I climbed out of Mom’s Plymouth Duster into the halo of light circling the Martin County Fair and weaved through the parked cars into the clutch of my friends. The metallic clacking and whirring of amusement rides buzzed excitement through the Florida fall night. Aida, Tara, Carolyn, Amy, and Mitzi funneled me through the gate into my first fair.
We wandered between the plastic ducks floating in a trough and the baseball throw, alert for fun and boys. Our histories—and the hard things—we’d leave unsaid. They didn’t belong in the pleasure of now.
Carolyn yanked my elbow. “I’m doing the ring toss. I want a Fresca.”
“You have no taste,” I commented.
“Hey! Lyndon Johnson had a Fresca fountain installed in the oval office, for your information.”
I rolled my eyes. That’s what I got for having brainy friends.
While Carolyn, Tara, and Mitzi played the game, Aida tilted her cotton candy toward me and Amy.
I pinched off a piece of fluff. The sugar melted in my mouth and I drifted to last weekend when Carolyn and I had sailed her Sunfish on the wide windy stretch of the St. Lucie River that formed the Rathkopf’s Pelican Cove back yard. I never asked her if her phantom father—gone to New York or Miami or New Orleans to captain ships in the Merchant Marines eight months a year —had taught her to sail.
When we burst through the kitchen door, tussled and wind-burned, Mrs. Rathkopf glanced up. Across her lap spilled a rag rug the size of a room. A Madame Defarge, stepped from The Tale of Two Cities I’d read in Lit, who worked feminism into her rugs rather than revenge. I attribute Carolyn’s successful advertising career to the heart stitched into her mom’s rugs.
The girls came away from the ring toss without any soda bottles.
“It was rigged,” Aida said to make them feel better.
I halted at the oversized scale and everybody ran into me.
Overhead the banner read, “If I don’t guess your weight within 10 pounds, you win!”
“I’m doing this!” I wormed my money out of my front jeans pocket and plunked it into the palm the greasy-haired guy held out.
Circus music played from the midway as he looked me over, had me turn around, pursed his lips. “One hundred and eight pounds.”
I bit my lip to hide my glee. The dial on the scale zoomed around to one-twenty. I grinned and collected my stuffed bear. Those swimming muscles weighed a lot. Not to mention the emotional ballast from my bohemian sailboat upbringing I lugged around.
Tara hugged my polar bear and handed him back. “You won!” She was our gentle soul.
Tara’s house was quiet like Tara and sat near a pretty, rock-strewn peninsula that parted Willoughby Creek from the St. Lucie River. But Mrs. Gambee had paid a price for that peace. Tara’s mom had been married to the Dutch official of an Indonesian island during World War II. The Japanese invaded and beheaded him. Mrs. Gambee came to the US after the war and married Tara’s father.
These were the kinds of facts we’d save for adulthood to share—histories too cutting and complex to assimilate at fifteen.
Aida jumped up and down. “Let’s ride the roller coaster.”
“Not me.” Playground merry-go-rounds made me want to throw up.
When Aida and Mitzi came off the roller coaster, Mitzi eyed me. “You do walkovers on the beach. This will be easy! Come on, pick one ride and I’ll go with you.”
Later I realized Mitzi’s bravery came genetically. She’d arrived in Stuart the same semester I did—from Saigon, Vietnam, and Vientiane, Laos, where her dad flew C-130s for the CIA’s Air America during the Vietnam War. He dropped rice to the hill tribes fighting the communists.
Mitzi and I talked bicycling and boys and the beach.
I never knew Mr. Bronson had taken off and landed on runways the villagers dug by hand— until much, much later.
Carolyn gazed up at a tall, skinny ride dotted with enclosed wire baskets, “How about the Zipper?”
The three of us scrunched into a basket and I clung to the rail and my bear. Mitzi and Carolyn yelled as we went over the top.
I smelled popcorn and sausage and sugar.
Hey, this was fun.
We rode it again.
We ran out of tickets and cute boy sightings an hour later and walked into the scent of fresh hay in the animal barn.
Aida leaned over the bars and ran her hand down a donkey’s head. “Aw, look how cute.”
Aida, always tender-hearted, had grown up in Ecuador and Columbia where her father worked for the United States Information Agency (USIA). Family members of her classmates were kidnapped and killed. Like the others, I didn’t discover her story until long into adulthood.
I only knew that kindness lived in the Gales’ quirky U-shaped house in Golden Gate. Aida’s Peruvian-born mother was sewing my Homecoming dress—just because I was Aida’s friend.
Today I see her family’s kindness in their plans for a humanitarian use for their house in Peru.
We oohed and ahhed over piglets and chickens and calves and scrunched our noses at the cow patties till Amy dragged us into the exhibit hall. “You have to see all the 4-H entries. I love this. I entered the cooking competition when we lived on our farm in Kansas.”
I was glad to see Amy enjoying herself.
Amy’s heartache, I knew. You couldn’t really hide your mother dying of breast cancer. Last year in ninth grade Amy, her younger brother, and Mrs. Kuhns had moved into a house on River Pointe Drive on the St. Lucie River because her mother couldn’t take the Kansas cold. Her father stayed in Kansas to run the farm.
We spent our non-swim team time lying on Amy’s bed listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Sometimes we canoed up Poppolton Creek beside her house.
We paused at pies, pencil-drawn pelicans, and cross-stitch pillows when Amy did—squeezing out the last few minutes of fun from the Martin County Fair.
Too soon we said our good-byes and headed home, Amy to my house.
Amy and I foraged in our poorly stocked cupboards for something to eat. We scooted onto my French provincial canopy bed and ate our elbow macaroni-corn-tomato sauce concoction and savored tonight’s island of fun in the sea of our personal histories.
On Easter Sunday, several months after the fair, Amy’s mother passed away.
When I think about the devastation that knocked Amy down for years, the minimal fathering Carolyn received, the sorrow stitched into Tara, the fear Mitzi and Aida faced as little girls— my daddy dysfunction and my folks’ divorce seem small payment for the price of growing up.