I knew it was a bad idea to let my dad stay behind at The Pit Stop, but I didn’t want to argue with him in front of my friends. I didn’t want them to know that anything was wrong. As far as they knew, my dad was the cool dad, the dad who didn’t mind if you swore, the dad who let you play your music as loud as you wanted to in his car, the dad who laughed at your dirty jokes and maybe even told a few of his own.
“You sure you don’t want to come, Dad?” I said. “We wouldn’t mind.”
“No,” he said. “You boys have fun. I’m too old for roller coasters.”
“Come on, Jim,” said Tony. “Let’s go.”
“I’ll meet you guys back here at three,” said my dad.
“Sounds good,” I said, though it didn’t sound good at all. Leaving my dad unsupervised at The Pit Stop for five hours sounded like a disaster.
“Come on,” Tony said again. “There are probably already a thousand people in line.”
I turned from my father and followed Tony and Rashid into the park. Tony led the way. He was dying to ride Buckeye Point’s newest coaster, The Slipstream. He had told Rashid and me all about it on the way up. According to Tony, it was the tallest roller coaster in North America—three hundred and ten feet at the top of the first hill. It was also the fastest, reaching a peak speed of ninety-three miles per hour. It had been under construction now for over a year, and today was the first day it was open to the public.
Tony broke into a jog, and we jogged after him, weaving between bodies, leaping bushes, and dodging trashcans. We were all pretty nimble back then, nimble and fast and full of energy. We all ran track. Tony was the only real athlete among us, but Rashid and I were no slouches. We were usually able to keep up with him in races, at least until the end. He always edged us out at the end. He always edged everyone out at the end. He had to. He couldn’t handle losing. He hated to lose more than anyone I’d ever known. He’d only lost one race in the spring, and it had put him in a dark mood that had lasted for over a week.
When we got to The Slipstream, we found even more people in line than Tony had predicted—at least twice as many. The line snaked around the base of the coaster and entered into a complicated maze of gated lanes. Tony groaned and shook his head. “Shit,” he said. “It’s going take us at least an hour to get through that line.”
“I don’t think it’ll take that long,” I said. “You can see people are moving. Nobody’s standing still. We’ll be through in thirty minutes I bet.”
“I hope so,” said Tony. “I’ve already waited a year to ride this thing. I don’t know if I can wait another hour.” He moved forward, and Rashid and I followed him to the end of the line. Above us one of the Slipstream’s trains swooped over the track like a gigantic metallic bird. Riders howled and flailed their arms. The track rumbled and clanked. From speakers mounted on a nearby lamppost, Sugar Ray’s song “Fly” reverberated. It was the big hit song that summer—the summer of ‘97. It seemed like every time you turned on the radio or MTV, it was playing. About fifty yards away, I saw the first hill. It looked preposterously high, much higher than three hundred and ten feet. Two seagulls glided around the summit. From where I stood, they looked miniscule, like pieces of confetti caught in a sideways gust. I looked away. If I stared any longer, I worried I might panic and try to back out. And I couldn’t do that. If I did, Tony would never let me forget about it.
We waited in line for forty-five minutes. The whole time, Tony regaled us with stories of terrible roller coaster disasters. He told us about a guy on a roller coaster in Australia who had fallen out of the car when his over-the-shoulder harness suddenly popped up. The unfortunate rider had been upside down when the harness malfunctioned, and he’d plummeted seventy-five feet to his death. He told us another story about a girl at an amusement park in Chicago who’d been standing under a roller coaster track when she was kicked in the face by the foot of a passing rider. The force of the blow had snapped her neck, killing her instantly. A few years before that mishap, at the same park, he said, a car had flown off the track at the bottom of a hill and crashed into an arcade, killing ten people. Perhaps the most outrageous story he told was about an incident in California. He claimed that a roller coaster train had been going over the top of a hill when it was struck by lightning. The whole train had gone up in flames and sailed down the hill like a meteor. I was fairly sure Tony was trying to scare us with these stories. Rashid and I were usually pretty composed, and I think he enjoyed the challenge of trying to get us worked up. His stories didn’t faze me, though, and I doubted they fazed Rashid. We had been friends with Tony long enough to know that he didn’t always tell the truth. Generally, the more lurid his stories were, the less likely they were to be true.
As we approached the steps leading up to the loading dock, Rashid suddenly stepped out of line and ducked under the gate. “Where are you going?” said Tony.
