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4 minute read.
Carnivals, like poetry, deal in love and death. Blinking colors and grime, beaming smiles and tobacco-stained grimaces. Sweet cotton candy scenting the air but also currents of vomit and worse. What I liked least were those colorful mementos mori sold at the ticket window. This is how much time you have, my modest roll of tabs declared, and no more.
But Joyce was with me. The carnival itself didn’t matter. Only its charms reflected in Joyce: giant smile at winning a plush owl, colorful lights bending against hair and skin, music waltzing with her voice, summer warmth lifting the scent of sunscreen from her neckline. I was in love. I wanted to bottle every detail for the lonely days ahead.
Soon I was destined for the political brainwashing bootcamp AKA Boys’ State. Joyce would suffer long months of SAT prep and grueling piano drills. Under whip-cracking and piles of algebra and Chopin, our summer would disappear. So soon would our last school year together. We clung to every moment.
After tilt-a-whirling apples, a royal carousel, and a rickety Ferris Wheel, we each had one ticket remaining. We’d been eyeing one ride all evening, a strange old dark tunnel, its theme obscure: neither “Tunnel of Love” nor ghostly horror show. Whatever it held we wanted to enjoy together, so we boarded a wooden whale, sailed into the dark cavern, and let the mystery swallow us.
In the dark, we wasted no time. We kissed. My hand slid to Joyce’s thigh. Her breath was warm and wet on my neck. The boat rocked with our bodies, water sloshing. Black light hearts and diamonds shimmered to life around us as if talismans against time.
Then the whale boat splashed to a stop, our bodies a make-out still life. A great balance scale, at least ten feet across, appeared on a platform. Atop its fulcrum perched a man in dirty wine-colored robes. Eyes unnaturally round, uncaring as clock faces. Beak-like nose. Liquid dripped into the scale basins, tilting gently with fluxing weight.
“A final ticket,” the man said, hopping down, voice a rusty harmonica. “A final choice.”
Joyce took my hand as images crackled from the dark: a drive-in display revealing scenes from our futures—futures apart. We would live in separate cities, marry other people, work jobs to support separate families.
“See, it just ain’t in the cards for you two,” the man creaked, rubbing his robed arm against his face as if drying feathers after rain. “Have to fix this now before things get outta balance. But, if ya like, I could let’cha stay together. A trade of life for love. You might have, oh, say five good years. Ten if you’re lucky.” His arm whipped outward, robe scattering water droplets. “Then we meet again.” His long, talon-like fingernails clinked against the metallic scale. “Or you can live out your natural lives, risk it with other fish. But this love tonight, what you’re feeling, it will fade away forever, never to enter your heart again. Future love, well, that will be a mere echo of what’cha feel tonight.”
Joyce’s hand went limp in mine, and in that moment, I understood. The threat of early death weighed heavier than our young passion. Like starting a carnival night with half your tickets burned. No matter how much I loved her, it was too much to ask.
“Why do we have to forget?” Joyce said.
“You’ll be glad for it, little thing,” the man said. “A love like yours, well, it’s like sipping scalding tea. You’ll burn your tongue, mess up your taste for good. This way, least ya can move on, maybe catch a half-decent second love. But, one way or another, to live you must forget.”
We were finished. Fluids dripped down into one end of the scale, and it tilted with a deep groan.
“Enough said,” the man huffed as he leapt from the platform, gliding onto the edge of our whale raft. “Your decisions are made already, so just hold. Very. Still.” Like a priest rubbing ash on a congregant, his thumbnail traced an elaborate pattern on Joyce’s forehead. Her eyes went pale as blood dripped to her brow. Past the curtain of his billowing robe was a chance: a weakly humming EXIT sign. That was right: we weren’t powerless. We were still in a world with its own laws. There was gravity that made the rides work, let our wooden whale float in the water, pulled away our time in drips and dribbles into choices and moments spilled out forever. I shot up. I thrust the man off the edge of the raft and into the water. As he fell, ripped papers burst out of his robe and into the air. The scraps fell around us as we escaped, and I grabbed a handful on the run. In the debris, only one piece remained untorn. A pink cardboard tab promising to ADMIT ONE.
Later, Joyce and I didn’t see each other much. We survived Boys’ State and her mother’s drill camp. We met for ice cream, but she didn’t insist I feed her sample spoonfuls of my flavor. At school, she sometimes sat by me at lunch. Sometimes she seemed to forget I existed. Once, I mentioned that strange, bird-like carnival man. “Did we go to the carnival?” she asked hazily. “I thought you were at Boys’ State that week.” Above her confused eyes was a labyrinthine scar, already starting to fade.
Now, many years later, my ticket is dirty at the edges, lettering faint. But when I hold it, I can relive those feelings. Music, warmth, sweetness. Painful throbs of love. I go cold and hear screams of terror and delight from couples on thrill rides. I shudder at flapping wings. These are memories I am not allowed to keep, and I remember the man’s promise that we would meet again. What can I do but protect these feelings here, in story, before, at last, the scales tip against me?
James Sullivan is the author of Harboring (ELJ Editions). His stories and essays have appeared in Cimarron Review, New Ohio Review, Third Coast, Fourth Genre, The Normal School, and Fourteen Hills among other publications. In 2022, he was a finalist for the Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction.