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About The Book

In her dazzling debut novel, award-winning author Patricia Elam takes us into the lives of two completely different women whose friendship has helped them weather just about everything. But now they're at a crossroads where understanding may not be enough -- a place where they must risk it all to rediscover what they cherish most.
Photographer Norma Simmons-Greer has a loving husband, a lively young son, and an upper-middle-class lifestyle. Probation officer Moxie Dilliard is as dedicated to her ideals as she is to her talented teenage daughter, Zadi. Best friends after meeting in college, Norma and Moxie are each other's reality check and reassurance.
But suddenly the bond between them begins to unravel in unexpected ways. Anguished over the loss of her second child and her husband's recent withdrawal, Norma takes refuge in a complex love affair that puts her at odds with Moxie -- and with herself. Haunted by her beloved mother's inspiring yet disturbing emotional legacy, Moxie struggles to understand her friend, while her own refusal to compromise threatens to shatter her relationship with Zadi. And a devastating crisis will challenge both women to face the hardest of truths.
With insight, humor, and heartbreaking immediacy, Patricia Elam presents a beautifully written portrait of two unforgettable women, and the teenager they both cherish, as they negotiate the ever-shifting terrain of friendship and identity. A wise, tender novel of what love can and cannot survive, Breathing Room is also an exploration of how the past can at once inspire and limit us, and of the pain -- and promise -- that accompany us on the journey we all share.


Chapter One

He sleeps deeply, turned on his side with an arm draped across her shoulders. His slow exhaling crescendos to a jagged mixture of snorts and labored breaths. Norma wishes she could sleep as comfortably. She feels the weight of his elbow on her back and eases out from under his grasp.

She raises herself and sits close to the edge of the bed, which they never bothered to unmake, and examines her state of disarray. Her bra dangles from her shoulder, held by one intact strap. Her right breast, the one his mouth latched onto first, is exposed. She smiles at the memory and closes her eyes, trying to experience it all again. When she stands, a smoldering ache below her waist makes her wince.

In the bathroom, she adjusts her bra, lifting her heavy breasts up from where breastfeeding dropped them. She crosses her arms beneath, as she examines her body in the baroque mirror. She's gained weight this past year but doesn't harbor guilt about dropping the t'ai chi class or being a stranger at the fitness center she joined with lofty intentions. Her stomach is actually the only part of her form she is displeased with. The flesh immediately above and below her navel is creased and wrinkled like a huge prune, the reward of two C-sections -- yet only one child.

A church bell chimes twice, sharp and clanging, startling her. She can't even imagine where there is a church nearby; the sound must travel quite a distance. She wants to wake up Woody. Half the day is gone and she still has to make major decisions about her first solo photography exhibit next month. She's unsure whether there should be an overall theme or just a smorgasbord of past and present work. Several assignments, in various stages of completion, also loom before her, and she doesn't want to wait until the last minute.

Coming to this hotel room was not originally in the day's plan, at least not for her. She and Moxie had talked about possibly getting together for lunch today. It's not that she's elevated trysting with Woody above lunching with her best friend. Moxie simply wasn't in when Norma tried to reach her. And then Woody called and suggested they meet at "our" hotel, as he referred to it because it would be their third visit. The Holiday Inn is near Union Station, not too far from Catholic University, where Woody teaches, or from Norma's Capitol Hill studio loft and the gallery where Norma had been earlier, checking on the available wall space.

It is the day before New Year's Eve, and there are several large signs announcing the hotel's scheduled festivities. The lobby is strung with gold wreaths and potted poinsettias grace every available flat surface. Woody and Norma had to wait several minutes to be seated in the restaurant. All the tables were filled by people in business attire or tourists with cameras dangling from their necks. Waiters in black vests and white shirts bustled about, balancing trays and half smiles. After only a few bites of the smothered chicken, Woody gently pressed his knee against hers under the table. When she looked up at him he said, "I want to kiss you badly. Let's get a room."

"Sure you have time?" she had asked, coyly.

