I like children—fried. —W.C. Fields
I take glimpses of her over my book reading; she’s a beautiful little thing. The palest of blond hair, bluest of eyes, fair skinned. She is before me, just across the way standing in between her mother’s legs, crunching on Cape Cod potato chips with less than perfect execution, savoring what makes it into her mouth. She babbles, a form of self-engagement, and randomly attempts to feed “Kit-Tee,” a wide-eyed cat peering out from a crate on the floor.
This toddler is so innocent, playful and full of wonder; it makes me almost regret not having children of my own.
She’s got the floor, little Zoe, women of all ages watch her, their heads at a slight tilt with faces expressive of maternal yearning, remembrances, perhaps; regret like my own.
She continues to feed with glistening fingers; crumbs dot her cheeks and shower to the floor. I begin to wonder why her thirty-something fit-looking mother and father are giving her junk food. They’re creating an unhealthy palate and a rhythmic type of oral self-indulgence, a lifelong craving for something crunchy and salty.
I surmise, too, that she’s recently graduated from mushy textures to adult food.
Dennis is beside me. I elbow him and say out of the side of my mouth, “If that kid were mine, I’d give her cheese and fruit to eat, not delicious-tasting crap food.”
He continues to gaze into his laptop, eyeballs the kid for a nanosecond and nods.
Pretending to pick up on my engrossment in David Byrne’s elaborate depiction of his artistic roots and cultural influences in making music, I think of the other things I’d feed Zoe: Greek yogurt, kale crisps (much softer than potato chips), non-GMO whole grain crackers. Organically grown vegetarian type stuff and dairy products that come from animals that are pat on the head while one reaps their edible output.
My stream of thinking—visually going through the mechanics of milking Daisy in a green meadow—is interrupted, midstream. Zoe begins to choke. Bad.
My thoughts did it, I should have known better. Thoughts are energy and quite often manifest into reality, especially in this case where they’re projected at such a pitifully close range.
I peer over my book. She’s there with one hand on her mother’s knee, which stabilizes her squat before Kit-Tee’s crate.
What takes place in the next few moments is interesting. When adults get something caught in our throat, the reaction begins as an involuntary one. We place a napkin to our mouth, cough, grumble it away. But if that doesn’t work, we set into panic. This is voluntary. We realize we’re facing potential death and as a result, choke like hell to obtain clear passage. We don’t care how much attention we draw doing it. We want to live and going to fight like hell to continue on doing so.
This child, on the other hand, is not afraid of death. She doesn’t understand the concept.
In the wings, the maternal instincts ingrained in women’s DNA alert three of them to their feet. The faces and body language of those not wearing headphones—men and teenagers—and enthralled with some type of electronic device, register a disturbance. I see the reaction play on a number of them—a smirk, blinking at double speed, raising a forefinger to a temple, crossing one leg over the other.
The vibe in the room, indeed, has changed. The commotion dies down.
Zoe brings herself upright, faces me. Her blue eyes have teared up, no sound comes from her windpipe, the fragments of crap food are lodged in her throat. She is the little girl that I never had and wish was mine and she can’t breathe.
I look deeply into her eyes, they’re pristine pools of aquamarine. A whole ocean of reef life swims in there, magical things. I am rapt. My fingers lose grip on Byrne’s obsession with African percussion and Chinese theater. The book slides off my lap and crashes to the floor.
Someone, do something.
Everything inside of me has stopped, coagulated. She can’t breathe, neither can I. I have been sucked into a vacuum–I am in Zoe’s eyes swimming in an underwater fairyland. We-will-soon-swim-here-together. She can give up on life now while she’s still ahead; it’s too hard anyway. We can swim in the aquamarine waters, free and weightless. With the magical creatures. No more pressure for me to make a living, make it as a writer, floundering about like a fish out of water.
My mouth curls into a half-smile. Yes, let us swim together in the aquamarine water, Zoe. Far, far away. Where it is safe.
I drift further into the world of her eyes; the vacuum abruptly releases. The pools of underwater ocean recede and disappear.
My head jerks back; I gasp for a shot of air, focus. Her mother has scooped her up and laid her across her knees. She lies there flat as an ironing board.
Three deft pats on her back cause Cape Cods chips in a variety of triangular shapes to project from Zoe’s mouth. The ground up bits swell up over her lip in a wave of saliva. She cries.
The maternal patrons get on tippy toes, lean in, ask if Zoe is okay. Her mother waves them off. “Yes, thank you,” she says. She then looks at me good and hard like I’m some kind of hardened criminal.
In my head, I say to her, we were going to swim, her and me. In the aquamarine waters with the magical reef creatures, where it is safe.
Dennis is looking between Zoe’s mother and me. I pick up Byrne’s encyclopedic account of what relentlessly drives him in life, a continuum of an articulated vision that has happened to make him enormously successful.
Zoe is back on her feet; the waterworks have subsided. Her father strokes her cheeks dry. Her mood changes back to the state of pre-choking as if by a flick of a switch. She asks for another chip.
This makes a number of bystanders chuckle.
