Chain Reaction by Paulina Ferrante

The London cabby sputtered, “I told you! I don’t take kids, they always throw up!” as we all ignore him and climb into his car. We are late to our flight out of Heathrow airport, and this is an international flight just a year after 9/11, which meant that after being checked through security, each of our bodies will be patted down before handing over our boarding passes. There is a chance we aren’t going to make it home.

“Please,” my mom pleads, “my kids don’t vomit. I promise!” My brother Jordan is famous for his stomach of steel, and is shoved into the far back. My brother Douglas and I are in the second row with our dad, because we all have incredibly weak stomachs, making us not as dependable, and my mom takes the front, because she’s the worst of us all. Every time she enters a car, she acts like she’s sitting on a rackety row boat, threatening to heave over the side.

As the cab pulls away from our hotel in the heart of London, it becomes obvious why children (and grown adults) might get sick in this man’s car. Every time he presses the gas, the car jerks forward; every time he comes to a red light, my forehead hits the passenger seat in front of me. Stop and start, stop, and start. Our stomachs and our patience are being tested. But we keep our traps shut.

Until my brother Jordan whispers, “Dad, I don’t feel so good,” from the dark depths of the far back of this terrible car.

“Keep breathing buddy, we’re almost there,” my dad replies. I can hear his nervousness.

Soon enough, heavy breathing commences behind me. The smell of dirty leather and BO starts wafting from the driver’s seat in front of me. The car is weirdly warm. I start to sweat on my upper lip and forehead.  My brother behind me struggles through the first few deep inhales, and I feel every exhale on the hairs of my neck.

Goosebumps rising on my skin, I feel like I am being sucked into his mouth, and then quickly spat out. Over and over again.

Douglas and I exchange looks: we know what is coming next. We are all in this together. With Heathrow on the horizon, just through the windshield, we are pulling up to our terminal. There’s hope, we might make it. We are almost there, until—

The sound of retching and the projectile vomit hitting, no — splashing, no — decorating the back of the seat.

The cab immediately slams to a stop a terminal away. The cabby screams; “I told you, no fucking kids!” The car door flies open as my dad tries to shuffle the remaining children, the untainted ones, out of the cab, because he knows what will come next.

I am a sympathetic vomiter. Once I saw my childhood tabby-cat, Vern, vomit on the carpet of my living room floor. Soon I was holding a pile of vomit in my own hands, chunks in my palms, splashes falling between my fingers.

As my dad grabs my arm, trying to pull me out of the cab, the smell of fish and chips and stomach acid burning my nose hairs. I turn my head back and look in the cab, and the vision of Jordan vulnerable, aghast at what he had done, covered in his own vomit, his hands held out like Jesus during the last supper.

Standing on the pavement, I stand tall and take a deep breath of fresh air — then promptly double over, blowing a contained pile of chunks. My other brother Douglas, trailing behind me, is trapped. He gags — my mom, finally jumping out of the front seat, grabs him by the arm, yelling, “Don’t look at her! Douglas, don’t look at her!”

I take a few steps forward, and double over again. Another step, another pile. Remember: this is a true story. This happened in real life. Somewhere there is a taxi driver in England who saw this all. He saw what came next:

After my third bout of wet heaves and hoes, I stand up and turn around: my mother pulling Douglas, still gagging, a safe distance away, while Jordan is still buckled into the back seat covered in his own vomit.  The cabby standing on the sidewalk, turned away from the car, his arm hovering over my father’s head with a roll of paper towels. My dad, on his hands and knees, scooping up piles of vomit off of the car floor and his son, dumping gnarled, dirty paper towels onto the pavement.

I turn back toward Heathrow, ready to wash the vomit off of my army print cargo pants and ready to leave London behind. Instead, I am confronted with the full impact of what I have done: my three vomit piles and a woman approaching with a stroller. Without hesitation, the mother pushes her baby around each pile, weaving through each pile like a show dog performing an agility test on competition day.

It was time to go home.

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