The Terror Twister
by A.A de Levine, 3.49am, 10th March 2022
Linda Jean had loved the Terror Twister ever since it went up at Bear Creek’s Grizzly Park in 1993. She was eleven years old then, watching Tiffany Marshall of Channel 7 news announce the coaster’s grand unveiling. Linda Jean fell in love the moment Tiffany Marshall placed one manicured hand against the coaster’s red and silver beams. A thrill ran through her body and a feeling that looked like red and tasted like rosewater expanded to fill every empty space within her chest. This was love, sweet and rare and tender, and Linda Jean was afraid of it.
She kept pictures of the Terror Twister in a white binder, each image faded and grainy thanks to the school library’s printer, which never seemed to have enough ink.
She told me all this on our first date, at Olive Garden.
“Oh,” I said.
Our mothers set up the date. They talked about us during their Bible study group. Linda Jean’s mother was worried for her daughter because she never went out and never did anything nice with her hair and I was what the mothers in Bible study groups call a “nice young man,” so my mother offered me up. My girlfriend Kari, who was not a nice young lady, thought it was funny.
“I can’t love anyone else,” Linda Jean told me. She shrugged when she said it. I didn’t want Linda Jean to love me. I wanted to have breadsticks and endless minestrone and then I wanted to go home and watch Species II.
“That’s ok,” I told her. “Let’s get more soup.”
“Paul. You’re very handsome.” It sounded like an accusation. “My mother didn’t tell me you were handsome.”
“A trick of the light.” Linda Jean had an unnerving habit of not returning my laughter. “I’m just tall, I mean. Makes people think I’m better looking than I am.”
She studied my face and nodded. “Hm. You’re right.”
“So, how does your relationship work, exactly? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“It works like most others, I imagine. We share a mutual love and attraction and we both find it funny when people fall down. Or are you asking a crude question about intercourse?”
She had an irritating, affected quality to her voice, like a theater kid at a midnight Denny’s or a public radio correspondent. An Australian attempting an American accent in a movie. Every T too crisp and every vowel too round, falling like a marble onto the ground by her Crocs. I know because that’s how Kari describes my voice: Substitute teacher voice, you know. Or, like. Some kind of nerd.
“You’re right; that was maybe not appropriate. I’m sorry about that.”
She waved the words away. “It’s fine. I appreciate directness. He’s like that, too. Blunt. In fact,” she paused, really studying my face and its tricky-handsomeness. “You should meet him.”
And so Linda Jean and I went to Grizzly Park. She said she’d never had anyone to go with, that all her friends were on message boards, semi-anonymous people she only knew by profile names like TruckLickker77 and ChryslerBldgLovinGal60000009.
She was sweating in her floral dress. It looked like a costume, at odds with her buzzcut and her thick glasses, with the large Kokopelli tattoo on her left calf.
“He looks so good today,” she told me. “So confident.” She turned to me, a co-conspirator now. “He’s something of a showboat.”
We bought long ribbons of orange tickets and used five each to ride the Terror Twister. I asked Linda Jean if she ever grew jealous, seeing the snaking lines of people in line to ride.
“That’s not the kind of relationship we have.” She looked up at the Terror Twister’s long metal ribs, squinting into the sun. “I understand this is his job, to be beautiful.”
I could hear her breath change the closer we got to the front of the line. Her replies became single words, then grunts, then silence as she stared at the peeling red cars hurtling screaming passengers into the afternoon sky. Seeing how nakedly she loved it made me turn my face away.
When it was our turn to board, Linda Jean leaned into a metal beam and whispered something too soft to hear. I sat beside her, our hands across the restraint bar, our eyes on the rickety track ahead of us, our heads thrown back as we began our vertical climb.
We crept up a slope, slowly, the loud click and groaning of metal beneath us. Beside me, Linda Jean remained silent, and when I looked over I saw that her eyes were closed, tears falling down her cheeks.
I shut my eyes as we plummeted. The whorls of red and purple behind my eyelids melting into black, electricity fizzing in my marrow. I saw all our bodies, passengers slick with sweat, mouths open and laughing and screaming. I could feel what they felt, each fear its own flavor. The world became a tunnel of petals that I looked through from on high, and at its end, the lonely glint of Linda Jean’s glasses, round and yellow like twin moons, drifting alone in the dark. Her body untwisted into ribbons, into smoke.
I opened my eyes and saw the sky.
It was called the Terror Twister because, near the ride’s end, it would send its sobbing clusters of teenagers and weekend-custody dads into a series of twisting loops before plunging to the ground.
It was somewhere between the second and third twist of terror that Linda Jean climaxed, her soft sighs transforming into a series of guttural moans, the pastel flowers of her dress spasming against the safety bar.
“I’m going to die,” she said, barely more than a whisper, almost a breath. And the words were eaten by the hot white sky.
I could feel love surrounding me.
When the ride came to a stop, I threw up, mostly on my feet.
“This is why I stick to mostly bland and nutritionally-dense food,” Linda Jean said, authority in our substitute-teacher voice.
Kari could not wait to hear about the date.
“I was going to fly her to Paris, but we decided on Olive Garden instead.”
“Oh, your mother will be so very pleased. And did you fall in love? Did you give her your letterman jacket? Did you carve PAUL AND LINDA JEAN 5EVER into the table at Olive Garden?”
She traced my name on my palm with her tongue, letter by letter, and when I asked if she’d ever been to Grizzly Park and she said no, she was afraid of the clown in the dunk tank.
“I went there once wearing overalls and he shouted at me saying, ‘Hey, overalls!’” She shook her head. “I can’t go back there.”
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I looked over at Kari and thought about Kokopelli. Kari’s tattoos weren’t any less embarrassing: a musical note behind one ear, BREATHE on her wrist, the words GHOST TURTLE across her lower back in Medieval-looking font and, at the top of her spine, a small pink bow that I constantly pictured untying to reveal a smaller, meaner Kari inside.
When I looked up, I saw the Terror Twister looming over me in my room, inviting me to climb up its howling metal skeleton. The cheap, peeling popcorn ceiling of my rental disappeared into darkness, miles above me. And as I climbed, pieces of me fell away: the vein-rippled meat of my calves, the fraying ropes of my tendons. The soft sponge of my brain falling and exploding into nothingness on the far-away ground below.
I climbed until there was nothing left, the sound of metal on metal, my spine a track, my mouth a red car, waiting. And seated there, eyes closed, was Linda Jean, grasping at the safety bar. I could feel her heart pounding, red-hot fireworks exploding beneath her tongue, her sweat bologna-sweet. This was love. This was death in your palm, falling down into the sky and up towards the ground.
I sat up, tasting rust.
“Can’t sleep?” Kari snuggled against me.
“Guess not. Blaming the breadsticks.”
She bit my ear. “Uh oh.”
I turned, lifting her body onto my shins, our hands locked together.
“Pretend,” I said, “that you’re on a roller coaster. Ok? Go.”
She laughed, falling onto the bed.