Unreliable Narrator: I’ll Have Seconds. Eventually.
“Do the one thing you think you cannot do. Fail at it. Try again. Do better the second time.” — Oprah Winfrey
THURSDAY, JUNE 14
Memory is a fickle thing, but as far as I can tell, my very first encounter with a thrill ride occurred in the thick of some hot and muggy summer at the front end of the nineties. Days earlier, I’d piled into a van along with my mother, father, two brothers, two aunts, and three cousins for a seemingly endless drive down Interstate 95, from New York to Orlando. Now we’d finally made it to that all-American bastion of wholesome family fun, Walt Disney World, and we were ready to soak up every bit of the experience.
I was the youngest of our party of ten, but taller than my cousin Josie by a head and a half—when she found herself restricted from boarding some attraction or other, the adults in the group took turns waiting outside with her while the rest of us forged ahead. This burgeoning routine had an odd effect on the two of us. Josie, usually rambunctious and daring, began opting out of experiences that her height didn’t actually preclude her from participating in. (“How haunted is it?” she asked of the The Haunted Mansion, cringing, before sitting it out.) Meanwhile, the all-access pass granted by my reedy limbs emboldened me, the erstwhile scaredy cat.
Yes, I could ride Splash Mountain, but did I want to? the adults asked me. Had I seen that big drop? I shrugged nonchalantly. If I was tall enough to ride, then certainly I could handle it.
After winding our way back and forth underneath the searing sun, in and out of several elaborately countrified set pieces, we finally made it to the loading area. The seats carved out of our artificial log were worn and spattered with water. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the profound scent of corrosion all around me. My mother stepped into our faux bois vehicle and an attendant helped me climb in after her, at which point we realized there were no safety restraints, just a couple of wet handles molded into the backs of the seats in front of us. We shot each other a nervous glance.
“I guess you’ll have to hold on,” my mother laughed as the log lurched forward.
I doubt I gleaned much of the storyline that first go-round, but I did focus as best I could on the echoes of my fellow passengers’ shrieks, my mother’s laughter, the way each drop flung my stomach up into my ribcage for a brief moment, the wind rushing into my face until it felt as if it had somehow hit the brakes before a metallic-tasting drizzle replaced the initial slipstream. As is my habit, I did my focusing the only way I know how: silently, brow furrowed, a slight frown etched onto my face.
“Are you okay?” my mother asked as our ride pulled back into the station. I nodded, and she gave me an odd look. “Are you sure? You didn’t have much of a reaction.”
She was right. In our commemorative photo, my brother is throwing his head back—in laughter or fear, I’m not sure—a gap-toothed grin on his face. My aunt’s eyes are wide, her mouth frozen agape. My cousins have already begun to scream. Meanwhile, I’m staring, stone-faced, down into the abyss, calmly contemplating what comes next. “I just want to make sure you’re having a good time,” my mother said.
Was that what a good time looked like? I wondered. To my eyes, their experience seemed hellish compared to mine. Is that how it’s done? How did I manage to keep a straight face, anyway?
It’s a wonder I ever boarded another roller coaster again.
First tries are a thing of reckless beauty. Second tries are a feat of miraculous audacity. To cast ourselves into uncharted waters, not feel the ground beneath us, and live to tell the tale should be good enough. There, I did it, we can tell anyone who wants to know. Perhaps our survival was a fluke; maybe the waters were particularly calm on the day that we dove in. To willingly tempt fate more than once, however, is a testament to a special sort of mettle, the kind I’m hoping to cultivate.
My fledgling freelance career kicked off with a flurry of activity: interesting assignments, chance meetings with editors, new challenges. Now, that first batch of invoices has been dispatched and I find myself saddled with the sinking realization that I need to dust myself off and start all over again. It’s daunting as hell. I flinch at casual inquiries about what’s next—not only do I not know what comes next, even the prospect of drawing from past experience is frightening. That was a one-off, an unusual stroke of serendipity, I tell myself. How am I supposed to pull that off again?
“Don’t be like Rory Gilmore,” one of my more direct friends warned me.
“Pregnant?” I asked, confused. “Aimless with bad taste in men?
“No,” he said. “You know how she wrote that one piece for The New Yorker and then couldn’t find her next act.”
“Oh, that,” I said, my blood pressure spiking. “Yeah, I’ll try not to do that.”
Of course, these second acts tend to happen one way or another. A mischievous uncle shoves us into the deep end when we’re not paying attention—what choice do we have but to flail, kick, and keep our heads above water? I continued to board roller coasters that day—a mix of curiosity and my childish desire for bragging rights propelled me forward—and in the several years since, though I’ve come to understand the enormity of each banked turn, barrel roll, and steep drop.
I now scream and laugh and cry as I hold on for dear life, but so far, I’ve always made it back to the station.
One of the nice things about experiencing a ride multiple times is that you start to pick up on details you might have missed the first time you hurtled through. After years of repeat visits, I’ve learned the Splash Mountain storyline like the back of my hand. Br’er Rabbit, looking for a new adventure, packs his things and leaves home, only to run into a bumbling fox and bear duo intent on trapping and making a meal out of him. Our wily hero outsmarts them, once, twice, three times, the last of which involves a clever bit of reverse psychology. He pleads with his would-be captors to kill him, eat him, do anything but fling him into the briar patch below, which, naturally, they do. As it turns out, the briar patch is exactly where Br’er Rabbit was born and raised, and after his harrowing journey, he decides to put a stop to his adventure-seeking and stick around for the long haul.
Who could blame him? He narrowly escaped his first journey with his life. Then again, there’s something about the look in Br’er Rabbit’s carefully crafted Audio-Animatronic eyes during his homecoming scene that recalls the beginning of act one. You get the sense that, once he catches his breath, settles in, and gets good and bored once more, he might just go wandering a second time.