She once read a book wherein the hero and heroine paid a lump sum of money to ride a Ferris wheel over and over, around and around, all night long, until the carnival was through. That passage cemented itself in her mind as the most romantic way to spend an evening with a lover, and she swore she’d never set foot on a Ferris wheel until she found her own True Love.
Oh, she was a feisty little firecracker, and stubborn, too. Throughout her dating years—first as a teenager, and later, in college—she was presented many opportunities to ride an ever-circling wheel, but it never felt right. She was determined to hold out—to preserve her Ferris wheel virginity—for the man who, she was convinced, was also saving himself for her.
Back then, it had been her dream—refreshing, and hopeful.
Now, it had become nothing more than childish naiveté.
She married young, at only 19, and now, fifteen years later, she still hadn’t ridden a Ferris wheel. She’d tried to convince her husband every summer when the fair came through town, but there was always the issue of tickets that he’d rather spend on shooting games and roller coasters than leisurely jaunts on a giant wheel. (He liked shooting games because he was good at them. He always won the best prizes.) Or he’d say he’d eaten too many corn dogs, which she secretly suspected he did purposely, so he wouldn’t have to ride the wheel with her. And besides, he’d say, he used to ride them lots as a teenager. They were nothing special. Just a good place to kiss his girlfriend of the summer.
Their son was the same way: He craved action. He was a teenager now, and at fourteen, he had no use for any ride that didn’t give him whiplash. She had hesitated to have a baby so soon after getting married, but her husband told her that since she had nothing better to do, they might as well. Looking back now, she laughed at her gullibility. “They” might as well have a baby? Well, “he” might as well knock her up, but she was the one left to raise the child. He left the parenting, the nurturing, completely up to her, taking interest in his son only long enough to teach him how to shoot a BB gun. Every child-raising decision in their lives, from diapers to homework, feeding to chaperoning, had been turned over to her.
That’s why it was so depressing to her to realise her son was well on his way to becoming just like his father—it was a shining example that she, his mother, had utterly failed in raising him. The only badge she’d worn in her adult life—MOTHER—the one she always imagined as a blue satin ribbon with shiny golden letters embossed on the front, had turned out to be nothing more than an honourable mention.
What had it all been for? She felt too young to be washed up, but too old to change the path she was on.
“It isn’t fair,” she would think to herself during ever-frequent moments of despair. “Why am I so unhappy, when other women live such charmed lives? It’s not fair.” Somewhere in the recesses of her mind, she recalled the old catch phrase her father used to say: The only fair is the county fair. Nothing in life is fair.
That summer, when she reached her lowest point, she finally accepted the fact she would be riding her Ferris wheel alone. She drove down to the fair grounds, paid for parking and enough tickets for one ride on the giant wheel, and stood in line to wait for her turn. Behind her was a young couple in their early twenties, and she couldn’t stop herself from eavesdropping on their lovestruck conversation. Their words sounded like poetry: “I’ve never loved you more than I do right now;” “I can’t stop thinking how lucky I am.” She could remember every detail of her husband’s courtship, and she was certain he never spoke such sweet somethings into her ear, even then.
“—Lady! Hey, lady!”
She was jolted from her mournful reverie by a cruel-sounding voice. Looking up, she realised it was the ride conductor calling to her—it was her turn on the wheel.
“My name is Elaine,” she mumbled, not meeting his eye. Whether he heard her quiet declaration was unclear—if so, he did not acknowledge it.
“What’ll it be, lady? You comin’ or not?” She wondered why he spoke with a New York accent when the fair was in the Midwest. What had happened in his life to bring him all the way from the greatest, most exciting city in the country, to here, working for minimum wage at a state fair in the godforsaken landlocked prairie? If she ever made it to New York, she wouldn’t leave for love nor money. She’d rather be a bum there than an heiress here. She was sad for him.
Finally, she handed over her ticket. She felt an unexpected jolt of panic—she’d never been afraid of heights before, but now she looked at the popcorn-scattered ground in despair as if she’d never see it again.
“Ridiculous,” she told herself, and lowered the restraining bar into her lap.
As her fear subsided, it gave way to exhilaration. The wheel turned more slowly than she’d expected, and the glittering, electrical view of the fair made her feel like she was in a city larger than she’d ever seen. She was happy for the first time in maybe all her life, and automatically turned to smile at her seatmate, but then remembered: She had ridden as a single. Her husband didn’t come with her—she hadn’t even invited him this time.
She rode alone, and felt alone. She was alone.
On that first revolution, somewhere between the bottom and top, she made a decision—the first real decision of her life. She slowly unbuckled her harness with quivering hands. She unlocked the cage, and stood in her seat. As the wheel approached the highest point, she took a deep breath. The air smelled of cotton candy and cows, bittersweet in a way that only a state fair can be.
The man in charge of the ride finally noticed she was standing.
“Hey LADY!” he yelled, “You crazy? Sit your ass down or I’ll stop this ride!”
“My name is Elaine,” she whispered in reply.
In a moment of poetic tragedy, Elaine jumped from the top of the wheel before ever riding one full turn.