Chapter 18: Gerry
His name is Biblical, almost. But for the sake of privacy, we’ll call the weeping prophet who hangs in the southwestern corner of the Sistine Chapel Gerry a sensitive, sweet soul. Tall, lanky.
He comes to me the first night in Raleigh, before I set foot on the Outer Banks, some five hours away. We become intimate, enjoying each other’s sexual company, our bodies wrapped up like laces on leather boots. He’s a good listener, new to North Carolina, and about to dive into the real estate scene — though he really just wants to sell cars. He offers to help me buy a new vehicle, which I decline — stupidly — because I’m not ready to let go of my 2014 Nissan Sentra which helped me sail down here after shot no. 1 punctured my arm, disseminated into my veins, signaling a false sense of freedom for the coming six months, a failure of a nation who refuses to accept a massive public health crisis, for a number of selfish, self-involved reasons, ignoring any possibility of escaping the ongoing pandemic status and trotting into an endemic. “Herd immunity,” Fauci calls it.
It’s a milestone we’ll never reach though I don’t know this yet.
All I know is that I’ve left Raleigh for a weekend in the Outer Banks, and somehow, Gerry joins me for a night, with fervor, much to my surprise. It’s unexpected, and I like it. I enjoy spontaneity. It’s a turn-on. Gerry splashes around in my brain as I pass an abandoned waterslide, a centerpiece of a derelict roadside amusement park. I take note of the giant, sparkling eyesore, blanketed in barbed wire, protecting it from outsiders, though I know there’s always a way in. There’s a go-kart track, bungee-jump tower, pools, snack bar, and putt-putt course, all part of this colorful addition to the summer beach town tapestry that is Rodanthe.
My brain begins to plan my excursion into the wiles of this sideshow gem as my body drifts back in time to the early 1990s, to Colorado Springs, my hometown, to the Garden of the Gods exit on I-25, where a freestanding trio of waterslides hovered over the highway. I’m there with my brother and father, standing on the top of the tallest slide, looking out over across the interstate, over Garden of the Gods Road, stretching eastward, away from the Front Range, the summer sun piercing my back, no clue that 20+ years later, a pandemic will ravage the planet and change the chemistry of my brain, inciting a reclusive state where I detach a harsh majority of human contact for months — until the vaccine hits the stands.
My six-year-old self, atop this waterslide tower in Colorado Springs, doesn’t know any of this, yet. All I know is that, standing in front of me, there’s a slippery, twisted slope, a chance to let gravity take hold, an opportunity for temporary weightlessness where I can let go and free-fall, carried by swirling H20, basking in the glow of the dry Colorado summer. Just as soon as this stumble-back in time envelopes me, however, my memory shuts down, and I return to Gerry in North Carolina, who’s spent the night, a second evening of intimacy, another round of release. We’ve departed the beachside bungalow on stilts I rented for the evening and head north, back to Rodanthe, where he will accompany me to explore this batch of ruins.
We park and hop a fence at the backside of the park as cars scream by on NC-12, the single-lane highway that stretches the length of the Outer Banks, featuring some of the most miraculous scenery I’ve ever seen. Sand bars that tower over the roadway, creating shadows that look like mirages, a constant threat to the cars that pass by. We balance beam a narrow piece of wood behind a utility shed, having scaled a tall fence that surrounds the perimeter of the park. Our feet come to rest on crumbling concrete at the main entrance to the park, underneath the tattered wood and plastic that make up the faded blue waterslide. There are broken stairs entangled with the waterslide that lead up to the mouth of the beast, the distant scent of chlorine gliding past our noses as the spring sunshine batters down through the salty air.
I can smell hotdogs at the snack stand to our left, the scent of kettle chips and soft pretzels and fried dough surrounding me as I head to the entrance of the slide, where I see lifeguards blasting their whistles at kids running around the park, a sharp reminder to walk, not run. It’s a safety precaution so that the park doesn’t get sued. My imagination catapults back to 1994, pre-cellphones, pre-Columbine, pre-9/11 where everything feels naive, less chaotic, less anxiety-ridden. The mass media has made a laughing stock out of Stella Liebeck, a character assassination attempt fabricated by McDonalds’ legal team defending the billion dollar corporation from being sued because their coffee is too hot. The big news outlets choose to leave out crucial information about Liebeck’s lawsuit, specifically the third degree burns she endured after the spill, resulting in eight days of hospitalization, reconstructive skin grafting, and two years of subsequent medical treatment to get her vaginal area back in working order. It’s evident that, behind closed doors, media corporations like ABC have conspired with the burger monolith, in every attempt to undermine Liebeck’s severe, painful body disfigurement. McDonalds popularized the concept of “excessive lawsuits,” making Liebeck the poster child for their smear campaign, to keep their public reputation intact and their deep pockets overflowing. The mass hysteria generated by the incident will become the butt of a cruel cultural joke, and suddenly, businesses across the country are being held accountable for their cheap tricks to save cash.