“This is where I get off,” said Rashid.
“What do you mean this is where you get off?” said Tony.
“I’m not going on the ride,” said Rashid.
“What the hell are you talking about?” said Tony.
“I’m not going on the ride,” repeated Rashid. “I don’t ride roller coasters.”
“You don’t ride roller coasters?” said Tony, baffled. “You know that’s kind of why we came here, right? We’re here to ride roller coasters. Why did you come if you didn’t want to ride roller coasters?”
Rashid shrugged. “I just thought it would be fun to hang out,” he said.
The line started to move forward. The guy behind us, a tall, gawky kid in a black Metallica T-shirt, tapped Tony on the shoulder. “Line’s moving, dude,” he said.
Tony glared at him. “Go ahead asshole,” he said. “Don’t let us hold you up.”
The kid knit his brows and tilted his head. “What did you call me?” he said, his voice deepening with malice.
Tony took a step toward him and cracked the fingers of his right hand in the palm of his left. “I called you an asshole, asshole,” he said. “You got a problem with that?”
The kid had a girl with him, an equally gawky specimen with a long ponytail and a pink fanny pack. She tugged on his right arm. “Come on, Brian,” she said nervously. “Let’s go.”
The kid didn’t move. He just stood there, looking Tony over, clearly trying to decide if he could take Tony in a fight. He was considerably taller than Tony and looked to be a couple years older—maybe seventeen or eighteen—but he was flimsily built, with long spindly arms and a narrow, sunken chest. Tony was all muscle, thick-necked and broad-shouldered, with large, mitt-like hands that were made to crush and throttle. I’d seen him fight once before. A senior football player had cut him in the lunch line, and Tony had taken issue with it. The senior gave Tony a shove, and in the space of two heartbeats Tony flung him down, pinned his left arm behind his back, and pressed his pimply face into the linoleum. If this skinny kid here got into a fight with Tony, in all likelihood it would not go well for him. Somehow, he must have intuited that because after about five seconds he took his girlfriend by the hand and moved past us. “You’re not worth my time,” he said as he went by.
“If you change your mind about that, come right on back here, sweetheart,” Tony called after him. He turned his attention back to Rashid. “If a wimp like that isn’t afraid to ride this thing, there’s no reason you should be,” he said.
“I’m not afraid,” said Rashid. “I’m just not interested. It doesn’t look like fun to me.”
“Have you ever ridden a roller coaster before?” asked Tony.
“No,” said Rashid.
“Then how do you know you won’t like it?” said Tony.
“I just know,” said Rashid. “I don’t like putting myself in situations where I have no control over what’s happening to me. I don’t like the idea of being trapped in a machine, being hurled around at a high speed and spun upside down. It makes me queasy just thinking about it.”
Tony smiled at him. “I think you’re afraid,” he said.
“I’m not,” Rashid said. “There’s a difference between being afraid and not liking something.”
“You’re afraid,” Tony said again.
“I’m not,” said Rashid.
“Then ride with us,” said Tony. “Ride with us just once, and I’ll shut up.”
I decided to intervene. I put my hands up and stepped between my two friends. “Hey, Rashid,” I said. “If you don’t want to ride that’s fine. You do what you want.”
Tony turned to me. “Hey,” he said. “You’re supposed to be on my side.”
“He doesn’t want to ride,” I said. “We can’t force him to ride if he doesn’t want to.”
“Sure we can,” said Tony.
“No we can’t,” I said firmly.
Tony frowned at me. His jaw muscles twitched. His dark eyes narrowed. I thought for a second he might hit me. He’d never hit me before, but I wouldn’t put it past him. He was temperamental and unpredictable, and even though I genuinely enjoyed hanging out with him, I never felt entirely safe in his presence. To my relief, he dropped his hands into the pockets of his cargo shorts and directed his attention to Rashid. “You sure you don’t want to give this a shot?” he said.
“I’m sure,” said Rashid.
He let out a long sigh. “Okay,” he said. “Suit yourself. I think you’re missing out, though.”
“I’ll enjoy watching you,” said Rashid.
“If you can see us from way down here,” said Tony.
