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by Jeremy Dorfman

    Chloe leaned up against the rear left window of the Chevy Malibu rental and stared at the repetitious landscape of stiff grass that surrounded the central Florida freeway. On her right, nine-year-old Joey twitched with excitement, too young on the last family trip to the theme park capital of the world to have retained any memories of the place. Mom sat in the passenger seat with her eyes closed, engaged in the breathing techniques she had read about online, still trying to shed the anxious residue of the flight, which was relatively smooth but never smooth enough for Mom. And Dad was at the wheel, oblivious to Mom’s desire for silence, or in open defiance of it, singing along to the CD of animated movie tunes which had been Chloe’s favorite at age eight. 
   In between his cringeworthy bouts of song, Dad regaled Chloe with recollections of the varied joys she experienced on their previous trip to “the happiest place on earth.” It had been a genuinely great vacation, but he now spoke of it in such mythical worshipping tones that he decayed the legitimacy of the past happiness. 
   It was a time when everyone had been okay. 
   Chloe thought back to the eight-year-old version of herself who took to the theme park with glee and verve, drinking in every last sight like it was the nectar of the gods, and she couldn’t locate the intersection where her two selves met. The current fourteen-year-model seemed a complete independent entity, detached from the old version whose images lingered but comprehension of the world did not, in any fundamental way that mattered. 
   “ASABENYA OOOH BADISSS IMMMA YA!” Dad belted out, in a somewhat racially insensitive manner, as the lead song from the famous African jungle cat movie popped onto the CD. 
   “Too loud,” Mom said quietly, but forcefully, too exhausted to lecture her husband in any but the shortest, most declarative manner. 
   “Sorry,” said Dad, lowering his volume perceptibly, but ineffectually as regarded any benefit to his wife.
   Joey quietly hummed along to the song. He was old enough to be embarrassed about singing out loud in a family vehicle, but young enough to feel pure enthusiasm for what lie ahead. 
   “What’s everyone most excited for?” Dad said as the song came to an end.
   “Space Mountain!” said Joey, without a moment’s hesitation.
   The end of this car ride, Mom almost said, but then decided not to reinforce negativity. This trip was supposed to be a momentary escape from their problems, after all. “I like that part where you can visit all the different countries. It makes me feel like a world traveler.” 
   Dad praised the merits of both of their answers. He waited patiently for Chloe to respond. She did not.
   “I know I’m most excited for the new Star Wars ride,” he decided to offer up himself. “You know how I love Star Wars.”
   “Oh yeah! That’s gonna be cool!” said Joey.
   Chloe remained silent. For a moment the only voice in the car was that of the late Robin Williams singing about genie related matters.  
   “How about you Chloe?” Dad gently prodded. 
   Chloe continued to stare out of the window at the passing reeds. The others waited. 
   “I don’t know,” she finally offered, to ease the suffocating tension of her family’s focus.
   “Too much to choose from, I know,” said Dad, with a cheerful determined obliviousness. 

• • •

   Their hotel was bright, colorful, and decorated, without the slightest trace of subtlety, in the theme of MUSIC. Giant notes and clefs graced the walls alongside oversized instruments like guitars, violins, and drums. 
   All of the employees were excessively friendly. Chloe had never seen so many flashing teeth in a ten-minute period as she did during check-in. Dad relished it. He immediately requested the full life story of every bellboy and counter cleaner. He listened with genuine interest to their responses. Mom held her throbbing head. Joey looked around with wide eyes, impressed with the enormous bongos and tempted to climb them. Chloe wrapped herself in her long sleeve shirt, which she wore as a matter of necessity despite the eighty-eight-degree muggy Florida weather. She avoided all eye contact. 
   During the interminable wait at the front desk, as Dad joked with the concierge, offering one groan-inducing bit of cheesy humor after another, Chloe looked up and caught Mom’s unfiltered gaze. These days Chloe noticed Mom watching her quite often. It was always the same searching, helpless look – an unanswered prayer. Usually mom looked away as soon as Chloe caught her staring, but this time her eyes lingered, too tired to play the established game. Chloe wanted to turn away but she felt unable, like she owed her mother the eye contact even if there was no assurance to be found in it. Eventually Mom remembered herself and smiled softly but her eyes remained desolate. The contrast was too much for Chloe to bear. She grabbed her forearm instinctually and twisted herself in the opposite direction. 

