“Breathing For Two” started, perhaps unsurprisingly, with the ducks.
I went with a friend to visit her old high school, tagging along as she greeted teachers and staff. After popping in and out of classrooms, we ended up in the school bookstore, where students could buy supplies, snacks, or gear. As soon as I walked in, I was struck by the hundreds of rubber ducks lining the walls, shelves, and ceiling beams.
I walked around admiring the ducks as my friend chatted with the woman who ran the bookstore, then I interjected to compliment her on the collection. She thanked me, and my friend explained to me that she’d been collecting the ducks for years—but then the woman looked at my friend and said, “Actually, I have to be honest. I don’t even like them.”
This planted the seed for Dana. I’ve always been fascinated by collections, and at various points in my life I’ve tried to start ones myself. But I could never generate much excitement over the individual objects; I was only doing it to be a person who collected something. I was intrigued by the idea of collection happening to someone.
This story called for a complementary character, someone Dana was in a unique position to understand, and that led to Hal. They would only briefly pass into each other’s lives. Patrick, the son, was the anchoring presence between them, but that wasn’t the relationship that interested me. We had to see Hal through the eyes of someone who didn’t need him to be reformed—someone who, in fact, was sure that he wasn’t.
This story also raised a question of craft that was actually mirrored in the actions of the characters: why and when do we withhold information? In an earlier draft, I front-loaded much of the pertinent background (the story behind the ducks, Hal’s kleptomania, Dana’s family situation) so that readers had all the information they needed off the bat. During the editorial process, we realized that there was value in sitting in some amount of mystery, and waiting to divulge certain explanations. That conversation made me think more deeply about the ways in which the characters themselves were making similar decisions (thought in different contexts and with different goals, of course). At the heart of the piece is Dana’s decision not to tell Patrick that Hal was stealing again—an act of sheltering. But there’s other withholding happening: Judyta doesn’t tell Dana she’s planning on inviting Hal over to tune the piano, Caroline doesn’t tell Dana when she goes into labor, and Dana doesn’t tell her students she doesn’t want the ducks. Pieces of knowledge are in their own way collectable, and there’s power in how we then choose to distribute that knowledge, in writing and in our lives.
I wanted to write about things, and their inevitable accumulation in our lives—not through materialism, but something more innocuous and human. Structurally, I wanted the composition of the story to reflect the eclecticness of a collection. I decided to include essential and inessential scenes, essential and inessential facts, even essential and inessential characters. Hopefully, together, that assortment of moments are more than the sum of their parts.
ALLISON LIGHT is an audiobook producer, writer, performer, and Spanish-to-English translator living in New York City. She studied creative writing at Princeton University, and is currently enrolled as a lyricist in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. She is originally from Little Rock, Arkansas, and this is her first literary publication.