Fifty feet above the carnival grounds, stalled upside-down in the Buccaneer’s Bucket, Devon wasn’t feeling particularly romantic. The breeze, so aggressive at this height, was whipping her carefully sculpted waves into knots (not that it mattered), and despite the way the evening had turned out, she was grateful that she’d chosen a tight shirt, especially as time stretched on and the tank top of the woman opposite her began sliding earthward. From time to time a coin would slip free of someone’s pocket and hurtle toward the ground. Devon clenched the handles of the shoulder harness biting into her collar bone, watching the curious crowd gathering around the hapless teenaged ride operator so far below. Behind her the child Butchie was still retching, his mother alternately coddling him and loudly speculating about when the ride might resume.
Devon’s heartbeat pulsed in her ears. She squeezed the handles tighter and tipped her chin toward her chest a few times, trying to move the blood that was beginning to settle in her head. A flash of yellow plummeted earthward, winking in the darkness, and she shook her head lightly to confirm that it was, as she suspected, her hoop earring — a graduation gift from her mother two years before. Perfect. She’d look like a real buccaneer now. There was an unmistakable flicker from the cloudbank on the horizon, and another child, somewhere in the row behind her, began to fuss.
“It’s only heat lightning,” his father said. “We’re safe up here.”
Upside-down in a metal boat, above the treetops. Right. Devon pressed her lips together and tried to exhale slowly, willing herself to focus on something small, something she could control. It was hard to make out in the dusk, especially with the chaotic whirl of light all around them, but the teenager seemed to be shouting into a cellphone. How long would it take to summon help? Could they do it before the storm arrived? They might die, she decided.
“So!” her date chirped from the seat next to her. “What should we talk about?”
* * *
Two hours earlier she’d been checking her watch from the midway, trying to guess which face in the joyful scrum belonged to Bo.
“He’s fun,” Van had said when she’d offered to set Devon up the day before. “And cute.”
“I hate blind dates,” Devon said.
“It’s not blind. It’s a set-up,” her roommate pleaded. “He’s a nice guy.”
What Devon really hated was uncertainty, those awkward first steps, probing each other, the judgment and confusion, but Van’s wheedling had worn her down, and here she was, waffling by the entrance to the county fair while the sticky sunburned masses knocked into her from either side.
She should have asked Bo for a picture, but she didn’t want to look shallow. They had swapped a few texts, enough to confirm that he had manners and a sense of humor, and to agree on a time and place. The fair had been his idea, and Devon wasn’t too sure about that. It seemed unconventional, but she believed in men taking the lead on the first date, so she’d agreed. It was a nice night at least, not too humid, and the air smelled of hay and hot peanut oil. It was dangerous to get your hopes up, but she couldn’t suppress that tiny flicker whenever she spotted a promising face in the crowd.
She locked eyes with a handsome cowboy type — strapping, her mother would have said — but he simply nodded at her and continued into the fair. Well, at least she knew she looked all right. She’d dressed the part, in denim cut-offs, a tight gingham shirt, and heeled gladiators. She smiled at another man with arms like a lumberjack, and imagined herself clapping as he slammed a mallet at the high striker and sent the puck hurtling upward. Maybe she’d pick out some ridiculous prize and make him carry it around for her all evening. Her mom would love him. But the man passed without even looking up from his phone.
Where was this guy anyway? Devon had arrived, parked, and stationed herself at the entrance ten minutes before the appointed time, and her indignation at Bo’s tardiness grew with every clod that jostled her in their haste to enter the fair.
“Excuse you!” she muttered after yet another aggressive shoulder, then instantly regretted it when the man spun around and she saw his profile. Gorgeous. If this was Bo, she’d revise every nasty thought she’d had about Van in the past half hour, and she hastened to rearrange her scowl into a flirtatious pout.
The voice came from behind her, and she turned.
She was going to kill Van.
“I’m Bo.” He offered a hand and she shook it politely. “Sorry I’m late. There was a disaster at work and my cell died on the ride over.”
“Hi,” she said, her smile growing rigid at the corners.
“I’m five-six,” he said, answering the question he must have read on her face. She blushed.
