By Tricia Nindel
My sister Julie floored the gas as I slid Frampton Comes Alive into opening of the eight track player. The speakers in her Mustang flooded the car with the mellow music, perfect for the sultry afternoon. As we drove down the expressway headed toward Nantasket Beach to see her boyfriend’s band, I spied the enormous cylindrical white gas tank, decorated with a rainbow of dripping wet paints. I silently reminisced yelling out excitedly as a child, always marking the tank as the half-way point to Paragon, the amusement park on Nantasket, where our parents took us every summer when we were kids.
Julie and I were three years apart. Although only a year before, I had stood as skinny and straight as a Number Two pencil, being mistaken for a boy on more than one occasion, over the past year, my figure had slowly started to grow fuller and curvier. My once blemished skin had evolved into a soft and rosy complexion. And my formerly shoulder length hair, complete with bangs, had been replaced by a long shag, the trendy style cut to different lengths, top to bottom. But at fifteen, despite my recent physical changes, I still loved to race down the streets on my cobalt blue ten-speed, complete with drop handlebars, mounted handbrakes and skinny tires. In late autumn, I happily glided along the river in my lace up white ankle roller skates. Come springtime, I was always suited up, playing left field on the girls’ school baseball team. And as for dating, I hadn’t got very much past Spin the Bottle. But when Julie asked me to go to Nantasket, I couldn’t refuse.
“We can hang around the beach for a while and then go to Uncle Sam’s later. Mike’s friend put us on the guest list, so they won’t ask you for an I.D.,” she said, as we neared the exit for the beach.
“Will Paul be there?” I asked, my eyes out the window.
“Yeah, he is going to help them set up.”
Julie opened the latch on the small tool box shaped container that held the eight tracks. “Do you mind if I change the tape?” Julie asked. “Peter Frampton is way too mellow for me,” she said, as she grabbed Aerosmith’s harder and raunchier Get Your Wings, ready to snap into the mail slot shaped player.
“Wait,” I said quickly. “I just want to hear this song.”
As I reflexively moved my body with the slow, rhythmic strumming of the guitar, I silently reflected on the words.
Can’t you see what it’s doin’ to me?
All I want to be, is by your side.
“I bet I know who you’re thinking about,” Julie said with a smile.
I knew she thought I was thinking about Paul, Julie’s friend that I had a crush on. But even though I would never have admitted it, I was really thinking about her. For as long as I could remember, I had always tried to tag along with her. I was so happy that we were finally together like friends, a choice, not an obligation on her part.
When we reached Nantasket, I inhaled the intoxicating scent of salt water mixed with the sand coming in on the breeze. As we drove down the boulevard, checking the action along the beach, my vision was seized by a seemingly endless row of white muscle shirts stuffed with copper tanned bodies. But it seemed every guy posing on the grey stone sea wall had his eye on Julie. She simply had to smile at a guy to keep him staring long after her taillights were the only thing left in sight.
I asked Julie to pull into a space down near Paragon. I thought it would be fun to look around the park since it was still early. I hoped we could even go on some of the old rides. Most of the other times we had been there as kids, she usually brought a friend and I was always left trailing behind.
“Why did you want me to park down here?” she asked, as she shut the engine then turned to stare at me.
“I thought we could go on a few rides,” I said, rocking my body to the beat of the Mustang’s now nonexistent music, trying to appear casual.
“You want to go on rides?” Julie gasped, her eyes widening, as if I had just suggested going for a late afternoon dip in a riptide.
“I just thought it might be fun,” I said, my eyes taking in the haze all across the horizon.
“I guess we can look around. It’s still kind of early.” But judging by the half pout on her face, it seemed to be a huge concession on her part.
As she brushed her hair and carefully re-applied her lip gloss in the rear view mirror, I stared out at the beach. I eyed two little girls in matching pink polka dot swimsuits making a sand castle with plastic colored pails. The older sister, seemingly giving instructions on where to place the bucket, was finally overruled when the younger sister took one of her feet and started kicking sand all over it before she sat down in the sand, curled herself into a ball, and started to cry.
“Do you want to brush your hair?” Julie asked, a question that sounded more like a request, especially since she handed me the brush before I even had time to answer.
As I watched my reflection brushing back my windswept hair, it was if I didn’t recognize myself. I knew I certainly wouldn’t catch a guy’s eye the way Julie would. But I no longer resembled the child I used to see gazing back from the mirror with a playful grin. Julie offered me her lip gloss and I tried to apply it, but I felt like a little girl playing dress up in her mother’s bedroom. It felt strange and gooey on my lips and I secretly wiped it off on a tissue as I got out of the car.