"Yes. I'm still on winter break, remember? I've got papers and exams to grade, but I have time for you."

"Aren't you going to ask if I have time -- or don't you think my time is valuable?" she responded, half-serious.

"Of course I value your time," he said, turning away from her to signal the waiter. "I have great respect for your phenomenal work and your time." He smiled, pressing more firmly against her leg. "It was a suggestion, not an assumption. Stop giving me a hard time. Note the emphasis on the word 'hard.'" She flashed him a look of mock chastisement, and both of their smiles ruptured into laughter.

His indelicate comment and their spontaneous giggling made her look around to see if anyone was in the hotel restaurant who might know her and guess what she was up to. She whispered, "And what makes you think I'm going to let you make love to me today?"

"Did I say that? I said 'kiss you.' That's all I said. My God, you've got a dirty mind." He laughed from way down deep as he always did, even when things weren't that funny. She wanted him to lean across and kiss her now, but was anxious about him doing so in public. Woody left her with money to pay the check while he went to the front desk to secure a room.

The first time he ever kissed her was right before Thanksgiving, a little over a month ago. He called and came by her studio under the guise of checking out her work. He walked around examining the many photographs Norma has taped, pushpinned, and framed on her studio walls. It helps her to hang the photos she's pleased with right after she prints them. If her positive feelings about a particular photo increase the more she studies it, she knows it's worth keeping. Observing her work in this unhurried way enables her to discover something that may be out of sync or that weakens the shot.

When Woody stopped in front of a framed series of deflated hot-air balloons, he called it "intriguing." The photo series had been featured, a few years before, in a local exhibit of D.C. photographers, and her photos were selected to accompany a subsequent newspaper review of the exhibit. She was pleased something had materialized from that disappointing day she and Miles traveled all the way to Pennsylvania to watch the balloons take off. She settled for photographing the airless balloons when the lack of wind made liftoff impossible.

Woody lingered before each photo, one at a time. As she explained how manipulating the toner resulted in the sepia hue, Woody inched closer. He seemed to breathe in the words she spoke, but she wasn't certain he was listening. By then he was so close that if she had moved an arm or a leg even slightly, she would have touched his. She forgot what she was talking about, aware only of the increased pace of her own breathing and the proximity of his lips. It made sense, at that point, for them to kiss. She almost lost her balance, so he held her by the waist, keeping her steady. "How do you get such richness from black-and-white photos?" he asked her when the kiss ended.

"It depends on the light. Light is everything."

"Everything?" He held her hand and wove his fingers in between hers, sliding them gently back and forth. "Does it matter if it's natural light or artificial?" He blew the question into her ear, grazing his mouth against the lobe.

A shiver made her shift her feet again. "I love natural when I can have it, but..." He took her words away with his lips.

"But what?" he asked, moving on to her neck.

She tried to answer, but too much was happening to her body. He looked around and at her, as if to ask where they could go to be more comfortable. She led him to a couch in the corner, but it was so lumpy and stiff they both started laughing. Although they wanted to finish what they had started, they waited until they could arrange to meet later at a hotel.

Now, in the same hotel's bathroom, she takes the floral-scented oval soap out of its package to wash her hands. She splashes water onto her face and returns to the bedroom to dress. Woody is still asleep on his stomach. How ordinary he looks lying there, as undistinguished as a sheet of paper. His hairline recedes, his lips are thin, and his stomach protrudes over the waist of his boxers. Yet moments ago he reminded her, once again, of the immense difference between making love to a man who is hungry for you and one who turns to you merely because you are there.

She sits on the bed beside him, leans over, and whispers, "Wake up and come back to me." He mumbles something and nuzzles the crook of her neck. She enjoys the easy familiarity she feels with him. She slips a hand onto his back, kneading his shoulders. Her fingers know just where they want to wander on him, unlike their hesitation about touching her husband.

"You must be really exhausted," she says. "It didn't take you ten seconds to fall asleep."