“Guess I should have left my heels at home,” she said.
“Why? They look great on you.”
“Thanks,” she said, without enthusiasm.
So, this was a pity setup, and after her last break-up it wasn’t too hard to see why Van thought she needed charity. A nice guy — Devon should have recognized that for a red flag. And maybe he was at work, but she’d known guys like that in college: pocket Napoleons with something to prove, so aggressive in class. You’d have to be nuts to date one. At least she didn’t have to worry about the awkward uncertainties. She was definitely going to kill Van when she got home.
She trailed behind as Bo bounded up to the ticket booth. Cute was about all you could say for a man that small — easily five inches shorter than Devon with her heels on. She was fair enough to admit that he had good features: dark messy curls, a slender frame, and bright eyes that she would have found attractive on a larger scale, but he was far too slight. What could you do with a man like that? What would you lean on in a crisis? Who would hunt down a mastodon and drag it back to your cave? Van might roll her eyes, but Devon knew for a fact she’d never dated anyone below six-two. At least Devon was honest about it. She watched Bo, laughing as he slipped a strip of tickets into his pocket and pushed a couple of bills toward the vendor. He had a nice ass, she conceded. But how could you date a man who could fit into your jeans?
“Where should we start? Rides or food?”
“Rides,” she said, a bit too quickly, and could tell that the speed had registered by the way he nodded. Salad girl, he was probably thinking. Well, let him judge. It wasn’t like they had a future anyway. She was calculating the earliest possible exit as they strolled down a gauntlet of carnival games and children’s rides: a technicolor blaze of teacups, zoomorphic helicopters, a miniature rollercoaster no higher than Bo’s hip. A tinny chuckle, looping at regular intervals from the Laff-o Factory!, pursued them through the midway.
“Did you know they used to train the cavalry on merry-go-rounds?” Bo said, nodding toward a kiddie carousel. Devon frowned at the spinning parade of toddlers strapped into cartoon bubble animals completing a sluggish circuit.
“That doesn’t sound right.”
“Well, not our cavalry. I want to say Turkey? I’m guessing theirs were a little faster. And cowboys used the mechanical bull to train for rodeos.” He nodded at a sign reading Toro! Toro! Toro! over a painting of a bull in an aviator helmet. Beyond it, clusters of high school boys and couples had lined up along a thickly padded platform. Devon recognized the lumberjack from earlier and looked away.
“So basically everything here was invented to entertain children or train adults for violence,” Bo said.
“Perfect for a first date.”
She wasn’t trying to be funny, but he laughed, which annoyed her. They ambled along the path behind a distracted toddler and one of those athletic couples that other people hope have secret problems. The mother was licking a melted kiddie cone and the father was pushing a stroller containing a massive neon elephant.
“Who do you think won the elephant?” Bo asked. “And how?”
“Probably the man,” she said, reluctant to engage. “At one of the carnival games.”
“Yes, but which?”
“I dunno, the balloon thingy?” She knew she ought to exert herself but didn’t want to lead him on.
“He could be a spy,” Bo suggested. “The family is just cover. And the elephant could be a signal to another agent disguised as a carnie.”
He was trying too hard, and it annoyed her. What must they look like to other people? Well, Bo would look like a teenager. They’d think he was her brother, maybe. Was that better or worse? And why hadn’t she worn flats? Or eaten a snack? Devon was hungry, but eating would mean delays, and the faster they got through this evening, the better. She was eyeing a corndog enviously when she heard her name, and could tell from Bo’s tone that he was repeating it.
“Sorry,” she said.
“You sure you’re not hungry?”
“I’m fine,” she lied.
“Can I buy you a beer or something?”
“No,” she said. “Thanks, but I’m good.”
He was visibly resisting a sigh, and she wondered if she should relent, but he just gestured toward the stairs leading to a rainbow-striped inflatable slide that started roughly two stories above the ground and descended into a bounce castle.
“What do you think?” he said.
