by Sarah Shields
For three minutes in line at McDonald’s, we are Mom and Child: unremarkable. I hold my son on my hip, his body too warm in the ice-conditioned air of the restaurant, his weight getting to be too much to hold even for a short period of time. I concentrate on the menu, perfecting my order quickly in my mind so we are ready when we step up to the counter. We must be ready. We mustn’t make people behind us wait for us to decide, for us to pay. Wallet in hand, my debit card is already sticking partway out. We must be so fast it will be like we never existed. Our stomachs rumble. We are next. We are ready. But we don’t make it to the counter.
Without warning, my baby’s body stiffens, curls, and he retches three times in my arms. Bright orange vomit half pours, half sprays over himself, me, and barely misses a young woman at the register who’s just finished paying. She turns around to face us. Everyone turns to face us. Thick, Goldfish-cracker stew slides down our necks, chests, arms, legs. It plops in spoonfuls to the polished floor. Everything is momentarily quiet, shock-still—except for the fluorescent lights above us that sing. We are Song in the wrong key.
It’s a perfectly normal reaction: customers pull their shirts over their mouths and noses; some gag; one girl seated nearby grabs her purse and runs out, abandoning a half-eaten hamburger. We are that song at the highest volume. You try, but you cannot quiet us.
My baby lurches again and another bucketful comes up. This time a bloated Goldfish, intact, lands on the bare toe of a man standing next to us. He lets out a tiny yelp and politely steps back. He asks if we are okay, is your baby okay, are you okay, but I am Stone and Graffiti: numb and freshly vandalized. My apologies trail from the ceiling like party streamers and ribbon uselessly to the floor. I am Murmur. I am Murmur. I am Murmur. My baby, an empty vessel, lays his head on my wet shoulder, too tired to care about the mess seeping into his hair.
Employees in dark shirts and visors hurdle over the counter. Mops and buckets swish and swivel. Customers slide backward like slugs away from the centrifuge of action, chaos to order. Splattered floor to polished floor. Unsanitary to sanitary. And the fluorescent lights sing like bees over the employees busy at their sudden task.
“Lucy,” her eyes dark and sparkling under her visor, gently touches my arm. Please, I say, napkins. My eyes are hot. My face is hot. The air is Winter and I am Hell. I look for napkins. Oh hell, I can’t find the napkins, I tell the air, I tell Lucy, I tell people staring at us, the lights humming merrily and starting to flicker. Lucy takes my face, my body, my situation carefully into her gentle gaze. She takes my sopping, foul hand and leaves a generous stack of thin paper napkins in my palm. Take care of your baby, she says and is gone.
One moment we are baby and mother, stinking and glossy with goo, and the next I am Bathroom Sink: cold water, streams and streams of cold water. I wash the mess from my son’s shirt. He whimpers and points to the little pocket on the front of it. I dare not open the pocket and see a fish caught in there. I hurry. My hands are a cup and I pour over his arms. Rivulets of pale orange weep down the crisp white basin and into the drain. I rinse through his beautiful wild curls, unstick a clot of them from his cooling cheek. I wet a paper towel to blot his face. I don’t even bother to clean up myself. It isn’t worth the time. I think, this is the best we can do for now, but now we must do the hard thing. We must leave this bathroom and reenter the crowded restaurant. We must walk the distance to the door. We must go home.
I am Balloon, holding breath, remarkable enough to carry two hollow bodies all the way to the exit.
Sarah Shields is a writer, visual artist, and mother of two living in Southern California. Her
work has appeared in Pidgeonholes, Memoir Mixtapes, CHEAP POP, Gigantic Sequins, and
others. Sarah has struggled most of her life with anxiety and depression in multiple and
recurring forms. She continues to battle self-destructiveness, social withdrawal, and public
visibility issues. Sometimes she is strong and sometimes she is not. She is thankful for
understanding people in this world and those ready to lend a friendly hand when needed, as
it is in her heart to do the same. To see more of her work, please visit her at
or follow her on Twitter @saraheshields.