Adrianne had trouble sleeping again. She looked over at Paula who had kicked the blankets down beneath her feet. She lay sprawled out against the white sheets like a skydiver fixed in time. If only she could control or even predict the forces that shaped her children’s lives. If only she could ensure their happiness. Adrianne reached over and straightened Paula’s blankets. She was such an odd child, lovely and odd. Adrianne loved the oddness in her, yet it made her uneasy. She could not help feeling that it was somehow her fault, the result of some obscure thing she’d done wrong.
Sometimes Paula would stand frozen before an object – a lamp, the kitchen sink, a chair, her shoes – for minutes on end without blinking. She would stare at it until some ineffable event took place, then go on about her life as though nothing had happened. Adrianne lay very still, staring at Paula, trying to reproduce the effect. She would clear her mind and wait for Paula’s essence to reveal itself. It would not even be called Paula or Paula sleeping, it would simply be. But before that moment of insight burst upon her, she fell asleep.
The next night, Gom took them out to dinner at a seafood place, a dilapidated shack on the docks of a fishing basin up the coast. They got a table in the back, next to the studded red leatherette door that swung into the kitchen. Across from Adrianne, above Gom and Melvin’s heads, a poster pinned to the wall read: ‘First Aid for the Choking Victim.’ Adrianne studied the three circles at the bottom of the poster. In the first, a woman sat stiffly in front of her dinner, mouth open, eyes wide with alarm. ‘1. Cannot speak or breath,’ read the caption. The next circle showed a close-up of the woman’s face, now purple, one hand clutched to her throat. Around the circumference of the circle was written, ‘Universal sign for choking.’ The third circle showed the woman bent face down on the table next to an empty plate of food, with the caption, ‘3. Collapses.’
Gom turned around, following her gaze, then turned back, smiling. “Not very appetizing, is it?” Adrianne smiled back faintly. She knew how the purple woman felt; she hadn’t been able to breath for weeks. She thought of the girl on the beach and got up quickly to go to the ladies room. When she’d done vomiting and rinsed out her mouth, she looked at herself in the mirror above the sink. She felt a little better. She was pale, and the stress lines at the corners of her eyes looked deeper than usual, but if she had caught sight of herself unexpectedly, she’d still know who she was. Dale, on the other hand, was becoming less clear in her mind. She was no longer sure she would recognize him if he walked into the room. Though she couldn’t bring up his face, she knew that it was his hand clutching her throat.