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Laura's French fry odyssey


The Shape of the Eye, by George EsterichTwo days after the redeye from the West Coast, we'd settled into Vacation Standard Time: beach, pool, TV, sleep, repeat. But my younger daughter's sleep patterns were atomised, destroyed.

We were in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to spend a couple of weeks with my wife's family: her mum, her sisters and their families, and her brother.

Laura loved the commotion, fearless in the waves, bobbing happily in the pool with her styrofoam-filled swimsuit, putting away far more than a two-year-old's share at the deeply unhealthy Southern buffets. But sleep, on our schedule at least, was not in her plans.

She inhabited the time zones of several continents, none of them ours. She napped from five in the afternoon until seven in the evening, stayed up till one, fell asleep, woke up in the middle of the night for an hour, went back to sleep, slept in till 11.

I should mention, I suppose, that Laura has Down syndrome.

How much this mattered was hard to know. Between the genetic factors (like an extra chromosome, or a tendency to insomnia, inherited from me) and the environmental factors (the redeye, the shift in routine), we had an abundance of explanations, none of them particularly helpful.

But the practical result was obvious: Laura wanted Mum.

Theresa works, and I'm the one at home, so Mum-in-the-daytime was a comfort and novelty. Laura mainlined Mum for hours on end: Mum all day, nothing but Mum, Mum in the morning, Mum at night, Mum to herself while I surf-fished and her older sister Ellie screamed in the waves with her cousins.

One night, at 11, when Laura was clearly just getting revved up for another two and a half hours of play, I said, here, I'll take her.

We drove to the Wal-Mart Supercenter. The parking lot was disorientingly huge. Football fields. Proving grounds. I drove the rented Suzuki across the lane lines, parked near the entrance. Inside, I let Laura rifle through sweatpants and T-shirts on their hangers, fingering the colors, inspecting the sleeve of a blouse. We played peekaboo. I picked out a shirt for three dollars, another for four.

This way, Laura, I said, this way, the distance like elastic between us. I backed away, beckoning, keeping her in sight. I could see her deciding whether to follow, then smiling, rushing towards me, hands already up.

We could have been 5000 feet underground, after the end of civilisation. That several miles away, past roadside culverts, palm trees with browning fronds, and billboards for lookalike superstars, Theresa was back with Susie at the condo, surfing through 80 channels of cable, I did not doubt; but that life seemed a shadow.

Mum mum, said Laura, and I said, brightly, Later! We'll see her later! I did our made-up sign for later, two index fingers indicating an event stage right. As if she'd asked for directions, and I'd said, No, the place you want is two doors down. Later.

We circumnavigated the store. She signed up, and I lifted her into the cart. We played the game Ellie and I played, years ago: I shove the cart away from me, let it coast, and then look around distracted, saying, Where's Laura? Where is she? Then I see her, run after, and save her, just before the cart plows into the air fresheners.

She signed eat. We found the cafeteria, about an eighth of a mile away. It was closed. She saw the Formica, stainless steel, and plastic, and signed french fries — her instinct for junk food is unerring — but the registers were unattended. No, Laura, I said. It's closed now. She signed french fries. I said: Let's find something else! How about apple? She shook her head. Avocado?

She signed down. I set her down. She led me forward, hand closed around my index finger, in her cheerful half-run, half-stumble, head down, charging forward. We walked past Intimates, Baby, Men's Apparel, Sporting Goods, Magazines, and soon we were in the supermarket section, itself bigger than any supermarket in our hometown.

Laura ran ahead; I followed.

She signed, again, french fry, french fry. No, Laura, I said. No, it's closed. French fry! she signed, more definite. I shook my head. We were in the frozen foods section. She pointed, exasperated, at the glass door: behind it were boxes and boxes of frozen deep-fried potato products, Tater Tots, steak fries, crinkle cut fries, the pictures magnified, glistening with fat. French fries.

We paid and left. It was 12.30am. The air was humid, and in the parking lot, light pooled at the base of each tower.

I set Laura in her car seat, buckled her in, loaded up the bag of vacation groceries: Coke, Oreos, milk, cereal, chips. I opened the bag of Cheetos we'd bought, handed it backward as we pulled away, felt her tug it from my fingers. By the time we got back to the condo, her face was completely orange.

George EstreichGeorge Estreich was born in New York City. He received a BA from the University of Virginia and an MFA in poetry from Cornell. His collection of poems, Textbook Illustrations of the Human Body, was published by Cloudbank Books in 2003. The above essay is adapted from a passage in his book The Shape of the Eye, published this month.

Topic tags: George Estreich, Down syndrome, the shape of the eye, Laura, wal-mart, cheetohs



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Existing comments

Beautiful. Thank you....

Andrea | 17 March 2011  

Enjoyed this article? You bet. Great parenting, George.

Anna Summerfield | 18 March 2011  

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