A History of Suffocation

by Dylan McNulty-Holmes

The first time I hear about Blue, it’s on the news. There are interviews with survivors—mostly their silhouettes, filling anonymous rooms with their stories. One woman appears on national breakfast TV, baring her shiny tear-strewn face for all to see. She tells the sympathetically frowning hosts how she woke up in an alleyway and just knew. She talks about herself like she’s a foregone conclusion. No boyfriends for her after this, no intimacy, never.
      It gets mentioned in some classrooms after that. Girls from other schools say they’ve been advised to put their thumbs over bottle tops at parties. Some even get given confetti-thin tabs of paper to test if Blue has been dumped in their drinks. None of this at our school though. They’re far too busy preaching to us about the dangers of becoming mules, dealers, addicts. It doesn’t even occur to them that we might take something without meaning to.
      They forgot though, didn’t they—that girls are girls, no matter where they emerge from. So eighteen and short-skirted, in the local nightclub as I am every weekend. Cut the line and only pay for the cloakroom because the bouncers are my mate’s cousins, would rather keep us safe in here than wager our fate out on the streets. Straight off my shift at the supermarket, into the land of gliding lights and chat-up lines shouted into ringing ears. My mates have already pre-gamed with a bottle of store-brand vodka around the back—so time to catch up, make my first a double. Handing over the extra money stings, half an hour’s wages dribbled away on a tiny amount of liquid.
      Still, just the one drink. And that’s how I know to panic. One drink hasn’t hit me like that in years. That’s the last I remember before I capsize. Vision blurring blue to black. A world gone sideways, a body gone to ruin.
      Come around on a tiled floor in a great, heaving gasp. Had the good sense to get myself into a toilet cubicle before I went down, at least. Retch and choke back into consciousness. Throat is tight and throbbing, face wet with sweat. Has air always felt so heavy, so difficult to gulp?
      Stagger out the cubicle. Look in the mirror. Oh—not sweat, but blood. It dribbles from my mouth and out my nose, a slick wet muzzle. There are women at the sink but they won’t look at me, won’t engage. I’m somebody else’s problem tonight.
      God knows how, but I find my friends. They muster up all the fear and outrage my body can’t seem to find. Ushered outside, stars spat across the sky and oh, it is so good to see them. My mouth keeps making little whimpering noises, as if my body has learned something my head doesn’t know yet. My mate’s cousins are calling a cab, calling the police, finding my coat. One puts an arm around me protectively and it makes my flesh lurch and my pulse punch—please don’t touch me, please, I just need space—and am let alone.
      One of my friends squeezes my hand in the back of the cab and it feels better. Still a bit of heart-thumping panic, still my breath grows shallower, but it is tolerable. But then I look at our conjoined hands and—trick of the light, or brain falling to pieces—I see blue sparks shooting out of them, as if our veins are jumping out of our skin and wrapping around our wrists. I snap my head away and look out the window. The same houses I see every day ribbon past, lights out, all safe and accounted for.
      We go to a mate’s house because my Mam would be terrified or furious, and I don’t want to find out which. The police ask their questions, do the kit to make sure I wasn’t “interfered with.” My friend waits in the hallway but leaves the door open, and as I pull down my knickers I can see her pincering the dead skin of her fingers between her teeth, ripping off strips of it.
      The police ask if I remember anyone in particular, anything unusual. I say no—but there’s this blurry image in my mind of a man, smiling. I try to make out his features but he ripples out of focus, murks into shadow. I’m used to men looking at me, peeling off my dress with their eyes, smiles that drip with lechery. But as the officers keep talking, I keep flashing back to that smile—watch it grow wider and wider, watch the darkness bleed and shroud him.
      My friend makes the officers tea before they go, and I listen to their murmured concern as I lie sleepless. My mind is a tangle of half-formed thoughts: there is a man out there—and how much pain. My heartbeat is still racing and plunging on its own whims as I will myself to drift off. The space between waking and sleeping is filled with the smiling man—or something that resembles the smiling man, a plume of smoke or a glinting set of canines I know to be him. Shoot back into consciousness with a gasp. This is the worst it will feel, I tell myself. If you can get a sleep between you and tonight, you’ll be alright.
