I came home this past fall to the Chicago suburb where I’d lived with my parents from age nine until I left for college in 2008, and I moved back into my childhood bedroom. I did this even though it wasn’t absolutely necessary. It was my attempt to pre-empt rock bottom.
Because I was living in the room where I’d last lived as an eighteen-year-old, many of the tedious facts about myself that I’d spent a lot of my early adult life skirting, downplaying or lying about by omission resurfaced with what felt like punishing intent. Yes, I was (and still am) the only child of an overworked doctor and a Jungian therapist, both of whom are attentive and compassionate parents. I was raised on home-cooked organic food and wanted for nothing. I lived in a spacious room in a spacious house in a mostly white school district, where I and my mostly white friends progressed with honours through junior high and high school. I graduated from a private liberal arts college and a masters programme without any student loan debt. I could, if I so chose, apply for a position at the 60K/yr firm that typically hires graduates from my college, or I could find fulfilling work for less pay at some kind of non-profit, or I could enter another graduate programme. No outside force had intervened to derail the typical upward trajectory of another upper-middle-class, college-educated life – really, it would be pretty difficult to find something that could derail that trajectory, given the tenacity of the privilege and fortifying power structures at play. What happened was I’d derailed myself.
2014 opened with me in scrubs in an Iowa City psychiatric facility, forearms heavy with bracelets I’d beaded at the communal craft table, struggling to share something about my illness in group therapy. I was admitted because I hadn’t slept in a while, and I was released with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and a regimen of medications I neglected to take. Instead, I maintained a self-appointed regimen of coke, ecstasy, weed, benzos, painkillers, horse tranquilizers, etc. Somewhere in there, the guy I was living with revealed that he’d been lying about going to class and having a job and finances, and in the same breath told me that things were falling apart between us. He moved out, taking a good chunk of my money with him. I had an ex who told me that she didn’t want to live as her assigned gender any more, and we began a fund for her transition from male to female. I stopped sleeping again, and this time because I was trying to teach a fiction writing class and raise funds for my transgender ex’s surgery and score coke. I found out I’d won a grant to study Hindi in India – a grant I’d applied for when I was far more lucid. While there, I went in a state of unlithiated panic to a horoscope reader, who told me to get off all drugs, prescription and non. Knowing it would be difficult for me to be in Iowa City without being high much of the time, I went to one of the very few cafes in Jaipur, India with reliable wifi and put my Iowa City apartment up for sublet on Craigslist. I’d found a subletter within the week, which meant that when I touched down in Chicago in August of 2014, I had nowhere to go but home.
As a teenager I was a laughing stock, or at least I felt like one. I was the only female ‘freak’ in my high school whose teasing was handled by male class clowns of mid-to-high-level popularity. This could have been because I looked male: I was thin (‘competitively thin’ from what I convinced myself was judicious portion control and healthy amounts of exercise) and therefore nearly breastless, with a pixie cut, tinted black glasses that looked like Jeff Goldblum’s in Jurassic Park and an army jacket I wore in most weather. The tinted glasses were because of my extreme photosensitivity and narrowing tunnel vision, both of which made it impossible for me to drive. Not driving was a massive blow to one’s social status at my high school, and it certainly didn’t help my case. I was shuttled around by my best friends and spent most of my time after school hiding in their living rooms, half-watching TV and wondering if – or when – I would become legally blind. Since the eighth grade, I’d been tormented by a long-limbed, hyperactive kid named Alexei, who shoved me into lockers to get laughs from the popular kids. Late senior year, I was featured on a LiveJournal one of them made called Kids Who Suck. According to Kids Who Suck, I had given my English teacher a blow job in exchange for admission to Ivy League schools. When I showed my class dean the blog, he shrugged and claimed the matter was beyond his jurisdiction.
I had barely slept in high school, either, but now I was sleepless for a different and possibly more pernicious neurochemical reason. For a good portion of September I lay in my bed and looked at the ceiling fan. From the bottom dangled a plaster mobile I’d had since I was twelve: a Red Baron lookalike flying a Wright brothers-style plane. I liked that mobile a lot. I threw pens at it and then tried to see if I could get the plane’s wings to flap by blowing at them from a distance. I thought that being back in this room in my twenties meant that I’d really fucked up. My vision was almost entirely restored, I’d left home and found people who appreciated me, the LiveJournal had long since been deleted. But I remained angry about high school in a way that made my adult acquaintances bored and uncomfortable. When people called me to share good news about their lives, I imagined they were politely pointing this up. And I was onto them. I could read between the lines. I explained this to them in the same state of energetic dysphoria that had landed me in the psych ward in January.
In an attempt to keep my mind unfrayed, I sought structure. A very cursory search of Craigslist revealed that I could apply to be a costume character (‘scare-actor’) in a haunted house at Six Flags Great America. The most attractive things about this job were that it was only on weekends and that it would only span the five weekends of Fright Fest. One of the empathetic best friends who had shuttled me around when I was a half-blind teenager used to work there, earning either a managerial or supervisory position by the time she was seventeen. She drove a rusty Ford Tempo, paid for its gas and rhapsodized about self-sufficiency in a way that I, who had gotten myself fired from a summer lifeguarding job I found ‘understimulating’, didn’t entirely understand.
