[Image: Guillermo Kuitca, Sin título]
The yawn began several minutes before sundown. He’d returned from work and just finished circling the block around his apartment the exact amount of times it takes to find a good parking spot. And, though it was a strong one, opening his jaws about as wide as they were built to open, he didn’t think much else of it at first. Simply let the yawn build once and then again to its second and usually most dramatic crescendo, raised a hand to his mouth, and had a quick bout of fun modulating his breath through his fingers in loud mawps. He’d in fact been known to his family, friends, and some acquaintances to yawn in this way. In his little muted trumpet noises.
But when his standard yawning time had elapsed, and he lowered his hand to his lap, he found that the yawn was continuing without him. His lungs still pulled fresh. His mouth wouldn’t close. His shoulders remained up, tightened about his ears. Was he aware that these things can sometimes happen? It was hard to tell. Quickly, though, he realized, he would need to decide how concerned it was necessary to be.
At first, he thought he’d simply wait it out. A yawn was a perfectly natural thing to occur, and at this time of day especially. Though, aren’t the criteria for fulfilling the purpose of a yawn still somewhat up for debate? A lack of oxygen? He breathed all the time. Though, also, he had had a very long day at work, and maybe missed a few breaths when he wasn’t paying close enough attention. Maybe the rate at which he breathed was not as frequent as generally recommended. He tried to get up from his desk and go on short walks, too, eat some salads every now and then, is he not as consistent about those things as he should be either? A body is an entirely unclear convergence of systems.
He leaned back in the seat of his car and really let the yawn have at it, not knowing how oxygen deficient he might have truly been. He may have badly needed this. He puffed his chest and closed his eyes so tight that they watered, and the yawn tears ran quickly down his chin onto his sweater, into dots which he skimmed at with both thumbnails. Personally, by that point, he felt very satisfied with the duration of the yawn. His lungs were full of the cold kind of air that seeps in through the linings of parked car doors every night, which most people don’t stay around long enough to experience. It smelt like fainter, sharper mildew. And he felt alert and awake and alive within it. The yawn, though, disagreed, apparently, and persisted through the gradually returning slump of his posture.
About two hours later, he began to grow annoyed again. He’d tried to get some work done through the endless yawn, doing his best to answer emails on his phone while teary eyed and peering over the two raised humps of his cheeks that were soon growing numb within his field of vision. He read the news and watched several videos of distressed animals being hoisted out of back-country pits before stopping when his battery fell to about 50%, which was his superstitious cutoff for any kind of vigorous phone activity. Just this battery usage was evidence though; other natural processes and cycles were continuing on in perfect sequence around him. Why, then, the yawn? Why the quickly drying corners of his lips and cramping tongue? In frustration he reached for the car door handle but found his arm almost immediately overtaken by a spasmic reflex, returning in a fist up to cover at his open mouth again. In fact, almost any deviation from his resting body state and it was as if the entire process of the yawn restarted, sending him through every original motion and noise as if no time at all had elapsed. As if the yawn had achieved nothing. No progress at all. So, try as he might, he could not leave the car under his own power. Something else would need to be accomplished first. He hoped. If not, did he have the kind of temporal expertise to recognize if he was indeed trapped within some kind of consequential loop?
He supposed not.
He sunk back into his seat again.
From all observation, this no longer seemed like a problem that would solve itself.
An email came through on his phone from his boss, answering his question about a special use case shipping procedure and then gently castigating him for sending emails so late after close.
“Put the phone away and eat something,” she wrote, “and don’t worry about any of this until you have to.”
He worked in the corporate offices of a major garden supply chain. And he’d been there for six years, far longer than he’d ever anticipated. In that place, they engaged with his many concerns. In that place, they treated him right.