The ascent was slow and painful. Bo seemed oblivious to every attempt to shut down conversation. He asked about her hometown, her alma mater, her job, wantonly ignoring her monosyllabic responses. From the top of the stairs they could see most of the fairgrounds — a rolling field of rainbows and jaunty tunes. Bo bounded up the last steps, handed the tickets to the pale teenager by the gate, and waved her toward the nearest slide with an elfin grin.
“Thanks,” she said. She knew she was being rude and felt a pinprick of conscience. A lady always makes a man feel special, her mother would say. But he was so childish, that was the problem. It was as if he’d given up at being a man entirely. She couldn’t imagine him shooting a deer or sweeping her into his arms or any of the things men were supposed to do. As if determined to prove the point, he launched himself over the edge, descending in a series of wild hops, somersaulting at the base and springing to his feet. Devon, trailing behind, sludged to a stop and picked her way through the castle to meet him. She hesitated before putting her heels back on.
Her mood failed to improve when he challenged her to a ring toss in which neither of them won a single point.
“What next?” he asked, as the crowd pulled them past a cotton candy stand.
“Whatever,” she said, eyeing a muscular man carrying a plush parrot the size of a Great Dane.
“Look, would you knock it off?” he snapped, and Devon looked up, startled. Maybe he wasn’t as oblivious as she’d thought. “Do you want to leave?”
She blushed. “No, it’s fine.”
“It’s clearly not,” he said, and she was surprised by his frustration. In a weird way, she liked him better angry. “Look, I’m not gonna hold you hostage. If you want to go, I’ll walk you to your car, but we’ve got plenty of tickets left and it’s a gorgeous night.”
“No, it’s cool,” she said. “Let’s keep going.”
Just a few more rides, she figured. Enough so she could say she’d given it a shot. She could exert herself that long. Then at least he wouldn’t be able to badmouth her to Van.
“Great,” he said. “Your turn to choose.”
“The pirate ship,” she said, naming the nearest ride.
“Huh. You’re sure that’s what you want?”
“Yes,” she said.
He searched her face, then shrugged. “Okay.”
At least he stopped trying to make small talk, and Devon allowed her attention to wander as they slowly snaked toward the ride. She preferred rides with a predictable path — Ferris wheels, log flumes — to the more chaotic bumper cars and haunted houses. The pirate ship fell somewhere in between the two, but it was too late to change course.
The Buccaneer’s Bucket was a pretty standard interpretation of the traditional pirate ship ride: a gaudy gondola with metal supports at either end connecting in a wedge above the boat’s center. Multicolored chevrons pulsed on the supporting struts, growing more dazzling as the natural light faded from the sky.
Bo had finally stopped chattering, and Devon noted with surprise that she could hear tree frogs chirring, even above the shrieks of the riders as the boat completed a 170-degree arc and whipped back in the other direction. There was an enormous group in front of them, all wearing orange T-shirts reading Forster Family Reunion.
“Did Butchie like the Vortex?” the Forster in front of them asked.
“Oh no,” her friend (or cousin?) said. “He got sick right after, didn’t you, bud?”
“Butchie got sick on the Vortex?” another Forster shouted as they moved through the gate. “What’s he doing on this ride?”
Good question, Devon thought, but she followed Bo into the gondola, pulling her seatbelt tight and listening with satisfaction to the click of the shoulder harness. There was a cheerful buzz, the rainbow chevrons blinked festively, and then the ship began to move. A few of the Forsters whooped as the ship slid a few degrees and swung lazily back. Soon they were describing 90-degree arcs in either direction, alternately staring into the dusky sky or the whirling chaos of the fairgrounds below.
The trajectory was disorienting, and Devon focused on the moment of suspension as the ship changed direction in midair, the brief hesitation before committing to a complete reversal, the exhilarating retreat.
“Butchie’s puking!” a young Forster shrieked, eliciting jeers from the other children and anxious clucking from his mother.
“Hey, somebody’s getting sick!” Butchie’s mom called out as the gondola skimmed over the platform, and panic shot through her voice as the ride completed another parabola. “Stop the ride! Stop the ride! Somebody’s sick!”
