By Jessica Cohn-Kleinberg
I can measure my life by the turn of a Ferris wheel.
When my family first went, Dad had finally sold his book, so we were allowed to have fun money. Mom said that fun money was cash we could spend on stuff we didn’t need. I liked fun money.
She laughed when I mentioned this. It sounded like the tinkling of a thousand tiny bells. It was lovely. Some nights I tried to practice it in the bathroom but I never got it right. I would stare in the mirror and try to pick out what part of me looked like her. We both had dark hair but where her’s curled and bounced, mine lay lank and flat. Where my eyes were a solid grey, her’s were speckled with gold. She was more.
The one thing we did have in common was our love of James Dean. Well, she loved James Dean and I loved her. In the end it wasn’t difficult.
It was the sound I noticed first. We could hear it at the far edges of the parking lot. The music was as lively and fast as the spinning lights that flashed on every ride. The groans of the rides spoke the language of great mammoth beasts fashioned out of metal. All the children running through the groves of parent legs shared one giant shriek of freedom.
Inside, magical giants appeared to float above the crowd. They wore brightly colored garments that’s sparkled and flowed around them. Their white painted faces gleamed in the moonlight. My mother poked me when she saw what had drawn my attention.
“Aren’t they wonderful?”
I nodded, afraid to miss a moment of this dance of floating giants.
“You can’t see it but they’re balanced on wooden sticks.” She pointed to the nearest one. “Watch as they walk. You can see the stilts when their pants lift.”
As I watched, I knew when I got home I would find some tree branches and learn to walk like a giant. Dad wouldn’t let me stop to take a picture with them because we didn’t have enough time. He had to be back at the house in two hours to have a phone conference with his agent.
We dug our way deeper into the crowd. There were so many people. Voices blended into each other until they were one beastly growl. Their forms blurred as we passed. They had become shapeless, faceless blobs. Features consumed by the Crowd God. It surged in waves against us, trying to separate us. But Mom held my hand tightly as we followed Dad’s broad shoulders. She skipped through the pockets of space the Crowd God had yet to eat. She didn’t fear getting lost, and soon, neither did I. When we made it through, both of us were skipping.
In front of us stood the Ferris wheel. It slowly spun in the air, graceful, like the swans that drifted in the pond outside school. This Ferris wheel, like the swans, seemed bored. As we waited in line I watched and waited. I knew that soon it would grow tired of this place and simply lift into the sky and glide away. But it never did.
Around us popcorn littered the ground, poking through the grass like budding daisies. When we were finally on top of the Ferris wheel, I looked up and noticed the stars. They were so bright I wondered if some of the popcorn had been thrown into the sky and gotten stuck. Mom took this moment to move the safety bar and stand. We rocked with her movements and the couple behind us gasped.
“Elizabeth, sit down. You could fall.” Dad’s whisper was furious. I shrunk in my seat and closed my eyes. I kept seeing images of her broken body lying on a ground of popcorn stars. But all mom did was laugh.
“Don’t be silly Gerald. I’m just standing. There’s no harm in standing.” I peeked through my eyelashes. Her head was thrown back and arms spread wide. I almost believed she could fly. But then the Ferris wheel began to move and she sat back down. She held Dad’s face in her hands and smoothed his frown away with her fingertips. When we were on the ground again we were all smiling.
Mom decided that I had to try cotton candy. It was a strange pink cotton ball on a stick. I eyed it suspiciously. Last year my best friend dared me to eat a cotton ball. I didn’t want to do it again. But my Dad’s eyes crinkled with a grin.
“Go on Sammy girl. Try it.”
The cotton candy melted on the tip of my tongue until my mouth was coated in sweet pink goodness. I gasped. Mom laughed and Dad stole my fluff so that he could arrange it on his face like a beard. I tried to climb his legs to reclaim my prize.
“Ew Daddy. Now it has your germs. Give it back.”
My sticky fingers left little pink dots all over his jeans as I tried to use his belt as leverage. Finally he handed me back my fluff. I turned to show Mom, but she wasn’t there. I searched the crowd, afraid it had eaten her. But then I heard her laugh and the crowd parted, showing me her. She was petting a Golden retriever puppy and giggling as it licked her face.
When she was done, she came back to us.
I tried on the beard for her and attempted to make my voice deep. Dad winked at me and called me his “little bearded lady.” Then he stole some to give to Mom. As he popped a piece in her mouth she grabbed his hand and left a small kiss on his wrist. Dad called them ghost kisses because they were so soft and quick. It was as if they were never even there. Every now and then, when he said this, his eyes were sad and didn’t crinkle the way I liked.
That night we laughed more than I can remember. Mom and Dad kept kissing each other when they thought I wasn’t looking. We even had our fortunes told by an old hunched lady with a crystal ball. She told us we were a lovely family and that we shouldn’t worry about the future. She said we were going to be happy for a long, long time.
