Two days earlier, in the early morning rush to make it out of the hotel and over to Space Mountain before any of the thousands of other people doing the exact same thing, I’d made the mistake of applying aloe vera gel prior to my sun exposure rather than some sort of sunscreen or, at the very least, tanning oil. Meaning I’d skipped past the pleasant, perfectly-toasted-marshmallow colour I’d hoped for and gone straight to a blistered red. The itinerary had been simple: Day 1: Magic Mountain (rides); Day 2: Epcot (that dome thing—I’m not actually sure what people do there or what it’s for); Day 3: Blizzard Beach (the water park, where we’re at). Day 2 had actually consisted mostly of my lying face-down on the hotel room bed while the AC ran at full power and Dad applied various solutions to my back: mint oil, green tea, and, ironically, aloe. This all served as a very effective reminder of Mom’s reaction to the news that Dad and I were going to Disney World.
“Florida. It’s hot there.”
When I woke up today I found my skin bubbles had dried and emptied, such that they were now basically dead, dark, crusty suspensions of skin over tender virgin dermis, not unlike a post flare-up marshmallow, in topography. The combination of child strength Advil, child strength Tylenol, and child strength Aspirin kept the pain at a dull roar except when some novel limb movement sent fissures through my skin suspension and thrust the far-too-living cells below into the sun and harsh air. This last thing happens a lot.
Dad held his hand toward one of my less charred extremities, in an attempt to soothe me. The others in line looked at him.
“He didn’t hit me.”
They weren’t convinced, but they did look away. The park’s path felt like sandpaper under my feet. They do this to stop people slipping with wet feet, but I wonder if the extreme abrasiveness might do more harm than good, all things considered.
“You don’t have to be scared, hon. It’s totally safe. It’s what, 2:30? A couple thousand people have gone down these already today.”
What he wants is for me to gather my emotional shit and take the first step up the stairs. The stairs lead up what is probably about four or five storeys in reality but which, in the peculiar abstraction away from, tangent to reality, which is a six year old girl’s (and, I assume, boy’s) brain, seemed to basically be infinite. There was very little practical difference to me between the height of this particular staircase and the cruising altitude of the plane we came here on, fear-wise, is what I mean. At the top of the stairs there’s a platform made of the same sandpaper concrete, on which stands a too-tanned, too-pearly-grinned, too-generally-positive-about-life, well, douchebag of a lifeguard, whose elementary grasp of child CPR is meant somehow to reassure me about my chances in the event I plummet thirty thousand feet and splatter onto the moist, unsettlingly warm sandpaper concrete below. From the platform there extend several pieces of moulded plastic, which point toward the ground at about eighty-five degrees. Down these sheets of what I can’t help but remember is basically the same material they use for disposable cutlery—i.e. not a material you’d Bet Your Life On—flow water, and the occasional terrified tourist, at intervals masterfully divined by the too-tan (as in near-Latino skin but with sun-bleached blonde hair), well, douchebag mentioned before. I’ve been assured by friends and loved ones that a trip at an eighty-five degree angle down thirty thousand feet of disposable spoons is, on the whole, both fun and rewarding. I do not trust my friends and family.
“But why do I have to?”
He pulled me aside, thankfully, at least letting those behind me pass.
“Hon, you don’t have to. I’m not going to make you. And it’s not like I’m going to punish you if you don’t.”
I turned around and walked away.
“—ey! —ey! —ey! Hold hold hold on.” He jumped around to what was now my front. He breathed. “You know I’m not always perfect at being a daddy, right?”
“And I know mommy could probably teach you stuff so it was easy, but I’m not always so good at that. So I’ve just got to come right out and say it: I’m trying to tell you something important, OK? Something about how I feel about life.”
So of course I ended up on the stairs. Dads trying to competently parent is always adorable in a sad, make-it-stop way to me.
“You see the slide, and it’s high I know it’s high. So I know when you see it you think ‘I can’t do that.’ I feel that way about it too, a bit.”
“But I’m more scared than you, Dad. So you can do it. I can’t.”
“You’re right, but that’s not what I meant to say. This isn’t about how I feel. Don’t worry about what other people are up to. You’re right about that. What I mean is—sometimes you have to do things you don’t think you can do.”
Which was the situation now, basically, where after only a minute or two in line there are no fewer than three million people behind me in line, all of whom would doubtless notice and make some internal mental note if I were ever to turn back—such notes would of course be well-meaning and not at all mean-spirited, something along the lines of “oh I sure hope she gets her courage up next time” or “you know these things definitely aren’t for everyone” or worst of all something equivalent to “there but for the grace of God go I” (i.e. We’re Not So Different, She And I), none of which I can really blame the people for thinking (who wouldn’t notice the one person who, in direct opposition to everyone else, is simply going the wrong way?—at which point of course the person can’t just shut their brain off so some sort of evaluation is going to take place), but the sheer number of thoughts that, well meaning though they may be, are directed squarely at me and are concerned chiefly with my actions: that’s just too much pressure for me to even finish this sentence properly.
