The first sign of trouble was the palm on the table, an emphatic but broken ovation that turned every head. Then the net arcing up and out, a widening web. Lastly there was the slow parabola of the metal bowl, separated from the noodles, catching and redirecting the light, finally landing just perfectly on a spectator’s head before bounding off and hitting the parquet floor with a rolling crash.
By that time they saw her heels drumming on the floor.
She tried to pull herself up with the tablecloth. A conveyor belt of food slid down the table and landed on her, the bowls falling and clattering to rest like dropped coins. She finally recovered and got to her feet, leaning against the table and then bringing her hands to her throat, her elbows splayed out like wings. On her neck and face was a lattice of ropy noodles.
The neighboring competitor had shot her a hateful look when she pulled on the tablecloth, but now he turned to stare, two sloppy fangs of pasta dripping down his chin. Her eyes were starting to come out of her face, and his expression turned, shaped itself like hers, wonder to confusion to terror, and then back through them all, very very quickly, recognition and avoidance, denial and panic, his and hers.
They called out “doctor in the house” but there weren’t any, no precautions taken because it was impossible to imagine such a culinary accident, some joke about a wet noodle. As she squeezed her neck, pushing up and out like working a pump, down and in like working an udder, she was thinking, “What will the papers say tomorrow?”
And then she was down on the floor again.
The crowd was in motion, not all of them toward her. A woman screamed “911″ over and over, as if dialing with her voice. Several people tried to sprint out of the room, many of them slipping and coming down hard on the wooden floor, the spectators starting to stack up and intermingle, torsos and limbs together like a bowl of spaghetti.
Several bystanders rushed up to the woman, now writhing on the floor, and when someone pushed the crowd back saying “give her air, give her air,” there was one uncomfortable giggle. The commotion jostled her competitor and he finally took his eyes away from her strangling face, which would persist indelible in his memory. The woman started past his head to a banner saying $500 Prize hanging from the ceiling by strings of linguine.
When they got her still, a man with a name badge tilted her head back and thrust three fingers down her throat. He brought back a damp hand and a bit of pulp. By this time her face had gone slightly blue. Her eyes found the plastic card hanging from his neck. It listed his name, Marco, and his title, Event Coordinator. His smile in the picture was straight and even and toothless, like an incision. Her hand came up and left an oily smear across the front of the badge, the strap around his neck a thick brown soba. Everything was noodles.
She went up from the floor, into the air, off of her feet, and up came her splayed elbows, fingers trying to tear her head off. Two hands came around her to form a fist at her stomach. Once settled they began retracting, punching up and in, lifting her ribs and breasts. Her hips jutted back into other hips, then forward to meet the fist as it came back into her, a compound irony or non sequitur. She felt a welling in her throat, pulsing up toward her mouth but finally just expanding and tearing, a balloon filled with too much air. A trickle of blood issued from one corner of her mouth.
Her head went down with each thrust, her hips coming back with some force, neck snapping. There were shouted instructions but her ears seemed full, too, of blood or food, she couldn’t tell. Her tongue moved wildly in her mouth, but no sound came forward. Another thrust and she saw the laces snaking out from the shoes behind her. Then she was back on the ground again.
A pair of wild eyes searched her face for progress. Over them was a sweaty tangle of hair and in the near distance a basketball hoop levered up horizontally, its net tangled in a rim surrounding the looming head like a halo. She. Could. Not. Breathe. The sirens were hardly like the Mozart she’d been promised, and the light was painful to her eyes, even as it started to tunnel down.
Another set of fingers in her mouth, four of them this time, serving only to wedge everything more firmly in her throat. The blood got thicker, more plentiful, blacker, and the hand got gentler, probing as if picking a lock, the thumb pressed against her cheek something like checking a pulse. The marinara of blood slicked the hand and ran down the wrist like a glove. Behind the hand was a giant cardboard check with a squiggled signature. She wanted a cigarette and was saddened by the realization that she would never be able to inhale.