Sometimes I think of her and question why she lied. Maybe she was talking about Mom. She was probably happy. It was her thing. She didn’t let little things weigh her down. Little things like us. In a year she would leave us “to find happiness” like her note said.
Three years later the sky was a deep empty black. It was as if the stars had all fallen to the ground in popcorn clumps that crumbled underfoot. Well under my feet. My new mom carefully avoided the stars in the dirt. She edged around them in her teeny tiny ankles strapped in her teeny tiny heels. The way she wobbled was like the stilt creatures I saw when I was seven-- but with less grace. I remembered wanting to be like them. Now I was too old to want to walk on tooth picks. It seemed silly. New-mom wouldn’t let me eat cotton candy or make beards out of it. She said I didn’t need the fat. But she smiled when she said it. It was a toothpaste ad smile.
New-mom made it a point to let us know she had been in a toothpaste commercial. The third time I met her she pulled a videotape out of her glittery purse. She had to explain to me what a videotape was because I refused to believe that the black box could play a movie. When she realized that we didn’t had a VCR set up, she made our house-keeper, Martha, dig it out of the attic. But New-mom grumbled like she was the one sifting through boxes. When we had it set up, she fast forwarded to her part. And there she was. Her red hair was shiny and thick. Her face was smoother and less tight. It didn’t look like a balloon, the way she looked now. When I told her she had balloon skin she raised her hand to slap me. But then she immediately began to cry. As she hugged me I watched my reflection on the television. My faint image seemed to be erased by her glaring smile.
I never told Dad because I didn’t know how to bring it up. She tried to be nice to me for a little while after. But her smiles reminded me of her toothpaste ad, so I was relieved when she seemed to give it up. Now she only talked to me to point out how much weight I had gained or to order me around. She also had a list of rules for me. Cotton candy was just one of the things I wasn’t allowed to eat anymore.
I wanted to go into the funhouse first. She wanted to go on the Ferris wheel but both me and Dad shot that down. Some memories shouldn’t be taunted. So the funhouse it was. It sat in the middle of the fair. The line slithered through the crowd like an angry snake. Halfway through the line Dad had to answer a phone call. Dad’s phone calls always took a long time. So when it was time for us to enter, it was just me and New-mom.
The man at the front took my ticket. His mouth was filled with lonely ragged teeth. He was missing half of his right eyebrow cause of a scar. As I gave in my ticket I noticed his hands. They were smooth and moved with graceful flourishes. His nails were clean and shimmered with a clear coat of nail polish. It was odd how something ugly could be hiding something so pretty. I glanced at New-mom and wondered why she didn’t have hands like his.
When I tried to walk past him he shook his head and pointed to a sign behind him.
All children must be accompanied by an adult.
I sighed and sent a questioning glance at New-mom. But her sneer was answer enough. We watched the snake line surge past us as families went in. The man took the tickets and smiled at each child. Someone should’ve told him not to do that. Next to me New-mom complained about her ankles. I listened to the shrieking giggles erupting from the funhouse and wished I was in there.
When Dad came back he was frowning. New-mom didn’t like that so she attempted to smile more and laugh louder. As there was nothing much to laugh about it was strange to watch. I was a bit worried that her balloon skin would tear and her head would burst.
The rest of the night was a Ferris wheel of angry phone calls and high heel complaints. Dad promised to win me a giant teddy bear when he saw I wasn’t happy. And he did. He threw the darts and popped all five balloons in a row. The giant bear was almost my size and had a ribbon tied around its neck in a neat bow. Dad had it in his arms when one of New-Mom’s heels decided to snap. She held her broken shoe in her hands like it was a dead puppy. I could see the wetness in her eyes and prepared myself. Dad ran to her side and shoved the bear in her face.
“Look what I won honey. It’s for you.” He said it too loud, as if his voice alone could dam her tears.
She stared at it for a second, confused, but a wobbly smile soon came into being.
“It’s adorable. I love it!” New-mom hugged the bear to her ample bosom. I watched her suffocate Mr. Bear with her chest and clenched my teeth. My hands made fists so tight that my nails left little half moons in my palms. But I stayed silent.
New-mom looked mournfully at her shoe. “But what do I do about my feet? I can’t walk around like this.”
Luckily, Dad was wearing sandals. And even though they dwarfed her feet, they somehow managed to stay put. I was put in charge of her heels. I imagined a few scenarios where I accidently lost them, but it never panned out.
When we stopped for drinks, she spilled her entire diet-Pepsi all over Mr. Bear. She was upset for a second but then shrugged and tossed him into the nearest garbage bin. He sat there on a pile of popcorn and watched us walk away, his black button eyes dull with the remnants of sticky soda.
