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I fall asleep on the First Date. It happens when we're cresting the chain hill of a roller coaster called Sallie Mae. When you get to the top, a huge mechanical arm holding a diploma extends down, then there's a 121-foot drop into an Immelmann loop, followed by a banana roll. I heard a guy lost an arm on it earlier this summer. 

I want to ride that, says the First Date. First Date has been eating cotton candy for awhile and it's hard to remember what her face looks like behind it. Without looking directly at her, I conjure up a blue sugary cloud with vocal fry, hair possibly brown. 

Really? I ask. You don't want to try Collision Coverage? 

Collision Coverage is bumper cars except if you hit someone, you have to get out of the ring to fill out meaningless insurance forms with a bored park employee. I actually like the paperwork part. It's a questionnaire with no questions. There's a section afloat with checkboxes that I take my time with, filling in the squares a perfect black. 

Let's go, says First Date, grabbing my hand. While we're in line I look beyond the chain-link fence just in case there's still a human arm bone there, clean white against the patchy crabgrass. 

 When we get off the roller coaster my head feels looser than before, like a stiff breeze might pop it off, all the gumballs inside prone to spillage. First Date is holding my hand again. Her paper-cone wrists look tiny against the cuff of her jacket. 

So, says First Date, leaning into my shoulder. You fainted. 

What? I say, shaking my head. I did not. 

Can't fool me, says First Date. I saw. 

No way, I say, pulling free. But I can't actually recall what happened. 

First Date gives me a dirty look. Her tongue is blue and some far-off carnival lights dance in her eyes. She's wearing a cropped denim jacket, the kind with an embroidered patch of cursive letters across the back. Clothing for a girl gang. 

I think it's actually really sweet when guys are comfortable with their vulnerability, she says. 

This is my first date since my mom died. It's been so long that I think I've become an entirely new person in the interim. Like at a cellular level. I've been reborn, so this is a real first-First Date. I've effectively never been on a date before, and I may never date again —the fact that I went two years without makes 'forever alone' seem like a big hole I could easily fall back into — so it's especially important that I stop insisting I didn't faint. That I stop making it weird. 

I wouldn't do that, I say. I wouldn't faint. 

Whatever, she says. Let's go Throw Hot Dogs at the Homeless. 

There's a part of this park where an employee dresses up as a hobo and you get to throw rolls and hot dogs at him, or squirt condiments. At least I think he's an employee. I'm not sure. There is no prize. 


You probably did faint, says Rob. 

I'm watching TV with my roommate Rob. Rob has a chaotic relationship with luck. He worked at Schroder's until a freak grocery cart accident gave him a Grade 3 concussion, but then he got thousands of dollars in a suit against the cart manufacturer. His truck washed away in a flood, but ever since he somehow has been getting a free cable package with over 5,000 channels, including all the porn. 

Rob's bored of porn and has now moved on to this Japanese reality show that takes place in a burn ward. It's on some channel in the low 2,000s. The burn victims are all in love but can't consummate it or even really tell what their loved one looks like underneath the bandages. The sexual tension is pretty intense. Watching it probably played a bigger role in my decision to 'get back out there' than I'd like to admit. 

This is so scripted, says Rob. 

I fell asleep, I say. My beer condensates through the leg of my jeans like a cold mouth. I add: On the ride, I mean. It's different.  

Narcolepsy, Rob says. Or myotonia congenita.

I wasn't scared, though, I say. I might be lying; I honestly just don't remember. I ask Rob: Bro, how do you even remember a phrase like myotonia congenita? 

Program about goats on channel 3,023, says Rob. He's under a plaid blanket. He's kind of more blanket than person by now. I suspect he might be moldering under there. Rob used to go on dates. Rob is me in another few years when I, too, give up. 

'Dreaming ties all mankind together,' Rob says, intending this as a comment on my condition, I guess, though I have no memory of dreaming on the roller coaster. Or maybe it's a comment on the fact that we both went to college and so I should remember who said this quote, but I don't. On TV, one of the Japanese patients is screaming through a debridement. 

First Date had placed a plastic ketchup bottle on its side on a railing and leaned on it with all her tiny weight, so that an arc of red flung from it like blood from a cut carotid. I'd contemplated a stale bun in my hand. I'm privy to the knowledge that the only way to win anything from that particular game is to help the hobo, not to hurt him. 

C'mon, do it, I told myself. I did it. The hobo winced when it hit his forehead. 


I'm getting dinner with Second Date when it happens again. The restaurant is in the theme park. There's nowhere else to go in this town. There used to be a mall but it closed. Naked armless mannequins still stand in its windows, white with particleboard dust. 

Bad news plays on the televisions mounted on the restaurant walls, images of white birds and fish on a beach clotted by black oil. The aluminum pizza trays are marked with alarming statistics that are revealed as you drag away each slice. Urbanization constitutes fully 51% of threats and endangerment to animals, followed by competition with introduced species, followed by pesticides. If you order pasta, there's an image of a recently extinct animal printed on the bottom of the bowl, smiling up at you through smears of red sauce. 