When I went in for an interview, I spoke to my friend’s present-day equivalent – she carried a green plastic clipboard and wore a sweatshirt that advertised Goliath, the country’s Tallest Fastest Steepest Wooden Roller Coaster. She asked me if I’d been in any theatre productions I’d felt particularly proud of, and I told her about a production of Guys and Dolls in the eighth grade, pretending the whole time that I’d been cast as Sister Sarah Brown instead of Card Shark #2. I was offered a job working for $8.25/hr in a haunted house called the Abyss.
During training we learned that there were six haunted houses in operation during Fright Fest: Massacre Medical Center (‘MMC’), Mausoleum of Terror (‘Maus’), Wicked Woods (‘WW’ or ‘The Woods’), Manslaughter Manor (‘Manslaughter’), Fear, and the Abyss. MMC was the jewel in Six Flags’s crown: it was supposed to be a former hospital overrun by patients infected with a zombifying virus, a favourite of scare-actors and audiences alike. Apparently there were audience plants who got pulled into elevators and then wheeled around bloodied on gurneys. Being cast in MMC came with a certain level of prestige that those cast in it were unafraid to flaunt. Beneath MMC were the Maus players, who had to wear Munchian masks and constantly invent new ways to terrorize people in a plastic graveyard. Then there were street characters who didn’t work in haunted houses, but rather populated haunted ‘sectors’ of the theme park. They wore rubber demon wings and bird masks and carried hierophantic scepters with glowing orbs at the tip that they would sometimes shove in each others’ faces backstage, yelling ‘Eat my dick!’ Below them were the rest of us.
The Abyss was a converted warehouse located in the Bermuda Triangle, which was the nom de guerre of Hurricane Harbor, Six Flags’s summertime-operative waterpark, during Fright Fest. Our theme was unexplained – it seemed to be something like ‘sunken ghost ship’, or maybe ‘Thesean ghost ship,’ because we rarely had the same make-up or placement within the house, which meant frequent visitors saw a different Abyss each time. The frontmost section was designed to look like a worse-for-wear cruise liner, the middle some sort of Sector 51 with operating tables and life forms in glass jars, and the end a half-outdoor half-indoor maze, evocative of a rainforest or a swamp. We Abyss scare-actors were sailors, drowned zombie people, mad scientists, aliens and Chewbacca-looking ‘bushes’ that stalked the periphery of the house. Our supervisor was Delia, a self-identified ‘hangry bitch’, blonde with a wide Midwestern face. We became friends on Facebook almost immediately, and I saw that she was three years younger than me and had been a cheerleader in high school. She posed with her friends in a photo from 2007, everyone’s hair straight, everyone smiling, everyone’s uniform baring a little midriff. A base part of me recognized her as someone I should be afraid of.
I was given a sailor suit with some spongy-looking faux seaweed attached and rushed to make-up, where my face was caked in white powder and then latex, which the make-up artist was able to half-peel off to precise and terrifying effect despite the hazard of her acrylic nails. Delia then brought me to the Abyss, where I was shown my room assignment. She told me we’d open in ten minutes and then prompted me to direct any questions I had to Jack, who wore a sailor suit like mine and sat on a crate by the house’s front entrance, nodding his head to the Avenged Sevenfold playing on his phone. Our room – our ‘scaring area’ – contained two sets of metal bunk beds covered in fake cobwebs and torn-apart foam CPR dummies.
‘There’s not really much to work with here,’ he said. ‘Mostly I just sit on this crate and let people walk by. And then when they’re done walking by I hit the wall and follow them.’
‘OK,’ I said. At the back of the room was a door-like set of floor-length plastic flaps. ‘Maybe I could jump out of there and scare people?’
He shrugged. ‘Your funeral.’
Behind the plastic flaps was an annex room, four by four feet wide and eight feet tall, with two exits: one into the break room and another into the next room of the house, which was full of motion-sensor treasure chests that rattled whenever people walked past. As patrons filtered in, I found myself unsure of how to go for the scare. Sometimes I jumped out of my annex and screamed, which was ineffective. Other times I sat down and hugged my knees to my chest and screamed: also ineffective. I have a baby face and a high-pitched voice – I intimidate no one. It wasn’t until I realized that suddenly appearing in the doorway of the annex and staring people down was an option that I began to achieve the scare. Eventually I would hone this technique enough to come within inches of the cash bonus offered to whomever could make a valued guest piss themselves.