As we walked along the dusty boardwalk, my eyes swelled with the sights of flashing lights, aged wooden slats, and kids with slick wet hair running barefoot, clad in an array of colorful swimsuits. The scent in the air filled with a mixture of pizza, hot dogs, sand and sea. Thundering guitars, ringing bells and cries of barkers blasted my ears. My veins pulsed with the excitement I had always felt as a kid going to the park. When we finally reached the beach front gate, I felt like a balloon reaching maximum capacity, ready to burst with nostalgia. Julie, on the other hand, walked around as if it was a chore to put one foot in front of the other, as if each foot weighed fifty pounds. Dressed in her four inch beige platforms which matched her lean, tanned legs, the only time she seemed to come to life was when there was a cute guy in the vicinity, when suddenly her whole body seemed to float along as if on the very breeze itself.
“Let’s go on a couple of rides,” I said, covertly eyeing all the other rides inside the park.
“Yeah, ok. I guess. We have some time to kill anyway,” she said, her eyes as vacant as a lost dream.
As I walked-ran over to the ticket booth in my Converse hi-tops, I remembered how every year our parents purchased the yellow paper passes, stapled to our clothing, good from seven until midnight on every ride in the park. We always ended up on the last ride of the night, the lights beginning to disappear around us as if they were having isolated power failures, my parents looking wearied for the forty-five minute ride home, during which I usually fell asleep about five minutes in.
My favorite childhood ride began with the departure of an imitation red and black Viking boat, complete with dragon heads jutting out from the curvy shaped bow and stern, that sailed off into a dark snake shaped tunnel. Carved out in the walls of the tunnel, about every fifty feet or so, the riders sailed past diorama scenes filled with such frightening visions as cannibals boiling a person alive, complete with screaming sounds effects and flashing lights. When the boat exited the tunnel, it climbed a small roller-coaster sized hill and splashed down in the water below.
“Do you want to go on The Congo Cruise?” I asked Julie, keeping my voice monotone, trying to sound as disinterested as she was acting.
“Are you kidding?” Julie gasped, mouth agape and eyebrows raised in horror. “We’ll look like we’re on a date. It’s practically The Tunnel of Love.”
“Well I guess we can just stand around and wait for guys to notice you,” I finally snapped.
“Whatever,” she said, rolling her eyes. “You’ll never grow up. You’re such a tomboy.”
By the time we made it over to the ride, I felt as deflated as a Macy’s float after the parade had ended. My head had begun to throb and I started to wonder why I had always wanted to hang around with Julie in the first place.
The twenty-something year old operating the ride treated Julie like he was Paragon Park’s answer to Sir Walter Raleigh. He held her arm as she oh-so-delicately sat down in the boat. I rolled my eyes as I imagined him throwing a coat down for her on the seat so that not so much as one drop of water touched her oh-so-delicate body. When it was my turn to get in, Sir Walter barely noticed me, except to say “Keep your hands inside the boat,” like I was one of the cannibals that had escaped from the tunnel.
As we floated off into the darkness, I flashed back to the first time I had ever gone on the ride. I had jumped up and down in delight when I had finally passed the forty-five inch height mark that had kept me barred every previous year. While waiting in line, Julie had begun to tell me about how dark and scary it was inside the tunnel, but I had paid little attention. I was so happy to be away from what I considered the baby rides, that I hadn’t really considered the implications of facing the adult ones. But when the darkness enveloped our boat, I began to scream in terror when I realized that the only escape was going through the tunnel all the way to the end. There was no way of getting off or going back. I cried so badly that Julie had held me all the way.
But now, as our boat rocked along the water, knocking against the grey cinder blocks that made up the sides of the tunnel, Julie’s boredom was painfully apparent as she kept her eyes straight ahead while tapping her fingers absentmindedly on the top of her leg, not even bothering to so much as glance at the scenes in the walls.
“Is Mike meeting us at the club?” I asked, making any conversation just to cover up how ridiculous I felt for asking her to go on the ride.
“Yeah. He said he can try to fix you up with Paul if you want.”
“What?” I said, my voice raised in horror. “Why did you tell him what I said about Paul? He’ll probably tell him what I said,” I shrieked, the sound echoing strangely against the walls.
“Will you calm down. I didn’t say anything. I just said you two might look cute together.”
