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Choking by Maureen O’Leary

Choking by Maureen O’Leary

Fiction, Vol. 7.1, March 2013

Eddie wanted children all of a sudden. Beth thought it was classic water sign behavior. Eddie was a Cancer born in late June. His mind changed with the force of a river whose weirs have been lifted after a heavy rain.

But Beth was an Earth sign born in April. This made her very good at her job. Not everybody was cut out to be a nurse at a children’s hospital. The human body had enormous potential for infection and injury, pain and stink. Every day at work she tended to the broken, invaded, and diseased of other people’s children. Earth signs gave comfort.

But Beth knew this for a grounded certainty: She did not want her own children.

Eddie wanted to talk about it in the car on the way to his parents’ house for Christmas. His sweet begging was too much. Beth looked out the window as they wound down the Pacific Coast Highway. At least the ocean was on her side.

“You can’t say you’ll never want kids, Beth. You can’t say that. You don’t know.”

“I do know.”

“You know for now,” Eddie said. “But you don’t know a year from now.”

“I do know.”

“And I respect that you feel that way now,” he said. “But at some point we are going to want to make a family.”

Beth turned to study his profile. He looked like Richard Gere looked in the American Gigolo years. His looks still surprised her sometimes. In the mirror they were mismatched. She wanted to be home lying on top of him with the top of her head wedged beneath his round chin. Mostly she wanted him to stop talking so that their marriage would quit shifting around like watery landfill in a seismic event.

“You’ll make a great mom,” he said. “That’s what I know.”

Dread flipped in Beth’s stomach. He didn’t look at her at all but kept his eyes on the traffic.

*

Within a half hour of their arrival Eddie’s mother asked straight out, “When are you going to start having babies?”

She spoke with the usual authority but with a sly smile too. The woman never truly smiled. Beth ached to return it. How nice it would be to be able to feel that her mother-in-law liked her and had an interest in her, maybe even loved her a little bit just because she was part of the family. But Beth caught Eddie’s eyes and saw their hopeful shine. She couldn’t play games. Not even for a second.

“We’re not having children, Alma. We never planned to.”

The old mother’s face fell and she looked over at her son. Eddie wrapped his arm around her thin shoulder and muttered in Spanish. Alma nodded and glared as if Beth had just bared her teeth.

*

All evening Eddie’s parents welcomed a never-ending stream of guests Beth did not know. She stuck by her husband’s side, smiling and meeting all of the relatives and family associates. They were handsome, silver-haired people, burnished by the sun even in winter. The oldsters were interspersed with a few exhausted but well-groomed cousins Eddie and Beth’s age who also had driven a far distance for the party. Eddie’s sister Carmen worked the crowd. She talked and smiled as though she were happy and kind, holding her 2-year-old daughter Nadia on one hip. She’d done the child up in white lace, ankle socks, shiny black patent shoes. Nadia stared at everyone with enormous brown eyes and clutched her mother’s blouse.

Eddie’s relatives came from Bolivia. They were Yugoslav expats whose families had emigrated to South America after World War II, before making their way to California later on. They were bankers, car dealers, jewelry store owners. They comported themselves with the elegance and remove of banished royalty.

Before lapsing into conversations in Spanish, several of the older generation remarked aloud that Beth and Eddie had no children. In the eyes of these tan and silver relatives, this was an error to be fixed, like the hole in the knee of her pants that she’d only just noticed. Beth ended up by herself in the corner by the sliding glass door with a glass of wine and considered hiding behind the curtain with it so that she could drink alone.

Eddie approached with another old woman on his arm. His aunt. She raised her spider leg eyebrows and asked a question in rapid Spanish. Beth chuckled and turned to her husband.

“In translation.” Eddie cleared his throat. “Are you pregnant now?”

He left Beth to answer. He watched her answer.

“No. Why? Do I look fat?” She laughed again but nobody else did.

*

Eddie’s mother didn’t speak to Beth the whole night of the party, nor later when they helped clean up. She still did not speak to her in the morning when Beth got up early and made breakfast for the whole family.