The first night was a Saturday, which meant we worked from 4.15 until midnight with one forty-five minute break. As far as I could tell, no one working in the haunted house was over eighteen. I kept on getting asked which high school I went to, and instead of correcting anyone I gave them the name of the high school I’d graduated from in 2008. The only person who didn’t ask me anything was a wildly energetic, long-haired girl named Vianey who played a drowned zombie in the room with the rattling chests. She would let loose high-decibel, chattering laughs during non-funny parts of Delia’s motivational speeches, and she was always eye-dartingly announcing Tengo mear! (‘I have to piss’), which no one understood besides myself and the two mad scientists who were both named Elvis. On my first night, she stomped into my annex-cell and brought me by the arm to a place she whispered was the Goat Head Room. It turned out to be a room that was largely empty except for a giant metal sheet and a fake, blood-spattered goat’s head hanging by a plastic chain from the ceiling. Vianey stomped down with all her force on the metal sheet, making an ear-splitting noise. She erupted in peals of laughter. I put her age at sixteen.
‘How old are you?’ she asked. ‘Sixteen? Fifteen?’
I smiled and shook my head. I wanted to tell her the truth for some reason. ‘I’m twenty-four.’
‘I’m twenty-three,’ she said, unhesitating. ‘I’ve got two kids.’ Then she stomped the sheet again and screamed with joy. ‘I love this work, I swear to God.’
I told her not to tell anyone that I was older than our supervisor and she agreed, happy to be dethroned as the oldest in the Abyss.
We were inseparable thereafter. Vianey’s husband worked during the week and stayed home with the kids on weekends, allowing her to moonlight at Six Flags. She knew the park better than most of the managerial staff, and her loyalty and enthusiasm were infectious. On my second weekend, Vianey picked me up so we could clock in early and ride the bucket swings (a children’s ride – the wait for a rollercoaster can be upwards of ninety minutes on a Saturday). We snuck in through a back entrance above which hung a wooden cutout of Yosemite Sam admonishing all would-be trespassers: ‘Hold on there pardner! This is for employees only!’ We rode the bucket swings and purchased a funnel cake that was still overpriced after our employee discount. We ate it on a patio in front of a pond chaotic with remote control tugboats and shivering, half-dead koi. The whipped cream was dense in the same way I imagined heavy water must be dense. ‘I could eat this every goddamn day,’ Vianey said. Her brow knit when I lowered my spork in defeat. ‘That’s all you can do? You are weird, Bekah, wow.’
Vianey also taught me how to get the best make-up: I hadn’t realized there was a strategy to this, or that I’d been getting bad make-up before. (She had clucked at Acrylic Nails’s make-up job and told me ‘You’re only as scary as your make-up. And this is shit make-up.’) Of the ten or twelve make-up artists charged with caking up the faces of teenaged scare-actors, maybe two or three were truly gifted. Vianey’s favourite of these was Isabella, who had big eyes and caramel hair extensions and spoke Cuban-accented Spanish. Isabella made Vianey’s face look like pavement someone had taken a hammer to. I singled out the nerdy, bodice-wearing Gabrielle as my favourite: she was willing to apply latex seaweed to the side of my face and deepen my eye sockets with obsidian stage paint until I looked like a Dementor.
In the Abyss, Vianey and I went for the personalized scare. She was fond of sneaking up behind attractive male patrons and rasping, ‘You smell good.’ I would pop out from my annex and hiss in the ears of teenaged boys hugging their girlfriends. If we encountered bratty kids who said ‘Hi!’ with false confidence, we’d yell ‘Hi!’ back until they cowered. Inspired by Vianey’s enthusiasm, I once jumped out of my annex with such force that one of the door flaps smacked a young woman in the face. She stumbled past me, clutching at her eye. Delia never caught wind of the incident – either that or it got blamed on one of the mad scientists.
Vianey’s unpretentious goofiness made her well known and beloved by everyone in the park – we couldn’t walk a few feet without her being pulled aside to take a selfie. After two weekends by Vianey’s side, I began to register as a social presence myself. I became friends with Eliza, one of the Chewbacca bushes who was a high school senior and aspiring professional dancer working in the Abyss to earn money for college. She had a deep sense of the absurd and gave me rides home until I purchased a cheap Honda of my own: listening to her astute complaints about AP homework and the mundanity of the suburbs was soothing and familiar to me. There was Shaun, another bush whom everyone loved because he disliked no one and would do things like slap the Elvises’ asses and decline to wear the kohl-coloured make-up base all bushes had to wear under the grounds that he was ‘black enough already’. There was Dennis, a mad scientist and Six Flags veteran fond of citing the fact that his girlfriend was a supervisor. He was one quarter Bartleby and three quarters Dwight Schrute, his obsession with the schedules and the tardiness of other scare-actors tedious even to Delia.
On the third weekend we were joined by two new scare-actors: André was freckled and fond of screaming ‘I taught I taw a puddy tat!’ in the ears of dazed patrons walking past. He was so charming that he, Vianey, and I were group-hugging by the end of his first night, and he’d suckered us into asking both Jack and Shaun if they had crushes on him (neither did). Cesar was quiet by contrast, a sailor like me. He was seventeen years old and saving up money to buy a car. He intimated that he had a second job, and when asked what it was would say only that it ‘wasn’t exactly legal’. The night he arrived, I’d grown bored of my annex and decided to pretend to be dead in the room with the rattling treasure chests. Cesar seated himself on a barrel across from me and stared at me. Then Vianey appeared and started powwowing with him.