“Oh yeah, I’m sure he just thinks it’s all your idea. I would never have even said anything to you if I knew you’d go blabbing it everywhere.”
“Will you stop being so immature? You act like such a baby at times,” she said, her eyes rolling and head shaking back and forth, with a sigh at the end serving as the exclamation point.
“Yeah, that’s easy for you to say. Guys practically fall to their knees when they see you,” I said, surprising even myself, a first small spark of jealousy suddenly flaring inside of me.
We both fell into an awkward silence. The only noises were our wooden boat banging against the cinder blocks and the childish sound effects in the distance. I thought we would probably finish the ride in silence, but Julie finally spoke.
“What are you talking about? You’re pretty.”
“I’m sort of cute. And I’m not even that when you’re around.”
She looked at me as if she didn’t know what to say. She knew it was true as well as I did. But then she breathed in deeply as if sucking in some courage.
“Don’t get mad because I’m only saying this for your own good, but the truth is you don’t do anything to fix yourself up. You still wear clothes like you’re going to play wiffle ball on the corner of the street. You’re getting older now. If you want guys to notice you, you can’t keep acting and dressing like you’re still twelve years old.
“Well, my mind isn’t on guys twenty-four hours a day. Plus, I don’t like playing all cutesy in front of them like you do,” I said, my heart starting to race even as my face began to flush.
“Look, I’m only trying to help. Don’t take it out on me if you’re not happy. Maybe this whole club thing was a bad idea.”
“So now you’re saying you don’t even want me around?”
“I didn’t say that. You just don’t seem like you really want to go. First you dragged us here to the park and now you’re mad that I mentioned Paul to Mike. I thought you would be happy I did. I thought you wanted to go out with him.”
I just turned away and didn’t say anything else. I didn’t know if she was right, if I was right or if it was a combination of both. All I knew is that I wasn’t in her league.
As I turned my eyes up to the cracks in the roof of the tunnel, I could see the sky turning into beautiful pink and purple swirls. I always loved this time of day, no longer day but not quite night, everything taking on a magical quality that lasted only a short but sweet time. Before I knew it, I was crying softly.
“Are you ok?” Julie said, which only made my tears come harder.
“What’s the matter,” Julie cried, as I began to tremble in tears, my body causing the boat to shake.
Choking back the sobs, my mind flooded with thoughts so confused it was if they were spinning inside a tornado. I didn’t know how to say what I was feeling. My mind searched for some mature sounding explanation but found nothing that made any sense. So I finally uttered the only two words I could think of.
I didn’t think anyone on earth could’ve understood what I meant. I didn’t even almost understand it myself. My face blushed red with embarrassment as I turned my tear ravaged face toward the cinder block wall.
But I felt the weight on my shoulders as Julie put her arm around me and pulled me close to her. “It’s OK. I’m right here. I won’t let anything hurt you.” I laid my head on her shoulder as she stroked my hair while we rode the rest of the way through the tunnel in silence.
When our boat left the shadows of the tunnel for the dusk colored night outside, it slowly climbed to the top of the hill before swiftly diving and crashing down in the water below. Our boat slammed down so hard that gushes of water came like giant waves from every direction and soaked us completely. Julie’s mascara came pouring down her cheeks making her face look like a cross between Alice Cooper and a Jackson Pollock painting. I thought she would be furious, but instead she burst out laughing saying that she had forgotten how much she had loved that part of the ride.
Julie and I never made it to Uncle Sam’s that night. In fact, we never made it out of the park. We ate cotton candy as we gazed out to the ocean from the Sky Ride that glided along high in the air over the park below. We screamed like kids as we rode the Roller Coaster and feigned terror as our cart banged open the doors to The Kooky Castle. We even road up and down on the horses as we watched our own reflections in the mirrors on the Merry Go Round. I almost expected to find our parents waiting for us as we came off the rides.
We stayed until the park closed at midnight. And as we drifted out toward the exit, I watched the shadow of the lights shutting off silently as we walked through the gate. I turned to take a long last look as I considered that fragile thread, the one that lives between pleasure and pain, when the time comes when we must begin to leave behind our safe and secure past for the new and uncertain world that lies ahead.
As we drove wordlessly down the dusty beach road, the smell of salt water filled the air with the memories of our childhood. While I stared silently out at the glimmer of the moonlit sky playing like diamonds upon the ocean, Julie slid a tape in the eight track player. Peter Frampton’s voice softly filled the car as Julie began to sing along softly …Shadows grow so long before my eyes… as I let my eyes slowly shut, falling into my dreams all the way home.