Ditch  | Kate Harding


              “You'll need to wait over here, Miss.”


              Fine. Whatever. I move into the corner, safely away from the crowd, and take a long pull from the hip flask my sister Beth gave me last Christmas, which I never thought would come in handy as often as it does. Today's blessedly portable nerve tonic is Jameson's Irish Whiskey. I've only had a couple of belts so far, since it's 11 a.m. and open alcohol is illegal here, but it's enough that my internal organs already feel like they're wrapped in polar fleece. Mmmm.


              I'm trying not to cry. It's hard. The only thing that really stops me is the fact that I'm standing off to the side of the platform for The Screwball, my CoasterWorld favorite—big hill, corkscrew, two loops, minimal head-whipping—because Single Riders Are Not Allowed. Almost every roller coaster here has this rule posted in bold yellow letters, a constant reminder that fun is not to be had without a partner. There's only so much dignity available to me at the moment.


              If you need to know why I'm here, I offer this: I once read an article about people who buy annual passes to Disneyland and go every day . Every freakin' day of the year. They pal around with security guards and trade commemorative pins and will attend up to four performances a day of some ersatz Broadway musical, so committed are they to filling their days at The Happiest Place on Earth. Because why would any rational person want to be anywhere else?


              How these people support themselves was not addressed in the article. Certainly they can't be high school teachers like I am, although they might very well be working for their ex-lovers and dealing with their best friends moving two thousand miles away and their ex-lovers knocking up said ex-lovers' ex-spouses, hence the first ex—all good reasons to live at Disneyland, I think. Definitely good enough reasons for me to call in sick and go to CoasterWorld and drink my breakfast. I woke up feeling a profound kinship with the Disney freaks this morning, I can tell you that much.


              CoasterWorld is awfully far, both literally and figuratively, from The Happiest Place on Earth, but it's the closest I could get without a plane ticket (and even if I had the time to go to California, I maxed my Visa attempting to repair my broken heart with a pair of bunny-lined suede mukluks that looked incredibly cute on Kate Hudson walking out of some coffee place in Us Weekly but of course make me look like I'm straddling two fuzzy fire hydrants). The Most Distracting Place Within Two Hours of Chicago was the best I could do this morning.


              And I do have, like the Disney loons, lots of comfy, pleasant memories of coming here as a kid, which I suppose I'm quixotically trying to recreate right now. My mom and Deirdre's mom used to bring us here once a summer with a cooler full of ham sandwiches and Michelob Light. They'd pull out a deck of cards and park it at a picnic table near the huge reflecting pool at the entrance (which Deirdre always tried to jump in, despite repeated warnings that we'd be dropped off at the Humane Society and exchanged for abandoned beagles on the way home if we failed to behave like ladies), and we'd promise to be back by four and only seek help from women with nice handbags, should any problem arise, and then yippee! Freedom was ours. We'd blow the ten dollars we had to split almost immediately on funnel cakes and rigged carnival-style games, ride The Screwball at least four times, stand in line thirty years for whatever new coaster they were promoting that summer, then drench ourselves on the log ride just in time to show up back at the picnic table, where our moms would “Oh, Sweet Jesus” us and attack us with hairbrushes and towels and muse that beagles were sounding better all the time.


              But of course now Mom's in heaven (or thereabouts) and Deirdre's in California (where she could start going to Disneyland every day if the acting thing doesn't work out, the bitch) and Deirdre's mom would order me to say three thousand Hail Marys and start fundraising for the War Amps or something if she ever found out I was with Christopher in the first place. Plus, it's a fairly chilly day in early June, the first week the park's open every day, so I'd probably catch pneumonia if I went on the new whitewater adventure thing that replaced the log ride. Most of the people here today are with big group functions—company outings or field trips—so I look even more out of place than I might ordinarily, standing here in Single Riderville. I hit the flask again.


                Eventually, the dangerously bored-looking Screwball operator waves to indicate he's found me a partner, and I walk toward him eagerly until I see who my date is and beg God for, like, thirty seconds of invisibility—just enough time to run like hell. Silly me, I thought that traveling an hour away from school and home, out of the suburbs and into genuine where-God-lost-his-overshoes prairie, would keep me safe from something like this. But Fate hasn't been my best buddy lately. I should have known.