‘She speaks German, you know,’ she shouted over the fake thunder and rattling chests, jerking her head at me. ‘Say something in German!’
‘Ich hasse alles,’ I said.
Cesar looked expectantly at me.
‘It means “I love everything,”’ I said, pleased with myself.
Vianey bit her bottom lip in an attempt to suppress laughter and looked down at Cesar. Then she disappeared back into the Goat Head Room.
‘Do you want candy?’ Cesar asked.
He tossed me some Sour Patch Kids and I tore into them.
‘You have a boyfriend?’ The question was levelled timidly.
I was so shocked that I just shook my head, gummies hanging out my mouth.
‘You look good even with the make-up on,’ he said. ‘It’s a compliment.’
I continued to eat, unsure of what to say. We scared a batch of patrons, then another. I spent the whole time brainstorming how I could extinguish Cesar’s hopes without revealing my real age or hurting his feelings.
‘Which school do you go to?’ he asked.
‘I’m nineteen,’ I blurted.
He laughed. ‘No way. You’re like fifteen.’
‘No really,’ I said. ‘I’m too old for you.’
Cesar didn’t return to the Abyss after that night. The following night, the Elvis with hipster glasses added me on Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram and serenaded me in the breakroom with a remix of Iggy Azalea’s ‘Fancy’, played off his phone.
I found Vianey hiding in a former industrial freezer, talking to her husband in rapid-fire Spanish. She cackled when she saw me.
I snatched her earbuds out of her ears. ‘Why the fuck are you sending these teenaged boys to me?’
‘Momento,’ she whispered to her phone. Then she turned to me. ‘I’m not sending anyone to you. They just think you’re pretty. They’re a little young for you, though, don’t you think?’ She exploded with laughter and shoved her earbuds back in.
Word of these incidents got around, apparently, because I’d begun to get side-eyes from the social queens of the park: small girls from MMC and Maus who were lacquered with lip gloss and eyeshadow and bragged about their boyfriends and the sex they were definitely having with them. It took a while for me to understand that they saw me as their competition. My first instinct was to mentor them out of this attitude as I had the undergrads I’d taught in my past life, reminding them that mutual support and affirmation are staples of good feminism and that bating us to compete over men is the patriarchy’s way of distracting us from more important goals. But a strange secondary impulse took hold, and I found myself flipping my hair, texting voraciously and accepting dubious invitations to the mall and Steak ’n Shake with little intention of actually showing up. This was how it felt to be sixteen and popular.
It had been six years since I’d spent significant time with my parents. Our house was once noisy with teenaged resentment: me citing their unwillingness to let me drive as the reason for my lack of social status, them accusing me of ungratefulness, me holing up under my duvet and calling my long-distance boyfriend to complain about how unreasonable they were. Now the dynamic had shifted. I drove my mom to look at assisted living facilities for my grandma and we bashed the obnoxious staff over dinner afterwards. We sat in the kitchen for hours discussing her interest in Northern Renaissance art and my past regrets. I began to notice the bags under my dad’s eyes when he came home from work, how he fell asleep whenever he was permitted to sit still. At sixty he was still putting in twelve-hour overnight shifts at the ER. He lived in fear of his supervisor, who sometimes summoned him to his office for no reason other than to let him know he’d been denied vacation time. Although my dad received a decent wage, he was still an hourly worker, and so subject to intimidating performance reviews where his colleagues were encouraged to tattle on each other in order to win the favour of their boss.
Six Flags worked in a similar way. The application I’d filled out featured multiple choice questions like: You catch another employee starting his break five minutes early. You a) Say nothing about it, b) Warn him not to do it again, c) Tell your supervisor immediately. The correct answer was always C. The more supervisors knew about workers and managers about supervisors, the better the park ran – or so Six Flags’s ‘teamwork’-oriented credo went. In the employee cafeteria during our single forty-five minute break, Eliza and I would often complain about how panoptic the park was: everyone watching everyone meant a state of tyranny and terror, those within made to believe at all times that they were on the brink of termination. The only incentive to perform well was fear. I noticed how this was beginning to wear on Eliza. She was the kind of hyper-responsible teenager who drove her younger siblings to ballet and soccer practice and spent the evenings with her friends binge-watching Gilmore Girls after finishing her homework. Being denied autonomy wasn’t in her conceptual lexicon. She wanted to advocate for fair treatment, and I told her we’d never get it. I followed up with a cryptic assurance that she’d eventually enter the wider world and there’d be plenty of autonomy for her there. She rolled her eyes and said, ‘As long as I never have to wear a bush costume again.’ Some crows and a bloody clown sitting at the next table laughed. ‘What?’ she asked. ‘Look at me. I’m a friggin’ bush!’
Deprived of control over our lives in the park, we began to obsess over small things. I would prowl my annex, forbidden to venture past the Goat Head Room and prone to chewing out anyone who entered my territory. I nearly went out of my mind with boredom a few times one weekend, and took to running laps in the tiny space, which was probably a thing more terrifying to patrons than suddenly appearing in the door frame.