      I’m not entirely wrong. Wake up with fresh crusts of blood under my nostrils, but my thoughts are smoother, quieter. Over cereal my breathing goes again, choking and constricted and clutching at air, and my friend said the police warned her this might happen. Panic attacks.
      But I will not be a foregone conclusion. Make my shift that afternoon, shove toilet paper up my nose when it starts to bleed again. Nobody seems to notice the bloody wad up my nostril—and if they do, they don’t mention it. Next weekend, back at the club as ever before. I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen about what happened—and pride myself that my voice doesn’t waiver, that my pulse doesn’t change, that I can tell anyone the worst of it and brush it off like it was nothing. Once or twice I catch myself looking around, watching the lights sweep across strange men’s faces, wondering if it was him, or him. How much he thought about it before he did it. If he’s watching me still. But then I drink harder, dance harder, and carry on.
      I’m off at uni, the first time I hear of people taking Blue on purpose. Makes you crazy to fuck in small doses, and that suffocating feeling apparently feels great if it’s not too intense. I hear that some friends-of-friends have gotten really into it, and I feel my brow clench, my whole body tensing up to contain a flash of inexplicable fury.
      But only a flash. It does not slow me down; I am only gaining momentum. People offer me things and I take them. Never Blue though—no hallucinogens or downers. Only up. It never seems to hit me like it hits the others—never up-all-night, guaranteed bliss. I often end up filled with fear and shame: am I too fucked up, have I drank too much water, could I drown? But I never have to sleep alone, at least. At the end of all the hearts pounding, eyes rolling, stumbling around, there are always hands, and mouths, and won’t-I-stay-the-nights, and I always do.
      Terms pass and it’s all the same faces, all the same boys trying to shepherd me to their flats in the crook of their arms and the same girls kissing me then running off to their polo- shirted boyfriends. And I want something different, something new. So I download an app, and I find Kit, 28, 4 miles away.
      A meeting is set. An actual, proper date. I find myself around the corner from the bar a good 15 minutes early, duck back into the train station, buy a packet of gum, chew three down to tasteless rubber in quick succession. Finally around the corner again—and there they are. They are beautiful in a way their photos don’t quite capture—a softness to their cheeks, a perfect smile they didn’t care to exhibit. I watch their face crack in relief and excitement. We are both young and pretty—and real.
      In the bar, my hands won’t behave themselves. They fumble with my jacket, set about folding and ripping a beer mat into strips. I feel myself being looked at, being drank in, as I check the menu. I see words in front of me, but the meanings slip away. I order a second of whatever Kit is getting. When it comes, it is smoky with whiskey and cut through with orange. I try to remember the last time I drank something with a garnish. Kit’s trying to start a bar, so technically this is market research, they say. They cradle my wrist in one hand and run their fingers over my palm. The heat they conduct within me is no surprise—but the gentleness is, the sense of weightlessness it brings to my body. I try to remember the last time I found a touch that wasn’t five shots in, ashtray mouths mashing together.
      And thank God, they’re a good kisser. Soft lips but not afraid to bite. We leave with drinks half drained. They throw a fifty down on the table and don’t wait for change. Then we’re stumbling for the door arm in arm, giddy with the thought: now we get to be each other’s, in whatever way we want it.
      Quiet in Kit’s hallway, housemates are in. Shut their door and slink against them. They are moaning against my mouth already, and I allow myself to get swept up in it, the sudden ferocity of their arousal. They are everywhere at once, it seems—kissing my neck, armpits and down, hands already picking at clothing and seizing greedy handfuls of chest and stomach, thrilled by each new sliver of skin. I lose myself in it, every scrap of me getting touched.
      Somehow I’m behind them, my lips on their shoulder and tugging their shirt off. One hand dives between their thighs and the other is around their neck—and then it’s not, could you please not, and oh, okay. I shuffle around the front again, plunge my hand back down and oh, god, yes.
      Ever so quickly, they’re a trembling mess. This is how I imagined it might be when I first thought about it: watching myself come over someone like a fog, every touch a rapture. I spare a thought for the flatmates, but only one. I wouldn’t change a second of this, of their eyes squeezed tight and mouth clasped open, their thigh muscles clenched around me, their near-howls of pleasure at how fucking good I am, how fucking good I feel.