              “Oh my God, Ms. Ryan?” Jonathan Wyatt says, laughing a little, not looking at all chagrined about ditching school. Which I suppose is fair, since he could get me in about thirty times more trouble than I could get him in right now. Except I'm pretty sure he's stoned, which gives me a bit of leverage, at least.


              “What the hell?” he grins.


              “Back at ya, kiddo.”


              “I'm supposed to blow off school.”


              “No, Wyatt, technically, you're not.”


              “But you're really not.”


              “Fair enough.”


              What else are we supposed to say about it? Wyatt, even when he shows up for my third-period Major British Writers class, is not much of a talker. Which, I admit, is part of the reason I've always been somewhat taken with him. He doesn't sit in the back row with the serious burnouts, but far enough back that I probably only notice him staring out the window or drawing pointy-breasted cartoon women about a third of the time he's actually doing it.


              There's no mistaking his intelligence—even if you didn't know he had phenomenal test scores, you could see it in the way his soft brown eyes just hook into things: A fight brewing outside the classroom window, or a bug making its way across his desk, or your own eyes if you ask him a direct question. He can become transfixed by the tiniest objects and events, content to be still at the center of a zillion teeming microcosms nobody else even notices, but something bigger or more abstract—like, say, the pursuit of a high school diploma—apparently can't hold his interest.          


              Fortunately or unfortunately, as much as I worry about Wyatt's future, I've never been able to bring myself to sit him down and tell him to shape up and quit wasting his potential, as is my habit with underachievers who remind me too much of my younger self. Unlike the kids who squirm and whisper and tap their feet restlessly, blatantly, because they just want to be anywhere else, Wyatt always tends to look like he actually has somewhere better to be.


                “What are your thoughts on the first car?” I ask.


              “Too much wind. You can't even open your eyes. Second car's the way to go.”


              I think keeping my eyes closed sounds like a lovely idea—like, all day—but I tuck my sunglasses into my purse and slide into the little veal pen that lines up with the second car. Wyatt moves in behind me, hovering without really meaning to, because he's only recently become well over six feet tall and doesn't quite know what to do with it yet. He doesn't seem to recognize the effortless power this affords him.


              A woman and three smallish children shove in behind Wyatt, consuming his space, as if standing closer to the ride will help them get on it faster. If there were a call button for the coaster, you know they'd be fighting each other to push it relentlessly. I feel the heat of Wyatt's body heavy against me and let my head rest just above his nipples—there's nowhere else for it to go—and it suddenly occurs to me that I'm female, and he's seventeen, and thus the likelihood of his getting an erection right about now, his groin pressed into the small of my back, is reasonably high. What the hell am I supposed to do with that? Act like I don't feel it? Hop the fence immediately and risk being ejected from the park?   Shrug and smile all, “Hey, whatever. It happens,” like Karla Banyan—the dangly-earringed sophomore health teacher who gets paid to act like sex is normal and natural (within a Church-sanctioned marriage, of course)—would?


              A purple car, emblazoned with rainbow-colored spirals and the word “SCREWBALL” in traffic-cone orange, comes to a stop in front of us, and the veal-pen door swings open before the forced closeness becomes a real issue. Which means I must now commence obsessing about why it wasn't an issue. He's a teenager, for God's sake. Even though I've been feeling about seven hundred and fifty for the last few days—achy, bitter, utterly confused by all things hip—I'm only thirty in human years, and I've been practicing yoga religiously for the last six months. I should damn well rate an inappropriate hard-on, however fleeting.


              Shouldn't I?


              I want to call Deirdre.


              As we arrange ourselves in the car, trying not to elbow each other excessively in our efforts to bring the padded safety bars down over our heads, Wyatt tells me The Screwball is his favorite coaster, even though it's slower and smaller than most of the ones that were built in his lifetime. He's an old soul, this kid. We finally settle in with my ass forcing his far to one side and his right leg draped over my left one; at least the places where we're too big to fit comfortably together are more or less complementary. I only have a second to wonder if this arrangement is dangerous before we lurch forward and begin the terrible clickclickclickclick anticipation of the first hill.       


