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Christy Lynch | Longreads | October 2019 | 17 minutes (4,584 words)
On my 27th birthday, I had a fever dream about Disney World. It was my third day feeling sick, and I was floating on the edge of sleep, swimming through a blur of mouse ears and castle spires. I thought I heard the clap of fireworks, and my eyes blinked against a flash of sunlight. I woke up looking around for a shower of gold sparks but saw only the crooked towers of repurposed liquor store boxes spread across my new bedroom, slicing up the morning light.
Two months earlier, my previous apartment complex went the way of New Nashville — when an investor installs energy-efficient toilets, doubles the rent, and forces out all the tenants. In the four years I’d lived in Nashville, rent across the city had exploded. Now anything comparable to my two-bedroom, no-dishwasher takeout box of an apartment cost 60 percent of my monthly take-home pay. I got a real estate agent and started looking at properties for sale on the outskirts of town.
The day before my birthday, I closed on a small condo with an HVAC unit older than I was. My real estate agent brought champagne to the title company’s office, and I signed my name to a stack of contracts until my ring finger went numb. Afterward she handed me the key to my new house, and I drove to my next appointment: the gynecologist, to find out why it burned when I peed.
After my most recent breakup, I’d downloaded a dating app for the first time. Now, after several haphazard dates and a persistent low-grade fever, I believed I was experiencing the early symptoms of herpes. When I got to the doctor’s office, I undressed in the exam room and waited for my gynecologist to tell me I’d just gotten carried away on WebMD. Instead, she snapped on a latex glove and announced, “It’s probably herpes!” She swabbed the inside of my labia with a Q-tip and sent it to the lab. Later that afternoon, I drove to my new condo, lay down on the floor of my empty living room, and cried into the carpet until the impressions on my face looked like oatmeal.
I’d struggled with anxiety before. I’d spent most of my life coming unglued and holding myself together, but my grip had never felt quite this loose. The day after my birthday, I went to my first appointment with a new psychiatrist, who wanted to know “how it was going.” After listening to my answer and watching politely as snot ran down my chin, she wrote me my first Klonopin prescription — to go with my first home and my first STD.
As I was leaving the psychiatrist’s office, I checked my phone and found an acceptance letter from the master’s program I’d applied to that winter. When I submitted my application, I had enough money to pay for the first year; but when my apartment complex displaced me, I used that money for the condo down payment. As I read the news on my phone’s screen, my eyes glazed over. I didn’t know what I was going to do — except price new HVAC units, research Valtrex, fill out my FAFSA, and ask for a raise.
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The next day I showed up at work in full orchid-pink lipstick. This was a rare gesture — after four years at the same office, dark-wash jeans seemed formal — but I had to do something to fortify myself against the thickening avalanche of troubles. I dug some yellow satin heels out of a cardboard box in my kitchen and rehearsed my pitch: “As you know, wages in Nashville haven’t kept up with the cost of living …”
After lunch, I knocked on my boss’s sliding glass door. He must have noticed the unhinged twinkle in my eye because he sighed, closed his laptop, and swiveled to face me. “Christy, how are you?”
This should have been an easy one — breezy, polite, superficial. Instead, it turned out to be one of those load-bearing questions, trembling at the center of an emotional infrastructure so vast and fragile, any well-timed eye contact might knock it down.
I started to answer but only made it as far as a first deep breath. The air in my throat broke into a dozen staccato gasps and transformed, suddenly, into cartoonish sobbing. My shoulders bobbed. My chest heaved. I imagined fat blue tears springing from my face in two perfect arches.
Eventually I did ask for a raise, but only after I’d cried for 20 minutes. My boss suggested that perhaps we should tackle questions of a professional nature another time. I left, still smoothing mascara away from my swollen eyes.
What happened next felt like a trance. My body dropped to the low hum of pure instinct — emotions switched off, mind emptied. I glided back to my desk, pulled up Airbnb on my computer, and, in a dreamlike state, began to type. After work, I left and got an oil change. Early the next morning, without telling a soul, I got into my car and drove to Florida.
The first time I went to Disney World, I was 5. I liked almost none of it: the heat, the crowds, the amount of time we spent standing in line. My family stood in line for an hour and a half to ride Space Mountain, and when it was finally our turn, I decided I wouldn’t ride unless I could sit in my mom’s lap. The ride operators begged me to sit in the seat behind her, speaking in the soothing voices they reserved for children holding up the line. I cooperated eventually, but when I zoomed into the first tunnel, I knew I had been tricked: assaulted by swirling pins of light and a soundtrack of escalating rocket engines, then swallowed by darkness and cold, rushing air.
