The roller coaster stopped with a lurch. It had reached the top of the first humungous hill and jerked to a halt just as the front car – where Tom sat – purled over the crest.
Oh, God, I don't even want to ride this thing. Now it's stuck up here! he thought. He was next to Amber, his girlfriend. She'd talked him into riding the Warp Speed with her. He hated roller coasters, but they made her happy.
"Woo! Isn't this cool!" she said. "Look at the view!"
It was a nice view. It was a calm evening with seagulls swirling in the salty air around them. Waves rolling into the beach below them rippled from across the bay in orange, ephemeral ribbons. Tom had to admit it was a beautiful sunset. Yet it bothered him to be stuck in a place he shouldn't be stuck. They were locked into the front car of the coaster, staring down the abysmal drop of the tracks. The ride should be over by now, Tom thought. He felt horribly exposed. There wasn't even a walkway or a railing near them. He felt like he was on the head of a pin, jutting into the sky. There was just the metal box, the tracks underneath them, and empty air.
"What do you think went wrong?" he said.
"I don't know. They'll get us down somehow. This happens all the time. They know how to deal with it," Amber said. "Hey, look at that! I can see the steam stacks of the gravel plant on the other side of the bay. Wow. What a nice evening."
"Uh-huh." Tom looked, but he was trying to focus on his feet and not think about anything outside the security of their little spaceship. A child wailed in fear behind them.
"I wish they would shut that kid up," Amber said. "There is nothing to be so worked up about. I can't stand how irrational some kids can be."
"He's, like, 10 years old. How rational were you when you were 10? Didn't you get scared when you were that age? Don't you still get scared? Just because you know, logically, that a situation will probably work out doesn't take all the fear away. "
"Yeah, but I don't cry about it endlessly, and I never did or my dad would 'really give me something to cry about.' Kids seem so coddled nowadays."
"Do you see yourself having kids?" Tom asked. After eight months of dating, it was the first time either of them had brought it up.
There was a long pause as Amber looked away, off her side of the car toward the sunset. Some gulls squawked as they flew by. Tom felt a swoosh of wings in the air beside him and suppressed a shiver of adrenaline.
"I don't know. I haven't really thought about it." Amber finally said.
"You're 23 years old and haven't thought about it whatsoever?"
"Well, I never imagined being a mother. The situation hasn't come up. I suppose that means I don't really have it in me to be a mom. I want to enjoy life."
"You think having kids would take away from your enjoyment of life?"
"I don't know. Maybe. I guess my gut reaction is that it would. ... What about you – do you want kids?"
"I don't know," Tom lied. He was 29 years old and had always assumed he would be a parent someday, but he couldn't disagree with Amber just then by admitting that he wanted children.
Tom struggled in the dating scene. He had awkwardness about him when it came to women. He was aware of it, and he hoped to turn over a new leaf with Amber.
They first met at a silly beach contest. It was one of the rare occasions when Tom managed to step out of his comfort zone. There was a DJ playing music in a tent with a bar. People were dancing in swimsuits. Tom had wandered over to check out the scene when the DJ asked for five men and five women to volunteer for a "race." Tom raised his beer and gave a shout without thinking about it. He was paired up with Amber to race the other couples by racing into the ocean, trading swimsuits with their partner and running back to the finish line. Tom and Amber won free drinks for the rest of the day, which they redeemed after they were ushered into a tent to strip down and get redressed in their own swimwear. Though he was keenly aware of Amber's naked body bending over next to him, he was too shy to steal a glance. Amber liked to embarrass Tom by telling the story in a different way: "I saw your big dick and had to get me some of that!" she joked.
It was clear to Tom that they had their differences. There was no denying that Amber was more of a risk taker; she was on the six-year plan to finish a business degree while working as a river guide on some of the gnarliest whitewater in the state, and he was a CPA with a retirement plan.
The coaster jostled and snapped him back to attention. Some teenagers in the middle of the train were horsing around, jerking the cars as if they might budge free. They were laughing. The narrow, metal tower shook and Tom imagined a tower of dominos toppling into a heap.
"WILL YOU CUT IT OUT!" he shouted to the unseen, laughing faces.
"Ooooooh, you scared?" one boy taunted.
"YES! OK? Yes, I'm scared!"
"Relax! You're making a scene," Amber hissed. The boys kept shaking the train.
"Well I didn't even want to go on this ride," Tom said. "But nooo, you wouldn't stop pestering me about embracing more excitement in my life. Then you just HAVE to ride in the front car, because anything less is 'pointless.'" His voice started to rise and he felt himself losing control.
"Well, SORRY that you let me make all your decisions for you!" Amber crossed her arms over her chest harness and looked away. Then, with a deep huff, she looked back at Tom. "This is why I was thinking we should see other people."
"I was going to talk to you about this later, but since you bring it up–"
"I didn't bring it up."
"Whatever. It doesn't seem like we're the greatest match–"
"Why? Because we don't do EVERYTHING together all the time? You're just using that as an excuse – no one says they want to see other people unless they have someone else in mind. Did you meet someone?"
"That doesn't matter."
"Yes, it does!"
"Well, if you have to know, I did meet an interesting guy on the river last week. We've been kayaking together but nothing's happened yet."
"HEY – will you watch your language? My son is behind you!" a lady said.
"Shut up and mind your god-damned business!" Tom snapped. "We put up with your cry-baby son, and shit's not going so well for me, either, right now, OK?"
"TOM! Calm down!" Amber said.
"NO! I'm freaking out! I'm going off the fucking rails right now!"
"Actually, that's the problem, dude – we're stuck on the rails," one of the boys teased from three seats back.
"Everyone just shut up. SHUT UP!" Tom wailed.
"I can't talk to you like this," Amber said, folding her arms again and looking away.
Everyone sat in silence for a while, listening to seagulls. Tom saw she was crying and shivering. The breeze was picking up.
"Here, you can cover you legs with my jacket," he said, pulling it from his waist.
"I'm sorry," she said, almost in a whisper. "I really like you, I can't be with a guy who insists on living in a box and never changing, never trying anything new."
"I know. But I need you to at least appreciate where I'm coming from. I can't always just do whatever you want whenever you want. Like right now, I don't feel like you've taken one second to appreciate the fact that I agreed to ride this roller coaster with you in spite of my mortal fear of heights – I am trying to branch out with you."
"I know. You're right," Amber said. "This is the most serious relationship I've been in, and it scares me. You're asking me if I want to be a mother and I feel like I haven't had enough time to be a kid yet. Sometimes you're so controlling I wonder if I fell in love with my dad."
Tom's heart skipped. "Wait – you just said, 'fell in love' – you love me?" Amber's blond hair veiled her face, but even in the soft evening light, Tom saw the slightest nod of her chin as her eyes rose to meet his. They leaned in to kiss each other but their harnesses stopped them short.
"Hi, everyone, I'll have you moving here soon," a technician said as he reached the back of the coaster.
"Babe," Tom said, looking back into Amber's green eyes. There was a metallic lurch but he didn't flinch. "I'm no expert in relationships, but I know it's not always smooth sailing. We have our differences, but I'm fall–IIIIIIINNNGGGGOHFUUUUUCKFUUUUUUUUUUCK!FUUUU..."
And with that, the coaster rolled off under the sunset. It was the most romantic moment of Tom's life.