No one tells you you’re anywhere near the ride, even when it looms ahead, cloaked in invisibility; or is just around a corner, hidden behind the fresh spring leaves on a giant oak that blocks your view of everything, even the soft blue sky. You may not know you even entered the theme park.
Then, someone buys you a ticket without your knowledge or consent.
With a 4-point harness, you’re strapped into in a car with room for just one. The seat cushion is long past its prime, with only small lumps of padding remaining, and springs that poke through the faded black leatherette and scratch the back of your legs. Nothing but weathered, torn-up plywood, its red paint peeling, for a back rest. With no leg room, your knees crush against the cold, scratched metal at the front the car, your feet in a grotesque version of second position on a floor covered in trash, and sticky from spilled soda.
The ride bolts out of the station, the wheels clicking loudly, the car shaky, jangling. Your teeth rattle, your knees repeatedly banging against the metal structure. Fetid air blows past your face; it’s hard to take a full breath. Sometimes there is driving rain. Or a hailstorm.
Even with the harness tight across your chest, it feels like you will fall out as the car climbs, up and up and up. The ground gets farther away. From what you can see, some of the wooden supports holding up the track are cracked; some broken, some missing.
“Why am I here?”
The ride, never smooth, the car swaying side to side, bumping along the track, takes you up steep slopes, then drops you straight down. Sharp turns. Corkscrews. Loops. Inversions. All you can do is hold on. And scream. And cry. And grip the cold, slippery metal sides of the car with every ounce of strength your arms and fingers can muster.
At first, you are alone. And call you see is the track, empty as it goes through tunnels and trees, under and over itself. Nobody is on the pathways looking up at the ride or in line at the concession stands. No one is there to witness what is happening.
The ride continues. Sometimes slowing down, sometimes rolling through a station, with a park employee standing on the side. Giving you hope the ride will end and you’ll be able to get off. Then the speed picks up again. As you’re jerked back into the seat, pushing splinters through your shirt, into your skin, all you see of the ride operator as you barrel past is crooked teeth, spittle gathered in the corner of his lips, with his mouth open wide in a cackle.
Eventually, after too many rounds of the track to count, you start to recognize the turns as you approach them. They aren’t all the same—the track changes with every round. But you start to understand how it was built. On an upslope, you realize what kind of fall will follow. Approaching an inversion, you know how to hold on to be most comfortable upside down.
You can’t stop the ride; but you know what to expect and can, in little ways, prepare. Shift the cushion so the worst of the springs is jamming into your leg at a slightly less painful angle. Move a knee subtly right or left so it isn’t as thoroughly bruised by the thumping from the car’s vibrating front wall.
And then you start to notice people. You see there is a car far, far ahead of you on the track. A person inside, hair blowing back in the wind created by their car streaking along the track. You hear snippets of their screams and cries. You’re not alone.
At a turn, you’re able to look behind you and see someone being strapped into their car for the first time—you recognize the confusion and terror on their face. You call out, but they can’t hear you.
People on the ground, too.
Some are looking up. They see you, but for some reason not the ride. To them, you’re screaming and crying for no reason. They point. They laugh. You hear them: What’s wrong with that person? Why are they screaming? Nothing is happening to them.
Some are looking up. They see you and the ride. But to them it looks like you’re on the Dumbo ride at Disneyland. Sedate, fun, cartoonish. They point. You hear them snickering. Why is that person afraid of Dumbo? Suck it up. Haha, it’s just a kiddie ride.
Some see you. And they see the ride, in all its horrific glory. They stand taller as they laugh and bluster: That ride wouldn’t scare me. I wouldn’t scream like that. What’s wrong with this person?
Some want to help. They try frantically to find the operator to get the ride turned off. The search for a technician to slow the runaway speed, an engineer to strengthen the track or fix the car. When they realize you can’t get off the ride, they try to make it smoother for you.
Some hop on the side of your car as you speed by, with no concern for their own safety. They brace themselves, then reach into the car and hold your hand. Stroke your hair. Whisper into your ear: I’m here. You’re not alone. I’m scared, too, but I’m not going to leave you.
Others throw things into the car as you whoosh past—padding to put on the seat, knee pads, a rain jacket. They yell encouragement and kind words each time you pass them. You start to look forward to those times.
With that support, you start to feel a little less out of control. You put on the rain jacket when you need it, take if off when the track runs over the humid, airless swamp. You scooch around to get the padding underneath you and work to remove the worst of the springs. At last you find a way to loosen the harness so you can take a full breath. You figure out how to sit to minimize getting new splinters in your back. You toss out the trash from the floor near your feet.
You talk to the person on the side of the car and together you come up with ideas to slow the car down. There will never be room for them to join you in the car; and they will always be able to hop off. But they hop back on whenever you call out for them.
Eventually, the track itself starts to change. Some of the drops become less precipitous, the corkscrews and inversions are farther and farther apart. And the ride slows down, the jarring bumps are fewer and far between. This starts out as sometimes, bringing relief that you no longer have to be vigilant and clenching at lifelines for every moment of your existence. Then, without really realizing as it’s happening, that sometimes grows to most of the time.
You finally realize you will never get off this ride—it’s just part of your life now, one you mostly know how to deal with and work around. Sometimes something will happen and the ride will suddenly speed up. A sharp turn or corkscrew will appear without warning on what, moments before, looked like a straight, calm piece of track. Sometimes the car will stop suddenly. Or back up. Or almost tip you out the side. Or jam into your knees again.
But by now, you have the tools and the support to get through when those things happen. And one day, maybe hundreds or thousands of days after someone strapped you into this ride without your permission, you will forget you’re even on this ride. Because it will no longer be the only thing you can see, no longer be the only track you’re on. It will just be part of who you are.