I’m blinking nonstop. Blink, blink, blink, like a forgotten movie reel that has run out and is now flapping around and around in mindless circles. And then I’m trying hard not to blink at all, holding my eyes open until they are dry and exhausted. My mother peers down at me.
“Stop that right now,” she snaps.
She pulls my fingers away from my face then sighs deeply when I immediately start rapid-fire blinking again.
My father leans down. His mustache is black and prickly. He shaved it off a few weeks ago but my mother dropped the groceries in the driveway when she saw him so he’s growing it out again. He puts his hands on my shoulders then blinks back into my six-year old face. He stands and pats one of my mother’s stiffly crossed arms, telling her not to worry.
The problem is that I’ve recently noticed that people blink. Oh man, people blink all the time. I am blinking all the time. And now I cannot stop noticing, can’t seem to get back into normal eye rhythms. All I can do is consider over and over again how many times I am blinking per minute, count them, and then blink some more.
It turns out blinking isn’t all we do. We also breathe. In and out, all day long. Soon it’s all I can think about. I take long exaggerated breaths. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale again. I watch other people breathe then attempt to match their pattern. My mother tells me this is unnerving. The last thing you want to cross paths with on an otherwise uneventful Sunday morning at the market is a hyperventilating seven-year old staring maniacally at your chest.
“Get a grip,” she whispers though clenched teeth. We are in an expensive restaurant downtown, me exhaling all over my lukewarm pasta. I stare at my lap and consider what I am meant to be gripping. On my mother’s lap, her napkin is folded neatly in half. There is a small lipstick smudge in one corner. One of the white linen edges is fraying a little. I watch her gently squeeze it then swiftly rip off the offending string with her free hand. She balls it up between two fingers before flicking it on the ground.
“Lighten up,” my father tells her. He’s working through a piece of ham, cutting off a chunk then dipping it in his mashed potatoes before finally tacking on a single pea and popping it into his mouth.
Later they argue in their bedroom with the door not quite closed. My mother suggests we get her some help since she seems to be becoming rather eccentric and my father says she’s fine and all you’re worried about is what other people think and who gives a shit about that. My mother says how dare you I’m worried about our daughter and my father tells her to just relax which she cannot, will not, stand for. She’s not the child is what she tells him then slams the door and storms into her study.
When I’m eight I stop sleeping. Each night I shuffle into my parents’ bedroom, the sounds of my mother’s snoring leading me like a scent to her side. I nudge her gently until she makes room for me. Other nights I cross to the far side of their canopy bed where my father is sleeping on his back. He always leaves a little room at the edge so I don’t even have to rouse him. I just sneak under the covers, pushing him even further towards the middle in the process.
“This too shall pass,” my father tells my mother.
“Have anything a little less vague to offer?” she says.
My parents cannot bring themselves to lock the door, as the child psychiatrist has instructed them, but they do dutifully return me to my room most nights. I stare at my ceiling for a few minutes — it’s covered in those plastic glow-in-the-dark stars — then kick off my covers. Back in their room I now know better than to try and get in the bed. Some nights I sleep in the closet, once in the bathtub with my comforter wrapped around me like a cocoon and our old Beagle wheezing contentedly at my feet. But mostly I curl up on the floor at the foot of their bed. Here I wrap myself in the very edges of their heavy winter comforter, gently tugging it inch by inch by inch until I’ve got enough material to cover my whole tiny body. In the morning they will shiver groggily in their light cotton sheets before they realize I’ve pulled the covers almost completely off them.