"I'm sorry," he says as he straightens to a sitting position. "I stayed up 'til the wee hours reading essays."

"What did they have to write about?"

"Where they think they'll be in five years. Sadly -- many of them, seniors and juniors, don't think they'll be very far. They have this idea that we baby boomers messed things up irreparably," he says, melding his hand to the side of her face. "Are you sure we have to leave now?" He leans forward and kisses her hard. When they shared that first kiss back in her studio, her full lips had practically swallowed his thinner ones. After numerous practice sessions, she now knows to purse her lips gently and slowly press her mouth against his. Then she opens wide, letting his tongue glide on in.

Norma reluctantly peels his hands from her. "Woody, we have to stop. I've really got to go."

"Okay," he says. "Me, too." He reaches across the bed to gather his crumpled slacks from the floor. "Now, here's a real test for supposedly permanent-press pants." He chuckles at his corny joke and stares at her. "Hey, this was almost as good as spending New Year's Eve together, wasn't it?"

The pillars near the hotel entrance are wrapped with garlands of white pine and red velvet bows. Christmas lights outline the arched doorway, and piles of dingy snow cling to the edges of the walkway. Most of the previous week's downfall has been rinsed away by an early morning rain. The sky is lined, though, with row after row of transparent clouds. Tissue-soft snowflakes begin to sift about their heads. Even though both their destinations are only a few metro stops away, they agree to hail a taxi as the snowfall threatens to increase in pace and density. Norma took the metro today because the last time she drove to the hotel, she lost track of time left on the meter and ended up with a parking ticket.

Woody and Norma wait for a taxi to pull up into the semicircle. Norma rummages in her shoulder bag for her gloves and puts them on while Woody pats his pockets, searching for cigarettes. Usually, she dislikes people smoking around her, but Woody inhales like an actor in a subtitled movie. He holds the cigarette between his middle finger and thumb, the way you would a marijuana joint, blowing smoke away in a diagonal direction. Smoking cigarettes actually becomes him.

A yellow-and-black taxi drives up. The doorman lurches forward to open the taxi door for them. Woody folds a bill into his hand. Norma inadvertently glances into the taxi's rearview mirror and meets the driver's unflinching stare. His red eyes peer at her. Maybe African, she thinks, looking at his ink-toned skin. She and Woody ride without much talking. At stoplights, she stares at people in other cars and hurrying along the street. She wonders whether any of them have lives as complicated as hers.

It is a little too warm in the taxi. Norma unbuttons her coat, removes her gloves, and absently turns her grandmother's silver West Indian bracelets around on her wrist. Woody's fingers rest on her knee. She notices hair sprouting from small pores in his thick fingers; so different from her husband's long, dark hands.

They travel only about a mile or so to the Library of Congress, where he is meeting a colleague. Woody asks the driver how much the fare is to Norma's destination. Norma tells him she has enough money, but Woody pays anyway. Norma sighs because he has paid for everything today and it's not as if he's rich. As he scoots from the taxi, he presses his palm to her face, as is becoming his endearing habit. She is uncomfortably aware that the cabdriver is watching them. Woody waves as they pull away from the curb. He mouths, "Happy New Year."

The cabdriver coughs loudly, several times. "Generous guy. That your boss?" he asks. His voice is thick and gravelly, scraping its way out of his mouth. No trace of the African accent she expected.

She says nothing and begins rebuttoning her coat.

"Probably got you working real hard. Probably pays you real good, too?"

Ignore him, she tells herself.

"Maybe things the other way around. Maybe you his boss? Maybe he the one got paid!" A chuckle rattles low in his throat. Her studio is only a short distance away. The driver continues north on Independence Avenue. Norma shifts around on the slippery seat, her chest tight and hammering away at itself. She slides over nearer the door. "Excuse me, I changed my mind. I need to get out at the next corner." His pellet eyes rove over her.

"This ain't Eastern Market."