By the time the ride ended, I was so paralyzed by fear that my dad had to lift me out of my seat, dangle me over his shoulder, and carry me from the building, weeping. This was the first time I cried at Disney World — ashen-faced and unblinking, afraid to close my eyes even after we stepped into the cloudless Florida sun.
I was six hours into my drive to Florida on Friday afternoon when I started to panic. Before I left Nashville, I had reserved a room in a five-bedroom Airbnb four miles from the parks. It was only $84 a night, and at the time this seemed like a fortuitous triumph. But not so now with too much time to think, too many churning anxieties, and too few Enya albums to keep my mind from unspooling.
It was a new listing on Airbnb, and no other guests had reviewed it yet. The host’s name was listed as “Trip House,” and their profile picture was an image of the condo — lemon-square yellow, prominent bay windows, palm trees in the yard. I hadn’t thought anything of it during my booking haze, but now I realized how unusual this was. Normally a host uses their real name in their Airbnb profile. And they usually have their picture, posed against their city’s skyline as if to say, “I love Cincinnati! I’m not going to suffocate you in your sleep.”
Outside my car window, the trees along the interstate had begun to sag with Spanish moss. A billboard for the Florida Welcome Center appeared on my right, advertising free orange juice and a 13-foot gator. I realized with a burst of perspiration that I was now only 18 miles from the state line, and my imagination unfurled, dark and unrestrained. Maybe “Trip House” was a malignant anagram for some central Florida organ harvesting operation. Spite Hour. Poise Hurt. He Rips Out. Uteri Shop.
I pulled over at a gas station in Valdosta, Georgia, and texted my friend Brittany. “I’m on my way to Disney World. In a second, I’m going to send you the address of the Airbnb where I’m staying in case you need to call the police when I get there.”
Next, I called the phone number listed on the host’s profile. There was no answer. The voicemail message was in Spanish, or maybe Portuguese, and I wondered if the number might be fake. Feeling weak-kneed and breathless, I went inside the gas station to buy some Raisinets.
I was 16 the second time I went to Disney World. In the preceding 11 years, I had taken an interest in literature, culture, and feeling superior. Epcot encouraged all of these pursuits. It’s essentially Disney’s take on the 1893 World’s Fair — a charming mash-up of Rick Steves’ Europe and your grandpa’s idea of “the future.”
There’s a horseshoe of 11 miniature countries called the World Showcase that swings around a lake in the middle of the park. The first time I saw it, I gasped so hard I became lightheaded. I slithered through the thin market aisles of Morocco and inhaled the smell of mint tea. I twirled my fork around piles of chewy pasta in Italy and batted my eyes at our dark-haired server. “Disney World really is the most magical place on earth,” I announced.
The third time I went to Disney World, I was 22 — a proper adult, finally mature enough to appreciate a theme park for children. I returned to Epcot for another international tour, and this time, the scales had fallen from my eyes. People were staggering outright, bumping into one another, splashing the coral pavement with Hefeweizen and Grand Marnier. Everyone was drunk, which I’d failed to notice as a highbrow teenager.
I marveled at this discovery for about as long as it took to order a grapefruit margarita. I was two drinks and three educational boat rides in by noon.
I pulled into the Trip House driveway at 9:37 p.m. The neighborhood’s streets were sorbet-colored replicas of the same house, stamped out a dozen times on every block. Before I got out of the car, I typed the message “Call 911” to Brittany but didn’t press send. Then I walked up to the door carrying just my purse, in case I had to run.
I knocked twice, my thumb hovering over the send button on my phone. When the door opened, two elegant young people in their mid-20s, a man and a woman, stood with nervous smiles. We walked out to my car together, and they picked up my suitcase, backpack, and the trio of polka dot shirts hanging in the back seat.
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Inside, the house looked new. There were no family pictures or personal touches — just an assortment of Bible verse wall art from Hobby Lobby and some animal-print throw pillows. In my room, two different panoramic images of the New York City skyline hung above the bed. On the dresser sat a framed picture of Donald Duck, which looked to be printed on computer paper.