              Wyatt just smiles and closes his eyes when I start to whine that this is always the worst part. I take the hint and shut up, remembering that we showed up here separately, for different reasons. As far as I can tell, he's forgotten all about me until he swiftly peels my white hands from the safety bar in front of us, grasps both of them in one of his, and holds all four of our hands in the air as we teeter over the first drop. I scream.


              He lets go and grins at me as we hit the bottom and swing into a corkscrew. I want to kill him. I want to make out with him. We're upside down. We're right side up. We're upside down. I heard in the teacher's lounge that Christopher and Valerie found out the baby's a boy.   They like the name Nicholas. I'm going to die alone. We're right side up again—well, tilted about 45 degrees to the right—zooming inches from the ground, and I'm worse than a Ritalin-starved six-year-old with wanting to stick my hand out of the car, even though I know I'd lose all my fingers at best. I revise my initial opinion: This is the worst part. There's no real option to harm yourself going up that first long hill. There's no decision .         


              We zip up a smaller hill and whoosh around a hairpin bend that leaves us on track for the station, slowing down, watching the end approach. Just enough time for me to mourn the loss of it instead of enjoying the final moments. Typical, Christopher would point out. So would Deirdre. So would Wyatt, probably, if he knew me better.


              Coming off the ride, significantly mussed and still in search of our land legs, we see a TV screen flashing digital photos of all the screaming, flailing passengers, two-by-two. My heart starts knocking against my ribcage.


              “Check it out,” Wyatt says, pointing at it. “There we are!”


              The monitor freeze-frames on us just long enough for me to observe that, despite looking a little retarded with the open mouths and uncontrolled arms, we both appear happier in that picture than I've seen either of us look in months. Huge, unselfconscious grins are pulled wide across our faces by the wind.


              “They delete these if no one buys prints, right?” I snap at Wyatt, as if he would know. “That'll be gone at the end of the day, right?”


              “I guess,” he shrugs. “And anyone who sees it will have to explain why they were here, too, so we're cool.”


              I can't decide if it's cute or unsettling or disappointing that he doesn't seem to recognize any appearance of impropriety, apart from our both not being where we're supposed to be. Could he possibly be that naive? Or is the thought that we might be together for reasons other than a random match-up in the Screwball line so absurd to him that it hasn't even registered as a real possibility?


              Jesus. Of course it hasn't. I'm a stumpy thirty-year-old wearing khakis and Tevas and a ratty-ass Billy Goat Tavern tank top, and he's probably dying inside because it looks like he's here with his mom.


              Still, I can't help thinking about this day early in my senior year, right after I found out I'd won a statewide essay competition. I ran up to Christopher in the hall outside the English Department and threw my arms around his neck with—swear it— nothing on my mind but gratitude for his encouragement. He immediately flung me off him like I was charged with raw electricity, so hard I lost my balance and fell to the ground. People who hadn't even noticed the hug stopped to stare at that part, and Christopher looked down at me for a second with this unmistakable horror , his hands smashed against his chest like his heart might escape if he wasn't careful. I got to my feet on my own and squinted bewilderedly at his back as he called, “Sorry, Ellie!” and slipped into the English office, where students weren't allowed.


              I spent weeks after that in a humiliated funk, convinced he despised me, despite Deirdre's insistence that he'd probably popped wood the second my tits hit his chest, and only fled to whack off somewhere. Deirdre presumed that all men viewed all female encounters from a strictly sexual vantage point—probably because where she was concerned, they did—but I knew better. Men didn't look at me that way and probably never would; that much, I was sure of at seventeen. I had believed until that day that Christopher understood me more thoroughly than any other male in my life—he'd called me smart, funny, wise: endorsements no one sexier than my mom had ever offered before—but the result of that was no more than a chaste mutual appreciation. He favored me simply because I wasn't a total fucking idiot like most of my classmates, and I never thought my crush on him had any more potential than my crush on River Phoenix. I didn't even think of us as friends, really, just two people who shared a mild, unsustainable affection due to the unpleasant circumstances in which we found ourselves—like we were at war together, or summer camp.


              I continued to think that way for the entire six months between the aborted hug and the afternoon when I lost my virginity to him, a month before graduation.