In the employee cafeteria, scare-actors could purchase corn dogs, nachos and cheese fries for a dollar apiece. We were also offered free mango bars that were either expired or damaged in some way (I ate one every night I worked there). The cafeteria was a Boschian hellscape: reanimated WWI veterans rubbing elbows with vampires, demons trying to get the Pepsi machine to work, lumberjacks splitting troughs of cheesy nachos with deranged circus barkers, etc. Besides the mango bars, the one thing the cafeteria offered for free was refills on hot chocolate. One slow Sunday, Vianey had paid the twenty-five cents required for a medium-sized paper cup of hot chocolate with the intention of saving the cup and refilling it after our shift ended. She didn’t have time to finish it before we were corralled back to the Abyss, so she asked me to chug the rest.
‘Don’t throw away the cup.’ She said it with a sternness I was unaccustomed to hearing from her.
I nodded and downed the hot chocolate before we made it to the Town Square, Six Flags’s central hub of transit, where we often had to cut through a sea of gawking patrons eating more expensive versions of the fried fare we’d just choked down. Some kids noticed my striped sailor’s shirt and asked if I was in jail; one asked, ‘Is it the Holocaust now?’ In the break room, Vianey turned to me, her hand extended.
‘The cup,’ she said.
I looked at my hands in horror. ‘I don’t have it.’
Her face grew dark and exasperated. I became momentarily terrified that our friendship might end over this. ‘What the fuck?’
‘I – I dropped it.’
‘Are you serious right now? Go find it.’
I did. I went outside and dug through three separate trash bins until I found it, two scare-actors dressed as zombie Captain Ahab and a sea anemone cheering me on. I hangdoggedly handed it to Vianey, who shook her head in relief. Then I walked past Delia to assume my post in the annex.
‘You smell like garbage,’ she observed.
By the end of the third weekend, I had set a timer on my phone to buzz when I had two hours left of scaring, then ninety minutes, then one hour, and so on. The boredom was crushing – eventually I grew weary of screaming ‘I taut I taw a puddy tat!’ with André and kept to myself in the annex, planning and replanning my future. Vianey had taken to calling her husband to check on her kids when things were particularly slow. I would sometimes self-administer breaks to dash out paragraph-long texts or just sit down (we often stood for upwards of six hours), but I’d do so in a state of panic. I’d come to fear Dennis more than Delia: his fierce adherence to the rules was incoherent considering he earned the same pittance all scare-actors did. This inability to be bought or sold made him seem powerful, like an obsequious Robocop incapable of self-awareness. I was snitched on, disciplined and forced to sign paperwork. I was warned that if I repeated the behaviour I would be terminated. This happened with enough frequency that I became cocky with the knowledge of how much my job sucked, and how difficult it would be for Six Flags to find someone else willing to debase themselves enough to fill my shoes. André and I once spent half a shift lying on the floor in the Goat Head Room, throwing patrons’ lost pocket change at the ceiling and belting Nicki Minaj.
When we got bored of each other, we watched the patrons. White men – dads especially – tended to affect an unassabilability which I found incredibly irritating. By the beginning of the fourth weekend, I had refined my technique well enough to know that their stoicness wasn’t my fault – it was theirs. Who the hell comes to a haunted house just to walk through it blankly? I wondered. I played a game with myself called See How Many White Men You Can Scare. I reported back to Vianey every time I made one jump, and eventually she joined in. We were neck and neck at three apiece one night when our white whale entered the Abyss. He looked to be about six foot three and 280 pounds. His girlfriend was smaller and shorter than me: hugged from behind, she looked like a joey in her boyfriend’s pouch. Vianey and I stood at the front entrance to the treasure chest room, poised to scare him, but we soon realized this was futile. He was screaming Coldplay and charging past us, his girlfriend’s reactions a blur of hissed objections. He stank of vodka, or they both did. Out of curiosity we followed them into the Goat Head Room, where Dennis and Shaun were banging on the metal sheet and trying to shout intimidatingly. Miraculously, the guy could be heard over all of this. He kept on singing Coldplay, interrupting himself only to tell his girlfriend that he wanted to dance. And he did, sans her permission: a weird leg-to-leg hop that was vaguely reminiscient of a polka. It looked for a few seconds like she was trying to participate, but then it became clear she was wrestling herself free from him.
‘Fucking stop it, Dave!’ she hissed. ‘I’m so sick of your shit.’
Dave stopped dancing. The room went silent. She turned around and took us all in, her small chest heaving. We stared back at her. Dennis dropped his chain onto the metal sheet with a defeated clatter.
She turned back to Dave. ‘It’s over,’ she said. ‘This time it’s over for real.’ Then she left the Goat Head Room. She’d have to cover two thirds of the haunted house alone, having just dumped her boyfriend. This didn’t matter, though: she’d be impervious to the scare.
Shaun took the liberty of showing Dave out the emergency exit. ‘It’s over, dude,’ we heard him say to Dave. ‘Go clean yourself up.’