One of the young people handed me a sheet of pre-translated messages: Hi! We don’t speak English. There’s a key in the lockbox outside. Use it when you arrive and then put it back. Here’s the code. If you need anything during your stay, send a text so we can use Google Translate to respond.
I did my best to communicate that I would be home late the next two nights. They smiled and nodded, spoke a few words to each other in the language I didn’t know, and left.
I collapsed onto the bed and deleted the 911 text to Brittany. Instead I sent, “I don’t know whose house I’m in right now, but the vibe is more real estate fraud than skin suit, so don’t call the police.”
I left Trip House at 8:12 on Saturday morning, having not been murdered, and drove to the Magic Kingdom. The woman at the ticket window asked if I’d come to Disney World to celebrate anything special, and I laughed. If I answered that question truthfully — using unmagical words like “genital,” “student loan,” and “gentrification” — I was sure the hallowed Disney ground would crack open and swallow me. Instead, I told her I’d recently turned 27, and she smiled and gave me a button with an image of Mickey Mouse holding a glowing birthday cake aloft. It said “Happy Birthday,” followed by my name in smudged Sharpie ink.
It was chilly on the ferry that takes guests from the Transportation and Ticket Center to the Magic Kingdom. I cowered behind tall strangers to stay out of the wind, hunched over, eating a cheese danish the size of my face, until the ferry bellowed its horn. When I peeked around the grown man cheering and clapping in front of me, I saw Cinderella’s Castle come into view for the first time: stark white towers, pointed turrets, each spire trimmed with gold and soft blue.
All morning, my mind dodged and lunged around realities I couldn’t yet absorb: the money I’d spent, the deadlines I’d abandoned, the fact that, oh god, I really up and went to Disney World. Now, as Cinderella’s Castle loomed on the horizon like a pastel omen, the truth came into absolute focus, and I said aloud, “Holy shit. What have I done?”
I approached the entrance to the Magic Kingdom in absolute horror, as a train of princesses rolled into the station above my head and released a cloud of soft, white smoke and a cheerful scream. Once I was through the gates, I power walked to Space Mountain, which was closed due to technical difficulties, then drifted toward the opposite side of the park, feeling suddenly and urgently lost. Spontaneity isn’t, shall we say, one of my gifts, and panic wiped my mind clean every time I tried to think of another attraction to visit. I worried that if I slowed down long enough to consider where I was or what I was doing, I might barf into a colorful flower bed. So I kept walking, weaving through pockets of smiling families just to stay ahead of my own thoughts.
All afternoon, I pinged from one attraction to another, trying to outpace my worries. By evening, I had drifted into Frontierland, where a pointy mountain of red dirt and winding briar stems towered over the stream of passersby. This was Splash Mountain, the classic flume ride based on Song of the South — the 1946 Disney film too racist to release on video in the U.S., but not too racist to turn into an amusement park ride as long as they replaced the black narrator with a frog.
I navigated the stacks of barrels that lined the queue area and climbed into one of the log flumes. Behind me, a family of four kicked and squealed. The youngest in their party looked to be about 5, and her brown curls barely cleared the back of her seat. She waved when I looked behind me, and I fluttered my fingers before turning back around.
I’ve always said that the ideal way to experience Disney World is as an adult with no children. Of course, I also believe the ideal way to experience the normal world is as an adult with no children, which was why my ex-boyfriend Mark and I had broken up five months earlier. I’d been telling him for a year and a half that I felt no draw to motherhood, and he said he was OK with it — until suddenly, he wasn’t.
Right before we broke up, Mark and I came to Disney World for his 30th birthday. A string of intractable disagreements had already wound around and trapped us, but we decided to take this trip anyway, to see what joy might be left if you put us in a vacuum. For three days, we gave ourselves over to the delirious, euphoric, reality-denying isolation of Disney World, and our hearts broke from happiness the entire time.
On the last evening of our trip, we sat together on the man-made beach of the Polynesian Resort, eating pineapple soft serve, lulled by the tropical sound of a steel guitar. The sky was perfect, like something out of a Florida orange juice commercial, and we laughed because Mark’s glasses kept fogging up from the humidity. Happiness has a way of glowing, nimbuslike, out of people’s heads at Disney World. It was awful to see Mark so lit up and know we would never feel like this again.