Like, for example, keeping coffee “fresher,” longer, at boiling hot temperatures so as not to waste product while mimicking the “freshly-brewed” taste. In response, Rodanthe’s Waterfall Park (in my ever-evolving fantasy) hires additional lifeguards to cover their bases so that nobody can whip out an “excessive lawsuit” should a child trip and fall and smash their head on the concrete. No cellphones means everyone is present with the day, actually talking and listening to each other. Nobody’s taking a barrage of photos on their personal electronic devices (unless they have a film camera, which I do, a gift from my ex-boyfriend who has helped to convince me that I am a photographer, though I fear identifying as such because so many talented Urbexers produce gorgeous photography work. I am a writer, a storyteller, and I am happy to fulfill that role in the community.)
As 1994 runs circles around me, I tell Gerry I’m going to the top of the tower to get some shots. He isn’t keen to follow. Smart move, I think noting the broken staircase that looks like it could give way at any second. I climb and without warning, I’m back at Garden of the Gods Rd., on the top of the waterslide, the one that somehow they demolished and replaced with a chain motel — the one that, no matter how much research I do, I can’t find the history of. Anywhere, except a short Reddit thread. I stop at the top, and my breath catches in my chest. The ghosts of the park have vanished, save one: me. Six years-old, no clue that the country will look and feel very different 20+ years from now. 30 years from now. 100 years from now. Just little me, a huge planet laid out before me, and all the innocent curiosity I can muster. I look as small as people always said I was, but I can see the glow of my expansive imagination picturing far off places, the desire for adventure emanating from my pores, my eyeballs scouring the horizon dreaming of the miraculous world in front of me.
I stand with myself for a moment, a rare occurrence on these expeditions, and for the second time since I began to explore these abandoned spaces in May of 2020, I gently put my hand on my six year-old self’s shoulder. For a moment I forget about everything that’s happened, all the loss, all the tragedy, all the rage and confusion and sorrow. He comforts me too, and we embrace for a hug that seems to last forever. Then, he shoos me off. You’ll be just fine. Promise. I descend back to Gerry, and as we walk away, I turn and watch as Colorado Springs waterslide comes crashing down, imagining the demolition that took place all those years ago, and transforms back into reality, to this abandoned waterslide in Rodanthe, NC. It’s a heavy loss, a memorial of days gone by, a relic that not even my own brother remembers when I bring it up to him months later. Months later, I call the El Paso County assessor’s office, leave a voicemail, but nothing. I try several more times, send emails, no response.
Gerry and I make our way to the northern side of the park where the old go-kart track sits, overgrown and shabby, scores of weeds sprouting out of every corner of every crack in the pavement. The paint on the ground has faded from years of exposure to the elements. We twist and turn down the track, and I can hear the sound of the karts zip around us, laughter and joy filling the air. It reminds that my upbringing was insular. As much as I am grateful to my parents for the gift of a protected childhood, sometimes I wonder if it has impacted my ability to cope with reality. Growing up, I lived in a fantasy world — until I didn’t, when humankind made itself known, and I was forced to reckon with the truth: that we are in a constant battle of good and evil — and always will be.
Gerry and I reach a certain juncture on the track where I remind myself that I’ve been making this ongoing project to fight these feelings of hopelessness, stay grounded, and keep active in the fight for equity, truth, and justice. Gerry patiently helps me snap a photo, my personal symbol of ascension above the noise and the mayhem. I jump, flash — and then, we leave. We grab a quick breakfast and make plans to see each other when Gerry comes up to New York some time in the coming year. We hug, kiss, and say goodbye.
I don’t hear from Gerry again, but I think about our time together with fondness. Gerry, if you’re reading this: thank you for your goodness and kindness. It was a breath of fresh air.