“Mary Jane’s Last Dance” was playing on the speakers, Tom Petty’s scratchy voice full of ache and regret. We were young. We felt dangerous.
There’s a good summer rain starting to fall, the kind where the sky gets fast-dark and the rain falls in grape-sized pellets, spread out at first, a couple of splatters here and there, separated by yards in distance, plopping down on the bread-oven asphalt outside. From there, it spreads into a little dollop and evaporates, and the smell of fresh rain coming up off the blacktop takes me back to an amusement park, back when I was in the eighth grade.
We were all there with our school, an end-of-year celebration trip of sorts that amounted to a funny sort of adolescent culmination, a dash of grown-up freedom to wander on our own in a theme park full of childhood conquests. It makes sense when you’re thirteen.
It rained. It was the summertime kind of rain, the kind I described above, and my friends and I were somewhere on the edge of the park, a small core of friends connected by the fast-evaporating bonds of middle school.
Eventually we stumbled upon a funny realization: everybody goes inside when it rains at an amusement park. The arcades filled up, the gift stores were crammed, the indoor attractions and their air conditioning were safe havens. Nobody was riding the roller coasters.
So we ran–as quickly as we could, lest it stop raining–to the nearest roller coaster, a wooden behemoth, and jumped on for a lap around the track. When we arrived back at the station house, there wasn’t anyone waiting to take our spots.
At first, we didn’t know what else to do, so we exited down the long ramps and sprinted right back up to jump right back on. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” was playing on the speakers, Tom Petty’s scratchy voice full of ache and regret. We were young. We felt dangerous.
Last dance with Mary Jane, one more time to kill the pain
I feel summer creepin’ in and I’m tired of this town again
Eventually the guys running the ride decided to cut us some slack and save us from running and let us just stay in our seats. I can’t remember how many times in a row we stayed on, pausing a moment for the workers to check our lap bars and wave us onward again, out to the roller coaster’s slow climb, the rattle of chain, the anticipation, and then the brain-rattling thrill of weightlessness as we screamed ahead, the raindrops striking our faces like little daggers as the afternoon wore into the night, and we climbed aboard the bus home.
Later the next fall, as we were still testing our mettle in high school, one of the girls in our group that day committed suicide, an act that quickly became one of the first passages of real life I experienced–the line of teachers from the middle school who came to the memorial service, the hushed whispers of our parents, the candles and poetry and grunge and group sessions that followed. The aching.
It all stood in contrast to the freedom we felt on a rainy day at the fun park, the infinite loops around the roller coaster, the rain on our faces as we laughed and screamed and sang and felt like our lives were finally in motion, the thrill of being waved through the station, cutting line, riding again and again and again while everyone else huddled under shelter.