Carmen wouldn’t even look at Beth. During the breakfast, she spoke only to her mother and then mostly in clipped Bolivian Spanish. The old woman responded in a tired voice. She did not sit down to eat. She hovered while Beth cooked. She elbowed in to wash the pans Beth used the minute Eddie announced breakfast was ready.

“We’ll do that, Mama,” Eddie said, but he did not fight his mother. She scrubbed at the dishes with steel wool. Her forearms flexed. Eddie took a seat across from his father, who read the newspaper and ignored everybody.

“I don’t like breakfast food,” Carmen said to no one in particular. She had scraped back her sleek hair into a bun. She looked like an angry ballerina. Baby Nadia threw an apple slice across the table but nobody paid attention.

Eddie and Beth ate baked peach pancakes and sausage in silence and looked at one another. He:  Are you angry? She: Don’t talk to me.

Nadia sat in a wooden high chair. It was the one Eddie sat in as a baby and Carmen before him. Eddie’s baby butt must have suffered in that hard chair. It was an absurd and archaic piece of furniture. Beth cut sausage into much daintier pieces than she would have if they were alone. Eddie’s family made her feel like a troll.

Carmen wouldn’t give her daughter any of the breakfast. She had prepared Nadia’s food herself and it was red apple slices and skinned grapes. Nadia was a different kid from the clinger at the party. She laughed and was the only one talking to everybody. She had a lot of commentary in a mix of English and Spanish, the nouns rounded in the tumbler of her baby mouth.

“Appoh,” she said and dropped an apple slice on the floor. Beth reached down to get it but Carmen moved faster. Carmen scooped it up, her curved acrylic fingernails clicking against the linoleum like stilettos.

“Manzana,” Carmen said.

Nadia laughed, showing off a row of gapped teeth. Carmen’s own smile escaped. Her eyes flashed softness as she wiped the baby’s mouth.

At the final blessed end of the meal, Eddie took plates to the sink to be sucked into the storm of his mother’s washing.

“It’s time for us to go, Ma,” Eddie said. “We have to hit the road.”

His father rattled the newspaper. “The traffic is going to be bad,” he said.

Carmen screamed. Her chair toppled backwards. Nadia’s eyes widened in a mottled purple face. Her arms and legs flopped while Carmen grabbed her and drummed at her narrow back with a futile open hand. The grandfather began to bark directions in Spanish, jabbing the air with his knobby finger.

The grandmother rushed over and pulled on Nadia’s legs. Eddie’s mother and sister made a tug-of-war with the dying, choking child between them.

Beth moved in. She shoved Eddie’s mother aside and took the baby. She hefted Nadia face down across the length of her arm. Carmen flapped at Beth’s back like a crow, but Beth just squeezed Nadia’s little face between thumb and forefinger, folding the baby’s cheeks and mouth in one hand. She struck the space between the baby’s shoulders and did it again and then the baby coughed. An apple wedge fell from her mouth and she cried the loud, long, breathless wail of a child in true pain and fear.

Beth righted her child-laden arm and gathered Nadia into her chest. She kissed her firm, wet cheek and whispered in her ear. Only then did she hand the baby over to Carmen who stood weeping with her hard knuckled fists opening and closing.

Eddie slumped at the table and put his head in his hands. His mother made the sign of the cross.

Carmen turned away from them all and went into the living room. Nadia’s crumpled but now pink face looked over her mother’s shoulder and with one tired starfish hand waved Beth good-bye.

*

Sixteen years later, Nadia missed the late night Greyhound to Oroville out of San Jose because they changed the lines without bothering to change the schedule.

“You missed it,” the ticket lady said. “Next one, 6 a.m.”

Nadia dropped into a plastic chair in the empty station. The hostile engines of an unmanned NASCAR arcade game droned by the soda machine. She could have been the last person in the world or else stuck in a very lonely and frustrating level of hell.

The thought of getting on a bus back to the dorms in Santa Cruz hurt like a hammer upside the head. Nadia wanted to be at Dani’s house in Oroville. She wanted Dani’s bedroom with its candles and incense. She wanted Dani with her butterscotch arms and cornsilk hair.