By the fourth weekend, Eliza, André and the hipster Elvis had all quit. Delia had developed a hacking cough and I had outgrown the role of popular girl. Unable to shake my origins, I had already taken an unpopular stance in favour of one of our line leaders – a person in charge of making sure only twenty patrons were allowed in the Abyss at a time – who, in the process of coming unravelled, had begun letting in groups of forty and fifty. He was small, went by the name Buzz Chen, and wore two pairs of sunglasses in the cafeteria because he hated fluorescence of any kind. He had revealed to us that he was taking Lorazepam for anxiety, and that this Lorazepam gave him the courage to ask out girls. I’d been on (and abused) Lorazepam before, but I was loathe to admit this in mixed company. We watched as Buzz popped multiple pills and got down on one knee to ‘propose’ to an Audrey Tatou-looking vampire whose boyfriend played an axe murderer in WW. Buzz was suspended the next day.
‘Anxiety disorders are a real thing,’ I submitted lamely during that day’s break. ‘The guy was obviously suffering.’
Shaun shook his head and looked at the remaining Elvis, who was making a pyramid of his cheese fries. ‘She’s fucking different, man.’ He looked back at me, grinning. ‘Sticking up for Buzz. You’re like the kind of person you see on TV. Like in an interview. I heard you speaking German before – you’ve travelled.’
I bit into my mango bar to prevent myself from speaking.
‘I don’t think you’re who you say you are,’ he said. ‘How old are you really?’
I suffered a momentary brain freeze and considered just coming clean, admitting that I came from the Future, that I was a twenty-four-year-old with a DSM diagnosis and an incipient drug problem who’d been on the other side of the world and had sex at least more than a handful of times and learned that there are places where difference is nowhere near as hazardous a thing as it is in high school, and that the freedom to self-actualize we’re taught to associate with adulthood is actually a privilege of the few instead of a right of the many, and that despite this it’s still surprisingly possible for a lot of people to carve out pockets of happiness for weeks or even months at a time. Instead I made a smug face and asked him: ‘How old do you think I am?’
‘Eighteen,’ he said.
‘Fourteen,’ Elvis said.
‘Dude, you’re fucking this up.’
I pretended to nod sagely. ‘Neither of you is right, but one’s less wrong than the other.’
Shaun shook his head and stole from the foundation of Elvis’s pyramid. ‘Cryptic shit.’
That night when I got home my dad sat tense and small in his pyjamas at the kitchen table. Work and his bizarre dedication to marathon running had chipped away at his physique, leaving him at least fifty pounds lighter than he’d been a decade ago. I usually arrived home around one in the morning, and it was unlike him to be awake unless he was about to work an overnight shift. I microwaved some lasagna and asked him what was wrong. He shook his head. He watched me eat and then removed his glasses and rubbed his face. He remained like this for a while, eyes hidden, and I thought he’d fallen asleep. Then he sighed and removed his hand and I could see he’d been fighting back tears. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘My supervisor told me I was admitting too many people to the hospital.’
I chewed slowly, unsure how this was a bad thing.
‘He said they’re watching me.’
‘Who’s watching you?’
‘He didn’t say who.’ He hid his eyes again. ‘The higher-ups, was all he said.’
I ate while he held his eyes in silence. Then he sat up and smiled at me, the same energetic smile I remembered from my childhood, when he was full-bearded and robust and still making plans to teach medicine and review movies on the side – plans he’d abandoned shortly before I entered high school. ‘I’m a good doctor.’
I nodded. ‘You definitely are.’
‘This guy came in the other week with a completely shattered wrist and the ortho wasn’t there. I put it back together entirely. Just reconstructed his wrist.’ He chuckled to himself. ‘I’d never done that before.’
‘That’s pretty incredible,’ I said.
My dad nodded. Suddenly, in a weak voice several decibels lower, he told me he had to go to bed. He was exhausted. He had work tomorrow. He kissed me on the forehead and left me to finish my lasagna.
The next morning I drove to what would end up being my last day of work in the Abyss. I thought of my dad sitting small and fold-handed in his supervisor’s office. I had spent more time with my mom than my dad over the course of my life – her schedule was more flexible than his, facilitated by the fact that she’d quit her job as a marketing director to raise me. She and I spoke, told secrets, and fought more than my dad and I; when he came home, he was charged with the awkward duty of fitting himself into the dynamic my mom and I had already established. For a period of my life he was angry about his alienation and powerless to resolve it, skulking and panicking. But that dust had long since settled. Now he went to work, came home, and watched a movie with my mom, during which one or both of them fell asleep. He walked with a slight limp from his incessant running and took delight in his ability to reconstruct a shattered wrist, work for which he never received the special recognition I knew he wanted.
Gabrielle gathered my hair in a ponytail and then slathered a putty knife full of latex across my right cheek. ‘There’s gonna be an OSHA violation tonight, I think.’
I looked at her in the mirror. Her boyfriend, a street character whom she’d done up to look like a skeleton in a top hat, was massaging her upper back while reading the Chicago Tribune he’d draped over her right shoulder. ‘How do you know?’ I asked.
‘Everybody’s quitting, so they’re going to power break you guys to keep the houses fully staffed. Like you’re going to go on break right after you get your make-up. And that counts as your break for the night.’