              They were firm on this point in my education classes: You are the adult. You are legally and ethically responsible for setting boundaries. You can never be sure of how a student really sees you. Up 'til now, I haven't felt any serious guilt about failing to record fifty percent of Wyatt's unexcused absences or going, just once, to see his band play at a roadhouse an hour and a half away from where I live. I took Deirdre along—extra insurance that no teenaged boy in the room would be thinking about having sex with me —squeezed his elbow once, told him he kicked ass and went home to sleep alone. That may not be the sort of boundary the state of Illinois or the Catholic School Board would have me set, but Wyatt's maintaining a sold B+ in my class, and I don't feel I've even come close to violating any reasonable ethical standard. Certainly, I'm still a good distance away from the slippery slope that leads to having furtive sex in suburban motel rooms and then, ten years later, ending up working together and having slightly less furtive sex in our own homes until my ex decides she's sick of being my ex and I get her pregnant before I've even figured out what I want to do about Wyatt. (Or, well… you get what I'm saying.)


              “So, should we get in line for The Mindblower?” Wyatt asks.


              “We're together now?” I bark.


              He looks hurt, and I feel like an ass. What's the alternative? Each spending the rest of the day on separate Loser Platforms?


              “I'm sorry, Wyatt,” I say. “Of course we're together now. A couple of poor, lost single riders brought together by accident, held together by fear of the other people we might end up with...”


              “No, no,” he recovers. “I wasn't thinking. Go do your thing.”


              “Funnel cakes,” I declare, too quickly, too desperate to make us both feel better. He looks at me like he doesn't know if he wants to be together anymore, if I'm going to be like this all day. I try to look like I'm not.


              “I'll buy,” I add.


              He nods and extends his palm.


              I hand him a twenty and put him in charge of fetching the funnel cakes, telling him I'll go for Cokes over at the taco stand, where I think they're cheaper. They're not remotely cheaper anywhere around here, of course, but it puts enough distance between us that I have an opportunity to fortify my beverage with a generous splash of the Jameson's. Whatever the correct response to this whole situation may be, I'm reasonably certain it can't involve sobriety. Plus, Wyatt's taking a hundred years with the funnel cakes, and I suspect it's because he's behind the little bathroom building over there, smoking a joint.


              Eventually, we meet up at a table in front of the Pizzaaaaahh! booth.


              “So, why are you here?” I get around to asking, once my mouth is half-stuffed with fried dough, my lips blotted with powdered sugar. I want to wipe it off but figure it's probably a good idea to keep myself as unattractive as possible. For the jury.


              “Same reason as you, I'd guess.”


              “Oh, I doubt that.”


              “Woke up this morning and couldn't face school. Needed to go somewhere,” he offers.


              “I suppose that's a version of why I'm here.”


              “What's the master version?”


              “None of your damn business.”


              “Also why I'm here. Uncanny.”


              We chew a while.


              “So, why do you blow off my class so much?” I finally ask, after wondering all year.


              He points all around us, like, Hi, have you noticed where you are? “I believe I've heard an adage about the pot and the kettle,” he says.


              “This is one day,” I argue. “One day in an excruciatingly long year. If I'd recorded all your unexplained absences, you wouldn't be allowed to graduate. Why?”


              “Because I know you won't record them.”


              “Great. I'm Captain Doormat. Jesus, Christopher was right,” I mutter. Or think I mutter.


              “You mean Dr. Pearson? What's up with you two?”


              “Also none of your goddamned business.”


              “You swear a lot in front of an impressionable minor.”


              “You have no idea how much I'm holding back.”


              “He was your teacher, right? When you were my age?”


              I give up. “You already think you know everything. Why do you need to ask me?”


              Wyatt shrugs and stuffs another handful of funnel cake into his mouth, then runs the same hand through his hair, leaving a trail of powdered sugar through his floppy brown, nearly afro-tight curls. It's all I can do not to reach across the table and shake it out. Hair like that begs to be grabbed in the first place, and the silly white streak across his forehead is going to drive me insane, I'm sure.


              I should just go ahead and call a lawyer now .


              “You take a lot of shit for unconfirmed rumors,” he explains. “I'd like to know your side of the story.”


              This actually sounds like the truth, maybe just because I need it to be.


              “I'm sorry, kiddo. I can't talk about it with you.”


              “But there is something to talk about, then?”