A person who wanted another person as much as Nadia wanted Dani should have that person. She should be able to get to her. It shouldn’t be so fucking difficult.

The Greyhound meandered from Santa Cruz to Oroville on a string of nowhere-villes: Vacaville, Roseville. She didn’t have to disembark and transfer but one time. San Jose. Now the bus chugged up Highway 680 with an empty seat that she’d already paid for.

Nadia meant to roll into Oroville at four in the morning and crawl into bed with Dani while she slept. She meant to be there earlier than expected as a surprise. Now Nadia had to go back to the dorms at UCSC. Try again tomorrow. It was so stupid. The disappointment got hard in her stomach and rolled around in there. She felt like puking.

“Santa Cruz,” Nadia said, back at the ticket window.

“There’s no more lines tonight.” The lady turned away as Nadia cursed and then a security guard grabbed her elbow. He shoved her out onto the street and locked the glass door between them.

Nadia spun around. The building across the street stood dark and boarded up. Nothing up the street looked open either. She pounded on the station door but someone inside turned off the lights. She was left in the hazy yellow halo of the streetlamp.

She didn’t know anyone in San Jose at all. There was nobody back at school with a car that she knew well enough to call for help. She couldn’t pay for a cab back over the mountain. She only had what was left of the tips from a week of waiting tables and that money came too hard anyway to spend on a damn cab.

Her abuela and mother lived four hours away in Los Osos. They lived too far away to help. Even if she did call them, they would only yell and scream and ask questions she could never answer.

Tio Eddie and his wife Risa lived in San Luis. Not helpful. Too far away. Plus, they’d tell.

That left Tio Eddie’s ex-wife Beth Martin in Los Gatos. Beth sent a birthday card every year along with twenty bucks, even though Nadia never saw her. After her thirteenth birthday Nadia asked how come she never had to write a thank you note to Beth. For other relatives she had to write notes if they so much as said bless you after she sneezed.

“She’s not even your aunt anymore,” Mama said.

“Then why does she send me money?”

Abuela made the sign of the cross. Mama didn’t answer. She only looked out the window.

Nadia began writing secret thank you notes to her ex-aunt and sending them without telling anybody. She remembered liking Beth. Tio Eddie and Beth divorced when Nadia was five. Mama said Beth was no good. She said Beth told stories at family parties about working as a nurse in a children’s hospital. She dealt with the worst cancers, dog maulings, kids with intestinal parasites. She didn’t notice everyone losing their appetites when she talked about it over the paella.

Nadia would have liked the stories. A lady like Beth would never flinch no matter what a kid had wrong with her. Anyway it was worth it to try because if she stayed here she would get killed or raped or maybe both. She stepped out of the light and ticked away at her phone in the dark. She found the number of Beth Martin in Los Gatos. Beth’s voice was cool as water. She promised to hurry. She ordered Nadia to stay put and to stay out of sight.

Nadia leaned against the wall. She closed her eyes and conjured Dani. Dani wore long feathered earrings that she let Nadia remove with her teeth. Dani’s neck smelled like warm cloves and the smoke from a wood-burning stove.

The last time she’d visited Oroville was in September. Dani’s soft belly from just the summer before was gone. Her hipbones jutted beyond her stomach and Nadia’s were getting like that too. They lay smoking in Dani’s bed. Their hips touched. Their elbows too. “We’ll be knocking together like old ladies pretty soon,” Dani said. “We’ll be a couple of bags of bones.” If Dani were caught out in the cold in a bad part of a city she would laugh and say fuck it and anybody who tried to mess with her would end up with her boot in his mouth. Nadia huffed into her hands and tried to conjure that level of courage. She was exhausted. The long bus ride was when she was finally supposed to get some sleep. She’d timed it on purpose.

A Subaru pulled up and a red-haired woman inside popped open the passenger door. Nadia bounded out of the shadows and jumped into the car.

“That is an awful place,” Beth said, heading towards the freeway. “Totally unsafe. I’m glad you called. Where can I take you?”

“Can I sleep on your couch tonight? You can just drop me at a Greyhound station on your way to work or whatever.” Nadia felt out of breath.

