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The amusement park sprawled across acres of land criss-crossed by paths and studded with buildings and rides. Although some of the rides offered a great deal of vertical movement, others were about speed or spinning, and only the rollercoasters at the very back of the park had both. My family and I wandered through the park; we had all day. Heat rolled off the asphalt in flickering waves. My sweat seemed extra salty and thick, which I assumed had something to do with the soda and hotdogs I’d eaten in seconds, or the strawberry taffy. Maybe it was dehydration, but by the time we arrived at the base of the curling, twisting, and looping roller coaster rides of grand proportions, I thought we were in a completely different part of the park.
After briefly discussing which ride would be first, we all shuffled into the line. There wasn’t much art on the walls to look at as we made our way through the winding chute that reminded me of farming, which made us either bovine or porcine. When we arrived at the loading platform’s parapet, only then could we see the train pull into the station to unload and load passengers. As I moved into the final line right in front of the train, which had just loaded, I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation of the couple in front of me, buckling themselves into the ride.
“This isn’t a scary one, is it?” the woman asked the man sitting next to her.
“No baby, this just a little ride. We just going around the lake, is all.”
The woman’s voice was filled with a frisson of anxiety, betraying her fight to stay calm. With an overly friendly tone, the man turned and called out to me.
“Hey! This isn’t one of those scary, big rides is it? It’s nothing to worry about,” he said. “She’s scared, and I’m trying to tell her it’ll be alright.”
My eyes quickly swept the platform as. I tried to gauge how much longer the couple would sit and chat with me before the train pulled away and started the long ascent to the track’s zenith, then a plunge down and into a loop. I had a decision to make: play along, or not.
“How do you two know each other?”
“She’s my girlfriend,” the man said, which caused her expression to shift. “And she is terrified of heights, so she’s never been on a rollercoaster.”
At first, I thought the man was joking. When I opened my mouth to answer with the obvious contrary assessment of the situation, he gave me a look that was much different than the cool demeanour he outwardly portrayed.
“What kind of ride is this?” the female asked me directly.
The man made pleading expressions. I realized I couldn’t be any part of this trick, even if it was mostly harmless.
“This is the biggest rollercoaster in the entire park,” I said. “We came from hours away to ride it again.”
“He’s just messing with you, baby,” the man quickly said.
“I know,” she replied. “You wouldn’t lie to me.”
The coaster jolted as the ride started. I watched the couple until they left my field of view, wondering what her response would be. I loved thrills, but there was a limit to what I’d put someone else through in order to get them. Having experienced the ride the year prior, I knew how my balls would crawl up into my stomach with the elevation. The drop down a seemingly sheer track was one of the better scares I’d found in an amusement park. To a person who didn’t like roller coasters at all, the ride would be terror inducing.
When the train finally rumbled back onto the platform, I was surprised at the couple’s demeanour. The man looked shook, and the woman seemed to be doing just fine. People were asking her if she’d liked it, and she was saying she had. Instead of asking the woman, I inquired of the man how his girlfriend had reacted.
“She said a lot,” the man said. “And now I don’t think we’re dating anymore.”
“Wow,” I said, glancing at the woman who continued to respond in the affirmative to strangers asking if she’d liked it.
On my way up to where the track appeared to terminate in the baby blue sky, I took measure of my fear level. I didn’t feel anxious. I liked roller coasters, and could only imagine how scared the woman had been. I was sure she fixed her eyes on the ever-advancing railroad ties across the tracks and squirmed as fear became crystalline: there was no waking up, her nightmare was real. The person screaming in the seat next to mine was a stranger, but the person adjacent to her was ostensibly the one she wanted to sit next to potentially for the rest of her life. Maybe the experience would bring them closer together, but I doubted it as my stomach dropped into my pelvis and the roller coaster levelled out after reaching the bottom.
I wondered how the woman felt as she realized the man next to her had completely betrayed her trust over a joke, and if that meant he thought her affection a trifle. I wondered what I would do in her situation, but that was impossible to know – I had no irrational fear of heights. I loved the rush of an amusement park, and had yet to taste the pain of life.
Jason Arment served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Machine Gunner in the USMC. He's earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Rumpus, ESPN, the 2017 Best American Essays, and The New York Times, among other publications. His memoir about the war in Iraq, Musalaheen, stands in stark contrast to other narratives about Iraq in both content and quality. Jason lives and works in Denver. Much of his writing can be found at jasonarment.com