• • •

   They had dinner that night at a Hawaiian themed restaurant. The waitresses wore grass skirts and light floral shirts. A ukulele continuously strummed over the speaker system. All of the employees smiled with their teeth on full display as unceasingly as the ones in the hotel had. The special feature of the dinner, and the reason Dad had reserved it, was a scheduled seven PM appearance by ten to fifteen of the park’s most famous characters – AKA local teenagers in large felt mascot costumes and a few pretty aspiring actresses dressed as cartoon princesses. Dad was unreasonably excited about this. He reminded Chloe how delighted she had been to meet Cinderella in this very same restaurant almost six years ago to the day. 
   “I guess my coach turned back into a pumpkin since then,” said Chloe, in a rare bit of humor, even if it was a caustic one. 
   Dad ignored the tone and relished in the existence of a joke coming from Chloe. He laughed so loud that the people at the next table glanced over with concern.
   Chloe kept her eyes staring down at the menu as if her life depended on it.
   Mom was quiet. Joey talked with Dad, looking at the park map on Dad’s iPhone and listing out loud every ride he wanted to hit up the next day.
   When the waitress arrived, Dad burst into a full-scale comedy routine, as if she was a high-powered Hollywood producer and this was his one shot at fame. Numerous one liners taken from the annals of fourth grade comedy books rolled off his lips. 
   “What do you call a fake noodle?” he said.
   “What?” asked the waitress.
   “An impasta!” he said with relish. 
   He had her in stitches. She could barely speak through Dad’s continued assault of too-earnest jokes to ask the table what they wanted to drink. Mom and Chloe stared at the interaction with a cold remove which the waitress clearly noticed, looking somewhat timid through her employee-issued smile and uncontrolled laughter. 
   “The characters will be here shortly,” she told them once she had collected their orders, releasing herself from the magnetic push and pull of their table. 
   A collective hush, followed by a swell of applause, filled the restaurant when the famous mouse and all his friends arrived. Three-year-olds and forty-five-year-olds cheered in unison, the gap in their excitement levels barely noticeable. A full luau broke out as slightly oversexualized belly dancers in grass skirts and leis sauntered their way sideways from the kitchen and someone somewhere pounded on an island drum. 
   Heroes and villains alike from seventy-five years’ worth of cartoons dispersed amongst the patrons. The treacherous sultan’s advisor from the 90s genie movie approached Chloe. 
   “Aren’t you supposed to be evil?” she said, without jest.
   He shrugged his shoulders. Then he took a photo with Joey. And then one with Dad. And then one with Joey and Dad together. 
   As each successive character approached their table, Dad futilely and with no diminishing enthusiasm asked Chloe if she wanted a picture. The series of endless “no’s” did nothing to dissuade him. Neither did the increasingly furious glares of Mom, who clearly thought he was doing more harm than good. It didn’t matter – he was determined to act as if nothing was wrong, as if nothing bad had happened, as if everything was not only alright, but gloriously, moronically gleeful and there was an actual giant duck in a sailor’s shirt and no pants hovering over their table, rather than a sweaty twenty-something with fading dreams. 

