In the gray Nissan Versa that’s hard to afford, my mother sits behind the wheel, our daughter in her lap. I am sprawled behind them, next to the car seat our girl has abandoned for a better view of the lot before us.
For the past ten days, the lot has been transformed from the desolate patch of asphalt outside a mall so skeletal the community keeps vigil around it, waiting for word of its death, to a blinking neon festival of thrills and frights and views from epic heights.
This is its last night in town. We have pulled up and parked just outside the wire fence that surrounds it, our last stop on a customary post-church evening joy ride.
Though we’d planned to bring Story here to see the lights and laughter, the curious gadgetry, acrobatic and colorful, we had no plans to enter. We’d decided she’s still too young. Even the carousel horses seems meant for bigger children. And truth be told, I am relishing the vestiges of her babyhood: the incoherent babbling that still overwhelms her plain-speech; the consternation that crosses her face when confronted with lid-less cups; the way her steady gait becomes a toddle when mounds of grass crumple under her feet. I am often relieved at how the brevity of her attention span exempts us from kids-movie-showings, and so too the carnival feels thankfully premature, the longer we watch the older children prance and twirl and cavort.
But it is the length of time we sit and keep watch that unravels me. The longer we’re there, the more I notice the single fathers, hoisting a child onto their shoulders or pushing a stroller toward lines, entering and exiting Ferris wheel cabins, tucking massive toys under their arms–all the spoils of overpriced games they’d battled and conquered. The longer we’re there, I am inundated with nuclear families: a father, a mother, a toddler and teen; two parents, their twins, and a goldfish.
It’s almost more than I can take, some days, your absence. And this may be because we hear from you each day. This may be because your voice echoes through us as though we are caves. Your email and texts and packages punctuate a kind of loss.
I know to be grateful; I know the work of practiced contentment. It is arduous and long. But it is fashioning within me a bemused patience, a poker face, so we can’t feel the rawness of nerves.
This is my predominant stance, but today there will be no masquerading. Today, the house of mirrors I’ve constructed, so my face will reflect the expressions of those who greet it, is closed.
I crawl out of the car and round the perimeter of the fence. My mother and I have spotted a ride within that is suitable for a girl as small as ours. It’s a series of green baby dragons that rise and go round and round. Each dragon’s hollowed torso holds a mother and child. This is a ride meant for us, a gargoyle built for two.
But I know, even as I near the ticket booth, that I can’t afford this, that I’ll remain on a strict and worrisome budget until my summer adjunct work begins in weeks to come.
Still, I squint at the signs. I take in the pricing: 15 dollars for a modest spool of tickets, 25 for a day-long wristband that would be useless two hours shy of closing.
I stand there, amid excited children, their capable parents, the cars where others sit weighing their options. And I am there far longer than it takes me to do the figuring. This requires no calculus: tonight, the carnival is a luxury I simply cannot afford.
Back in the car, it’s hard to read our daughter’s face. She is unnervingly precocious. Is it possible she’s old enough to be disappointed? Could she comprehend the ways that we have failed her?
It is just a carnival. Questionable rides, paltry parting gifts, empty calories. But is a microcosm of the world I want to give her, the world that recedes as we pull out of our parking spot moments later.
Once we are home, I write a scene in my latest attempt at a novel about conjoined twins wandering a carnival with their mother alone to insulate them. When the last word is typed, I send it to you. You call, having read it, and ask the inspiration. I tell you we stopped at a carnival. I tell you I nearly cried. But it’s hours before we finish the conversation.
— Why’d you almost cry at the carnival? you text.
I type back the description of fathers. I tell you about the budget and resignation.
— Next time, I can send you what you need for the cost of admission. Next time, you should come to me with this.
That isn’t entirely the point, I retort. In some ways, entering the thick of it would’ve been worse than not going in at all.
— It would’ve been a perfect storm of inadequacies.