“Where are you going on the bus?”

“Visiting somebody.”

“Boyfriend?”

“Nope.” Nadia held her fingers to the heater vent and played with the hot air and tried to breathe regular.

“Aren’t you in school? Won’t you be missing class?”

“Are you going to call my mother?”

Beth’s mouth clamped into a line. She shook her head. “You’ll be nineteen soon.”

On the way, Nadia dozed off without meaning to and woke when they stopped.

Beth’s house smelled like vanilla. “Are your kids asleep?” Nadia whispered.

“I don’t have kids,” she said.

Nadia was surprised. She knew that Beth and Eddie hadn’t had children together, but Beth seemed like she’d be somebody’s mother. She led Nadia to a yellow room with a bed covered in a fat quilt.

“That’s Don across the hall in my room,” she said. “He’s a big guy. If you meet him on the way to the toilet in the middle of the night, don’t be scared.”

Nadia nodded and eyed the bed. “I guess I’ll get some sleep now,” she said.

Beth stood there for a second then she took Nadia’s hand like they were about to cross a street or something. She pulled her into the bathroom and flipped on the overhead light. With iron hands she grabbed Nadia’s shoulders and forced her to face the mirror. The rim of the sink dug into Nadia’s stomach. It felt like it would cut her in half.

“You might want to look at yourself,” Beth said. “I don’t know if you’ve done that in a while.”

Nadia squinted. Bruisey purple half moons underscored her eyes and her cheekbones cut long grooves into her face.

She twisted free and fled back into the guest bedroom with its cheery lemonade walls and fluffy pillows.

She should leave. Run out of the house and not come back.

Beth strode in after her, chased her really, and stopped on the other side of the bed. Nadia just wanted to lie down. If she didn’t then her head would crack open and all of the brains would spill out, ending the impasse right there.

A man emerged behind Beth. He was a tall black man in pajamas. He whispered something and Beth sighed but didn’t say another thing to Nadia. She followed the man into the other bedroom and closed the door.

Nadia took off her jeans and slipped in between the cool white sheets and fell asleep.

*

Afternoon winter light sliced through Nadia’s eyelids. She blinked awake and pawed the floor for her jeans and her phone to look at the time.

It was after one o’clock in the afternoon. Her jaw ached and her teeth were killing her. She threw a pillow at the wall and cursed.

Beth knew she needed a ride to the bus in the morning but didn’t bother to wake her up. She should have known better than to trust her.

Nadia yanked her jeans back on and laced up her boots. She stomped into the empty kitchen. A note on the table from Beth said that she would be home by four. It said help yourself to anything. Help yourself.

Nadia looked out the window. There was a car in the driveway, not the Subaru, but a Volkswagen bug. It was yellow and shiny in the sunny afternoon. It was cheerful and winking.

She took a hit from the stuff she had in her bag and then went into the bathroom. A hot shower washed away the smells of the twelve hours straight of work in a greasy restaurant and the hopeless bus station. Nadia used Beth’s honey and vanilla-smelling soap and lotion. When Nadia and Dani were rich, they would never ride the bus. They would work in law firms or run their own businesses. They would be through waitressing in the cheapo old people restaurants that served calamari steak specials that sat on the plate like beige shoe leather. They would drive around in a beautiful car and eat in fine places and leave grand tips for their waitresses because they would know how it felt.

Nadia found the keys in a ceramic frog’s mouth on the mantel above the fireplace. Nadia’s own high school graduation photo stood beside it in a frame. It startled her. Her shiny, chubby face grinned between curtains of long hair. That was how she used to look. Nadia knocked it down.

She wrote Beth a note in return. I’ll be back in three days. She added a smiley face to lighten the mood.

The air was cool on her wet head. She buzzed with energy and fresh purpose. The miles between Los Gatos and Dani stretched and contracted ahead of her. She headed north to the faceless town of Oroville, that dirt-colored shell that held Dani who was like a beautiful pearl and the only thing she cared about in the world.

North and east she headed. She would face only north and east until she made it to the lair of the source of the northeastern wind, her northeastern goddess, her witch, her sweetheart, her best and only friend.

