There is a grown-up party downstairs. I am little. These adults — their tinkling laughs, their clinking glasses, their swells of convivial sound — tell me just how small I am. I need my mother right now, but she is one of Them, these party-goers. She doesn’t smell like herself. She doesn’t look like herself. Her face is different somehow: brighter, more colorful. But need her I do, so I sit in a small tight ball on the top stair as I try to work up the nerve to wade into a sea of painted, raucous tall people. I need my mother because I can’t breathe. No, that’s not right. I can breathe, but my breath is coming ragged and short. Breathing is automatic until it isn’t, and at the divide there is a moment when it seems to be wholly dependent on one’s own self, and how is one to breathe in, breathe out over and over and over again, a hundred times in a minute or two? I am frantic. It all seems overwhelming, even impossible. And I tip over into a state of anguish: I will simply forget to breathe, and that will be the end of me, crumpled up on the top stair with my thumb in my mouth, still wearing my cotton candy pink blanket sleeper with its rubber feet.
I determine that I can’t stand this for one more second. Fear begets nerve. I run down the stairs and rush headlong into my mother’s legs. I am sobbing, my face surely red, surely wet with snot and tears. My mother looks surprised, but to her credit crouches down and runs her hand through my tangled hair. “What’s wrong?,” she croons, in a full-throated, lush vodka voice.