 'cause of my stupid panic attacks... they've all said it one way or another, the guys I've dated. I've got too much emotional... baggage," I finally say, and then remind myself why I am telling this story, remind myself I am having a panic attack and why it is happening this moment. I grip the bag back to my mouth and start breathing rapidly again. I try to put myself somewhere else in my mind. Anywhere but here with this man whose tattoos cover his arm. His tattoos of scriptures that I can barely make out through my watery eyes but I swear I see the words "Fight against those who fight against me," and I feel myself shrink down and grow ten times weaker. In every way possible they're screaming Death to me.

"I can't," I huff, "no more Brad, I can't."

"Alright," he says and peers out of my bathroom door and points at something that I can't see, "where'd you get all those trophies and awards? You have to keep talking," he says.

"I play tennis," I say and then breathe out into the bag. "Well I used to play tennis. It used to be me and my dad's thing. He loved watching me play and he helped me practice every day," but the word day gets swallowed with my breathing so I gulp the air, "all day."

"Why'd you stop?" I feel the ants running through my veins. I picture little men with torches on fire scurrying near my heart. I think about the first time this happened to me. The panic attacks. During practice one day. I remember the anxiety I felt, not understanding why I couldn't breathe. I remember it well now because I am there again. Right now with this felon in my room, sitting on the bathroom floor with me, and he looks like a murderer with his freshly shaved, exposed scalp but he's helping me breathe.

"It was giving me panic attacks. I couldn't lose. My dad, it would kill him," I pause and breathe in and out with my life support white paper bag. "I couldn't let him down," I say and continue wheezing. "When did your daughter first start having panic attacks?"

"She was eight. Was the scariest day of my life that day. Long story short she went to get her mom Tia something from the pantry, door got jammed. She was locked in for a full fifteen minutes before Tia found her. By then she was near blue in the face, covered in sweat and tears, lying on the floor," I huff and puff as I picture what I must look like right now, probably just like her, this criminal's daughter. I breathe into the bag, a tear drips down my cheek as I stare at his long broad body, "The doctor said a lot of things can bring on panic attacks," he tells me. "Hers may have started with this incident you know, maybe claustrophobia, but anything can bring them back when you feel like you're spiraling out of control again the doctor said."

"I didn't feel," whew, "out of control. I was a confident player."

"So maybe it was something else," he says. His words twist around in my mind, I know I must not be breathing at all because for the first time it's dead quiet. I can't even hear his breathing, just my thoughts and I say, "My dad."

Goddammit I can't fucking breathe.

"Keep talking. Your dad what?"

"My dad and I were practicing together," I huff. I'm watching his face because he is watching mine. I inspect his body. His arms are bulgy and veiny with muscles. The repetition of this inability to breathe like a normal person is giving me a headache. Maybe it's the lack of oxygen to my brain. Keep talking. Stop looking at him, I tell myself.

"And?" he asks and I watch him looking at the things in my room. I try and take a deep breath but I cough and choke. "Go on," he says.

"It started in the first few weeks of us playing together," I begin coughing into the bag, "he said I'd be good if I win." My thoughts and my breathing, or lack there of, it starts again. The forgetting. The pain. I can't. Breathe. It's coming faster and faster and I can't make it stop, I feel as though I am about to faint but I keep doing it. His features get more earnest. His eyes that were tracing the inches of my room quickly turn back toward me. I begin blowing double time into the bag, but he starts to speak again.

"I'm sure your father loves you like I love my daughter. Maybe he doesn't have the best way of showing it. But I bet he does what he does because he loves you," I listen and I watch him, staring at his eyes that look black and demon-like in this light. I try to hear his words through my loud breaths and thoughts. "My daughter thinks I don't love her," he says.

"Why?" whew, "doesn't she think you do?" I ask.

"She thinks 'cause I can't pay her mom child support that I don't care about her. But it's nothing like that," he says and I feel sorry for him. "It's a bad thing for me to do. Being here tonight. But well, I'm not a bad guy. I'm just in a bad place." I'm in a bad place, Brad rushes into my head and the bag expands and collapses a little faster again. Nothing is working.

