You Only Live Once

Posted on: March 4, 2014

I’m standing in line for what my son and in his friends call the “YOLO-Coaster of Doom,” and my son's cutting me that slicing teenage glance that lets me know this is my one opportunity to prove myself. I've got my pup tent clearly parked on the border between Lame Dad and yo, Michael, your dad's all right. I am determined to end up in the preferable camp.

I’ve worked hard since Joanna and I split to cultivate a look that says I’m with it. Half-zip grey sweaters. Hair wax. NPR glasses, which Jamie, the optometrist's cute assistant, swore make me look thoughtful. I’m trying too hard, but at least I know I’m trying too hard. And shouldn't I?

When the woman you've mostly loved for seventeen years drags your name through a mixture of mud and sewage, you have to become the kind of dad your kid isn’t embarrassed to be with in public. But so far it's easier to get approval from the optometrist's assistant.

So here I am in line for the YOLO-Coaster of Doom. Michael's a respectable distance ahead, goofing off with his stoner buddies who I am trying hard not to judge, as they've got the power here. Dan, the taller one, doesn't say much, but laughs a fakey huh-huh at everything the other two say. The second half-bake, whom everyone calls Squirrel, is busy ogling a busty park employee escorting a Make-a-Wish group to the front of the line.

"They're like! They're like! Torpedoes!" Squirrel booms, and Michael makes that explosion sound with his mouth, the one he's been perfecting since he was six.

"Huh huh," Dan laughs.

Now Michael's cutting me another glance to see if I'm going to shut it down. To see if I'm going to pull a Joanna and remind them about the connectedness of the universe and the equality of humanity. To remind them karma's a total bitch.

Using only my eyebrow, I send Michael a look that says, "You make your own choices."

My son. My son, who is angry and has the right to be. My son, who has just transitioned from smoking pot at the end of the driveway to the bold test of smoking pot in his bathroom with the window open. Who has taken to sporting a ridiculous Rasta hat. Who complains when he comes over to my shitty rental, grumbling, “You should’ve fought Mom for the big TV.” He loads each action, each rolling eyeball, with a dare.

The line’s finally moving.

“You’re not gonna puke, are you?” Michael asks.

“I think I can hold it together,” I say.

“One time? I was here on Halloween? This lady was drunk?” Squirrel starts, his voice getting higher at the end of every phrase. “She puked EVERYWHERE.”

“Huh huh,” Dan laughs.

“Sick,” says Michael. “You better not puke, Dad. But just wait for the corkscrew. It is insane.”

“I’ve ridden a few coasters in my day,” I say, realizing this phrase has the opposite of the intended effect. In my day. Jesus.

The park employee with the boobs ushers us into the boarding area. Squirrel and Dan fist bump as they score seats in the front of the coaster. Michael looks vaguely sullen, but then elbows me.

“Buckle up,” he says.

The coaster cranks into motion. We start up the first hill and grind toward the top, each click and jolt of the machinery pushing us farther into the morning sky. I button my glasses into my shirt pocket.

“Your hat,” I say to Michael, but the coaster is toppling over the edge now, and Michael just grins and holds a hand to his head.

“Woooooo!” whoops Squirrel.

The YOLO-Coaster is everything. The first drop is perpendicular with the ground, and I’m suddenly relating to that warning about old-timey scuba suits—when you cut the air line and it depressurizes too fast, your internal organs force up into your helmet. But I don’t barf.

The corkscrew isn’t much better. The ground and sky become a giant loop. Squirrel is still Wooo-ing, and I look over at Michael, who is clenching his Rasta hat in one fist. He’s gritting his teeth. Is he—crying? Without my glasses I can’t tell. Maybe it’s sweat, but I swear it’s a tear, sliding from his eye and clinging to his cheek, despite the g-force wind pulling his skin against his bones so he looks like a corpse.

After I moved out, Joanna and I dividing our possessions like picking teams in gym class (Her: Give me the couch. Me: I pick the grill), Michael did what all the divorce websites said he would. He didn’t cry. He started acting out, failing tests and getting caught with pot on school property. Joanna would text me from work, and I’d go down to the high school and do the dad thing. I’d stand in the principal’s office and say, “We’re going through some stuff at home right now,” while Michael grabbed his crap from his locker to prepare for a two-day suspension.

Sometimes, before Joanna met Suraj at her yoga class and all the shit went down, we’d rent a convertible for a few hours, and I’d drive us, fast, out in the country. Her hair would whip in the wind like a commercial for youth and happiness, and I’d catch her crying, overwhelmed by the rush. She’d put her feet up on the dash, even though she knew it could kill her if we wrecked. But we would never wreck.

But that was before. Before Joanna met Suraj. Before I met Ashley Kletzinger, to get Joanna back for Suraj. Before even my friends took Joanna’s side, saying stuff like, “It’s really not for me to judge, but how old is Ashley?” Before I broke it off with Ashley and told Joanna that love was a choice I was committed to making. Convertible rides and happiness were before she said she was choosing to direct her love somewhere else, and I should probably come over and clean out my half of the closet.

The coaster jolts to a stop back at the boarding zone.

“Duuuuuude!” Squirrel bellows.

“Epic,” Dan grunts.

“You were right,” I say to Michael. “That was insane.”

Michael wipes his face with the back of his hand.

“I think I got a bug in my eye,” he says.

“Bummer,” I say.

“Hey Dad,” he says.

Thanks for bringing us here, I want him to say. Let’s ride it again, I want him to say. Then I’ll know he’s okay, that the half of him that’s Joanna was feeling free and alive, and he’s happy. Or what I really want to hear: I still love you.

“Yeah?” I answer.

“Can you give us money for the midway?”

“Sure,” I say. “Whatever you want.”

Written by: Dot Dannenberg
Photograph by: Matt Crump

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