On the ride home she said that this was a complete waste of a night, and for once I didn’t disagree with her. She vowed never to go back and she didn’t. She was gone five months later. I guess Dad finally got tired of her complaints and her tiny ankles. In the end she lasted the longest though.
I was sixteen the next time I found myself at the fair. Daddy had recently taken a break in his string of New-moms and was focused on work. I had nothing to do so I finally said yes when a boy in my class asked me out. His name was Daniel. He wore a leather jacket and looked like James Dean.
That was enough.
It was his idea to go to the fair. He thought it would be ironic. I’m not sure what was supposed to be ironic about it. It was 10:00 when he picked me up and I didn’t bother to say good-bye to Dad. He was holed up in his work room.
I don’t remember much of the music or lights from the night. But I remember the feel. The air was heavy with promised rain. Daniel’s sweaty hands found their way to different parts of my body throughout the night. In the beginning they stayed on my shoulders and then, later, on my waist. It seemed like the sort of thing that happened on dates. I didn’t mind. He had a flask in his leather jacket and we sipped it throughout the night. It tasted like metal and made me warm and floaty. The lights were softer and there seemed to be an electric energy in the air. I wanted to dance. I think I even did at one point.
We didn’t go on any rides but we tried all the games. I’m pretty sure he spent close to fifty bucks that night. Each time he lost, his face got redder and redder. But after a few tries he was able to win me a cute rubber ducky at the basketball toss game. I told him it was perfect and that seemed to satisfy him
He didn’t like cotton candy but he liked popcorn. We followed the delicious scent to a stand and bought some. But we didn’t eat any. He was the one who started the war when he threw a kernel down the front of my shirt. Soon we were running through the crowd throwing handfuls of popcorn at each other. By the end my cleavage was covered in crumbs. Daniel tugged me behind a stand and grinned.
“I don’t think I got enough popcorn.” His eyes never left my chest and I didn’t mind. There’s something powerful in getting a man to notice you. It was nice. I arched my back a little (Wasn’t that what girls did?) and he took that as permission to kiss me. His lips met mine and I tried to follow his movements. He tasted like liquor and butter. I had no idea what I was doing, but he did. Or he thought he did. He could’ve used a bit less tongue. I felt like I was a lollypop. And I didn’t think my chin deserved quite that much attention. When he turned his attention to my neck I had to wipe my mouth.
Finally he got to the popcorn crumbs on my chest and I started to wonder if this was going too far. But then he was up and grinning. He reached into his pocket and withdrew the flask.
“Here have the rest. I don’t want anymore.” I didn’t want to be rude so I drank the rest in one gulp. It burned down my throat and made the world tilt. I giggled.
“Come on. I know where we can go.” He threw his arm around my waist and herded me to the Funhouse. By this time it was late and there were less people around and practically no kids. There was also no line. We handed our tickets to the guy standing out front. I don’t remember what he looked like but I knew he wasn’t the guy with the beautiful hands. As we entered I think Daniel winked at the guy. That seemed silly and made me burst into giggles again. Daniel grinned and tugged me through the maze of mirrors. When we got to a little pocket of mirrors in the back, he started with the kissing again. This time it was nicer. He spent less time with my mouth so I didn’t have to worry about drowning.
I knew what was happening. I knew what was going to happen. I’d heard other girls describe it and it sounded nice. By now there were no crumbs on my chest and I’m sure if any had fallen beneath my shirt, he’d have found them too. We made a bed out of my clothes and he pulled out a condom. I’m glad he was prepared. That was responsible of him.
The rest was kind of a blur. There was grunting involved. And I don’t think I felt any pain. Mostly I stared at my reflection in the mirrors around us and wished that my hair was curlier.
He ended with a shuddering groan and then rested on top of me for awhile. He was a bit heavy but I didn’t tell him to move because I didn’t want to bother him. His breaths came in short wet gasps against my shoulder. When he was ready he pecked at my neck with his lips, stood. He pulled the condom off and threw it behind him with a grin. It sat in the dirt, a little bloody, pale and glistening, like something newly dead.
He still had his leather jacket on and found that I was happy about that. After his jeans were back on, he helped me dress and then we walked back to his car in silence. I don’t think either of us said anything on the ride home either.
At my house he thanked me for the night and kissed me on the cheek. I watched him drive away and then stared into the sky for a while. It was cloudy and I marveled that it hadn’t rained yet.
That night it took me a while to fall asleep. I kept finding my glance straying to my mirror.
I went back the next day. The fair was gone and it was just an empty field now. The floor was littered with popcorn and trash and there were gouges in the dirt where the heavy rides had rested. I found a generally clean patch of grass and sat down. After a while I laid my back on the ground and watched the clouds pass me by.
It was only when the sun started to set that I realized I was crying.