              I don't know why I'm honest. Maybe because he's got these serious brown eyes that he hasn't even realized yet are going to be an asset all his life in getting the truth out of people. He should become a cop or a shrink or something. Maybe because the whole thing is not only still close to the surface, but still popping through unexpectedly all the time, fucking emotional Whack-a-Mole. Maybe because I want him to know. I want everyone to know.


              “Yeah. There is.”


              “Is it true he dumped you to get back with his wife?”




              “I'm sorry.”




              And that's enough about that.


              “Hey, what's up with the sky?” I ask him, pointing like he wouldn't be able to find it without my help. I'm trying to convince myself it's just looking unremarkably stormy, that I'm imagining the greenish tinge overlaid on sudden darkness. Too much darkness.


              Wyatt looks at the sky and shrugs again. “Tornado.” He lives somewhere around here and buses an hour to Holy Family every morning, when he decides to go (some program to give disadvantaged farm kids a better education, God bless their backward little souls) so he would know better than I do. Tornadoes whizz around the edges of the suburbs all the time, but they've never touched down close enough to Milford to elicit any genuine concern in my lifetime. Every year or so, there's a Tornado Warning for all of Cook County, so the neighbors and I head to our spacious, finished basements to play pool and pretend to panic until some town forty miles away gets blown to hell. Some town exactly like this one.


              “Don't you think maybe we should leave?” I ask, looking around us and realizing a lot of other people apparently have that idea. The funnel cake isn't sitting well anymore.


              “It'll blow over,” Wyatt assures me. “They hardly ever touch down around here.”


              “We're on about a hundred acres full of gigantic metal structures, smack in the middle of a zillion square miles of nowhere. If you were a tornado, where would you go?”


              “Not here,” he says. “You need to relax.”


              “No, Wyatt, I need to leave .”


              “So you can be on the road if it does hit? You know what they tell you to do when you're in your car?”


              “Get out and lie in a ditch,” I reply, recalling elementary school tornado drills where they corralled us into the basement and forced us all down on the floor, hands behind our heads. Which, in retrospect, probably looked more like they intended to execute us than protect us.


              “Does that sound safer than taking shelter here?”


              I'm thinking about smacking his smartassed mouth when the tornado sirens start. I realize I've never heard them for real, only when they test them at 10 a.m. on the first Tuesday of every month. It's a whole different thing, let me tell you, when you're not expecting it, when you don't know it'll be over in sixty seconds. I want to call Deirdre and make her calm me down, but I wouldn't even be able to hear her over the noise.


              “All right, then, let's take some goddamned shelter,” I say.


              Wyatt and I both stand up and start heading for, I think, the IMAX theater—about half the crowd seems to be moving in that direction, the other half (poor slobs, destined to be blown to kingdom come from ditches alongside the interstate) toward the parking lot. What was an efficiently progressing stream of people just a moment ago is now, officially, a mob.


              “Look,” he says, pointing at where we're headed: First Avenue, CoasterVillage. The entrance to the IMAX theater is swarmed, and all the cartoonish Old Tyme Gift Shoppes are already overflowing with panicked customers.


              “Fuck,” says me.


              Wyatt drops an arm around my shoulder, and what goes through my head, honestly, is that I'll blow away if he doesn't leave it there. Jonathan Wyatt's right arm is the sole reason I'm not careening into the atmosphere like a renegade helium balloon, I'm sure of it. The rain is slamming us so hard I think it might actually be hail—not good—and we're walking hunched over against the violent wind, not making much progress.


              “We're going to be fine, Ms. Ryan,” he assures me. “The sirens go off all the time around here. People are paranoid. It hardly ever means anything.”


              I reach up and squeeze the hand dangling millimeters away from my right breast. “Thanks, Wyatt. You're full of shit, but oddly comforting.”


              “I try,” he says.


              We settle for a spot outside the IMAX building under an arbor that somehow feels like shelter, even though it's really only a few posts and beams. It's the best we can do right now. I slide down the wet wall in one motion—like someone's pulling all my bones out through the top of my head—and hide my face in my knees. Wyatt sits next to me and drops that same stupid arm on my back, sliding long, cool fingers up my neck, saying, “You're okay,” over and over.


              It occurs to me to draw the line here, remove the arm, get my shit together and act like the grown-up. Like a professional. Or even just not like a criminally ambiguous basket case. Not like Christopher.