If the ride operator had kept his head, if he’d hit the kill switch a few seconds earlier, the machine probably would have reduced momentum and slid slowly into place at the platform. They would have been back on terra firma within two minutes at the most. But he panicked and punched the button at the worst imaginable time, and the boat had locked into place, improbably, upside down at the apex of the ride.
* * *
“Seriously,” Bo said as they dangled in the cool and darkening air. “What should we talk about?”
“I just want to get down.”
“Where do you see yourself in five years?”
She scoffed, trying to quash the panicked voice in her head that whispered: Here. They’d reroute the haunted house train to wend past the ship, and future fairgoers would gawp up at their grisly remains, still locked into their seats: the carnival ride that never ended.
“Fine. What would your dream date be?”
Devon’s laugh sounded shrill and she quickly swallowed it. “You can’t be serious,” she said. The shoulder harnesses made it difficult to see his face.
“Well, presumably it’s not this. But we’re stuck here until they figure out how to get the machine going, and small talk could help pass the hours.”
“Minutes, probably. Sorry. Just an expression.”
How could he be so calm? It was infuriating. She pulled her eyes away from the crowd and searched for something stable to set her eyes on, but the entire fairgrounds were roiling in flashing lights. Her hair twisted below her. It seemed to be pulling toward the ground. In fact, every part of her body seemed to be straining earthward with an insistent heaviness. Devon felt the dull pressure in her shoulders, the hot ache in her temples, the stiff polyester restraint biting into her lap. She closed her eyes and tried to swallow.
“You want to hear mine? Ask me anything,” he said. “Seriously. Isn’t that what dates are for?”
“Look, would it help if I told you I have absolutely no intention of making a pass at you?”
“To take the pressure off. We’re just two strangers passing time on a carnival ride.”
“Upside-down, a million feet up.”
“There are worse ways to spend an evening.”
Her laugh was moderately less hysterical. It did help, to be honest. His cavalier attitude was oddly soothing. At least he wouldn’t try to take advantage of this shared trauma to force something later on. Some contrary part of her personality was a little offended by the implication that he didn’t find her irresistible, but mostly she was grateful.
“You’re just trying to distract me,” she stalled.
“If you’d rather focus on the here and now, we could talk about vomit and the physical principles behind stalled momentum.”
“Ugh, no,” she said. “What was the question?”
“Well, I’m pretty traditional, so I guess it would just be like instant chemistry — sparks, heat, you know.” She kept her voice low. The Forsters in the next row back were hotly debating the parenting skills of Butchie’s mother, but she was still anxious to avoid attracting attention. This was awkward enough without an audience.
“Hm,” Bo said. “Kind of vague.”
“Okay, he looks like Jason Momoa and dances like Patrick Swayze and he wears Armani cologne. Mediterranean and a rom-com.”
“So love at first sight. You just know right off the bat.”
“And what would you talk about?”
“I don’t know, everything.” She tried to think of a good date from the past. What had any of them talked about? Nothing came to mind. She was partial to tall, strapping, traditional men, but it seemed rude to highlight Bo’s obvious shortcomings. A lady makes a man feel important, her mother would say. “Anyways, that’s me. What about you?”
“Well, I used to say high-stakes mechanical failure with a puking child, but I’m rethinking.”
“Not meeting your expectations?”
“That’s the problem with the dream date scenario. The real thing never comes close. I like unusual venues, as you probably guessed. Sometimes I suggest hiking, or a museum exhibit.”
“What’s your type?” She was genuinely curious.
“You know, my tastes are a little varied, but generally speaking: healthy, takes care of herself, but doesn’t fuss about salad. Bonus points for a low-cut dress and five-inch heels.”
“You’d want her to be taller than you?”
“No,” he said placidly. “I’d want her to not give a damn.”
Devon blushed, though she knew he hadn’t meant it as a rebuke. She could just imagine this woman: cool and confident. She might have liked to be friends with her, though she knew her mother would disapprove. Unladylike, the ultimate dismissal. Bo’s answer made hers seem childish and trite, like something ripped out of a women’s magazine. He wasn’t that much older according to Van, but the gap felt wider suddenly, and Devon pulled away from her feelings before she could examine them too closely.
