It’s Tuesday night and I’m walking through the Meadowland’s State Fair with my girlfriend, Ann. The weather is cool and breezy and attendance is sparse. That’s good because I won’t have to wait to get on a ride. And man, I love amusement park rides.
“So what ride do you want to go on first?” Ann asks, as we leave the petting zoo. I petted dirty llamas and miniature ponies as a favor to her. I don’t like seeing animals cooped up.
“Why don’t we start off easy?” I suggest. ‘”How about the Rock & Roll over there?” Ann can get sick reading on a plane.
The Rock & Roll whips you around on an undulating circular platform which makes you feel like the resulting centrifugal force will throw you out of the car which, if everything is up to specs, it won’t. Because of the forces involved, the heaviest passenger has to sit on the left side. If you reverse that order the smaller person would get squished.
We clamber into the car and I, an amusement park pro, lower the safety bar and lock it myself. That doesn’t stop the operator from checking it anyway. When all the other passengers get on board the operator flips a switch and, within a few revolutions, the ride’a going full speed.
Ann lets out such a bloodcurdling scream that I’m afraid the operator will stop the ride. The carnies, leathery looking guys who’ve logged thousands of hours operating these rides, are trained to watch the passengers for signs of distress. But I guess they’re familiar with every type of scream and, seeing no danger, they let the ride spin away. A big smile spreads across my face. Suddenly I’m ten years old again. The operator encourages up to throw up our hands, so I do. And that’s when the trouble starts.
Beads of sweat form on my brow and something starts tickling my stomach. This has occasionally happened to me before so I focus on the head of the girl in front and my equilibrium issues sort themselves out. The ride ends after two minutes and I climb surefooted out of the car. “Ah,” I say to myself. “You just needed to get acclimated.”
The Crazy Mouse is next on our list. It’s just a roller coaster where the car spins. When we get in Ann tells the couple sitting next to her not to mind the screams. Thirty seconds into the ups, downs and revolutions, that funny feeling returns and I focus on my feet to combat the swimming in my head. Getting off the ride I’m still steady and bound down the stairs. I realize now I was just kidding myself.
“Let’s go on the Gravitron!” Annie says, surprisingly looking none the worse for wear. “That’s my favorite ride.”
“No,” I say emphatically. We’ve all been on some version of the Gravitron. That’s the ride where you stand in a large spinning cylinder and the G-forces pin you to the wall. I don’t like it because your body says you’re moving but, because the ride’s completely enclosed, you can’t see that you’re moving. It’s the one ride I can’t stand.
“I’ll go on the Space Roller if you go on this one,” Ann says. The Space Roller is my favorite ride. Ann hates it.
“Okay,” I say, getting on line. “But you better not wimp out on me.”
The ride is exactly as I remember it. When the cylinder gets up to full speed and I’m sticking to the wall, I turn my head to look at Ann. This cause my inner ear to scream, “What the hell are you doing?’” and I feel my stomach muscles ripple. I close my eyes as a defense and just wait for the everything to stop spinning.
When we exit the ride we are greeted by a huge splatter of vomit just outside the entrance. “Somebody didn’t make it,” I laugh, pointing the puke out to Ann. “Looks like someone had roasted corn,” she replies.
“Now for the Space Roller,” I say, ignoring the “Cut this shit out!” signals my body is sending me.
The Space Roller is, aw screw it, I’m tired of describing rides. Just sample the video. It’s a doozy.
The ride starts and suddenly we’re spinning and tumbling upside down. Now I am definitely not having any fun. Bile starts rising up my throat and a clammy sweat covers my body from head to toe. I’m going to puke. Instead of trying to focus on something, I just close my eyes and start breathing deeply. “Don’t hurl,” I chant to myself. “Don’t hurl.”
The ride comes to a stop. “Oh thank God,” I say to Ann. “I don’t think I can take any more of this.”
“We’re not done,” she says. “Now we go backwards.” Oh shit.
Somehow I manage to keep the contents of my stomach from going airborne and when the ride stops I stumble off the ride like a man who’s had five boilermakers in half an hour. Then I remember something I watched on Modern Family a few weeks ago.
During the episode Phil, a father of three, gets woozy after going on a roller coaster with his son at Disneyland. Around my age and a self-avowed roller coaster junkie, when he gets off the ride he stumbles around in circles, not understanding what’s happened to him.
“You look like hell,” Jay, his father-in-law says.
“I think that ride did something to me,” Phil replies.
“Fluid in you inner ear is thickening,” Jay says. “That’s what happens when you get old.”
“Yeah, you can’t take the motion. I gotta to pop a Dramamine to get in my swivel chair.”
In full nausea mode, I walk over to a picnic table and sit down. Putting my head in my hands, a realization washes over me.
“It’s official,” I say to Ann. “I’m becoming an old man.”
“Why do you say that?” she says. I remind her about Phil.
Ann laughs. “You’re not old. We just shouldn’t have done so many rides in a row.”
“Last year I didn’t have a problem,” I say. “Now I do. What if we have kids? What am I going to do? I’ll be in my fifties by then. What? I can’t go on the rides with them?”
Annie and I are getting married and the thought of children, whether we have them or not, has been on my mind a great deal lately. But if we do, I’m going to be an “old dad.” By the time my potential children graduate from grade school I’ll be mistaken for their grandfather. And the thought that I won’t be able to do fun things with them saddens me.
“Time to call it quits,” I say, thoroughly depressed “Let’s go home.”
As we start walking out of the park I see men almost half my age carrying their sleeping toddlers and I’m suddenly envious of their youth. Maybe I should have married long ago and had my kids when I was in my twenties. We have only so much time on this earth. Maybe I’ve squandered a good part of it.
“Let’s go on the Ferris wheel before we go,” Ann says. “You can handle that, right?”
As the Ferris wheel takes us skyward something a female friend told me echoes in my ear. “Don’t have kids,” she said. “You’re too old. Trust me, you won’t have the energy to keep up with them.” When she told me that I also realized I could die when my kids are still young.
After giving Ann the obligatory kiss, I sit in silence. Something at a fair always makes me sad. Sometimes it’s seeing the animals in cages, entitled people cutting in line or some crazy person having a meltdown because they didn’t win a teddy bear. This year it’s the realization of my own mortality.
Yet, looking at the New York skyline sparking in the distance, I remember what a wise man in his seventies also told me. “There’s a benefit to having kids when you’re older,” he said. “When you’re young you’re hustling to make a buck and into all that ‘Gotta be a success’ bullshit. Because your mental energy is tied up with that, you often don’t give your kids as much attention as you’d like. But when you’re older, you know all that stuff isn’t that important. So the time you spend with your children can be of higher quality, even if they don’t have you around as long.”
“Maybe,” I replied, not quite believing him.
“You’ll be a good father Steve,” he said gently. “Don’t worry.”
Despite a churning stomach, either from the rides or the fact my life will soon change in a big way, a smile spreads across my face. When I was in my twenties I was a mess. If I had kids then it would have been a disaster. Besides, I never would have met Ann – and that would have been an epic loss. I did the right thing waiting. I found the right one. And late is always better than never.
Slipping my arm around Ann I let out a satisfied and slightly puke flavored sigh. Whatever happens will happen. I can still ride this ride.
And if I have kids and take them to an amusement park, I’ll just pop a Dramamine.