• • •

   They entered the theme park the next morning at an ungodly early time, Chloe barely half awake, and yet the average ride wait had somehow already reached seventy-two minutes. The lines didn’t deter Dad in the slightest. He had his park map marked up and strategized like this day of vacation was a life-or-death military operation. His strategy was researched and thorough. Joey was his chief lieutenant. Jubilantly executing Dad’s plan, he ran ahead to each of the magical genre lands that made up the park and reported back with crucial intel. 
   Dad whisked the family from one attraction to the next. They rotated between full sprints through human walls of families clogging up the thematic sidewalks to line progressions so slow they could barely be described as movement. They voyaged on a jungle cruise and sailed into the pirates’ caves. They traveled through a humorous haunted house and were sung to by a thousand animatronic dolls about how small the world is, after all. They did not break for even a second, because Dad insisted that there was no spare time to be had. Here and there Mom would softly suggest that they should perhaps slow down, while her left hand applied pressure to the throbbing veins on her forehead. Dad retorted that a more relaxed pace would be utter nonsense. He told her that on their trip six years ago they had already been to four more attractions than they had reached today and he was determined to catch up. His enthusiasm bordered on frenzied. At each successive spot he regaled them all with recollections of their experience in that same location on the former vacation and how fulfilling their experience had been. Eventually this imposed nostalgia began to wear thin even on Joey, who wanted the current trip to be the special one, rather than the distant original he couldn’t recall. 
   Chloe thought that she took Dad’s mania and the whole exhausting day in stride. The experience inspired no excitement in her whatsoever, but she felt almost proud of the way she stoically shuffled along, submitting to Dad’s plan like the foot soldier she was. The smiling faces of the children her age all around her still felt inexplicable, but she ignored her separation from her peers the best she could and tried to do what Dad wanted. She thought a hundred times that it was far preferable to be here than in school. She dreaded the approach of September and did her best not to think about the looming torment waiting for her in those halls.
   Still, she had no idea how to respond to the barrage of questions Dad kept up, attempting to validate her enjoyment with such intensity that you would think he was gathering evidence for a court case. After every experience he pelted her with a “wasn’t that great?” or a “didn’t you love it just like last time?” or the occasional “what in all of reality could possibly have been better than that?” To which she responded with [blank stare], [blank stare], and [averted eye contact], respectively. 
   She honestly didn’t know what to say.
   And yet Dad’s enthusiasm only increased. He was an engine of excitement, churning faster and faster by the minute. As the afternoon progressed, they could practically see the smoke coming out of his ears as he pushed the pace and ever more frantically checked the map, sputtering out memories and joys and whisking them from one attraction to another with a feverish abandon, increasingly shaking, twitching, and checking his watch during the long stretches in line.
   Mom began to feel a bit concerned for him. She pulled him aside to ask him if he was okay, but he insisted he was having the single greatest day of his life, as he knew they all were.
   “Okay…” she responded, unconvinced.
   Suddenly he froze in the center of the fantasy themed section of the park. The abrupt stillness frightened Mom, a disconcerting bit of silence in the midst of ceaseless noise. She let out a little yelp of fright.
   “Are you okay Mom?” asked Joey.
   Chloe stood silent.
   Dad’s head slowly turned back towards his family. On his face was an expression of revelation. He looked as if he had discovered the cure to some previously incurable disease. 
   “Dumbo,” he said with a hushed, almost spiritual, significance.  
   Up ahead they gazed upon a popular children’s ride, consisting of two sets of sixteen gently-flying cartoon elephants, spinning in circles, pivoting up and down, and providing endless delight to the six-year-olds and their parents who filled the seats. 
   “Yes! Yes! Yes!” said Dad. He turned to Chloe. “Your favorite!”
   They all looked at Chloe. Dread spilled out from her like an over-filled glass. 
   She remembered how much she had loved the Dumbo ride on their previous trip. She and Dad must have taken the elephant’s flight a dozen times. “Again, again,” she begged every time it ended. She remembered how much she loved it, but she couldn’t remember why. Viewing it through her current lens, the ride looked pathetic and infantile – a thing for toddlers and dummies with drooling open mouths.
   Dad grabbed her hand, brazenly breaking the “no touching Chloe” rule the family had tacitly agreed upon, even though she had never explicitly requested it.
   “Let’s go,” he said. His verbal tone was brimming with hope, but there was something else in his eyes. Desperation. Chloe could sense it like the rotten odor added to propane to prevent a looming explosion. 
   “No thanks,” she said softly.
   “What?” His eyes widened with a look of anger and betrayal, entirely out of proportion to the actual conversation being had. 
   “No. Chloe,” he spoke slowly, as if she was a foreigner who didn’t fully grasp the language. “It’s Dumbo.”
   “Yeah,” she said.
   “Your favorite.”
   She stared at him and said nothing.
   “C’mon. It’s your favorite. It’s Dumbo.” 
   He was pleading now. 
   Mom watched the interaction and didn’t move a muscle, as if her husband was a wild beast and any false move might provoke an attack.
   “Dad, I just don’t want to, okay.”
   She pulled her hand from his. He immediately lunged to take it back and in haste accidently grabbed her wrist instead of her palm. She instantaneously snapped her arm away and held it close. Her forearms didn’t actually hurt anymore, but the mental sensitivity was still strong even if the physical one had subsided.
   They looked at each other. 
   Dad stared at her with an expression she had never seen on his face. He clouded over with sorrow. His eyes welled up with tears. The entirety of his boundless positivity vanished in an instant, a retreating spirit incapable of inhabiting his body any longer. 
   Mom and Joey stood by and watched with equal shock and concern at this unparalleled occurrence, with no idea what to do or say.
Because right there in the middle of the most popular family vacation destination in America, with hundreds of happy people passing by them in either direction, Dad fell to his knees and cried. 
   People turned to look. Some thought of intervening but none did. 
   Chloe’s first instinct was mortification at the attention they were generating, but that quickly subsided in favor of concern for her father. His behavior was so unlike him. It was crushing to watch. She didn’t know how to respond. 
   “Please,” he said, “please…”
   At first, she thought he was continuing the plea for her to join him on the Dumbo ride and she was ready to give in. But then she kept listening. 
   “Please,” he said. “Promise me. Promise me I won’t lose you. I can’t lose you. Promise me you won’t do that again. Promise me I won’t lose you.”
   Chloe flashed back to that moment in the bathtub, when her Dad broke down the door, her hazy body sinking into the water clouded with blood from her sliced wrists. 
   Dad stayed on his knees. He struggled to speak through the tears he could not slow now that they had started. 
   “I’ll kill those girls at your school. I won’t let them hurt you anymore. I’ll do anything. But please. Please. Please just promise me I won’t lose you. You can’t do that to me again.”
   They all stayed still and silent while some parkgoers passed them and some watched them. 
   Chloe looked at him for a long moment, unable to hold back her own tears.
   “I promise,” she said.

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