“So V-necks and high heels for your dream girl?”
“Woman,” he said mildly. “Honestly, I’d settle for someone who has her act together, laughs at my jokes, and knows how to make tea.”
“That’s very specific.”
“My last date literally didn’t know. Twenty-four years old and she’d never boiled water for tea. Her refrigerator had nothing in it but takeout and a jar of peanut butter.”
“So was that your worst date ever?”
“Not even close.”
“Really?” She didn’t want to seem too interested, but she was curious to know what he’d consider a deal-breaker.
“I went out with this one woman twice before she thought to mention she had a husband—”
“Yep. Didn’t see why it would matter. Then there was the not-so-secret racist — I had to fake a stomach bug to get out of that one. And then one woman went to the bathroom and never came back.”
“Yeah, she sent me a text twenty minutes later telling me she’d caught a cab.”
“I don’t know. She said her cousin’s appendix had burst and she had to go to the hospital, but then she never answered any of my texts after.”
“Wow.” Devon wondered what it would feel like to have the confidence to just walk out on a date without saying goodbye. Or maybe confidence wasn’t the right word. It was bad manners to leave without explanation, and she felt a little sorry for the abandoned Bo, sitting alone at a table while the appetizers got cold.
“How about you?” Bo asked.
“Oh, you know, the usual.” She twisted awkwardly, seeking relief for her aching shoulders.
“What does that mean?”
“Just the usual sort of college stuff. You know. I was at a party once where my date left with one of my friends.”
“I mean, we’d had a fight.”
“And that’s usual?”
“No, that was a one-off. Usually it’s just some guy acting all nice when there’s people around, and then when it’s just the two of you he gets pushy and won’t slow down when you tell him to stop. And then my last boyfriend broke up with me because he ‘missed the chase,’ whatever that means.”
They hung in silence for a minute, and Devon imagined grabbing Bo’s hand, which looked sturdy and soft. She was sure he would take it, despite what he’d said before, but it was just an impulse. She couldn’t really let go of the restraint. Along the horizon, the storm clouds had consolidated, heavy with the threat of real electricity.
“My eyes are killing me,” a Forster complained.
“It’s no worse than a long headstand,” said another.
“Brit, if you say one more word about yoga, I swear—”
Devon was grateful they weren’t listening. She hadn’t expected to speak so honestly and was beginning to regret it.
“That’s bull,” Bo said, drawing her attention back to the conversation.
“It sounds like you’re dating a lot of jerks.”
“It’s normal.” Men were men, after all, as her mother would say. Devon’s face was uncomfortably warm, probably from all the blood settling in her head, and her pulse felt quicker than usual. Her heart wasn’t used to working in this position. How long could a person safely hang upside down anyway?
“I don’t think it is.” He twisted forward so she could almost see his face. It flickered orange and green from the carnival lights, but she could tell he was upset. She felt strangely touched by his outrage — and then defensive.
“How would you know?” she demanded, and he immediately backed off.
“You’re right. I don’t. Maybe it’s really common — but it’s still bull,” he said. “If a guy treats you like that, you should kick him to the curb and walk out.”
She laughed, but secretly she liked the idea of herself as that kind of woman. She liked that Bo thought she could be and wondered if he’d been serious about not wanting to kiss her. She felt a little flutter, a tightening in her stomach, and had to remind herself that his waist was thinner than hers. A metallic clunk interrupted this thought and the ship sighed forward and began its slow descent. Devon flushed, grateful to realize that her momentary disorientation was the result of momentum, not butterflies. Which was a good thing, really, because who knows what she might have said if they’d stayed up there any longer? She hardly knew what she’d been thinking.
The ship slid onto the platform, and a moment later, with a click and a hiss, the pressure of the harnesses released and everybody was scrambling for the exit.
The Forsters stretched and groaned, cricking their necks and doing shoulder rolls as they departed. Devon fumbled with her harness and scanned the crowd. She had vaguely expected to find a parade of EMTs lined up to greet them, but there was only one bored fairground medic handing out water bottles and packets of aspirin. She glanced at her watch, then looked at it again. Less than ten minutes had passed since they’d strapped in. It had felt so much longer.