"Keep talking to me. Tell me more about tennis, tell me more about something."

"I'm in a bad place too," I finally say, "Can I ask you something?"

"Sure," he says, looking lost.

"If it's so damn common that people face heartbreak, everyone in the world knows what it is, has either felt it or has a pretty good idea what it might feel like, why does it hurt so badly?" Finally he gazes back out into my room and doesn't speak for a minute too long. Shudders pour over my body. I take in the bag.

"That's a tough question," he finally says. I gasp. Keep talking, stop looking.

"It makes sense that finding out a loved one is dying from cancer hurts, you know. It makes sense that being told you'll be in a wheel chair the rest of your life hurts. And it makes sense that, like you, feeling like you're going to lose your daughter 'cause you can't pay your child support hurts," I stop and glance at the bag as I take the taste of it in and out a few times.

"You've lost me now. What's your question?" he says. I breathe.

"I guess, I understand that these things are rarer to the average person so I get why they hurt. But why does a broken heart hurt me so badly? Why does it not let me breathe?"

"You know what. Love is a heavy thing, even for a person with a sick loved one, or a person with a handicap, or someone like me who is trying not to lose his daughter. Sometimes I feel like love becomes such a strong thing in our lives that it could even be compared to how accustomed we are to living with our five senses. So when it's gone it seems almost unlivable. So you see I think, well I think it's a heavy thing."

I sit with his words. He starts to stand up. For a few moments I had forgotten about my panic attack. I'd been breathing normally, asking him my question, and listening to his answer. In this moment I watch him back out of my bathroom and I read his mind and understand what is happening right here and right now. He says nothing and grabs something off my dresser by my bed. I don't approve, I don't. But he, a robber saved my life tonight. So I watch him leave the room with my phone and my iPod and disappear into the night.

I begin thinking about breath and air and breathing. I remind myself that I am a human being, a natural born thing that does not learn to breathe and yet is biologically made with the ability to do so. I think of this moment that just happened in my bathroom and think of later moments that will come when I know I will forget again.

"Hey Jess! We're home!" I hear Marisa yell from downstairs. She and Serena walk up and come into my room.

"Oh no, you had a panic attack didn't you?" Serena says when they see me on my bathroom floor. I have lived with them for three years. They have helped me through these moments before. They've basically memorized the sight of my face and body in the aftermath.

"Yeah it was bad, but I'm fine now. I actually..." I am about to tell them what happened tonight but I stop because I realize there is no point. A robber saved my life tonight and told me love is a heavy thing. It's too hard to try to get another person to understand because it's not something that can be grasped by explanation; it's something that has to be felt. They will not understand.


  1. Didn't see this one coming. Nicely done, well developed characters, and an emotional grab. A good read.

  2. this is a gripping, claustrophobic read, extremely well written. as Jim said, full characters. excellent

    Mike McC

  3. I saw and felt those two.

  4. An intriguing story exploring places between routine conceptions of right and wrong: which is probably where most life is lived? Flawed and surprising characters populate the most interesting tales. Many thanks,

  5. A robber with a heart, yes this was intense in many places and well drawn out. I could understand the panic, but not sure how he was going to explain the robber if items were missing?
    Good read, but a bit long in places.


  6. Thanks for reading and the comments! I really appreciate it :D

  7. Yes, well written and gripping. There are inherent problems with characters who see themselves as victims. I think I would have been more sympathetic if she had been more self-critical or learned something that would help her overcome her situation. At the end I sensed mostly resignation. She probably won't survive her next attack. The author did put me inside the charterer's head. Excellent job in that respect.

  8. Thanks Gerald!! Always love hearing things that can be worked on for future pieces and things that worked for current ones! :D

  9. I don’t remember ever experiencing a panic attack, so I have no first hand knowledge of such phenomena, but the experience was well depicted from my casual perspective and I thought that Jen did a good job of detailing the narrative. It was rather eye-opening. Nice job, Jen.