"That's okay. Just let me out right here," she says, trying to keep her voice from quivering. Norma accidentally looks into the mirror, as she adjusts the shoulder strap of her purse. His eyes are hard and sharp as glass. He runs a red light and she squelches the fear that he might not let her out at all. He pulls the cab over abruptly.

She is at Fourth and Pennsylvania, still a good walk from her studio on South Carolina and Eleventh. It has stopped snowing, but the chill nips at her ears nonetheless. She tightens the scarf around her neck. Norma begins walking more briskly. The people she passes seem to stare at her as if they know what she did on her lunch break. She wraps her arms across her body as she walks, trying to regain what she lost of herself in the taxi. Unsure of whether to hail another cab for the nine or so blocks remaining or to walk the distance, she is frustrated at her inability to make this simple decision. She can feel her hands trembling, although thrust deep into her coat pockets. She craves the comfort of her darkroom. She continues walking until she is there.

Climbing the stairs to the studio, her legs are almost numb. She turns the key in the lock quickly, as if someone were following her. Still wearing her coat, she tries to call Moxie but hangs up when the office voice-mail system comes on. Now that Norma's finally ready to tell Moxie what she has put off for the last month, Moxie's not available.

The coffeemaker beckons from its stand in the corner, and she adds water to the always ready, ground-and-measured coffee beans. When it's done, she takes a sip, scorching the tip of her tongue. An almost comforting pain after the taxi ride. She ties an apron around her waist and enters the darkroom. The odor of the developer is a fragrant herb. She turns on the enlarger and the faucet. The water from the hose splashes into the basin like a miniature waterfall. Usually she can lose herself here in the darkroom and forget the chaos in her life. She wants it to erase the grimy way the cabdriver made her feel. The phone rings outside the darkroom, but she doesn't interrupt what she's doing. When she prints, there is a magical feeling, a rush that comes watching the image emerge onto the paper. Photography is like writing a poem with light. She is never certain of what she caught or even what she saw or felt with the camera until the image is developed. Often there's a vast difference between what the mind sees and what the eye, the final arbiter, sees.

Norma holds the tongs, dipping the photo paper in the three chemical trays. She always dips a few extra times in the fix, for good measure, the way Arnold, her father, used to, in his garage darkroom. Her father, a retired army major, was an amateur photographer when she was growing up. He gave her an Instamatic camera for her fifth birthday, shortly before he left to serve a tour of duty in Vietnam. She remembers it was the gift she treasured most that day. She developed her own interest in photography, she now thinks, to become closer to him. That first camera still sits on one of the shelves in the darkroom, next to the chemical chart, along with her first photograph. A picture so shaky and blurred only she can tell it's her teddy bear from years ago.

Two and a half hours later she has printed the photograph she took of Moxie's father's hands, knuckles swollen and knotted by arthritis, as they lay in his lap. In the black-and-white photo you can't see him or the chair he sits in, just the tip of his knees and those hands.

Somewhere along the way, in printing the photo of Pa Dillard's hands, she has made a small mistake, but she's not sure what. Maybe when the image was exposed through the enlarger. There is a haze around the hands as if they're lying on a bed of clouds. She finds the end result stunning, but has no idea how to recreate it. When she was in art school, her photography instructor encouraged students to experiment with chemicals in order to stumble upon varied and often captivating results.

Satisfied with the printing and not as frazzled as when she began, she covers the chemical trays and pins the wet prints on a wire line that runs across the corner wall of the studio. Afterward she sits at her desk and dials Moxie's work number again. "Ms. Dillard is in with a client," the receptionist says. Norma wonders if it was Moxie who called earlier and leaves a message on Moxie's home answering machine: "Let's get together ASAP -- I have something to tell you. Call me."

There, she has launched the confession.