Finally throwing off her restraints, Devon bolted for the exit and was almost to the gate before she realized Bo wasn’t with her. Looking back, she saw him by the boat. He took a wobbly step toward her and then sat down on the platform hard. He grinned apologetically as she walked back to him.
“Sorry,” he said. “I just need a minute.”
He shook his head and inhaled shakily, and Devon understood suddenly that he had been scared too, the aloofness just an act, and she was ashamed.
“You know,” he said, trying to laugh, “I’ve never been crazy about this ride.”
“You should have said.”
He shook his head, smiling as if she’d made a joke. And of course he wouldn’t have said. It was the only thing she’d admitted to wanting the entire evening.
She sat next to him and stared up at the lot lights, constellations of night insects orbiting the bulbs. The ship behind them felt solid and still. The teenage operator nodded sulkily as he trudged past with a mop and a bucket, and they sat in silence, watching the carnival lights twirl and listening to the dopplered shrieks of the roller coaster riders and the rhythmic swabbing behind them, breathing in the clarifying tang of bleach.
“God, that’s embarrassing,” Bo said, holding a trembling hand in front of him.
He shook his head and clenched his hands a few times. “Real manly, huh.”
She felt a pang of sympathy, tinged with guilt.
“Thanks for talking to me up there,” she said. “I needed the distraction.”
His laugh was watery. “I can’t even remember what we were saying.”
Devon frowned, hurt. But why should she care? She hadn’t said anything she needed him to remember. No, it was something he’d said, an idea he’d created: herself, but stronger. She wanted him to remember that. She wanted him to believe it. She wanted to believe it herself. But maybe that was just the sort of thing you said in a crisis, the sort of thing any man might say and forget, more empty words. The teenager tromped past them with the bucket and they sat awhile longer.
Bo flexed his hand again, and Devon looked away. She didn’t want him to think she was judging him, and so she forced herself to speak.
“Why do you think Butchie’s mom let him on the ride?”
“She probably thought he was feeling better.”
“Probably,” she agreed. “Or maybe she’s a secret agent too and she needed to create a distraction, so her colleagues could exchange their elephant codes.”
It was, possibly, the lamest thing she had ever said on a date, but he smiled.
“Thanks,” Bo said at last, slapping his knees. “I think I’m good.”
She hopped to her feet and held out her hand, pulling him up beside her.
“So,” he said, attempting the breezy tone he’d had earlier in the evening. “Is this a new contender for worst date ever?”
She shook her head and he grinned.
“Well, that’s something, at least,” he said. “So, what next?”
She couldn’t believe he hadn’t given up on her. Devon paused, uncertain, but she waited too long to answer and he misunderstood.
“Walk you to your car?”
It seemed a shame somehow, but maybe it was for the best. He didn’t fit, she reminded herself. There were rules and expectations, weren’t there? Bo held the gate open and gestured her through.
Colors and cheerful yelps reeled in the darkness above them, and Devon couldn’t shake a growing sense of disorientation. The path to the parking lot seemed strangely sedate by comparison, and she noticed the soft trill of insects, the scent of crushed grass, tire ruts carved into the mud. Thunder rumbled in the distance. A trace of something unsettling, vertigo or instability, still lingered from the ride, and she was struggling to name the unfamiliar feeling. Her heels sank into the mushy ground and she cursed softly as a sudden burst of pain shot along her left ankle.
“Careful,” Bo said, steadying Devon with a hand above her elbow. She was conscious of his thumb along the back of her arm, the warmth of his palm.
“Is it bad?” he asked.
She stepped tentatively, wincing, and stopped.
She nodded and he slipped an arm around her. Her ankle already felt better — a roll, not a sprain — but she allowed herself to lean against him. They took a few steps together. Ahead of them, Devon watched a young woman spin a child, squealing in blissful disorientation, and set him down again. With barely a pause, he tottered directly back to her outstretched arms, confidently unsteady.
Yes, Devon realized, gazing at Bo with growing wonder. That was exactly how she felt.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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