Without Breath


Doubt thou the stars are fire;

Doubt that the sun doth move;

Doubt truth to be a liar;

But never doubt I love.

                                      – William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Act I

The first time he saw her she was choking on a jalapeño pepper. He had saved her life that day, and he thanked the stars that he knew the Heimlich manoeuvre. She had looked at him with eyes that reminded him of the ocean.

‘Thank you.’

She was at the aquarium to look at their function space. He worked there as a marine biologist. They just happened to be in the food court at the same time: a coincidence. She had loved aquariums, she said, ever since she had seen Romeo and Juliet. She imagined herself as Juliet. That’s why she wanted to get married there.

‘Oh, you’re looking for a wedding venue?’

Did she imagine it, or was there a hint of disappointment in his expression?

She bought him lunch as a thank you. She owed him her life, after all. He showed her the function space, and it was everything she wanted. He showed her the tanks, pointing out the different sea life: angelfish, rainbow fish, sharks. They both pressed their hands on the glass and their fingers touched, just for a second.

Act II

She knew that for him, it was the idea of having an affair that excited him. But for her it was real; she loved him. She would meet him three times a week, always at the aquarium, by the tropical tanks. He liked the way the bright colours of the swordtails and rainbowfish danced in her eyes. They never spoke of her upcoming wedding. But the knowledge of it clouded every encounter – added fire to every kiss.

She imagined that he was jealous, that the idea of her skin being touched by another man would make his heart knock against his ribs and his fists clench tighter in her hair. He was the Othello to her Desdemona, but instead of choking her he had given her breath, that first day with the pepper. She lived because of him, and for him. He consumed her like fire.


‘I can’t do this anymore.’

The words echoed in her mind, made her fingers tremble. He couldn’t do this anymore, couldn’t be with her anymore. Didn’t want her anymore.

When he walked past the tropical tanks he missed her. But it was wrong, they had no future. Sometimes he would close his eyes for a second and remember the smell of her hair as he kissed her neck. Until after a while he couldn’t really remember the smell, and eventually he didn’t miss her at all. These things happen, not all love is forever.

Once he thought he saw her watching him, her eyes meeting his in the reflection of the glass. But when he turned around there was nobody there.

She wrote to him. They weren’t even her words, she had stolen them from Hamlet, from the letters he wrote to Ophelia. It was her favourite play. When he didn’t reply she wrote again. He felt sorry for her.

He had never thought to fear her until the day that all the tropical fish were dead, their bright fins floating, dancing in the water. He told himself that it wasn’t her, that the fish just died. Death could happen that way – quickly, unexpected. Like choking on a pepper. But then one day all the tanks were smashed, all the sea life dead, and the crimson blood looked almost black against the glittering shards of broken glass. A violent juxtaposition, like fire and ice.

Act IV

He had planned to confront her eventually. He told himself it could wait. But then there she was at the aquarium again and he had no choice. She stood resolute, the shard of glass clasped firmly in her hand, the blood streaming down her arm and dripping rhythmically onto the linoleum.

‘You loved your fish and now they are gone. Now you understand how I feel. I need you.’

‘You’re crazy.’

‘You already knew that.’

He exhaled slowly – calmly.

‘You need to leave me alone and you need to stop coming here. You have a fiancé at home. You should be with him and forget about me. I never loved you.’

In her mind, she killed him. In her mind, she pressed the glass into the soft skin of his neck and watched the flesh tear and the blood pool. But the idea of the world without him made her feel like she was choking. And then, as she left, she spoke the words that made his chest freeze, that made all the words they ever spoke to each other burn in his ears until he wanted to scream.

‘There was no other man. The wedding was for us.’

Act V

She leaves him as he found her: without breath. She looks up at the surface and feels her lungs filling with water as she exhales slowly – calmly. They scream for air, just like that first day – the day he saw her for the first time. Now, in these final moments, she is Ophelia, remembering a love that she knows was real, but she still hears the words: ‘I never loved you’. She burns with a feeling of longing, of desire, for the air that she needs to sustain her life. Without it she is nothing.

When he finds her she floats face down. Her dress billows around her, dancing in the water.

But long it could not be

Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,

Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay

To muddy death.

                                    -William Shakespeare, Hamlet


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