John came home yesterday with four tickets to Australia’s Wonderland. The kids wanted Evan to go, but that was never going to happen. Then they asked if Pop could come, and John laughed and explained that the fourth ticket was for me, which made Martin bounce on his tiptoes and Milly sulk off to her room. After a tease of a breakthrough, her opposition is back in force.
We start the day on the Scooby-Doo merry-go-round, which Milly is so beyond that just waiting for her brother to take his turn offends her. We parade from there down a long path under a striped canopy past the Bam Bam Ball Pit, which, Milly notes, is “for babies,” to bumper cars, which are, thankfully, “Brilliant!” On Milly’s command, she and Martin ambush me. For all the times she’s wanted to carve me up with every heinous word she knows, me and the entire adult world that has replaced her top-quality mother with a ninny of a nanny, I say, Bring it on. She’s too young to box or split wood. I hope it helps. But after a few minutes of them ramming me from both sides, John reins her in.
By lunch, moods are dipping. It’s broiling. Martin’s hairline is wet. Milly stares at the goo on the tip of the ketchup bottle, making me wonder how long it’s been sitting here and how many grubby hands have touched it. Here comes John with a tray of fried food, his forehead dripping. In the photographs on the brochure, no one is sweating, and all the tables are clean. Families of four eat fresh fruit and drink milk while mums and dads share satisfied looks over their children’s heads.
On the way to the gondola after lunch, we pass a doddering Captain Caveman. Milly waves, and Martin leans in for a hug.
“If you give me your camera,” I say to John.
I take their photo. In this light, the shutter opens and closes in a thousandth of a second. And for that thousandth of a second, the Tanners look full of life. That’s how this outing will be recorded. Look at this one! they’ll say decades from now. Oh, that was a great day. But I can’t tell if John is really here or not. He smiles on command, ginning up cheeriness as best he can, buying lollies and chocolates for everyone, but when I lower the camera, his cheeks drop.
On the monorail ride to Hanna-Barbera Land, I raise the topic of Evan with John, looking for some insight into their discord.
“So how long has Evan been living in the garage?”
“Long time,” John says, surveying the park below.
“Always,” Martin says.
“He pays rent,” John wants me to know.
“He’s really been helpful,” I want him to know.
John considers his response, weighing out how blunt he can be. I raise my eyebrows just enough to say, Go ahead, tell me, but he abstains.
“Good,” he says with firm punctuation, reminding me of my mother saying, If you can’t say something nice, keep your fat mouth shut.
Inside the park’s theater, we buy tickets for a stage performance that brings together Yogi Bear, the Tasmanian Devil, and Australia’s favorite bad boy, Ned Kelly. John’s energy picks up, probably because of the air-conditioning, though I’ve noticed he loves a musical.
After the show, we make our way to the flume ride, where the line folds back on itself many times. People lean heavily on the handrails and linger under the eucalyptus trees for shade. Many men have their shirts off, several of whom should not. Parents around us refocus their kids’ attention from the long wait to the big payoff to come—Just a few more minutes! Look at that drop! Being a kid is all about learning to bide time, proving just how unnatural it is to delay gratification.
“This was my favorite when I was little,” I say.
“You came here?” Martin asks, making the mother in front of us in line smile.
“No, we have these in America, too. Every spring vacation, my parents took us to this place called Busch Gardens.”
“Every vacation!” Martin repeats breathlessly, like I’ve said we lived in a tree with elves and pet squirrels.
“My dad sold ad space in a women’s magazine, so we got free family passes,” I explain to John.
“Free!” Martin says, looking at his dad for some sort of visual confirmation that he, too, is hearing this astonishing news, but John has dropped out of the conversation, so I just keep talking to Martin, the only one who’s trying hard enough to have a good time.
Finally, it’s our turn. Milly pulls her dad beside her, so Martin comes to me. We sink into our seats and the safety bars drop. A teenager in an Australian Wonderland polo shirt walks backward, giving each bar a quick jiggle. An announcement runs through the loudspeakers, and then the operator leans forward on a lever, and we’re jerked out of the shed and into the daylight.
All the tension of the ride is tied to that first crawl up the ramp, metal on metal, gears grinding. The bold and the brave shout, “Here we go!” waving their hands over their heads. The others, pale and tight-lipped, grip the handles and lean into their parents, burying their faces.
We reach the top. Martin takes my hand. We look at each other as we tilt over the pinnacle and scream as we plummet down the chute. We’re yanked around the track, closer and closer to the final drop, where we will be soaked through and look like all the waterlogged families we saw cackling and pulling their wet shorts off their thighs as they filed out. As we freefall, a wall of water comes over the bar and into our laps and Martin screams out, Mummy! An instant later, the boat is righted and he is snapped back into today, and although I know Milly heard his glaring, forgivable, heartbreaking Mummy!—and although this is just the kind of reckless transference she has worked so hard to prevent—not a word is said about it. In fact, as we exit the ride, she sidles up beside him and takes his hand, making something clear for the first time: She will look after Martin, better than anyone.