Thursday, Dec. 31, 1998

Tommy jeans

cinnamon sweater

cinnamon Timberlands from Dad for Christmas

Dear Sistergirl:

I know Anne Frank did it and also that girl from Bosnia, but writing Dear Diary sounds cheesy as far as I'm concerned. My mother's best friend, Norma, gave this diary to me for Christmas. Well, she said Kwanzaa, but only because of Ma. Norma's been calling me sistergirl probably since I was a baby. Ma wanted me to call her Aunt Norma, but Norma said that made her feel too old. She told me to treat my diary like a good girlfriend who I can trust and confide in. She says it'll be therapeutic. Whatever. I'm going to write all the important stuff about my life in here. Norma is my dog because she is off the hook. She's so pretty and she's almost forty!!! Three years older than Ma. In the last year Norma has let herself get a little on the heavy side, but she can still play the diva. When I first got my period, she took me to B. Smith's in Union Station for a special dinner. I was a little embarrassed that Ma told her, but Norma said it meant I was on the verge of leaving childhood and growing into a woman and that I should feel proud and beautiful. She should be the mother of a teenager because she tells you about when she was a teenager and how she did stupid stuff and she doesn't have to say don't do it because you get the idea. Like instead of bugging me about short skirts and tight pants like Ma does, she told me this: if a boy likes you just cause of your body and not your heart and mind, then all he'll want to do is screw you (her word), not talk to you or go places with you. I get her point but I think that advice is more for people who are old and ready to get married, not teenagers trying to have fun. But she's still probably the most off-the-hook grownup I know. She also went to a predominantly white boarding school more than twenty years ago, so she understands what I go through at Willow and helps me out with that, too. When she was in school, they were real ignorant (more so than now). Somebody asked her if she could wash her color off -- be for real. When I talk to her about some of the things I go through, she always says, Damn, things haven't changed very much.

It's almost a new year. Not a great start, though. We lit the candles for Kuumba, the sixth principle, and poured our libation. Then we went to a Kwanzaa celebration. It was all right -- drumming, dancing, African everything. Last week we had Christmas dinner at Norma's parents' house with Grandpa. Christmas Eve I stayed over at Dad's. This week I did the Kwanzaa principles and all that with Ma -- tomorrow's the last night and she'll give me my gifts, finally. All I'm doing now is watching TV all night with Ma, who just fell asleep. Allegra was supposed to have this banging-ass New Year's Eve party, but she got an interim report before vacation for getting a D- on the Literature exam. Her parents shut that party idea down quick. Why don't grownups care that those kind of punishments affect more than one person? Parents shouldn't be allowed to ruin other teenagers lives, who they're not the parents of !!

Friday, Jan. 1, 1999!!!

white sweater

DKNY jeans from Fawna

black Banana Republic boots

with money from Grandpa

Dear Sistergirl:

Got my gifts from Ma this morning. They were good. I don't even have to take anything back. The necklace I showed her from that little store on Connecticut Avenue, Gap jeans, some books (of course), a Dance Theatre of Harlem calendar, and a basket with bubble bath, soap, and stuff. I didn't get her anything yet cause I don't have any money. Dad said he might take me shopping for her, though.

The last time I had a diary I was in third grade and it had a lock and everything, but my life was so unbelievably boring it doesn't count. Plus I couldn't spell for shit. I almost threw it out when I was cleaning my closet, but Allegra says if I become a famous dancer one day, my fans will want to read stuff like that. Norma says this is more like a journal because the pages don't have dates on them, so if I need to write three pages for one day I can. It has a lock and a key, but I still need to find a safe place for it.

I do plan to be a famous dancer with either Ailey or Dance Theatre of Harlem. Saw Revelations for the hundredth time (slight exaggeration) tonight at the Kennedy Center. Dad kept clapping when everyone else had stopped. Also his beeper went off -- Fawna bugging out, I guess -- embarrassing for real. I love the part when the dancers use the scarves to look like waves in the water. And there was a male dancer whose grand jetés were amazing. Judith Jamison came out at the end and took bows, and people threw her roses. Ma gave me her book a couple of years ago. Skipped some of it, but the parts I read were jive interesting. Her dance teacher looked like she was white and that's how she was able to get the building where she taught all those black kids how to dance.

