Jenna sat in the middle seat of the pickup’s cab, sandwiched between Nick and John. They were moving fast on the expressway, windows halfway down on account of the warmish late April air. On an impulse the three of them had decided to go to Great America after school that day. They’d been sitting around John’s house looking for something to do, and when John offhandedly threw out the suggestion, it sounded fun and just possible enough to squeeze into the evening hours.
A new Everclear song came on the radio. Jenna sang along in her head. Father of mine/Take me back to the day/When I was still your golden boy/Back before you went away. Nick’s hand flicked from the gearshift to the volume knob to turn it up. His long fingers were splitting at the knuckles. He’d been working hard since they’d met at the age of fifteen. Back then he was flipping burgers at a 24-hour grill, now he worked at Deluxe Car Wash. He had turned eighteen that winter and she would celebrate her eighteenth birthday this summer. Somewhere during those three years acquaintanceship had become friendship had become crushes had become first love.
As they drove, listening to the radio, appreciating the fact that it would stay light out long enough for them to enjoy the roller coasters, Jenna made a mental note to remember later that she was happy in this moment. She looked at Nick, and with no sense of foreboding for the heartbreak to come, realized that she was a lost cause to his skinny bones and black hair and voice that cracked when he affectionately called her by her first and middle names, Jenna Mae. She knew she would follow him to the ends of the earth, starting with an amusement park on a school night.
She glanced to her right, at John. Girls liked his endearing smile and the curls that stuck out from beneath the baseball hat he always wore on account of his slightly receding hairline. He was as committed to smoking as he was to the idea of to being a cop someday. Jenna had always felt that John was someone you could take at face value and feel like you were getting a really good deal.
It was an interesting time in their lives. Graduation was less than a month away, which would be followed soon after by her move to college downstate. Nick would stay here to go to culinary school. John would set off on his path to becoming a police officer.
Unlike them, Jenna had no clear ambitions. She never thought too far in advance, so four years of college would be a welcome, if unknowable, buffer between high school and the so-called real world. At the same time, she was tired of thinking and talking about it. That’s why Great America sounded so appealing when John brought it up — what better diversion than roller coasters, where racing across tracks at high speeds precluded thinking of any kind?
When they pulled into the park, the car lot was nearly empty. Nick joked that he would have to bash in a talking moose’s face like Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Vacation. However, the park was open and no hostages would be taken. Jenna had never been there when the park wasn’t overrun with people. She wouldn’t be irritated by slow walkers, oblivious cotton candy-waving menaces, wailing kids or groups of done-up girls who were more sparkly than she was in her loose t-shirt and baggy jeans.
Even better, they didn’t have to wait in any lines. They went on all the standards — the Shock Wave, Tidal Wave, Iron Wolf — but the one they went on again and again was the Eagle. They had the option of riding it backwards or forwards, so they did both, alternating. They were like kids, racing through the snaking metal barriers that normally corralled hordes of people. Buzzed, yet sober, which was a rarity lately.
The Eagle was Jenna’s favorite ride because it had the best stomach-dropping descent. You didn’t get to dangle your legs like on Batman or do loops like on the Demon, but it had a good, old-fashioned drop. You’d ascend in an agonizingly slow clickety-clickety climb of anticipation. After what seemed like minutes, your car would make a heroic effort to creep over the hump and you’d take that pause to scream and raise your arms before you went hurtling down the steep hill. The rest of the ride was kind of anticlimactic, but that rise and fall made it superior to all of the other ones.
Jenna would return to Great America a few years later to find that the Eagle didn’t hold the same allure for her anymore. She questioned the sturdiness of the wooden, decades-old infrastructure that looked like a bunch of crisscrossing toothpicks painted white. She wondered about loose screws and faulty brakes. On that day, though, the only thing she worried about was the prospect of her lucky green lighter falling out of her pocket on the upside-down rides. That day, Jenna relished the suspenseful slog up the hill. The three of them were on the cusp of the drop, the whole world before them, and she knew they were in for a thrill.