1. Last time I was in Orlando, I found myself walking alone along a freeway hoping to find a place to eat. I’d been in Jackson, Mississippi to speak to creative writing students, and a blizzard in Philly had grounded my return flight. My hotel had a weird lunch counter-ish cafeteria in the lobby, offering a variety of options from frozen chicken fingers to frozen chicken nuggets. I was convinced that there were gators in the marshy roadside land, waiting for some dumb human to step into their open mouths. I walked a narrow line between roaring trucks and lurking gators, and for a mile I found nothing at all that served food. I turned around and by the time I got back to the hotel, the cafeteria had closed. I spent eight dollars at the vending machine and ate Reese’s Pieces and Cheez-its for dinner.
2. My dad was not famous for his childlike sense of wonder, but he loved Disney World more than anybody I've known. For most of his working life, he was a manager: of warehouses, of people, of information systems. He liked order and accountability. And so he admired the military precision of Disney’s operation, in their desperate desire to provide a very specific kind of enjoyment to the people there. Once, while we waited outside the bathroom, we heard an employee’s walkie talkie call for someone to report immediately to another location in the park to pick up a dropped fork. It’s The Happiest Place on Earth, unless you happen to be a piece of unwanted debris.
3. My mom’s oldest friend, Anne, lived in Orlando. They went to nursing school together, then she got married to a nice guy named Doug and moved to Florida, where they had two children. I knew very little about their life, and I don’t even remember the name of their daughter, who was a few years older than me. I do remember myself, at twelve or thirteen, waiting by the pool and hoping for her to come outside in a bikini. I wasn’t sure what, exactly, would happen next, but I assumed she knew and would lead me through it. I still hadn’t kissed a girl or even come close. My first official kiss would happen in the dimly lit corner of a friend’s pool at an eighth grade graduation party, when the popular girls started pairing people off and demanding they hook up. “It’s your last chance,” one of them said, pushing me and a girl named Katie together. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized quite how many muscles are in a person’s face. I’d never realized how many teeth people have.
4. Anne’s son Chris was roughly my age, so we were expected to be friends. We got along fine, though I resented him over the years, as I gained weight while he developed an athletic body and had a fashionable hairstyle and started looking very much like a cool kid who went to the beach and kissed many girls. One afternoon, Chris and I went to a park and played basketball for about twenty minutes until some older kids showed up and drove us off the court. While we sat on a bench, he gave me a painfully detailed summary of the movie Drop Dead Fred. I interrupted him to tell stories that are supposed to impress teenage boys: rumors about drinking and drugs, stories of breasts I’d nearly seen. I’d heard that one girl in our class had recently smoked a lot of pot and then had sex with an older boy in the shower. “Yeah,” he said. “Sex.” He scribbled in the dirt with a stick. “We get a lot of that around here too.”
5. The last time I went to Disney World with my family, I was eighteen. My brother and his future wife had to pick me up in Ocean City, NJ before we all went to the airport. I’d spent a week in a beach house for Senior Week, an unsupervised, beer-soaked sneak preview of college for graduating seniors. Almost every story I have from that week is about how drunk I was not in the morning, and then, later, how drunk I was. I slept very little. For the first time in my life, I slept in a bed with a girl: she was smart and sarcastic and pretty and I was so intimidated by her when I was sober that I had no idea how to speak to her. We would go on to have a quasi-relationship over the summer before I pushed her away with my immaturity and my anger. Once I arrived in Disney World, I settled into my room in the treehouse-themed resort and I waited the whole day for everyone to go to bed so I could log on to AOL Instant Messenger and chat with her. Most nights, I went to bed after three AM. On the third day, when my family took a safari ride in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, I fell asleep so soundly, despite the jostling jeep and the presence of actual lions and crocodiles, that my mom told my brother to make sure I was breathing.
6. On our family’s last night in Disney World, we saw a show called Fantasmic! It combined water effects, pyrotechnics, 3-D projection, and all manner of spectacle to tell a story that, according to Wikipedia, is a trip through Mickey’s imagination. At the end of the show, the screen broadcast a marriage proposal. The woman said yes and everybody applauded. I muttered, “We’ll see how long that lasts.” Back then, I had this reflexive need to be cynical, to assume the worst of every person and event, to hear good news but only absorb the negative spin on it. I thought it made me mature. I thought it made me sound smart. My brother’s future wife shook her head. “Why is he so bitter all the time?” she said.
7. My parents returned to Disney one more time without us, when my dad had cancer. My mom is an oncology nurse, and she knew enough about his health to know this could be their last chance. Some of the last pictures of my dad looking healthy and hearty come from this cruise. He’s been dead so long I sometimes forget what he looks like, and then I see the pictures and I think: was that really him?
8. My brother and his wife go to Disney World every chance they get. If they had the option, I think they would go three times a year. They have children, which I assume is a significant motivating factor, though it’s not the only consideration. We don’t have children, and we’re not planning on children, and so it’s hard for me to imagine spending more than one week every decade in a very expensive place designed to attract as many young children as possible. The more money I spend on a trip, the fewer people I want to interact with.
9. LauraBeth spent the final two years of college working at the Disney store in the mall, and had accumulated enough discounts and free passes that we were able to go to Disney World very cheaply after graduation. The Disney World that greeted us was exactly as it has always been: everything was clean and polished and safe, and there were giant anthropomorphic dogs and bears everywhere. There were fireworks and parades. There were smiling employees eager to help us at every turn. There was hilariously overpriced merchandise. It was all very pleasant. During the days we rode on rides and waved to the characters and took pictures at the spots that had been labeled as Kodak Picture Spots (“chosen by top photographers”). We spent a lot of time in Epcot, which had always been her favorite part of the park. Most nights, too anxious to approach the swim up bar at our resort, we filled two giant mugs with Coke and brought them back to the room where we’d stashed a bottle of rum. With two days left in the trip, she got a call from a major hospital in Philadelphia offering her a full-time job as a nurse. She accepted, and started working a month later. Two months after that, I moved to Iowa City for graduate school. We had no idea how things would change over the coming months, or whether this was the last trip we would ever take together. We tried not to think or talk about it. We tried to enjoy ourselves and pretend those other things weren’t going to happen. We indulged in the Disney fantasy that we could live in an endless present, where everybody is always happy and the future only exists in a distant corner of the theme park.