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Unterberg Poetry Center

This guy better quit starin’ at me. My older sister Marina says just ignore it, and get used to it too cause that’s what men do, and maybe she even likes it, but it makes me mad.

What, you wanna rattle me like this F train rattles so loud when it’s climbing out of the tunnels and into Brooklyn? Wanna shake me up like the Cyclone on its half-busted wooden tracks is gonna throw my shoulders from side to side when the train stops still and lets us out at the boardwalk? Nah, you don’t scare me. I don’t shake up so easy. I’m from here.

I’ll give it right back too. I can stare down any subway creep with the best of ‘em. I can feel it, the sweet spot in my stare, when it’s like it’s coming from all the way deep in my belly and pouring out my eyes across the car and it’s about to knock the guy down, but he can feel it coming and dude will just turn his face back down to his high top sneakers and back off. And it’s at that exact moment that I know I am tough and in charge and the subway car feels really big and I know it’s all mine. My subway, my city.

Just then it feels exactly like the moment when the Cyclone reaches the top, and it is just clear, blue air every which way around me and filling up inside my chest when I breathe, and sunshine warming my face. Everything else stops. And I know it’s all still down there, the pigeons pecking at cigarette butts on the beach, Marina crossing her arms, tapping her foot and waiting for me to be done already ‘cause she just wants to go meet her new man and let him buy her a hot dog and a lemonade and look at her like that, like she’s his, but it doesn’t matter. ‘Cause up here, right now, all I can see is the colored lights of the park and all I can hear is nothing ‘cause it’s so far away. The wind rushes around my ears so I think I can hear the ocean, but I know I’m just seeing its rough, endless green-gray spreading out all the way to the edge of the world.

Then someone in front of me starts screaming and my eyes land back down on a blond ponytail flopping against some girl’s pale fuzzy neck. Then I feel it too, the way the weight of the whole coaster is suddenly pulling on my guts and my lungs and my throat, and we’re about to go over the edge. I throw my legs wide and grip the seat with my bare thighs to brace myself against the shaking back and forth so I don’t hurt my neck, just like how I would stand if the train was too crowded and I couldn’t get a seat. On the Cyclone, though, I throw my long arms up into the air, like, to touch the ceiling, and we fly.

Now, on the way down and around, I can hear everything, everywhere in one big swirl of noise: the slide of metal wheels against rails, the distant rattle of another set of cars climbing up to the sky, the booming bass from dance music on other rides down on the ground, the people laughing and kids crying and ticket-takers calling, but most of all I just hear my heart clapping away like I just won something and the blood and the wind and the ocean rushing in my ears. The car slows down at the bottom and straightens itself up before pulling in, like Marina pinching the bottom corners of her shorts with two hands and tugging them down a half inch, which they will slide right back up in a second anyway, and smoothing her t-shirt flat in front before she opens the door to our apartment, if she thinks Mama’s home.

So the wooden bar clicks open and I push it forward and I’m about to slide out awkwardly and head toward the exit. I know what’s coming. My legs will wobble and my feet will flop against the ground kind of awkwardly like maybe I’ve forgotten how to walk. This is almost the best part, when my head is still sweetly dizzy and floating and my arms and legs are just settling back into place and I’m a little nauseous; I feel light and full of air but the platform is hard and dotted with black circles of gum like the sidewalk outside our building. And it’s kind of happy and sad at the same time like being a kid and eating all my Halloween candy in one night.

So, I will make the long slow walk toward Marina’s back, where she’s slouching against the metal divider between here and outside, waiting for me impatiently. She will grab my arm and shout at me to “C’mon Shelley!” and I’ll still be smiling by accident from the ride and she won’t notice or even ask how it was. And then we’ll go meet her new boyfriend at Nathan’s and they’ll eat hot dogs and whisper to each other, and afterwards when we all walk back to the alley behind Astroland she’s gonna make me stand there and watch out while she goes to talk to Victor or Marco or Freddie behind the ticket trailer like I don’t even have anything better to do. And sometimes afterwards she’ll smile and give me a dollar for being her lookout and he’ll stay and we’ll all three go play Skee-ball. But sometimes not and she’ll come out alone and we’ll just go straight back to the train and she won’t say a word the whole way home, and then when we get to the apartment she’ll lock me out of our bedroom so I have to sit on the couch with Papa and Rafi and watch futbol or else sit in the bathroom if I want to be alone.

But right then, at that exact moment, before I’m about to open the bar and climb up out of my seat and start walking down the platform, the guys, the broad shouldered guys with thin mustaches and matching shirts, the guys who took my ticket and checked that the bars were locked, start to stride up and down alongside the cars, leaning down and booming. They are offering a second ride for just a dollar to anyone who wants to stay put where they are and go up on the Cyclone another time. A few couples are already tumbling out, giggling, and walking down the lane to the rest of the park. I crane my neck to see around them to check if I can see Marina, and if she sees me. I catch a glimpse of her unmistakable poof of angry curls and her puckered mouth, but she is looking away, her chin pointing toward the crowd.

The backs of my thighs are spread flat against the shiny red seat. I try to move but they stick and I can hear the peeling sound of my sweaty skin tearing away from the warm bench. I can imagine Marina yelling that she didn’t want to bring me in the first place, and her long rounded fingernails cutting into my wrists as she drags me to the boardwalk. One ride, I told you, one. That’s what she’ll say. And I think I should get up and go meet her, for Nathan’s, but I don’t want to, and I don’t. I nod solemnly at the guy when he stops at my car, and hand him my dollar, and he snaps the bar back into place again with one hand. He pulls it once to make sure it’s locked and then he’s gone. I close my eyes and I can feel the vibration of the seat against my back as my car rolls up a little to let a new group of first-timers into the vacant seats. I smile, and squint in the brightness of the day, and get ready to go up again.

Ruth Ballenzweig was born in New York City, and has lived in Western Massachusetts and West Virginia. She has worked as a vegetable farmer, a textile artist, a cheesemonger, and a kindergarten teacher, among other things. She considers it all research for her first book. She currently lives in Brooklyn and is applying to graduate school for Creative Writing.