Swallow by Tonya Plank

By SMW Staff

The intellectual heiress thing was a joke of course. I’m no relation to the philosopher. Stephen was being sweet. He didn’t know about my dad; knew he was some kind of filmmaker, but didn’t know the type of films. I’d told him they were small independents — which wasn’t a lie. Stephen had met only Mom at graduation. Dad was filming and Bebe was in labor with — can’t remember, one of them. Stephen had found Mom “charmingly bucolic”; said I should be exceedingly proud of myself for having come so far.

The trouble began when we went to discuss the wedding over dessert at Serendipity — my favorite eatery. I could be little girlish at times, which I think was part of my initial appeal to him. I ran to the ladies’ room to make sure I didn’t look like a raccoon from tearing up in the cab, and when I returned to the table, my usual Chewy Chocolate Marshmallow Mudslide Delight was setting across from Stephen’s slice of carrot cake.

I gazed into Stephen’s deep blue eyes. “So when and where are we going to have it?” I gushed.

Stephen looked bemused for a moment before flashing a devilish grin. “I hadn’t really thought about it yet, Sophie,” he snickered, boyish dimples spreading across his virile face. “Let’s be wholly unconventional.”

“Well, I don’t know how unconventional this is,” I giggled, “but I was thinking Central Park, since, you know, I’m a, quote unquote, real New Yorker now! They rent out the zoo for private affairs.”

“Private affairs’ — I think that means private children’s parties, honey,” he laughed.

“Not always. Francie’s office had their holiday party there. Come on, we can have the altar by the polar bear. He’s on Prozac; he needs some festivities,” I semi-joked. “And afterward we could take a horse-drawn carriage to the Plaza?”

“Yes, sweetie, I can see the sea lions barking their mating call to the violins as you walk down the aisle,” he said with a smirk, before going on about thinking outside of New York: Tad had his at a seaside resort near home in Hyannis, but Stephen’s not his brother, hence, we’d be having ours nowhere remotely near the Cape; we could do an elegant Caribbean island or, how about a beautiful European town like Bruges or Krakow, or maybe somewhere warm – the Venezuelan Riviera… I had to ask myself what in the world I thinking suggesting the Park.

Stephen’s been nearly everywhere the planet over. Family vacations consisted of world travel and deep sea dives. He’d been to the Sistine Chapel, the Taj Mahal, and the Great Wall, all before his tenth birthday. And they went on dives all over the world: the South Pacific, French Polynesia, even the Great Barrier Reef. That worldliness shone through every time I gazed into his eyes, which seemed to have taken on the color of the sea itself. Not that I knew which sea; I didn’t exactly share his background. My childhood travels consisted of a couple short trips from Arizona all the way to Los Angeles to visit my dad, and pastimes a few pre-divorce ballet classes then free local girls’ softball. Yes, I should leave the wedding venue to Stephen, I was thinking, when he interrupted.

“Honey?” he said, sounding strangely far away.

I looked up at him.

“You’re going to be wearing that in a minute.” He pointed to the melted mess that had become my sundae.

Oh, my cup overfloweth. I scooped up as much soupy, marshmallow-covered ice cream as would fit onto my oversized spoon and topped it onto a chunk of brownie. Just as the first bite neared the back of my mouth, I peered into Stephen’s eyes. I began to feel a lump form in the base of my throat. The chewed food was so close to my pharynx that my swallowing reflex pushed it on down, where it met the lump and merged into a larger ball. The lump-ball was about the size of a fist; it was like a fist had grabbed the food. I couldn’t move either up or down. Stephen continued jabbering blithely about — I think — sun, water, Cunard…

With the food stuck in this fist-ball, I began to panic. I tried to calm down, breathe through my nose. But either the ball or the panic exacerbated the blockage and I couldn’t get any air through.

“Or we could be really venturesome…”

Good, I thought, the horror in my eyes wasn’t apparent to Stephen. I knew this was lunacy and all I had to do was talk myself out of it. I knew there was really nothing there. I knew that because I’d felt this ball before, three times to be exact. I’d willed it away then; I was sure I could do the same now. I simply needed to force myself to be calm. It’s okay, it’s okay, I repeated in my head while Stephen talked.

It didn’t seem to be working.

Stephen’s mouth was busy, but in my panic I couldn’t hear what was coming out. If I focused on what he was saying, I might be able to take my mind off the ball and it’d disappear. So focus I did. I picked up on something about removing something from something else — could have been wedding from family, honeymoon from country, or multi-state trademark violation lawsuits from state to federal court — he’d been working like a loon on those damn briefs. But listening required looking into his eyes — his omniscient, uber-sophisticated ocean blues — his most intense physical feature, and the one that originally most drew me to him. Not only did they emanate wisdom and savoir-vivre born of good-breeding, they were just so arresting, focused, trenchant, and above all penetrating. Very penetrating. When they stopped and fixed on me, sometimes I got all tingly, sometimes a bit queasy, usually a combination of the two. And they were capable of the most amazing peripheral vision — always catching a subtle expression on my face or the way I’d be slouching, even when they didn’t seem to be concentrated at all in my direction. Looking at him looking at me, expecting me to listen and converse like a normal, refined, educated adult, and not a nutter afflicted by some bizarre problem emanating from a screwed-up childhood experience, just made me all the more aware of the fist-ball.

The second Stephen’s eyes shifted from me to the waitress to motion her for more coffee, I opened my mouth widely and gasped in as much air as I could, so as to force the ball down with air. It didn’t work; the air still couldn’t get around him. Don’t know why I was thinking of him in the male gender but I was. I tried coughing him down, but still nothing. I was starting to feel light-headed.

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