      They pull my hand up, run it over their chest, stomach, hips. They grab my other hand and run it all themselves too, and I’m not sure what this is but their moans are getting even louder so fuck it, keep going. They pull my whole body up against them and grind, thrust, and they’ve stopped moaning but are still clenched fast, whispering… don’t stop Maggie, don’t stop, oh god… and with a final gasp, everything seizes, unclenches.
      There’s a heart hammering against my chest. Mine or theirs I cannot tell, and we’re both breathing like we’ve just been hauled over the side of a rescue boat. I go in for a kiss, but only get a quick peck in return. Still, they run their fingers over my shoulder blades, and tell me they haven’t been fucked like that in a while. I tell them I haven’t fucked anyone like that in a while—and I mean ever.
      I go to rest my head on their chest, but they roll me off, then get on top of me, then stroke my hair, kiss my forearm. I laugh and ask if they’re always this fidgety after sex. Kit says maybe, they guess. The Blue hasn’t worn off yet, so they can’t stay still for long.
      In a steady voice, I say, “Blue?”
      “Yeah, did you not know?” they smirk, baring their teeth. “I’ve been so fucking high since we left the bar, I thought it must’ve been obvious.”
      “It wasn’t.”
      “Okay,” they say. They have the good sense to roll off me. “Are you okay? I mean, is it okay I’m a bit high right now? You’re cool with that?”
      “I guess.” My heart is beating hard against my chest, but I was already out of breath, wasn’t I? “You probably should’ve told me.”
      “Yeah, you’re right,” Kit says, rubbing their face a little wearily. “I will next time. Wait a minute though—” they lower their face, plant a soft kiss on my mouth. “Yeah, it’s wearing off a bit—I reckon I could go down on you now without freaking out. That is, if you want me to?”
      And I do. And they do, and they do it so well. And they’re right, there is a next time—and a time after that, several months of sporadic it’s-been-a-whiles and you-free-tonights. I only find them at the frayed ends of evening, leave before the light finds us; they have a primary partner, Dagmar, who doesn’t love sleepovers. Kit drops this detail at the end of the third date, a little late for my liking. They’re not high every time I come around. Those first few times when they don’t take Blue, I am shocked to find I miss it. I find myself craving that uninhibited heat, how tactile it makes them, how any touch I care to give them devastates under that thrall.
      But it’s not just the Blue. Before this, I was always just some girl, lying underneath some guy; hands-mouths-dick, rinse repeat, out in the morning, I’ll call you sometime. Here, I am anything. I am a storm, my every kiss, slap, and scratch a flash flood; I am a detonation, my jaw viced tight in their hand whilst I erupt.
      In between the biting and touching and mutual devastation, we talk. They like to hear the details of my days—what courses I’m taking, who I’m going on nights out with. They also like to interrupt mid-sentence, braiding my stories with their own memories of being freshly adult and perpetually half-drunk. I find myself resisting the urge to continue talking; to charge forward louder and more determined, refusing to be trampled. There’s something about Kit’s scattered, wide-eyed attention that makes me want to make space for them. I find myself saying: no, please, go on.
      And they do, injecting my stories with stolen fireworks and trespassing in castles and friends’ exes seduced in theatre bathrooms. They have more group sex stories than I have sex stories of any kind, possibilities seemingly unfurling for them at the end of every night. I want to be there with them—to stampede out of their bedroom and into their Technicolor life. I drop hints, saying how amazing their friends sound, how much I’d love to go to that club. But nothing quite gets through.
      I wonder if it’s because I’m less experienced than they are—to be expected, really, they have a good seven years on me. I close the gap by embellishing a little. I start five different sentences with “I had a lover once, who…,” each one about the same person. But it’s not just that their body count is higher than mine, though. They seem well versed in what they want, and how to get it—and I don’t realise until I hear this certainty in their voice that I don’t have a clue, not really.
      But I am determined to learn. Eventually the golden ticket arrives. Kit tells me a few of their friends are getting together this weekend to get high, fool around, and maybe I’d like to join? I would.
