Three days after my boyfriend vanished I was on a plane from New York to Los Angeles. I was in a state of shock as I packed my bags to fly across the country where I was scheduled to teach the finer points of personal essay at an intensive four-week program. I had worried how the month apart would affect us. Now it wasn’t a concern.
I cried into my suitcase. I wallowed in big, wet, sobs. I paused to throw up. I got on the plane with sunglasses on to hide my bloodshot eyes. I thanked a god I don’t always believe in when I got a window seat. I then cursed this same deity when the man and woman seated beside me became engaged during the flight, celebrating with champagne, loud kisses, and inexplicably, a large La Familigia pizza they had ferryed onto the plane for expressly this purpose.
My friend running the program knew the state I was in upon arrival. He was sympathetic and promised me one wonderful thing: Complete distraction. He was right. The job (combined with my day job which I did, ironically, at night) was intense and kept me busy. During the day I taught and taught and taught and at night I fell into the twin bed in the dorm room where I was sleeping and stared at the wall until I fell asleep. Was this purgatory? A much-needed pause in a moment of emotional crisis? Romantic rehab? I tried not to think too hard about it, walking for miles in the blistering SoCal heat on my day off, listening to audiobooks entitled things like “Men Who Cannot Love.”
When it rained (because of course it did, knowing that I really needed some pathetic fallacy in my life) I sat on the covered porch outside my suite and stared at the mountain ranges on the horizon. I felt sad and confused and wrecked and crazy.
“We’re going to Disneyland.” My friend had included me on the list of trip chaperones, which meant a free ticket to the happiest place on earth. I had never been to Disney. Growing up, my dad the snob made it really clear that if he and my mom were going to shell out money they didn’t have on family vacations it would be to someplace like Switzerland. His hatred of the mouse was a moot point, really. We never went to either.
Even the bus ride from the campus to Anaheim felt illicit. I joked about being a Disney virgin, but I was, for the first time in two weeks, curious about something. The bus unloaded us at the parking lot, and on the tram ride to the park I felt my skin prickle in anticipation. I was in good hands between my friend and his two compatriots who joined us just past the ticket booths: They weren’t just Disney enthusiasts, they were Disney veterans. Talk of Fast Passes, of Park Hopping, of line length rained down upon me. I had the luxury of just nodding and trailing behind them, seeing everything from behind my scrim of sad.
Then, suddenly, I stopped walking. We’d hit Main Street U.S.A. and my feet just stopped, independent of my own will. I was weirdly reminded of the last time they’d done that, keeping me from stepping directly upon a snake. This time my body wasn’t reacting to peril, it was reacting to spectacle. The perfect row of houses from a bygone era that guided you gently and directly towards the castle that is universally familiar. “Boy, it’s really blinged out, huh?” For the park’s 60th anniversary, the castle was indeed bedecked.
Before I knew what was happening, there was a lump in my throat. My eyes were getting crowded. You will not cry at Disneyland, I instructed myself. I redirected my gaze, desperately hunting for something ordinary to land upon. A statue of Walt and the mouse didn’t help. I let the weeping - happy for a change -- happen. I was finally here.
We had all day -- just one day -- to do the park. My hosts, bearing witness to my complete catharsis, took to me one of the places in the park where cocktails could be procured. I ordered a Manhattan (served with a massive ice chunk carved into a diamond) and tried to feel miserable. Misery has been my look for weeks, the idea of slipping out of it made me feel naked and nervous. Leaving the restaurant, giddiness overtook me as we passed a dancing posse of singing newspaper boys in the street. My entire life I’ve dreamed of a world where it was acceptable to burst into song and it was finally happening. My face was painted in a goofy grin. I know this was the case, because I saw Goofy and compared.
There were things I expected: Too-long lines, sunburns, a plethora of children just as overwhelmed as I was. But I didn’t expect Disney to live up to the hype, and it did. I didn’t expect the rides to usher me fully into a land of story, and they did. I didn’t expect to be tooling around the Haunted Mansion when I realized that life was going to keep going and that I was going to be happy about things again, but that’s exactly what happened.
When I hit a challenge or a disappointment in my life, it’s hard for me not to mentally spiral. A person I cared about treats me badly and it means I’m not worthy of love. It means I’m going to die alone. It means there’ s no purpose and what am I doing with my life? It’s a delicious and evil and far too easy dramatic slide down to despair.
I’ve felt its tug a lot lately. I feel it right now at the base of my spine, initiating and insisting. But for a handful of hours, like the damn cliche that sent my father sneering, it was gone and I was happy.