I realized that I was about to scream and pace around my annex from 5.00pm until midnight without a break. The prospect left me cold. ‘That’s not legal,’ I said.
‘No, it’s not. But you’re seasonal workers so I’m sure they figure Yeah, fuck it, do whatever to them.’
‘How would we go about reporting this?’ I asked. ‘If it happens?’
‘Call the OSHA hotline.’ She raised an eyebrow. ‘I dare you.’
‘I will,’ I promised.
Dennis and his girlfriend were sitting in front of the main office as I collected my sailor suit, drilling each other from an AP US History textbook. I told Dennis about the OSHA violation and he shook his head violently.
‘It’s technically legal because we get a break, it’s just before work starts.’
‘How does that compute at all?’ I asked. ‘You have to be working first in order to take a break from it. It’s a break from work.’
His girlfriend wiped her glasses on her Goliath sweatshirt, regarding me with squinty disdain. ‘I don’t know where you’re getting your information from, but it’s wrong.’
I dragged myself to the picnic table where we usually congregated before walking to the Abyss. Vianey was nowhere in sight.
‘Vianey’s in MMC tonight,’ Delia informed me between smacks of gum. ‘We’re short-staffed all over. Jack just quit, so you’ll have to handle the front room on your own.’
It was an unusually warm October day, and I began sweating through my make-up. I would be virtually alone at the fore of our ship, unable to break, a room and a hallway away from Dennis. I checked the OSHA guidelines on my phone and confirmed that what was about to happen was illegal.
‘Tell him I say hi,’ Shaun whispered over my shoulder.
‘Whoever you’re texting. Your boyfriend.’
‘This is illegal,’ I responded. ‘What they’re about to do to us.’
‘Hell yeah it is. I already told my mom I’m not working Fright Fest next year.’ He pulled on the full-face netting that was supposed to make him look like a swamp monster. ‘I’d probably drop dead if I had to do this every day of the week.’
The walk to the Bermuda Triangle that night was a lonely one. We crossed a wide industrial transom that took us above the park – we could see the patrons, the pathetically long lines for rides, the groaning, spitting rides themselves and their screaming cargo, the giant carousel at the front entrance and the go-karts at the back. From our distance, the carousel was all sparkle and no kitsch, and I felt briefly as though I were an optimistic cartographer surveying uncharted and beautiful land phenomena. But then we disappeared behind a thicket of trees and we were pushing open the Bermuda Triangle gates and one of the longest nights I’ve lived so far began.
Alone in the annex, the next closest scare-actor a make-up artist with a spray bottle full of rubbing alcohol who’d once appeared in a TV commercial for Six Flags, the distance from 5.00 to 5.15 felt like two hours. The make-up artist would sometimes barge into my annex and ask me why the long face or tell me to get into the ‘joy of scaring,’ and I would give him an eye-roll capable of curdling even Cher Horowitz’s blood. By 5.30, I couldn’t remember how it felt for time to pass normally. The make-up artist had sprayed me twice with his spray bottle. I actually sought out Dennis, and amused myself for what I hoped was ten minutes by asking him if it was OK to yell in guests’ ears. He launched into a multi-paragraph explanation of the rules and I pitied him too much to let him finish. By the time all this was over, it was only 5.37.
I sat on Jack’s old crate in the front room and watched patrons try to navigate the Abyss. Families came in until 6.00 or 7.00, sometimes pushing strollers, the kids glassy-eyed with hunger or boredom. Then came the junior high schoolers, grouped according to whichever level of popularity they could afford, posing as if they had independent access to the world even though they’d just been dropped off in a theme park by their parents. An hour later came the high schoolers, similarly grouped. I could tell instantly which group I would’ve been a part of. All girls, all nerdy and uneasy in their various-sized bodies, whispering their inside jokes to one another over their backpacks. Sometimes I imagined myself at the head of one such group, volcanically silly as I never allowed myself to be in school, cracking bon mots that I hoped bespoke my intelligence and worldliness and made my friends envy me (but not so much that they’d hate me) and admire me (a lot). I would be wearing some shitty Goodwill kids’ T-shirt – I had one I loved with a cartoon loon that said ‘Greetings from Minnesota’ – and I’d be wearing fingerless gloves or a lot of bracelets, and I’d be walking with extreme caution because the Abyss is dark and strobe lit and so particularly hazardous for the weak of sight.
I stood up and stared in a manner I hoped was creepy at one such nerd-girl group – a single file line of girls in cheap JC Penny jeans, each one grasping the shoulders of the person in front of them, their reaction times lightning fast, their brains so obviously pink from youth and zero recreational drug use. They jumped when they saw me, and one waved. I broke character and waved back. They passed behind me, into the annex, and I heard one say: ‘I think we can all agree – that girl was a fox.’
Something snapped in my chest and out oozed the kind of sentiment you’d find in The Babysitter’s Club or an after school special. Someday all of you will look confident and grow into your bodies and a bunch of teenagers will think you’re foxy, both intellectually and physically, I promise, it’s not that long off.