      Dagmar’s going to be there. Is that okay? Sure.
      When they say high, they mean Blue. Of course they do. I assumed this was the secret to all of the stories stripped of inhibition.
      And that’s okay? I say yes before thinking, and then try not to think. Later, I reason with myself: it feels like it’s been several lifetimes since it left me choking on that bathroom floor. I’ve seen what it does to Kit, ridding them of everything that isn’t pure pleasure. If I want to know that pleasure, to know their world, this is what I have to do.
      I’m not sure what I expected, but it isn’t this: four friends milling around a kitchen, sipping wine and taking turns to stir an enormous pot of something that sweetens the air with its salty green scent. I’m glad for the food, glad for something to do once introductions are out of the way. I put my frantic hands to work drying up plates and topping up glasses. The wine is white, sharp but not sour, much nicer than I’d ever buy for myself. The conversation is gentle, but laced with in-jokes I smile my way through.
      One girl arrives after me, already half-drunk. I watch her orbit the room, enfolding everyone in off-balance embraces, smacking Kit on the ass by way of hello. Dagmar, I presume. Everyone else laughs at her mischief, accepts her sloppy kisses with beaming smiles. I wonder how much of their tolerance is because she’s plainly beautiful, with her slicked back hair and leather jacket so well-cut it reeks of money.
      The six of us crowd around a table meant for four. Two of Kit’s friends—one with crispy magenta hair in a high ponytail, the other with a number two all over and bleach rinsed through what remains—sit on the corners, thighs spread wide to accommodate table legs. People ask me questions about who I am and where Kit found me. Perfunctory words fall out of my mouth. I can’t think of anything to ask in return. I gulp wine to give my treacherous mouth something to do. It goes down too easy, slacking my thoughts and movements. I notice Bleach looking at me.
      “Have you ever used Blue while you’re drunk?” they ask.
      “It’s… not great,” they reply, “So you might want to slow down there.”
      I put my glass down, vow not to touch it again. I look at Kit, being pawed at by Dagmar across the table. If they’ve noticed that I’m wilting, they’re not letting on. They don’t seem to have noticed me at all.
      The plates are cleared. Bleach produces a tincture dropper, fills six water glasses. To my surprise: Blue is actually gold. The shimmering oil of it fans out in the water, disappears.
      The conversation at the table is barely ruffled as the glasses are handed out, their contents necked. Bleach has vacated the chair next to Kit. I slip into it. Take my glass. Tilt my head back. I pull back, just for one moment, right on the breach—but then I swallow, swallow, swallow.
      Kit takes my wrist in one hand, massages my palm with the other. “I’m so glad you came,” they say.
      How will I know when the Blue has worked its magic? I notice heat rising to my cheeks, small sharpenings and softenings of vision, sudden spikes of glee. Is this it? Is that it? Is it finally happening?
      I look at Dagmar, looking at Kit. There’s a glassy, drooping quality to her gaze—like the way Kit looks at me, when they’re in the thick of it. She reaches out—for us, for our conjoined hands. Peels us apart, places Kit’s hands on her, moaning deeply. She clumsily slinks into their lap. Runs her hands through their hair, over their neck and shoulders.
      I reach for them—but something catches my eye. Thread. Blue thread. It creeps across Dagmar and Kit like vines, dances with their movements.
      “Does everyone else see that?” I ask.
      “Yeah,” says Bleach, “You’re meant to see it.” They turn to Magenta, run their fingers across her chest. A blue thread appears out of Bleach’s fingertips, splaying across Magenta’s clavicle. They both gasp with delight.
      “Do you get it now?” the sixth member of the congregation asks. She has been quieter even than me. I look at her properly for the first time, at her black crew cut and round cheeks. “Just make sure to keep your neck and mouth clear. And your eyes, if you’re not into that.”
      Then the skin of my shoulder becomes sunlight, becomes liquid gold. It is floating in a pool; it is silken, it is crushed velvet; it is warm as fresh laundry. I look down and see Six’s hand on my shoulder, rapidly disappearing under a spool of blue thread. Magenta reaches her hand out to me. I take it—and then I’m twelve years old again, and the boy with the dimples is taking my hand on the back of the bus, putting our clasped palms in his pocket for warmth, and there’s that feeling of belonging, of relief. Bleach snakes their hand along my back, and I am kissing a girl for the first time—I don’t remember her name but I remember her small, soft mouth, how the brick wall stippled my shoulder blades as she pressed me against it. My body is a museum of stashed-away joys.