“You see hon, in life there’s… there’s the person you are now, right, and that person is great. I don’t ever want you to think I don’t love you like you are right now because I do. But then there’s also this other person who doesn’t exist yet, but she’s—that’s the woman you can be. It’s like… your potential. You know the word potential?”
A group of four boys in front of (and slightly higher than) me are pushing each other back and forth on the stairs in an apparent effort to undermine the probably tedious, under-appreciated efforts of all the Disney Health and Safety personnel. The boys are in the ten- to thirteen-year-old range, and so have bodies that seem to be growing out of order, the issue primarily being the bony structures (elbows, knees, teeth, as well as overall “frame”), which look like they’ve jumped the gun before the muscles, fat, cartilage, and gums have had a chance to do much of anything to fill things in, ultimately leading to teeth that occupy most of the face, an oddly corpselike ribcage, and four pairs of board shorts long enough to cover eight knobby knees. They drip into puddles on the stairs, tainted with sunscreen, swirling the purple and green of oil on water.
“Well the thing about your potential is you really don’t know what it is. I mean—no I mean I obviously know you have lots of potential, but it’s hard to know how you’re going to use it, if that makes sense.”
“I should use it on water slides?”
There were a few reasons why this life lesson was taking place today, on Day 3 (water park), rather than on Day 1 (rides). The first was that on Day 1 Dad probably just hadn’t thought of it yet: “Teach Her to Fight” wasn’t until Chapter Nine in Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, and Dad isn’t much of a reader (somewhere midway through Day 2 [sunburn first aid] his encouraging rhetoric shifted slightly from repeatedly asking how I was doing toward something like a “use it—use the pain” USMC-esque mantra, which I think may have coincided with his finishing Chapter Nine). The second was that Dad’s love of rides was and is basically indescribable in its extremity (though he had—in the midst of a post-divorce hunting party billed by his friends as a sort of celebration of his newfound freedom to drink and go on poorly-itinerated hunting parties with friends whose motivations for said hunting party were somewhat less than genuine [Dad did end up paying for most of it], despite said freedom’s being somewhat significantly curtailed by the presence of a daughter the courts decided he was in better shape to take care of, relatively speaking, whom he then had to take with him, and put up a little curtain of sheets around for her area of the one-room hunting cabin, etc.—he had done his best to try to explain it, in slurred tones waxing eloquent about the moment not of the big drop, but of the smaller hill right after it, which, if properly designed, lifts you just enough off your seat so you can’t feel it, but not so much that you feel the restraining bar, and the sickly sweet pleasure of not touching anything) and he had spent most of the first day in something of a frazzle. The third reason was something he came up with.
“Because with the water slides it’s up to you. With the coasters, by the time it gets scary you’re already on the ride. You’re sitting there, click-click-click-ing up the hill, getting more and more scared, but by that time you’re already on there. You can’t do anything about it. I guess that’s a good skill too, being able to sit in fear. But what I think’s different—what I think’s good here is that you can learn to keep walking up the stairs even though going up the stairs is exactly what you’re—you can keep doing something, even though it scares you or you think you can’t do it.”
Which as a general character-building-type principle did make some sense, even at the time. A sort of paean to perseverance and grit. But what Dad either didn’t know or figured he shouldn’t say to me was the reasons for persevering, once all the hemming and hawing and pre-staircase mental logistics had ended. Meaning the reasons that became the sole impetus for my continued One Foot in Front of (and Slightly Above) the Other mantra, once I was actually in the situation, which had almost nothing to do with either the fun of the waterslide or the long-term, deep sort of happiness that comes from a well-formed character, and far more to do with my crippling fear, as I stepped up onto the platform proper, of being found out as the person I really was and am, which is not a Thrill Seeker, not a Water Slide Person, not the sort of person who sees fear as a challenge, but simply the sort of person who doesn’t want people to know she’s just doing this so people don’t know she’s just doing this so they don’t know. Which is all as much as to say that as I stepped into the shallow pool that formed the edge of the platform and felt the subtle but immense pull of the two counter-positioned torrents of water disappearing into what looked like nowhere at all there was no “it’s OK”/“I Can Do This” internal monologue going on, but more a constant recognition that, of my two real options, I was up to neither. I’ve heard it said that as the moment of suicide approaches, the fear of death remains constant, even normal; it’s just that the fear of everything else increases until it’s the slightly least horrible-sounding of the available options. I had only the constant certainty, as I shoved off the platform, with the concrete sandpaper rushing toward me, all the water in the world raining down with me, and the sickly sweet pleasure of not touching anything, that I Can’t Do This.