Then a hyperactive kid wearing plastic devil’s horns ran past me, shoving me back down onto Jack’s crate. I checked my phone. It was 6.28.
Having forsaken the ability to materialize out of nowhere, I was more of an inconvenience than a scary thing. Patrons would sometimes smile at me as they fumbled past the bunk beds or made obvious comments about the fakeness of the spider webs. I spent three hours sitting on the crate, daring Delia to walk past and issue me the final behavioral warning that would result in termination. She never did. I got a few texts from Vianey:
holy shit MMC’s really better than anything
i’m a hospital receptionist lady with an axe in her head lol
but i still miss Abyss
Deep in the Abyss, I could feel myself growing years older by the hour. By 9.13, I was my mom’s age, forging in the smithy of my Subaru the midlife plan that would allow me to live Authentically: artistic, spontaneous, unburdened by my warring brothers. By 10.23, I was my grandma’s age, asleep in a hospital bed in the mid-morning, dreaming about a boy who’d written me an eloquent love letter at Purdue and then slipped it under my sorority doormat so my boyfriend wouldn’t find it. By 11.48 I was on another plane altogether – the Abyss’s thunder had begun to sound like a chord progression in the song ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ and I thought I could see paisleys rising up off the floor.
After the Abyss was shut down, Delia gave us orange sheets on which were printed the names of every scare-actor and their respective houses. ‘Vote for whoever you think is best and they’ll get a Best Employee prize at the awards ceremony on Halloween,’ she sighed. ‘Now go the fuck home.’
I circled Vianey’s name and handed the paper back. Delia took it with an exhausted smile, and I thought for the thousandth time what unpleasant, self-falsifying work being a popular girl actually is. I smiled back.
I went to the main office and waited for fifteen minutes while several managers who looked my age or a little older spoke into walkie-talkies and stole donuts from a large box of Krispie Kremes on a folding table. When someone asked me why I was there, I mumbled, ‘I’m here to quit.’
‘OK, go see Heather in the next room.’
I went to see Heather, who turned out to be a mommish person in a neon windbreaker, tight, stone-washed jeans, and a short haircut. She nodded professionally when I informed her of my decision and asked me to surrender my employee badge.
‘And we’ll just go ahead and delete you from the employee database.’ She turned around and logged onto what looked like a 1994 PC running an even older version of Windows. ‘There we go!’ she said, and then walked past me into the next room. I left through the back exit.
I ran into Vianey on the way out to the parking lot – she had just clocked out of MMC. When I told her about my situation, her face got dark and disappointed in the same way it had during the cup incident. She gave me a tight hug.
‘I just got nominated for Best Employee, you know, Delia told me,’ she said. ‘It’s shitty you’re not going to be at the ceremony.’
‘But it’s great you got nominated.’
She bit her lower lip and nodded absently. ‘Yeah, it is. I’ll tell my kids about it.’
We promised to stay in touch.
In my car in the parking lot, I was exhausted but not relieved: I could have left whenever I wanted to, so I’d ‘escaped’ nothing. And there was only one weekend of Fright Fest left, anyway. The thing I could barely stay ahead of was endogeneous to me, and neurochemical in nature, and hopefully unknown to those girls in the JC Penny jeans. To distract myself I opened my phone and dialed the OSHA number. I could at least do something for worker’s rights before pulling out of the parking lot.
Someone answered and asked me to state my query and I hung up immediately. The screen was smudged with my make-up, which I’d forgotten to scrub off with Six Flags Astringent before getting in my car. I drove home. I walked inside and saw my father sitting at the kitchen table again. This time he wore his scrubs and made no attempt to hide the fact that he was crying. I asked him what was wrong.
‘They’re going to fire me,’ he said. ‘I’m going to lose my job.’
My scalp went hot. ‘Dad, that’s impossible.’
He gasped like a child exhausted by his own tears. ‘They told me – they told me they were watching me.’
‘Did they tell you anything else?’
He shook his head. ‘Leann,’ he managed.
‘I’ve known her thirty years and she told on me. She said I admit too many patients to the hospital, more than they can handle.’ He looked at me desperately. ‘But I take care of them all. They’re all discharged fine.’
Leann – I remembered her from hospital holiday parties when I was a child. She was warm, large, quick-witted. When my dad confronted her about the tattling, she’d probably said something like Just doing my job. She’d probably said it with a coat of embarrassed guilt, eyes averted.
‘Now they’re monitoring me.’
I stood behind my dad and hugged him around the shoulders – this was how he’d hugged me when I became inconsolable as a child. He stopped crying. We sat at the kitchen table and talked; I overlooked the fake seaweed still plastered to my cheek and the obsidian around my eyes. I told him that his supervisor had to know he was a good doctor. We agreed that there was no point in worrying about it right now. Sipping the glass of water he’d been struggling to drink earlier, he spoke with excitement about the classic movies he’d loaded up in the family Netflix queue. We parted ways to sleep sometime in the early morning, and he rose three hours later, ate breakfast, and returned to work as though nothing had happened.
Photograph courtesy of Rebekah Frumkin