      We’re tumbling to the ground. There are hands all over me, tugging at my clothes. Magenta’s fingernails leave red strips down my torso. I shudder, and I tremble. I can barely catch my breath.
      My trousers are around my ankles and there’s a palm between my thighs. It makes Six moan as loud as I do. This pleasure is sharp—so intense that it makes me want to squirm away. But my body has other ideas. It bucks against that hand, pressing as hard as it can. I moan, high and shrill, tacky-pornographic. I press my hand over my mouth to cut off these stupid noises—but the thread darts toward me, tiny eels of blue lashing at my face. I pull my hand away, noises of fear bleeding back into lust.
      My desire is its own beast now. It’s coming out of me, but it isn’t mine. I try to find myself within my body. Where am I hiding? Curled up small somewhere behind my eyes, which are staring at the ceiling, boring into the naked wire between the bulb and the plaster.
      I need to take it back—this body, my body. I need to find a pleasure I can hold on to. I look at the tangle of Kit and Dagmar. Is there something hot about watching the person you’re half-infatuated with get fucked? Yes, there is—something humiliating, but something pleasurable. It helps, this shame—helps me feel my way back through my body, like a hand wriggling into a glove.
      But Kit sees me looking, and now Kit is smiling at me, revealing yellowing canines, lycanthropic, and no, love, you don’t understand, this is not how I wanted you to see me, not who I wanted to be. But my mouth is staging a mutiny, filling the air with moans. If it remembers how to form words it’s not giving up that knowledge, not to me, not now.
      I try to push Six off me—but my hands against her chest make her moan louder, burrow in harder. She crashes back over me, and I groan with it, the weight of her. And maybe this body isn’t my body at all—maybe it’s hers, theirs, Blue’s, always bound to be put to someone else’s use.
      I try again. My moans morph into a yell as I push her off. The thread begins to unravel—and oh god, I can breathe. Six wants to know if I’m okay, reaching a hand for my shoulder but DON’T FUCKING TOUCH ME. Who knew I had it in me? This primal noise, this blood-curdling will to be left the fuck alone? I want to inflict it on someone, but survival instincts kick in and I think: bathroom.
      My hands skim the wall until plaster gives way to doorway gives way to tile. Lock the door. Slide down the wall. There’s a lurching feeling crawling under my skin, a pressure building and constricting my throat. I try to inhale—two, three, four, in through the nose and out through the mouth—but my breath sails away from me, my chest heaves. I remember this, remember the ragged gasping and the desperately clawing for life. But I did it to myself this time, no shadowy figure to blame for my ruin.
      Breath scrapes down my throat. There’s a thumping in my ears. The thumping becomes knocking becomes Maggie, Maggie, are you okay, come out. The shame of it hits me. What they must think of you. Lightweight. Everyone’s good night wasted, banging on a locked door—for you, a clot of misery. Slumped on yet another bathroom floor.
      I have to get up. I have to stand up, make my excuses and fuck off. Never see these people again. Any of them.
      I look for myself. I’m back there again, behind my eyes, staring at stray hairs and dust clumps and nail clippings strewn across the tiles. I feel my eyes grow hot with it, the recognition of myself—and what I feel like is fear and pain, and what I sound like is whimpering as I cry, saltwater trailing down my face, reclaiming myself all over myself.
      It feels good, to have capsized. Still, I try to stifle my sobs, pride kicking in and not wanting whoever is on the other side of the door to hear my undoing. I suck in the noise until my chest stops heaving, until my temples throb with the effort. Afterwards, the world is quieter. I feel a little foolish; I am acutely aware of how grubby this floor is. I brace myself against the wall as I reassemble myself. I dry my face on a towel that smells of damp. Unlock the door, leave.
      Whoever came to check on me gave up a while ago. My body briefly flinches towards the front door, tempted to bolt. But I can gather my things and say my goodbyes. There’s enough strength in me for that, at least.