I am going to try out for Dance Theatre of Harlem's summer program. Miss Snow says they'll conduct auditions at Duke Ellington in February. She says I have a lot of work to do before then if I want them to even glance in my direction. You know she's always tripping anyway.

Saturday, Jan. 2nd

Tommy jeans

red/black stretch top

black Nikes (Airforce Ones)

Dear Sistergirl:

Our recital is only five months away. Next week the dance studio opens back up. I miss it. At ballet I feel safe, like I do at Granddaddy's house. I remember once when I was ten and Dad was taking me to ballet. He told me in the car that he was going to marry Fawna and they wanted me to be in the wedding. He thought I would be happy, he said. He thought I liked her, he said. I did but not enough for him to marry her. That really blew me because I was still hoping he would marry Ma again. I stupidly hoped that I could hook them back up like in that stupid movie The Parent Trap. And I hated Tiffany even more than I do now because he was saying that she would be my sister -- like I wanted that. I ran out the car crying and feeling like I was going to throw up. But when I got inside the dance studio everything calmed down. Tchaivoksy's (how do you spell that?) Nutcracker music was playing -- "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy." Everything -- the music, the smells, the wooden bars, the rosin in the corner, even Miss Snow's big sub sandwich -- rushed at me to make me feel better. My dancing was off the hook that day cause I put all my sad thoughts into it. Miss Snow gave me one of her fake compliments, and no one even knew I had been crying. I didn't feel sad again until I got back home.

At ballet no one stares at me and asks me whether I wash my braids when I take a shower. And nobody's playa-hatin cause I go to private school, like some of the kids in my neighborhood who go to public school. Most of the girls at ballet go to private school, too, or at least the better public schools. Allegra is my best friend at school. At ballet, I guess it's Zora. We think it's cute that we both have four-letter names that begin with Z.

At the end of the month Miss Snow will have the Swan Lake auditions. I'm trying out for the role of Odette/Odile (the good/bad swan). I want this part soooo bad. Ma says it's racist that the bad swan wears a black tutu but she won't say that to Miss Snow. All the parents are scared of Miss Snow cause they know she'll play them like a deck of cards. And anyway Ma thinks everything is racist.

Todd already knows he has the part of Prince Siegfried because he's so obviously the best of the boy dancers. I wish some of the white girls at school could see Todd, since they call black guys sexy who aren't even that cute. In the second pas de deux I do a pirouette away from him (if I get the part) and then pas de bourrée back into his arms. There's also a part where I have to lean back against his chest. When we practice we're close enough to kiss sometimes, and I just wish that once, he would. Maybe if Miss Snow was blind. Allegra and I are on the lookout for the ones we're going to get off the V train with. Todd, maybe?!

Copyright © 2000 by Patricia Elam

About The Author

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Product Details

  • Publisher: Washington Square Press (January 1, 2002)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780671028435

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Raves and Reviews

New York Post Provocative....Her characters feel than the suburban fantasy women found in the Waiting to Exhale genre of books that currently crowd bookstore shelves

Bay State Banner (MA) An auspicious debut....Elam has the gift of good storytelling down and delivers a blast of a first novel.

Washingtonian Magazine Online Breathing Room is a moving story of relationships and what destroys and saves them.

Kirkus Reviews The reality of contemporary middle-class African-American life [is] scrutinized with a certain insight and sometimes painful honesty.

Matthew Klam author of Sam the Cat Patricia Elam, with grace, shares the hurricane forces tearing through two women's lives in this quietly merciful, grueling debut novel. Breathing Room had me riveted from the Þrst page. I cried at the end, exhausted.

New York Times bestselling author E. Lynn Harris This wonderful novel is emotionally rich and painfully powerful. It lovingly conveys the amazing elements that hold women's friendships together.

Washington Post Elam is a warm, engaging writer who draws the reader into the lives of a group of women so skillfully that they become real.

Detroit Free Press Elam masterfully captures the joy and pain that comes from living and loving.

Washington Times ...has success written all over it.

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