Our parents were best friends from college and they had put us up to this. I’m sure it seemed perfect to them—matching their two handsome only-childs. A two-family vacation to Disneyworld. The dads convinced Mom that fourteen was old enough. Shoved us out the front door of the Donald Duck bakery and told us to walk the street until we were out of sight. Told us they had their pagers on. Dad winked. They went laughing down the other side of the walkway toward Cinderella’s castle, looking for the restrooms, and Haley and I left to trot around the park at dusk for two hours until the fireworks ended.
Once we were by ourselves, it was a relief to know that she was interested in rollercoasters. We talked about them; we agreed that the best parts about rollercoasters were the loops and turns, as opposed to the steep drops. We were both shy and we lived in different states, so it was so nice to have the rollercoasters thing.
“What rides have you ridden?”
“All of them.”
“What about at Cedar Point?”
“What’s Cedar Point?”
“It’s fun. It’s thirty minutes from my house.” That sort of thing.
First, we rode Magic Mountain twice, and the whole time this word “Date,” ran through my head and bothered me because it was useless and I liked Ellen from homeroom. I knew Haley had to have somebody like that too. She probably didn’t want to hear about baseball cards. And Haley did dance, I probably didn’t want to hear about dance. So in between rides we made the same conversation: How would you rank that one, one to ten, what’s your favorite part, did you see the scared mom behind us, the front car is definitely the best.
Near dark, on one of the dizzy rides, this little girl Christa got in our car. Maybe she didn’t ask if we were a thing because she assumed. That was fine with me so long as she didn’t ask. She just went on and on about her brother—how he was such a jerk, he had an episode and now they had to leave Florida a day early. Then the girl got sick and they had to stop the ride.
“I’m a little sick, too,” Haley said.
“Yeah,” is all I said.
“Do you want to split up for a little bit?” Haley said.
“It’s whatever.” I said. I thought, “What do you want?” And we stuck together, bumbling around the Magic Kingdom and checking the wait times for rides. We remained safe mysteries to each other. Once, we saw our parents from the wooden steps of a rollercoaster platform, but they didn’t see us. It was a stark contrast, them with mugs and shopping bags and inside jokes and Haley and me eight feet apart. I looked at her and she was resting her head on her hand on a post, staring at them from above.
“Are you too sick to ride anymore?” I asked.
She didn’t hear me because the cars were screeching into the loading dock. She didn’t say anything, at least. It was our last ride for the night and it was nearly mirthless.
So I knew Haley must have been over it by the time the final fireworks were shot. We spent the show leaning on a rail by the pond and my feet hurt. Our meet-up place was all the way back at the gate. My mom had prescribed that I buy a bucket of popcorn for us before the show, but I had chickened out and now I was hungry. There was no more conversation to have. What was there to say about fireworks? And Haley had become beautiful. Her t-shirt, short sleeves rolled inward, had before blended with the mindless, cheery park in the sunlight. Now that the sun was down, her mystery grew inward, intensified. We turned from the rail to see the façades sobered and dire. The lights darkened for the show weren’t coming back on. A voice came on over the PA.
“Please refer to handouts and posted flyers. Listen to park attendants. Please refer to handouts and posted flyers. Listen to park attendants.”
Haley was looking around and tucking her lips in her mouth. Maybe she’s terrified, I thought, or maybe she’s ready for a nap.
We’d more or less been in contact since we were born, but with only a week of contact each summer, Haley and I couldn’t get much farther than hobbies or shared meals. Previous summers were usually spent in Fort Lauderdale at her parents’ cream villa. At four or five years old, we ran through the sprinklers and played as a married couple beside her plastic kitchen set, adopting Power Rangers and Care Bears as our children. By nine, thrilled by their satellite television, I lay belly-to-carpet with a bag of chips while she sat with one or two of her school friends in her room. By fourteen the split was complete, and I suspect that even then we knew that trying to build anything with an annual week was fruitless labor.
A man in a ball cap, headset, and jumpsuit handed out flyers along the walk by the pond. He wore a lanyard with a name I couldn’t make out in the dark. He called everyone to gather around. People flocked. After scanning his get-up for a moment, I found a Mickey Mouse head on the back of his hat. Haley took a flyer and we bent over it together. The handout guy was announcing while he set up an emergency lantern in the faux town square. I saw similar lights going up across the park.
“This is group Pluto. You guys know who Pluto is right? That’s right, he’s that dog owned by a dog dumber than he is!” He smiled under the harsh glow and glanced at our faces. There must have been forty of us. The handout said PARK GUEST EMERGENCY PLAN F. Some punk yelled out, “Keep us safe, Mickey!” and the man kept on smiling. “In a moment we are going to move inside,” the attendant said. “Please stay with our group no matter what. If you have family elsewhere, and you know where they are, you may transfer, but make it quick. Please, only switch groups if you know exactly where the rest of your party is. And let me know.” A few people went forward to consult him and the punk strolled off on his own.
Haley didn’t move and neither did I. I looked across the grounds to see if I could find the parents. The attendant was now up on a small step ladder, motioning across the park with a traffic baton. A weary woman said, “Sir, what is going on?” “I’ll explain everything when we get inside.” He was waving at two other group attendants. A group across the pond was ushered into an arcade. He turned to the woman, his smile toned down and sincere. “This will be over quick,” he said.
To be concluded next week!