I was thinking about Mark when my log flume crested the final peak of Splash Mountain. The sky was perfect again — glowing from orange to a deep, carpet-staining Merlot, and the Magic Kingdom was sprawled out like a treasure map. Straight ahead, Cinderella’s Castle looked tall enough to prick the clouds. To the right, I could see Space Mountain’s iconic silhouette cut out of indigo sky. Just below, people were lined up along the edge of the pool that would catch us when we dropped. They drooped against the hot rail, waiting for the moment when our flume would crash into the water and throw a cloud of mist into the air.
As we tipped forward over the crest, I looked left toward the ride’s entrance and saw a line of parked strollers so long that it curved around a corner and disappeared. I felt an inexplicable lump of emotion rise into my chest then fall into my stomach as I closed my eyes, lifted my arms into the air, and screamed.
By the time the ride ended, my thoughts were unraveling — about Mark, about reproduction, and, oh god, about herpes. I peeled off my plastic poncho and stuffed it in a garbage can near the exit. Just above the trash can hung a cross-stitched message. I did a double-take as I read the sign’s delicate, threaded words: YOU CAN’T RUN AWAY FROM TROUBLE …AIN’T NO PLACE THAT FAR.
I wanted to gasp, but the air had already left me. I staggered into the gift shop like I’d seen a ghost, pushing past rows of plush rabbits and T-shirts (“Don’t Get My Hare Wet!”), trying to pick up speed again. Outside, the sun was rapidly setting and I could feel my anxiety closing in on me. I decided I needed to go somewhere, anywhere, and I set off with quick steps. I’d read online that you could get a nice view of the nightly fireworks from the Polynesian Resort, so I marched beneath rows of streetlamps to the front of the park. As my fever dream materialized around me, darkness settled in.
When I got to the brick archway at the end of Main Street, I finally stopped. Each shop was outlined with a twinkling string of lights — the bakery, the confectionary, the town square theater — and people’s faces glowed soft and yellow. My heart stung. I thought of the last time I’d looked at this scene: with my hand clasped in Mark’s, in those few moments before we returned to our untenable reality. I thought of the last time I saw Mark, too, standing barefoot in his kitchen in Nashville just a few weeks later. I was returning the house key he’d made for me before our trip, and crying. The key was shaped like Mickey Mouse.
I rode the monorail to the Polynesian Resort and ordered a glass of wine at its outdoor bar. It was dark except for a couple of tiki torches leaning in the sand, and I could barely see enough to shuffle to a lounge chair by the water. I found one away from the other guests and rolled up the sleeves of my sweatshirt, which had an eerie sheen from its glow-in-the-dark inscription: WALT DISNEY WORLD, WHERE DREAMS COME TRUE. Then I began to cry. Across the lagoon, I heard Jiminy Cricket say something about how if you believe with all your heart, all your wishes will come true. I blew my nose into a cocktail napkin, and huge round bursts of red and white light exploded overhead.
My trip fell in the middle of the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival, and swaths of the park’s ground were carpeted with tulips, marigolds, and poppies. Topiaries shaped like Bambi and Peter Pan studded the landscape. Underneath the elevated monorail tracks, blocks of flowers had been groomed into bright icons of Mickey’s silhouette.
As part of the celebration, there were special kiosks throughout the World Showcase serving food and drinks made from flowers. At 11:00 the next morning, I stopped at the first one and ordered a rose margarita and a quesadilla with mushrooms and zucchini blossoms. A giant step pyramid loomed over me, marking the beginning of the Mexico pavilion.
Epcot was already a much better place to spend the day alone than the Magic Kingdom. There aren’t as many rides at Epcot, which means there aren’t as many children — but there’s also just more to look at: half museum, half theme park, with whole curated exhibits about the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an.
A mariachi band was playing under a small awning in Mexico. I thought of Jeff, one of the guys I’d met on a dating app back in Nashville. Jeff plays guitar for a country singer with a million followers on Instagram. Jeff’s dad, as chance would have it, plays guitar for the mariachi band at Epcot.
Four days earlier, at my lowest point of despair — about my condo, my job, my love life, my purported STD — Brittany had come over to help me touch up the trim in my new dining room. When she arrived, I was curled up crying on the drop cloth with a paintbrush in my hand.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, rushing over to where I lay. “I brought tacos!”
“I don’t want to have herpes!” I cried.
“I know,” she said and set down the bag of food. “Maybe you don’t. We don’t know yet.”
“Oh yes we do,” I protested.
“How?” Brittany asked, petting my hair.