Never before had he considered whether or not he was capable of falling asleep while yawning. Never before had he had to. But at around 3:30 that morning, when he awoke with a start in his car to find that the yawn had strained down hard through his neck tendons, and that the back of his throat had been dried to a whistle, he supposed that he may as well be impressed by this newfound ability. Though, who could he show it off to? He’d dreamt briefly, about the city, or a compressed version of it that only consisted of the places he’d been to personally, straightened into a single long corridor and walled off high with brick. He danced familiarly from spot to spot, from park to apartment to bar; it was a dream he’d often had. However, what he’d wished he’d dreamt of would have been much more interesting and helpful. It would have been about his body, from the inside out, scavenging through himself with a rock pick and a headlamp in search of the place that he must have been pierced. Since that’s what the yawn now felt like to him, that he’d been pierced through somewhere deep in his abdomen and air was escaping like a breach of a hull in a movie about spaceship disasters. Where could all that air be going to? If only he had dreamt of that, so at least he’d have the beginnings of some answers.
Probably twenty minutes passed before he realized that a man had been staring at him from under the small gum tree at the curb. With what little light there was from the windows of nearby apartment buildings, he had only noticed when a wind ruffled the man’s jacket. And this man’s mouth was pried casually open too, though likely for any number of unrelated reasons. Nevertheless, as this man now held his eye contact, there was a certain brotherhood. The yawn had so exposed the insides of his mouth by now that his teeth had started hurting and this man on the curb looked to already be missing a few teeth of his own. Their eyes searched within one another, but to what end? To share how speaking aloud had never done either of them a single bit of good? That pain is pain no matter where it’s traveled up from, and it could all end up looking the same to people anyway? So distracted by his physical discomfort, he quickly ran out of guesses to project. And when the yawn tears came again they collected this time into his mouth, into his open bottom lip, and relieved some of the dry stinging there, momentarily.
How about that? he thought.
And, exposed now to the yawn, his dripping sinus echoed with the passing air. He was to be cursed as well, it seemed, with a waking snore.
He continued to make eyes at the man on the curb for some time after that, mouth agape, both mouths agape, until the man at the curb moved on with his several backpacks full of things further up the street. It would be daytime soon, and he probably had somewhere more convenient for himself to be.
Long into mid-morning, when he was finally sure that she’d be awake, he texted the woman he’d been seeing for help. And, about one and a half messages in, he found that he didn’t know exactly how to convey the severity of what was happening to him.
“I’ve been yawning”
“I’ve been yawning way more than is normal, way too much”
With this woman it had been, what, four, five months? What was he expecting her to owe him in a crisis? Did he expect any strong acquaintance to owe him anything?
“Stay up all night or something?”
“No, I got a couple hours sleep. Woke up yawning still, still am now”
By this time even the muscles in his chest were strained, with the way his chin and neck were pulling. When a bee or some insect or other flew past the car he instinctively tried to snap his jaw shut, but only succeeded in splitting the middle of his chapped bottom lip, scrunching the corners of his eyes hard enough that they wouldn’t open up at first, and squeezing his ribs into his bladder in a way that reminded him he’d needed to pee for several hours.
“I don’t know what to tell you then”
“I know, I’m sorry”
“Ha, for what?”
“We’ll see, I guess”
While practicing how he might phrase it, he realized that if he tried to call someone proper for help, a doctor, say, that he would be lucky to get even a single word out to them. The thought now crossed his mind that maybe his body was simply changing, adapting to a state of perpetual yawnhood. And that once the blood and strain and spasms had all abated he would arrive back to a place of rest and ease. Relatively, at least. Relative to not yawning through every basic interaction. Relative to not having to intone explanations to cashiers sub-verbally from the back of his open throat, which he could imagine taking some real time and effort to perfect.
With the onset of the second night he’d lost a lot of hope. He’d slumped across the center console using the momentum of the yawn via the tightest back part of his neck and then yes he’d peed himself as soon as he hit the arm rest. His phone long dead, he took to staring up out of the window from this odd fallen angle that was left to him, an angle where the only people passing by that he could see were ones wanting to confirm if he was a corpse or not. And when he was not, when he was just him, open mouthed, pleading noises and blinking any kind of signals that he thought he should come up with, they mostly clutched their chests and hustled onwards.
He could have been in a state of evolution for all he knew, or in imminent danger of collapsing into a pocket universe, and here he could not even achieve the attention of a single jogging mom or texting dogwalker. He wished that he was not so unimpressive to people.
The growing strain of the yawn soon crumpled his entire body, to the point where every joint had locked up and he was helplessly inhaling the fast food dust that ringed the lip of the cupholders. He felt as if he was being indented into by every piece of the car, being form fitted to the front console. Shaped into whatever shape would have him.