The kitchen is open and the ovens are black-hot mouths. I fold my arms on the table and rest my forehead on them, my breath scooting breadbasket crumbs and grains of salt across the table. A gouged curse in the table presses the letters ck into my cheek. 

Second Date sits across from me. She slides a plate over fast enough to hit my elbow and wake me up. She eats her slice crust-first and I wonder if she's only doing that to leave some kind of impression. Dating is all about impressions, I've learned. Distorted images half-seen in a no-fun funhouse. 

The pizza pan tells me that transportation accounts for 27% of greenhouse gases. You don't get to find out the other percentages unless you finish the whole thing. This is intended to reduce waste. My mom served as the educational advisor to the park when they were building it so a lot of its pedagogical tricks are familiar. Finish your food; there are children losing their fingers in silicon chip factories in China. Hi, Mom. 

Second Date has blond hair. She's wearing a yellow shirt with a little red heart on it, like an errant pepperoni. She might be prettier than First Date.  

In order to enjoy the pizza, you must enter the pizza, Second Date says of her shirt. One must become one with the pizza. 

I'm trying to blink away the sleep but the sleep is like a loyal dog; it won't quit no matter how hard I kick it. For the record I have never kicked a dog, though there's a ride where you can. The point actually is to not hit the dog to win a prize, but I don't think anyone has figured that out. Most people see kicking the dog as its own reward. My mom had some pretty out-there ideas about teaching humans how to care. In a brochure, she once wrote the park was a 'contemporary union of banality and spectacle,' which is a better description of her marriage. I think the dog is mechanical, anyway.  

Well, forgive a girl for trying, says Second Date, vigorously upending the red pepper flake shaker over her plate. Forgive a girl for trying to spice things up.

This date isn't going well and it's definitely my fault. Dating is too difficult; everything is. I drop my head back into my arms and fall asleep again. 

She unfolds several white napkins and drapes them over my shoulders, my head, my arms, flitting like so many tiny wings under the ceiling fan. Each is printed with a statistic about how many trees are cut down every year to make paper. Then she picks up a newspaper from a metal bin behind our booth and drapes that over me too.

In the Season 3 finale of that show, the oldest, most dignified man on the burn ward, Ryo-san, dies in his private room. His wife of 40 or 50 years, some unbelievable number like that, touches a cup of water to his lips, then unfolds a perfectly white, fresh handkerchief from her pocketbook and lays it over his face so gently that it seems to hover a scant millimeter above him. Doctors and nurses come in and bow their farewells to the newly dead, but I didn't see that, in fact I didn't see anything, because I was crying. I sat on the couch in the dark, crying so hard I was unable to move long after the credits stopped rolling and the next program came on, except my shoulders were quaking from the strain of staying quiet, of listening for hitches in Rob's snores. When Mom died I told them I didn't want to see the body and I didn't. They put her in a biodegradable box for me and that box went into the ground.   

In the pizza parlor, I wake up alone in the shadow of a headline about a police murder, some endlessly repeated injustice. The waiter is prodding me with the business end of a pizza paddle, saying, Hey, Sleeping Beauty. Hey. Scram. 


The theme park is a big deal in our town. It was our first and only attraction, unless you count the bar with year-round Christmas lights and the one-eyed old cat that brings patrons mice. Or the dead mall. These days people stay inside more — bad weather, good TV — but the park still draws visitors, families or those who aspire to have them. 

My dad was a mechanical engineer who built the rides. He forbade me from enjoying his own creations because he knew the kind of damage they could cause. Lacerations, avulsion, thermal burns, intraparenchymal hemorrhage. Loss of arm. Remember, son, he always said. Fun can kill you. 

He was always traveling to new towns that needed their own roller coasters and one day he didn't come back. I thought fun had finally caught up to him, but it was just an affair. There was something bold in his total lack of faith in us, something almost admirable. I wondered if he'd started a little family in every town he visited. Maybe I had thousands of half siblings, fully afraid of theme park rides and commitment. 

I'm not scared of commitment. I want to commit really, really hard. My dating profile says I'm looking for fun and the one. In the section where I'm asked to describe my dream date, I mention roller coasters twice. 


Maybe it's like a superpower, says Rob. Like, if she's not the right one, you fall asleep. So you have it way better than the rest of us poor saps who just have to muddle through. 

Rob hasn't muddled through anything lately. He hasn't been on a date in months, but it'd be cruel to point that out, so I don't. Or maybe it's not cruel. Maybe a dose of honesty would do us both good. 

I'm worried it's brain damage from riding too many roller coasters, I say.  

On the TV, a patient is getting released from the burn ward. He was a hobo accidentally burned by a firework in a public pyrotechnic display. Over the course of the series, he was revealed to be unexpectedly articulate and well-groomed, with very white and very intact teeth. Now he's saying goodbye to a young lady doctor in the hospital's courtyard. Her name is embroidered on the breast of her white coat. Propriety prevents them from embracing, so they are brimming with unexpressed longing. Cherry blossoms flurry all around them; a PA must be just off camera, blowing them out of a paper sack with a huge fan. 