“Because Jeff has herpes!”
“How do you know?”
“Because I have herpes!” I said.
In about a week’s time, my gynecologist would call to confirm that I did not in fact have genital herpes (HSV2) — just cold sores (HSV1) and a UTI. But that was still days away, and in the meantime, I had no desire to make small talk with a musical stranger, especially one whose son had seen me naked.
I waited until the band was done with their song, a bouncy tune with cheerful strumming, then I tried to sneak past them. When the lead singer, a tall man in a sombrero, noticed the HAPPY BIRTHDAY pin stuck to my backpack, he called out, “Hola, señorita!” and waved me to the front of the crowd. Reluctantly, I obliged. Four violinists pressed in around me, smiling aggressively as they sang “Happy Birthday” in Spanish. I smiled back and did a quick tally of which musicians looked old enough to father a 30-something-year-old guy who owns a weed pen.
When the song ended, I disappeared into the crowd again, snuck off to Norway, ducked into a store called the Puffin’s Roost, and took a selfie with a wooden troll.
When Walt Disney announced his plans for Disney World in 1965, Epcot was at the heart of his vision. The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow: a real utopian city on the cutting edge of design and technology, where 20,000 people would live and work. Here experts could make advancements in urban planning, public transportation, and food production that would propel American civic life into the promise of tomorrow. The fifty-acre prototype city would exist inside a climate-controlled dome, safe from rain, heat, cold, and humidity. All public transportation would be suspended above the ground in a network of skyrails, and pedestrians would be able to walk safely across the ground below. Cars and trucks would use separate roadways underground, and residents would only leave for weekend pleasure trips, if they left at all.
It was Walt’s brightest ambition for the Disney Company, and in fact, he only intended to build the Magic Kingdom as a way to finance Epcot. But he died a couple months after developing these plans, and his successors moved forward with the construction of an east coast Disneyland instead.
When Epcot as we know it finally opened in 1982, the park was still loosely based on Walt’s commitment to humanist progress. Most of the opening day attractions celebrated achievements in transportation, energy, and agriculture: a smaller-scale but still rose-tinted vision that peered into the future with unshakable optimism.
Then there’s the Epcot of today, which I stumbled through with my bra strap falling off one shoulder, mouse ears leaning to one side, lipstick bleeding from sweat and midmorning alcohol consumption. In the courtyard of the Germany pavilion, a woman looked over her shoulder as she passed and asked, “Do you want to drink our beers here?” Her husband, following with a plate of currywurst, answered, “I want to take them into the crystal store and play How Much Do You Think It Costs.” I ordered a Riesling flight at the wine bar and felt satisfied that this rendering of humanity was truer to the mark.
I continued my lap of the World Showcase as the sun disappeared, walking straight to France — my favorite pavilion at my favorite park at my favorite corporate vacation enterprise in the world. Romantic accordion music climbed above the rushing sounds of the fountain, and I headed into La Maison du Vin to eavesdrop on the young French people who worked there.
After ordering a glass of brut rosé, I looked at tea towels until a man in a red vest asked me if I needed any help. I turned to face him, clutching a silk scarf in one hand and my flute of sparkling wine in the other. For a moment, I considered answering him in French. Still holding up the scarf, I thought through a quick translation of “Can you believe this came from a worm’s butt?” — but I couldn’t concentrate. His face was too symmetrical and his bowtie, too dignified.
Then I noticed his nametag: “Kevin,” from Lyons, France. I thought, Who ever heard of a French person named Kevin? and smiled. “Thanks but no thanks, Kevin,” I said, then I left to buy a crepe.
Outside, people were gathering around the edge of the lake in the middle of the World Showcase. It was getting late, and the closing fireworks show would start soon. I found an opening between France and the U.K. and sat down cross-legged to wait.
Repositioning myself on my warm square of concrete, I suddenly realized that I felt lighter. I hadn’t cried in almost 24 hours, and on top of that, I felt pacified. Before long, fireworks sparkled overhead in huge blooming eruptions, and I began to cry again — this time because it was beautiful, and because I was a little drunk, and because I love Disney World. The next day I would have to drive back to Nashville — back to the chaos of unpacked boxes, to a string of emails from HR — but in that moment, I had a plate of folded sugar crepes in front of me, and the sky was full of stars to wish upon.
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Editor: Katie Kosma
Copyeditor: Jacob Z. Gross