              I turn and bury my head in his skinny, soaking chest.


              “You're okay,” he repeats, stroking my hair. “You're fine. We're fine.” He's officially holding me now, almost more like a father than a lover, but it's still incredibly wrong for about five kabillion reasons, and I need to stop it.


              Right after I stop sobbing.


              “I'm so sorry,” I whisper, when I can finally form words. “I'm just not used to being alone yet.”


              “You're not alone,” he says softly, and then he lightly kisses the top of my head, just once.


              We were in a coffee bar, Christopher and I, far enough away from anyone who'd recognize us that we were free to talk seriously and laugh easily, when the landslide started. He bought me the first espresso of my life, and I showed him a few of my teen angst bullshit poems, and he talked for a hundred years about the stupid novel he was writing (still is). As we stood up to leave, he said, “You're going to be a tremendous woman, Ellie,” and kissed the top of my head.


              I was trying to figure out if it was a veiled fat joke when I met his eyes and realized for the first time that I was, in a certain context, desirable. That impossibly enough, one could not look like Deirdre and still manage to be looked at like Deirdre.


              “Do you want me to take you home now?” Christopher whispered. “Or somewhere else?”


              “Anywhere else,” I said.


              I nearly break Wyatt's jaw when I jerk away from him and sit up, putting a good foot between us.


              “Yeah, Wyatt. I am. I'm alone. So are you.”


              The sirens stop, like I planned it.


              Wyatt blushes. “No, I know, Ms. Ryan. I don't think... I didn't mean to—”


              “I know, Wyatt.”


              “You just seemed so—”


              “I know, Wyatt. I'm sorry.”


              “For what?”


              For what ? Oh, God love him.


              The rain has softened. People start stirring again.


              “I need to go home now,” I say, pulling myself up the wall behind us, holding on until I'm sure my legs will accommodate me.


              “Really? I was thinking it's Mindblower time.”


              “Oh, shit, Wyatt, I don't think so. I'm thinking maybe this was a sign that we shouldn't be here. Like, where state and federal laws fail to make an impression, an act of God will do the trick? Just maybe?”


              “I'm thinking you're chickenshit.”




              “Come on. Post-storm—especially one like that—is the absolute best time to be here. Everybody's cleared out. Check out how short the lines are.”


              Not only is he right, but I've been grappling with that very issue on a level of consciousness just below the one where I've been authoring my testimony for the jury. (“I certainly never planned to run into Jonathan, and I tried to separate from him. Yes, I'd had a few sips of whiskey to calm my nerves, but... um...”) The rides are what I came for, after all.


              “Wyatt, I really can't. I have to go home. I'm sorry to return you to the Single Rider caste, but—”


              “Are you okay to drive?” he asks.


              Crap. I consider acting all, “Why, what ever could you mean?” but between the crying and the hugging and the fact that I undoubtedly smell like the floor of a bar by now, I don't see the point. Also, he's right. I'm not okay to drive. For a lot of reasons.


              “One more ride, I guess.”


              We go on four more rides (including the whitewater adventure thing, after which I finally accept the hooded sweatshirt he's been offering me since the rain started) before I say I need to leave and mean it. I manage to go the whole time without consulting the flask for support again, so I'm already feeling a premature hangover headache by the time we call it a day. Nonetheless, if I were a different type of person, I might look back on this day as our first date. And a good one.


              “I had a really good time today, Ms. Ryan,” Wyatt says as I root around in my purse for my car keys. “Thanks a lot.”


              I glance over my shoulder and see that he's smiling down at me, and I can tell he wants to go in for a hug.


              God, I want to let him. I want to squeeze him so hard that all the hope I have for his future permeates his skin and infuses every cell with the knowledge that shit will not always be like this. I want to give him the kind of hug that will allow him to cut out the next eight or ten years of dicking around, trying to figure out who he is, and just go directly to being amazing.


              I shake his hand. “It's been surreal.”


              You'd think I'd offer him a ride home. You'd think I'd at least say, “I had fun, too, kiddo.” You'd think I wouldn't go home and drink more, decide to worry about my job in the morning, when my head is clearer, then call Christopher's house around midnight, plastered, and tell his wife I hope her baby won't grow up to be a little-girl-fucking bastard.


              You'd think.


              At least, I hope you would.