Not me. I have Byrne’s book raised back up to face level again. I listen, curious as all get out to learn if good ole mom here is going to give her toddler just off Gerber Stage Four, another chip.
“You can have some Goldfish,” she says.
In a Mickey Mouse sort of voice I say onto the open pages, “How ‘bout some yogurt?”
Dennis elbows me subtly, a prompt to behave.
Over the P.A., a flight attendant announces the initial stages of boarding after first class. Thankfully, it includes us.
We gather our things; I impart a secret smile at Zoe, which she catches. Means nothing to her. In queue, we hand over our boarding passes and inch closer to our assigned seats like the kids going into the sausage grinder in Pink Floyd’s video “Another Brick in the Wall.”
We settle into our seats, an emaciated gray-haired woman with a Tom Petty overbite slides in and clears our extended tray tables for the window seat. Her thighs are the same width as my forearms.
As she and I are disentangling seat belts, Zoe appears in the aisle screaming like a banshee. Ear piercing stuff. I barely get a glimpse of her aquamarines because she passes by so swiftly—her father carries her like a surfboard. This must be a common position for her—flat and rigid. How strange she’s so willing to stay stretched out like that and not curl into herself, fetal-like.
I live and dream in fetal and I’m pushing 50.
Zoe’s mother follows behind them toting a handbag crammed with baby survival equipment and the crate containing “Kit-Tee.” She wears a light expression; probably indicative of the relief she’s feeling that her husband has finally stepped up to the plate.
Emaciated Woman and I snap our respective seat belts closed. By the sounds of it, Zoe has been strapped into a seat four or so rows behind us. She has stopped crying amid the chaos of the 737’s boarding and fluctuates in between sweetly introducing Kit-Tee to neighbors and emphatically saying “no!” to parental instruction.
The cabin is packed. There’s tight clearance, cramming of luggage in overhead bins. Elbows clock unsuspecting heads, tempers are short. Bins snap closed, last minute phone calls are made. The air is stale. Actually there’s no air. Tim is giving emergency landing instruction. The teenager across the way is licking and sucking the remnants of fast food from his thumbs. Zoe’s voice pierces through all this clear as a bell. She has dismissed her affections for Kit-Tee altogether and is dead set against keeping her seatbelt fastened. “No, no, no, Mama!”
My opinion of this little girl, wanting to drown in the pools of her aquamarines and live in the magic ocean with her where it is safe, is waning. In other words, my wanting a child, her namely, is returning to its original form.
The flight gets underway, a couple of hours pass by; it’s horrendous. Not because of turbulence, the crew, passengers, or lack of turkey, sprouts and avocado sandwiches. It’s because Zoe’s steady stream of “no!” is now followed by parental correction with an edge to it and curmudgeon type shushing. My iPod is packed away in cargo below; I have no way of tuning out the racket. I intended on 5½ hours of blissful reading and contemplating what to do next with my life. I have Byrne’s book in my hand, but all I can do is watch the display in front of me that shows the plane’s elevation, speed, and the long ass Midwest state we’re hovering over.
California is a galaxy away and we’re practically standing still at 500 MPH.
Dennis types away on his laptop, the time flies by for him. I listen to little Zoe carry on and watch the aircraft creep across the map until the long awaited moment comes—the descent from 40,000 feet.
The gods taunt me, somewhere around 15,000 feet the display shows the aircraft has overshot SFO. Our nose is sticking into the Pacific. This is rather ironic, that for what seems a lifetime I’ve been using all my faculties to manage all kinds of math in my head to pinpoint the exact time when we’d reach SFO and we’ve traveled beyond it.
Cabin air pressure intensifies and Zoe’s reaction takes me to a point of no return. She’s grunting like an animal and screaming bloody murder with a set of lungs worthy of crossing the English Channel.
By now, I have my forefingers sunk so deeply into my ears that I’m pushing up against childhood memories. The sound of my voice helps further block out the sound: the thought of Zoe swimming the English Channel gets me stuck on muttering “God save the Queen.”
It’s nearly 11:00PM back home in Boston and I am so cranky and cramped, I could scream out like a banshee myself. Dennis is immune to the stuff—the late hour and the screaming—but I see around me that people are glimpsing in the direction of Zoe, even my emaciated neighbor, and shrugging their shoulders in a way that suggests they wish they could envelope their ears with them.
God save the Queen.
Land is drawing ever closer out Emaciated Woman’s window, we’re back on track, the 737’s nose is destined for the runway. We drop elevation in big chunks until at last the wheels skid upon contact. Only minutes remain before we get off this tin bus.
When the passengers file out before us, I don’t have the wits or energy to muster some kind of smirk or comment to Zoe’s mother. It wouldn’t have the right punch anyway. Zoe has returned to lightheartedness and answering the saint-of-a-lady seated in the adjacent aisle about what color Kit-Tee is. “He’s pink and purple,” Zoe says.
Situated in our rental car nearly forty-five minutes later, I had one departing thought of Zoe. When she grows older, she will never recall this evening. The choking, my secret smile, the flight, the screaming.