*

The next morning in the tiny apartment bathroom, Dani pushed Nadia with hands like claws. Her hard palms slammed against Nadia’s breastbone. Dani’s face contorted with rage Nadia recognized, but also an emptiness that she didn’t. She begged Dani move with her to Santa Cruz and apply for financial aid and go to school. Dani sang back the idea in a mean singsong that stung like a whip.”We’ll graduate together. We’ll live in a big house by the sea,” Dani said. She sneered and cursed. She tore at her own hair and pulled at her own uniform work skirt. She was a brown gingham nightmare shadow of Dani, shrieking, “This is me. This is how it is.”

Nadia’s head still buzzed a little from the leftover crystal they smoked the night before. She shoved her things into her bag while Dani brushed her teeth in hard jabs and muttered around the toothbrush that she had to go to work. She worked for a living and if she didn’t work then she didn’t get paid. She didn’t have time for bullshit.

Dani spit and let the water glass fall to the hard tiles beneath her bare feet. It shattered as Nadia walked out the door.

For five hours Nadia drove straight through. No stops, not even to pee. She pulled into Beth’s driveway.

She left her bag on the porch and knocked and waited.

Beth opened the door and stepped back. She went into the kitchen and sat down.

Nadia followed and handed over the keys. It seemed pointless to speak, though she understood some things were expected when you took someone’s car without asking.

“Thanks for not calling the police,” she said.

“I didn’t do you any favors by not calling them.”

Nadia felt too hollow to be embarrassed. She was on the downside of a high that was weak to begin with. She was rolling down and picking up velocity toward a steel hammer headache and a leaden soul.

“You’re a mess,” Beth said. The late winter camellias in the front yard brushed against the window glass in the wind.

“It would have been nice if you woke me up. I wouldn’t have taken your car then.”

“I tried. You might as well have been dead. Methamphetamines, I’m guessing.”

Nadia didn’t answer. She couldn’t explain that the meth wasn’t the point. It was just a way to be with Dani. In high school they would go to clubs together high and powerful as queens, dancing until their bodies moved together like one beautiful, four-armed creature. What she used back in Santa Cruz was only to help through the monster work shifts she needed to raise money to see Dani, to give to Dani. Dani made the days in the crowded and noisy dorms and boring lecture halls have a reason. Nadia had no problem writing papers and gutting out exams when she knew that someday at the end of it Dani would be her family. The big house by the sea had been more than just an idea for Nadia. It had been the land she was swimming toward.

Now her future stretched out like a dead body.

She ached for some coffee but didn’t want to ask Beth for another thing.

“I saved your life once before,” Beth said, her voice calm and pleasant like the beginning of a bedtime story. “You were two. You almost died, choking on an apple slice. It’s amazing, what will take a child. You keep the poisons up high then she chokes to death on breakfast.” Beth filled a pot with water, scooped out coffee, ground up beans.

“We were at the table and suddenly you turned blue. Nobody knew what to do. Your grandmother, of course, with her prayers,” Beth shook her head. “I picked you up and did what you do when a baby chokes. And you turned pink again.”

Nadia felt relieved that it ended well. It was good news that once, she was rescued.

“But what do you do,” Beth asked, “when a young woman chokes?”

She came forward and took Nadia’s face in between her finger and thumb. She clutched Nadia’s chin in the web of her strong hand and squeezed her cheeks until her lips puckered. It hurt but Nadia let her do it.

“I must have been a fool,” Beth said. “Leaving a teenage drug addict alone in my house. And you’re a fire sign on top of it, with tendencies toward passion and spontaneous travel.”

Nadia’s tears spilled into Beth’s palm. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. Her voice sounded funny from out of her scrunched-up mouth.

“In translation,” Beth said. “Stay here. Let me help you. We are family, after all. In a way.” She let Nadia’s face go and went to pour the coffee.

Nadia turned to the window by her chair. She rested her forehead against a cold pane. Her breath steamed up the glass as she exhaled through air passages constricted by fear.

She’d stay for at least a night or two. For that chunk of time she might not die.

She took another breath.

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