Tony and I snagged a car right at the front of the roller coaster train. We sat down side-by-side and lowered the safety bar so that it rested just above our laps. I peeked over my shoulder and saw two girls about our age get into the car behind us. Both had long blonde hair and sun burned faces. The one on the left was slim and green-eyed with light eyebrows and full lips. The one on the right was more thickly built with freckly cheeks and a mouth full of braces. Neither girl was unattractive, but the one on the left was definitely more of a looker. I started thinking of something to say to her, a casual remark, a funny quip, but before I could open my mouth, the car lurched.
“Here we go, buddy boy,” said Tony, patting my thigh.
The train trundled to the bottom of the first hill and began to creep upward at a forty-five degree angle. As it ascended, it made a loud, mechanical clicking sound, like the sound of the Wheel of Fortune wheel just before it stopped spinning. Behind me I could hear the two girls giggling. To my right and left the park shrank. Within ten seconds, we were already at least a hundred feet up—high enough to see Lake Erie two miles away, a hazy gray expanse under a Tiffany-blue sky. There was a single boat out on the lake, a tiny white dinghy. My heart began to whap against the wall of my chest. My thighs began to quiver. I told myself I wasn’t scared, but my body knew the truth.
“You better put your hands up when we go down the hill,” said Tony.
“I’ll see what I can do,” I said.
“You have to,” said Tony. “It’s the responsibility of the people in the first car. We have to set a good example for the rest of the train. If we don’t put our hands up, nobody else will.”
“Well I don’t want to set a bad example,” I said.
As we neared the top of the hill, it occurred to me that if anything went wrong over the next few minutes—if a wheel came off the car, if the braking system failed to work properly, if a critical cable snapped—I was a dead man. There was no way out. I was locked in. I was at the mercy of the machine. Suddenly Rashid seemed a lot smarter to me. I glanced down. It only took me a second to spot him. He stood out in his bright yellow Oxford shirt and white khaki pants. He must have been the only person in the park who wasn’t wearing shorts. I had never seen him in shorts. I don’t think he owned a pair. I waved at him, and he waved back. I couldn’t read his expression, but I guessed he was smiling, happy to see his friends having a good time. He had no idea how much I wished I could swop places with him right now.
We crested the hill, and I dutifully put my hands in the air. For a breathless second, we hung over the edge, the stomach-flipping precipice. Then we plummeted. The angle of our descent was so steep I felt like I was in free fall. My body flew back in my seat. The safety bar dug into my lap. Wind pummeled my face and stung my eyes. Screams filled my ears, wild, piercing banshee cries. The train screeched and rumbled. The ground rushed up at an alarming rate—a hundred feet per second. I blinked twice and we were at the bottom of the hill. The train whipped around a curve and shot into the first loop. I was upside down, then right side up again. I dropped my arms and clung to the safety bar.
Four minutes, four hills, and two loops later, the train rolled into the loading dock and came to an abrupt stop. I felt a little shaky, and my neck was a bit sore, but I was otherwise okay. I had survived The Slipstream. The safety bar lifted, and Tony and I stepped out of the car. “That was so rad,” said Tony. “Every bit as cool as I thought it would be.”
“It wasn’t bad,” I said. I glanced back to the see if the two blonde girls were still behind us. They were. I tried to catch the slender one’s eye, but she wasn’t looking in my direction.
Tony tugged the sleeve of my white and blue ringer T-shirt. “Come on,” he said. “We have a lot more coasters to ride. You can flirt with girls later.”
“If I don’t flirt with girls here, where else am I going to do it?” I said. “We go to an all-boys school.”
“I’m here to ride coasters, not to meet girls,” said Tony. “If you want to meet girls, that’s fine, but you’re on your own.” He started walking toward the exit.
“I think you have to reexamine your priorities,” I said.
“You don’t have to follow me,” he said.
“I know,” I said, following him.
We rode seven more roller coasters over the course of the next four hours. Rashid didn’t ride any of them with us. He just watched. Not once did he complain. Not once did he show any sign of displeasure. He remained pleasant, smiling, upbeat. When we reunited with him after each ride, he asked us how it was and listened attentively as we told him. It never crossed my mind that his smiling face, his cheerful demeanor, his apparent interest in our experience might have been a front, a screen behind which to hide his true disappointment that we weren’t making more of an effort to bring him into the fun. I was too selfish, too focused on my own good time to consider leaving Tony to take Rashid to the arcade or the bumper cars or the spinning teacups—something he might have enjoyed. He seemed chipper and happy, so I assumed he was.
Photo by Jonathan Spence