The first image that comes to mind when I think of that day at the carnival is the Rainbow Brite bandaid I got on my elbow. The rest has turned into something of a blur of sound and color. My older sister calls it psychological repression. She would.
That year, the Fourth of July fair was set up on our town green, which at the time looked more like a town brown. It had poured for the last seven days straight, turning the world into one giant kiddy pool. Only ducks and toddlers in rubber boots were happy. I was neither of those things. I was nine and bored.
There had been talk that the fair’s opening day would have to be postponed, for fear of lightning and electrical malfunctions and other various and tiresome adult considerations. I dreaded spending yet another day inside, breathing in the stale air I shared with my parents and sister, playing one more game of Go Fish.
The rain finally stopped in the early morning, though it left behind the damp and gloom and rising humidity. Nevertheless, the carnival staff and town officials agreed it would be safe to start up the rides. I cheered and raced for my shoes. My sister put down her book and yawned.
The entrance was a garishly painted, two-dimensional castle gate, complete with three drooping pink flags. The line was long and full of chattering voices. I was already tugging on my sister’s arm when the lime-green-shirted man handed my dad our tickets and we were at last allowed inside.
The ground was a matted mess of grass and mud, made more slippery by countless trampling feet. The sky was a quilted down comforter, the heavy gray clouds like bunched wet feathers. A dim yellow glow showed us where the sun was hiding. The air was a confusion of damp hay, fried batter and after-rain freshness.
Above us, screams rose and fell from the roller coaster and Ferris wheel like someone playing with the volume on a television. Tireless male voices shouted from towering stalls all around us, urging us to test our strength, our agility, our hand-eye-coordination, our appetites. It was starting to seem like one big test to enjoy ourselves.
In the middle of the field I found what I had come for. I gazed in wonder at the brightly colored wild animals and mythical creatures revolving in musical step around the carousel, their open mouths frozen in roars and trumpets and whinnies. My parents said I was too young to go on alone. My sister and I thoroughly disagreed, but I was to learn that a vote of two against two means the adults still win.
I chose a yellow unicorn with a sparkly silver horn and light blue saddle. My sister had to sit next to me, so it was either a grotesquely large brown bunny or a green scaly dragon coughing up a spout of red-orange flame. She chose the dragon. It seemed to match her mood. But by the end of our two and a half minutes of gloriously magical bobbing and revolving, even she seemed to be enjoying. Either that, or she had motion sickness. It’s always been hard for me to read her face.
Afterwards, my sister wanted to go into the House of Mirrors. I wanted to get a hot dog, but this time I was outvoted three to one. Our parents waited by the exit, gabbing with our neighbor.
Inside, the world was reduced to a dim kaleidoscope of confused, hurrying bodies. I’ve never experienced anything so weird in my life as walking into the back of my own reflection. It wasn’t terrible though, at least not until we got separated. I’ve never liked the dark, or small spaces, or looking at myself in a mirror. Plus it smelled worse than my gerbil’s cage in there. Warm bodies, wet straw, old air.
I’m not sure what finally set me off. Maybe that boy yelling, ‘We’ll never get out of here.’ Suddenly I was there, it was then. I was five and trapped in that elevator with my family and all those strangers, all pressed together, the power out and darkness swallowing us. My dad pounding on the doors, jabbing over and over the emergency button that didn’t work, my mom fretting about an article she’d read about elevator cords failing, the boxes dropping hundreds of feet like some awful ride. I couldn’t breathe.
I started to run but slipped on all the mud people’s shoes had dragged in and the next thing I knew I hit something solid. There was a loud crash and then I was on the slimy black floor with hundreds of wide eyes staring up at me. It took me a couple of seconds to realize they were my own. Kids’ screams bounced around me like images reflected off the mirrors. I think I was too surprised to cry.
There must have been an attendant nearby, because soon hairy arms were dragging me to my feet and shunting me out the exit, which ended up being only about five feet away. I wasn’t in the mood for a hot dog anymore, especially with my dad groaning about having to pay for the broken glass. I didn’t tell them why I had run.
My sister got me a sundae from one of the stalls, but I let her eat most of it. At home, my mom cleaned me up then put the bandaid on my elbow.
I’ve always liked Rainbow Brite. She never lets the gloom get her down.
Talia Deitsch has studied short fiction and screenwriting at Harvard and is a longtime devotee of GrubStreet in Boston. She currently works as a private chef outside the city.