Adventureland

By Nancy Ludmerer

Over their last breakfast at the condo in Montauk, Clay told Nicky about a new ride at Adventureland called “Spinning Dinghies,” which was just right for boys his age. Clay pretended to be astonished that Nicky hadn’t been to Adventureland in his nearly four years on this earth.

“She never took me,” Nicky explained matter-of-factly, pointing at Celia. Clay grinned at Celia and said his own two boys, who were ten and twelve, loved Adventureland when they were Nicky’s age.

horse-sculpture-8-2013-by-steven-erra

Horse Sculpture 8-2013, photograph by Steven Erra

After that, it was inevitable that they would stop there on their way back to the City. Celia hated amusement parks but didn’t want to spoil it for Nicky.

Was it the noise, the tinny music, the screaming? The waiting in line? She tried to remember whether she’d had a bad experience at an amusement park as a child, but only recalled feeling overwhelmed. Every so often there was something in the news about a ride that malfunctioned; a Ferris wheel that stranded its passengers in mid-air; a roller coaster that went off track. She couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to be scared to death.

But here they were.

As Nicky raced from the parking lot to the entrance, Clay grabbed Celia for a hug. “I adore you, Ceci,” he said, a refrain from the night before when, not for the first time in their three-month relationship, he urged her to give up the one-bedroom rental where she lived with Nicky and move in with him and his boys (who were with their mother half the time) in his co-op on 89th and Park.

Marta was pleased that it was her Shakespeare-in-the-Park lottery tickets that brought Celia and Clay together.

He urged other things on Celia too: that she go from five days a week at her firm to four, and get her hair cropped in a Halle Berry-style pixie. “You have the bones for it,” he said. “And that lovely curve of neck.” More things, too, he offered: private school for Nick, even a therapist to straighten out Nicky’s crooked left leg, for which Nicky wore special orthopedic shoes. But Nicky’s orthopedist said that in a year the condition would probably correct itself. In the meantime, inexplicably Nicky adored the clunky white Oxfords, doting on them as if they were Air Jordans.

Clay couldn’t understand Celia’s reluctance to accept his largesse. Nor could Celia’s best friend, Marta, who said it was about time Celia had a man who treated her and Nicky right, especially after Celia’s experience with Nicky’s father, Tad. Tad’s freelance photographic career not only didn’t pay the rent but included cheating on Celia in the marital bed while she was at work and Nicky played in the next room. When she asked Tad to leave, days before her thirty-seventh birthday, Celia wondered sadly whether she’d always be alone. Was she doing something terrible to Nick, depriving him of his father’s daily presence at the tender age of two?

Then, at a performance of “As You Like It” at the Delacorte — a rare night out, with tickets Marta won in the on-line lottery — there was Clay squeezing past them to get to his seat.

“Don’t get up,” he said gallantly.

Celia couldn’t believe that less than two years after parting from Tad, someone as kind, smart, and, as Marta put it, “fucking rolling in it,” wanted to be with her. With them. “He’s one in a million,” Marta said, when she met Celia for drinks two months after that evening in the park. Marta was pleased that it was her Shakespeare-in-the-Park lottery tickets that brought Celia and Clay together. Both Celia and Marta worked full time; they had no time to stand in line for tickets. Clay had attended with a group from his law firm, which paid some enormous premium not to wait in line at all.

“His boys don’t like us,” Celia said. “Or at least they don’t care for Nicky.”

“They don’t want to share,” Marta said. “But I’m sure they’ll get over it.”

The word that came to Celia’s mind was spoiled — a word she didn’t want to share, even with Marta. Marta would only say, “So what’s wrong with being spoiled? It’s time someone spoiled you and Nicky.”

Still, Celia cringed when Clay’s ten-year-old, Nate, thinking no one was looking, gave Nicky a shove when he got too close to the bicycle wheel Nate was repairing, so that Nicky fell on the gravel driveway. And fourteen year old Julian was perpetually annoyed because Nicky would swing his feet against the back of Julian’s seat when they all piled into the Jaguar. “Dad,” he’d say, “Nicky’s denting the leather” and would scold Nicky. “Stop that! Stop that now.”

To make peace, Celia removed Nicky’s shoes on the few occasions when they were in Clay’s car together. But the boys continued to complain. Nicky’s blonde curls, they said, made him look like a girl. They mocked his clunky white shoes. “Shut up about the shoes,” Clay said, although privately to Celia he renewed his offer of muscle therapy to straighten Nicky’s chubby legs. As for the hair, he sided with them. “Nicky needs a haircut. Boys should look like boys.”

Celia kept putting it off. “In September,” she said. “Before he starts nursery school.”

She was relieved that for now the boys were at camp. She wondered vaguely if they got their meanness from Clay, or from their mother, whom she’d never met. Or if she was simply too judgmental. They were children, after all.

“Besides,” Marta continued, as if reading Celia’s mind, “he’s not mean. He not only would give you the shirt off his back, he did.”

Celia couldn’t deny it. During Act III of the play, when an unseasonable wind rattled the trees in the Forest of Arden, Celia wrapped her arms around her bare shoulders. Clay, who had chatted with her during intermission, pulled his grey sweater over his head and silently offered it to her. She tried to refuse. “You must,” he insisted. A man in the row in front turned sharply and glared at them for talking. Celia put on the sweater of this now T-shirt clad stranger, the soft wool still warm from his body.

Nicky offered less resistance to Clay’s charms. Clay made butterscotch pudding for him, as he did for his own boys. A week before the trip to Montauk, when Celia and Nick were getting ready to go to Clay’s place for dinner, Clay called Nick on the phone to say he put the pudding in the fridge to set. Nick handed the phone to his mother and then came close and whispered in her ear, “I think I love Clay.”