      Lamplight and looming dawn have left the room muted and rosy. Six, Magenta, and Bleach are clumped together on the sofa. I can still see the thread dancing between them, but it’s softer now. The strands are fine and frayed, grazing their skin but not quite sticking, like early snowfall.
      I’m greeted by a chorus of heys, and are-you-okays. I tell them I’m fine now. They make space for me in the folds of their bodies, tell me they aren’t surprised. Magenta says the first time she did Blue, she got stuck to the bed of the guy who’d taken her home, was convinced she was paralyzed. Everyone winces, murmurs yes, I know the feeling, I’ve been there too.
      I ask: why would you do it again, after all that?
      Magenta raises her eyebrows. You know why.
      And with her arm around me, the thread lapping at my shoulder, its touch like a gentle kiss at the exact right place on my neck: maybe I do.
      We discuss what album to put on next, but nobody moves to change the music. Remark how dry our mouths are, but do not go to fetch water. I contemplate being the one to go, to fulfill these requests. But I just sink further into their overlapping embraces.
      Eventually I remember: Kit and Dagmar. Through the mess of table legs and chairs, I see a mass of blue, a length of bulging segments, like a tardigrade. It pulses, as though alive with a ferocious heartbeat, but otherwise does not move.
      Don’t worry, the others tell me. They always overdo it. They’ll be fine.
      A hand bursts out of the tardigrade. Then another hand, a head, a torso, crawling for freedom. It is Dagmar, her once-slick hair now jagged with sweat and disarray. The thread recedes and reveals Kit, naked on their back, panting. Dagmar’s breathing is more serrated. She tries to kiss Kit on the mouth. They swat her away. But she will not be discouraged. She’s still on them—kissing their chest, hips, legs, moaning like a feral and starving thing. The thread gathers again, looping around her head, binding her.
      Knock that off babe, come over here—
      But she carries on, the thread masking her, choking her. Kit tries to push her off, but they’re also moaning and writhing, relishing her kiss in spite of themself.
      The thread covers the top of her head. Her movements slacken, stop.
      Dagmar! The rest moan. But it’s me. It’s me that’s suddenly on my feet, running to her, trying to pull her off. She is deadweight, but I manage to push her, to roll her over. Thank you, Kit pants—but I do not look at them. Dagmar sputters back to consciousness. I try to touch her, but she swats my hand away, making loud gulping sounds. I remember there will probably be blood before it arrives, so I’m not scared when the clots of red appear under her nostrils.
      I run to get tissue. When I come back, the rest of our congregation is looming over her. Her face is red with smears of blood and exertion. Between gasping sobs, she cries, don’t touch me, please, don’t touch me.
      I sit by her head. She sees me and flinches—don’t touch. I won’t, I say. I promise. I reel off half the roll of toilet paper, wrapping it around my hand until it’s fully mummified. Only then do I touch her face, begin wiping away the trails of tears and crusts of blood. Shush, I find myself saying. Tilt your head back, I add. Occasional blue threads try to burst forth from her cheek, from my hand, but my bindings are thick enough to hold.
      We stay there, all of us, until our shoulders begin to ache and our knees throb against the floor. Dagmar begins to cry again—not in wrenching sobs, just quiet, resigned trembling. I chance a clasp of her hand. She doesn’t choke. A few fine threads gently encircle our fingers.
      We get her to her feet, and then to a bed. Dawn’s at the windows now, recoloring the world. Seeing her lie down, seeing the others place the covers over her and watch her eyes gently shut, I’m suddenly aware of exhaustion aching in my own muscles, how fogged with drowsiness I am. The others move back towards the living room, but I want to rest. I ask Dagmar and she says yes, come. My head throbs against the pillow. Dagmar tentatively turns, curls against me—and when it is safe, when the threads do not take us, she throws an arm over me, rests her head on my chest. It is the last thing I see before sleep claims me: the tangle of her hair, rising and falling as I breathe.

Dylan McNulty-Holmes is a writer and editor based in Berlin. Their previous credits include placing  their poetry in Anomaly, their non-fiction in DADDY Magazine, and being a featured monthly fiction  contributor for Visual Verse.