Though he did not stop trying to get some meaning, some benefit out of the situation. Who else had this happened to, after all? No one he could think of. No one certainly that anyone he knew had ever heard of. Elsewise he’d have heard about it too, that’s a simple property of mathematics. No, he’d been brought low here, yes, but with the rarest of conditions. Just think, to be known for something as new and as rare as this.
Not long after noon on the third day there was a knock at the driver’s side window and he looked up to find that a crowd had gathered, large enough to blot out the daylight with their peering, pressed-in faces. They had a lot of questions for him. Was he from around this way? Did he have a next of kin? They offered up literal expressions of pity, sculpturally posing against one another and talking about how much of a shame it was that someone so young had to endure such an intake. And he wanted to ask if they had any additional details about a condition like this, as it seemed like they might, from the casual way that they discussed it with each other. But no words came out of him at all, and the yawn, to its credit, did not so much as change its pitch.
Eventually attention turned to a teenage boy who had been kneeling on the hood of the car since they arrived, after he cleared his throat for several minutes and said that he had a story to tell. He said that whenever he visited his grandmother he slept on the living room couch, and that once, when he was very young, he remembered waking up in the middle of the night to find her beside the front door, holding a windowshade open very primly with her forefinger and thumb and peering out at something on the street below. And then, maybe hearing him rustle beneath the old mothy blanket, she turned directly towards him and yawned for a very long time. He remembered very clearly the way the orange light from outside rose and dipped like an ocean current with her shoulders.
The crowd murmured to hear it described in this way.
The boy continued, pleased with himself. What happened was that he distinctly remembered blinking once, maybe twice, before his grandmother was gone. Instantaneously it was morning, and he was once again alone in the living room, and for a long stretch of time, 30, maybe 45 minutes, he did not realize what had happened and worried that she’d yawned herself completely out of existence. That she’d caught her polite hand in the path of the suction or something and swallowed it whole, the rest of her body crumpling up into itself to follow until there was nothing left. He remembered crying until he heard the sound of a spoon clinking into a coffee mug, and then ran into the kitchen to find her sitting there in her usual nightie, newspaper open to the comics page like always.
The boy stopped there, having gone a little past where he meant to in the story, embarrassing himself by admitting that he’d cried. But no one questioned him about it.
So he said, “And that’s what this guy reminded me of. But my grandmother, she’s right here with us today, everybody.”
Because of his low angle, the man could only see her hand raise up and wave from a little bit back in the crowd, but everyone began to applaud and smile back down towards him, half-looking, delighted, and satisfied.
Not very long afterwards, a woman approached the passenger-side window with a potted chrysanthemum and mouthed the words, “I brought you this,” to him. She set it high on the hood of the car and a couple hands tugged at the teenage boy until he slid out of the way, and then out of view. A few other hands touched the woman gently on her back and shoulders, and she smiled, touching at those hands with her own.
This seemed to be the trigger. Apparently everyone had brought a gift, or an offering, and soon the hood of his car was piled high with stuffed animals, quilted handkerchiefs, fruits and unshucked corn and sweat stained baseball hats. People hung necklaces over the side mirrors and one family brought tiny rolled up notes that they pressed down into the rubber lining of the windows. They leaned their foreheads close and waved to the man, who held eye contact with them until his yawn caused them to yawn themselves in sympathy and, panicked then, they ran away. He did not wish to look at people anymore. Not that there was much space left to see them through the windows anyway. Being left again in isolation, the man could only listen now to the thump of the heavier gifts being placed on the top of his car, the way his old suspension strained with every addition and the diminishing mute of the voices just outside. He realized that the way the yawn pressed at the inside of his ears was gradually roaring them deaf now. If it wasn’t one thing, then it was certainly another. In this state, though, what did they expect him to do with all these gifts? Journey somewhere, he supposed, inevitably. But he did not feel very prepared or excited to go. Admittedly, the only thing much left to his control was his blinking, and he found himself growing more and more suspicious of that particular function as well.
Jon Chaiim McConnell lives in LA. His work has appeared in Blackbird, Yemassee, and Moon City Review, among others.