Inside Adventureland’s gates, Nicky went right to the carousel. He loved carousels, loved picking his steed and having Celia mount the horse next to his. They’d gone on the carousel in Central Park half a dozen times.

“Can we go, Mommy?” he asked. “Can we?”

“I don’t see why not.”

“Maybe later,” said Clay.

When Nicky stood transfixed, Clay added, “Hey, I almost forgot, cotton candy’s first on the agenda.” He took Nicky by the hand and they went right up to the pony-tailed girl spinning the cotton candy and bought one, which Nicky practically inhaled.

“Ceci?” Clay asked — but Celia said no.

It didn’t take long for Clay and Nicky to find the Spinning Dinghies. The ride had individual rowboats that would spin as they raced in a bumpy circular track over an alligator-infested lagoon.

“Mommy, will you come, too?” Nicky asked as soon as he saw it.

But Spinning Dinghies had height requirements — minimum (42 inches) and maximum (52). Even in his thick-soled orthopedic shoes, Nicky was too short — just over 40 inches.

“Your mom can’t go anyway, buddy,” said the man taking tickets. He had a classic handlebar mustache and a creased, leathery look, like a TV outlaw. “Wait till next year.”

Celia was relieved. The other children, who were already strapped in, looked enormous compared to Nicky — at least five- or six-years old. And given Nick’s nightmare the previous night, she wasn’t sure an alligator-infested lagoon — even a pretend one — was where Nick needed to be right now. She hadn’t known how long he’d been calling from his room when she heard him. Gently extricating herself from Clay’s arms she went to him. He’d dreamed there was a flying alligator in his room and woke to a loud rushing sound that frightened him even more. She reassured him that there was no alligator, flying or otherwise, only the rustle of curtains from a sharp sea-borne wind, and the louder rush of waves outside his window.

He had never slept by the ocean before.

Neither had she.

Now, as she took Nicky’s hand to lead him back to the carousel, Clay handed the “Spinning Dinghies” attendant a bill. Celia saw it was a fifty. The man looked around, sighed, winked at her, and said to Nicky, “Okay, buddy, climb on.” Nicky clambered into the last seat before Celia could stop him. The attendant slipped the fifty in his pocket and strapped Nicky in.

“I can’t believe it,” Nicky grinned. “Bye, Mommy.”

The theme from “Jaws” screamed from the loudspeaker. Nicky, his blonde curls streaming, went flying along the track, the dinghy spinning as it flew. The next time Nicky came around the curve where Celia stood, he was no longer smiling. He looked at her open-mouthed and then disappeared again, flung from side to side in the dinghy, and the third time he came around he was crying, his face a glistening red ball. The other children were screaming.

Three more times Nicky spun past, his eyes squeezed shut, his red face streaming with tears. His hands gripped the sides of the dinghy.

When the ride ended, he sat, head bowed, crying. She ran to him, undid the straps, and lifted him out. He clung to her, sobbing, his face wet against her chest. Her own eyes were wet, too, her own heart beating as frantically as his, her own head spinning.

Eventually the feel of Nicky in her arms calmed her. Clay stood a little way off. When she finally looked at him, he shrugged, a half-smile on his lips.

“Too young,” the ticket-taker volunteered. “Should have waited another year.”

“Maybe,” Clay said. “Still, it was worth a try. Right, buddy?” He walked up to them and swatted playfully at Nicky’s calf. “Have to learn to be a man sometime.” Nicky’s shoulders stopped heaving. “I know,” he said in a sad, muffled voice. Celia thought he might start crying again but he didn’t. His shoes dug into Celia’s thighs.

“Probably we should head home,” Clay said and began striding in the direction of the parking lot.

Carrying her son, Celia followed.

The night before, after she soothed Nicky back to sleep, she’d gone out onto the terrace. Like Nick, until that weekend, she’d never slept so close to the sea. She stayed on the terrace for an hour. The night was so wonderfully free of human noise, filled only with the sound of the waves. But now, instead of the ocean, there was the image of Clay handing the attendant a fifty-dollar bill.

In her arms, she felt Nicky’s weight and knew he’d fallen asleep. Clay had already reached the parking lot and turned to look for them.

But she didn’t speed up to meet him. Instead she trudged; the gravel crunched under her sandals. She was grateful for the distance, for her son’s heaviness in her arms. It made her slow down. Marta would want to hear about everything. But words would fail when Celia got to the sound of the ocean, the sound of Nicky’s weeping, the sound of Clay starting the engine before they even reached him.

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About Nancy Ludmerer

Nancy Ludmerer's fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Cimarron Review, Green Mountains Review, North American Review, Sou'wester, Gargoyle, The Masters Review’s “New Voices” Series, Chicago Literati, Fiction Southeast, and KYSO Flash. Her flash fiction has won awards from Night Train, Southeast Review, and Grain and has been featured on NPR-affiliated radio. "Kritios Boy," a prizewinner in Literal Latte's essay contest, was named a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2014 and her story “First Night” (River Styx) appears in Best Small Fictions 2016.  Other non-fiction has appeared in Green Mountains Review, Vogue, The American Lawyer, and the Sunday magazine of the San Francisco Chronicle.

She lives in New York City with her husband Malcolm and cat Sandy, a brave refugee from Superstorm Sandy.

2 Comments

  1. Dolores DeLuise
    Posted May 2017 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Great story, Nancy!! You’re so talented (at so many things!).

  2. Laurence
    Posted June 2017 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Another terrific story, Nancy! So well-written and profound! I enjoyed it tremendously. Thank you!

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