You could see a doctor about it, Rob says. Then we both laugh. I don't have health insurance, or money. I came back after college just before Mom died and got a job doing concessions at the park that I lost because for awhile there I was struggling to get myself out of bed. Rob is covering my part of the rent and loaning me date money as it is. Mom gave all her savings and our house to an organization that was trying to refreeze the polar ice caps.  

It's OK. It was her money, and she was dying, and scared. 

Who knows. Maybe it'll work. Maybe they'll send up to space silicon balloons or sulfur particles that block the sun. I check their website periodically to see if they've saved the future yet, but there hasn't been an update in years. Just the same 3D rendering of that perfect dream of blank, white snow. 


I tell the Third Date as soon as we meet. I've decided to be honest about my condition, which I regret, because she is definitely the prettiest Date yet — with wide dreamy eyes and the kind of cheekbone definition patients on channel 274's plastic surgery show would die for — and Rob says being honest with pretty people is not strategic. Then again, neither is lying, at least if you're as bad at it as I am. 

Sometimes the theme park has inclement weather. You'll be queuing up for Sallie Mae and get pelted by a freak hailstorm or flash-boiled in a temporary heatwave. The hail is recycled polystyrene foam and the heat comes from a hobo driving a beat-up van with infrared panels affixed to the roof. My mother used to insist they simulate famine or drought by restricting restaurant hours and rationing the vending machines, even though it was unprofitable, and she got her way until a lady fainted from low blood sugar and sued.   

I've never seen them manufacture weather like this, though. The sky is furled with gray clouds and haloed in eerie white light. Rob and I have been taking turns giving one another free haircuts and the wind has pressed the bangs I didn't want against my skull. Every few minutes, a plump raindrop splats on my forehead. 

I have to raise my voice to be heard as I tell Third Date: It's not fainting. It's a stress response. A big thumb pressing on a pillow-foam part of my brain that makes it impossible to keep my eyes open.  

I pause, then add: I have a lot of debt. 

I've never had any trouble getting to sleep, Third Date says. I get in bed and lights out like that, she says, snapping her fingers. Her fingernails are blunt and unvarnished, with bone-white tips. 

Her voice is clear and loud despite the venomous atmosphere. I'm very awake; excited, even. I'm not sure why. We're just sitting on a bench, this ordinary bench with no theme or thrills. A hobo on break is failing to nap a few benches down. He tries to drape a newspaper over his face, ink inflecting his dreams, but the wind yanks it away possessively, like it wants to read the front page. 

I'm glad we don't have to throw anything at him. We don't even have to look his way.  

What if that hobo pulls out a gun and demands my purse, says Third Date. She's yelling now. The wind is picking up and the sky has gotten darker, much darker, a dark like sinking deeper into the sea. 

He won't, I shout, not sure where she's going with this. 

But let's say he did, screams Third Date. Would you fall asleep? If I were yelling at you because you didn't wash the dishes even though I'd asked several times and they were attracting flies, would you fall asleep? If we got into a traffic accident and the other driver was a large man in court-mandated counseling for anger issues, would you fall asleep? If we were getting married, would you fall asleep before we could say our vows? If our house was on fire, would you let us die from smoke inhalation, asleep? Would you sleep through civil war? Mass extinction? Melting ice caps? The end of the world?

No one knows how they'll react to an adverse circumstance until the adverse circumstance presents itself. If you're lucky, you go your whole life never experiencing the kinds of adverse circumstances that test your love. If you're unlucky, like my mom, your love is the adverse circumstance.

But another part of me is thinking about Ryo-san, who died from injuries sustained while rescuing his wife from a blaze started by an electrical fault in a refrigerator. I know Rob would say the show's scripted and that I'm a sap, but Ryo-san to me seems the luckiest of all, not because he owned a house with damaged wire insulation and died, but because his actions proved that what he felt for his wife was the genuine article, an emotion worth the sacrifice.   

I say: I promise, I won't.

The raindrops are coming more frequently now, painting the stone of the bench a darker shade. I see what looks like the beginning of a tornado off in the distance. I don't know how the park has the budget for effects like this; they've been in trouble for years, beginning with the firing of my mother, then random closures and layoffs since. 

Instead of answering, I reach for Third Date's hand. I like believing that she is going to keep sitting at this bench with me. That we will sit here many more times. I like believing in change. I like believing that hobos can marry doctors and that they are real people, not actors draped in gauze. I like believing in a better future, one where the ozone layer never thins and the dodo does a revival tour. I like believing that one day, maybe soon, Rob will get up off that couch. 

The hobo is sitting up now, face turned to the sky. The wind is getting shriller, almost shrieking, and the tornado has stretched to kiss the ground. A piece of hail hits my head and when I touch my scalp with my free hand my fingers come back wet and red. This is no gimmick, this is real weather, and soon Third Date and I will have to run or take cover, but for now we are looking into each other's eyes like that will save us.  

I have a lot of hope for those lovers in Japan. You know? I think that, as their flesh burned black, they knew their suffering would bring them the prize of love. That all those new couples will leave the ward together, hand in hand. Unwinding those stark-white bandages and revealing their new skin, taut and pink and thick.


image: Paul Hiller