It was a God-awful hot afternoon. Peas in the pot, as Freya would say. The sun was melting everything, including the tar within the cracks of the concrete parking lot she was walking on. She had dressed appropriately for the day: a tank-top with the word CHEEKY situated above a cartoon image of a buff man’s butt, and short-shorts with the pockets sticking out of the frayed bottoms like ears. She was killing it with a pair of blue-tinted glasses and a necklace shaped like Big Ben resting in the nape of her neck. She had on a thick coat of Banana Boat SPF 100 lotion. It made her feel slimy, but at least she wasn’t going to fry. Her friends Clementine and April—similar outfits, similar spunk—opted for SPF 15. Must be nice when your skin isn’t the same color as alabaster stone, Freya thought. One of her shoes made a slurping sound as it stepped on a strip of melted tar, stretching out like gum when she lifted her foot. She laughed.
Boy, did she love this place.
Freya had never been to the United States. She was from London (the necklace was supposed to be the dead giveaway) and she had planned this trip after high school for almost a year. Clementine and April were late additions; Clementine had never been to America either, and April needed to get away from her ex-boyfriend, Tomas, the wanker. They had already seen the Statue of Liberty. They had stood face-to-face with Abraham Lincoln in Washington D.C. But they hadn’t been to a fair yet.
For Clementine and April, that would have been alright.
For Freya, it was essential Americana.
“I can’t believe you’ve never been on a Ferris wheel,” April said to Freya. “Don’t you live near the one in London?”
“Just because I live near the London Eye doesn’t mean I ride on it every day,” Freya said. She noticed a spot of lotion on her leg and rubbed it in with her thumb.
“But it’s right by you.”
“I’ve been on a Ferris wheel like fifty times,” Clementine said.
“Well, hooray for 51!” Freya said. “I haven’t been on one so I need to see what all the fuss is about.”
“Who’s fussing about Ferris wheels?” April said.
Freya pointed her thumb at her chest. “I’m fussing, OK. I’m fussing. We’ll go on all the other rides, too.”
They traded their American dollars for tickets at one of the booths and walked into the fairgrounds. Everyone was looking just a little white trash. The men were wearing shirts with cut-off sleeves. The women were wearing skimpy shorts. Some of the kids didn’t have shoes on. Freya was loving it.
A cinnamon scent caught Freya’s nose immediately. For some reason, it gave her butterflies, as if she was making out with a guy against the walls of Buckingham Palace. The mystery treat sunk its deep-fried fingers into her and she was hooked. She grabbed her two friends’ hands and chased after the smell.
“Oh my God, what is that scrumptious scent?” Freya said.
“Freya, easy!” Clementine said.
Freya pulled Clementine and April behind her like an anchor dragging on the seafloor. A young girl munching on cotton candy gave them a look when they raced by. Various games buzzed and chimed while the workers shouted disingenuous promises of fortune and glory. Freya, unfazed by the maddening array of lights and sounds, kept her nose tilted upward, following the scent until it lead her to a food stand. The edges of the stand were bordered with yellow bulbs; three of them were burnt out and one of them was blinking rapidly. At the top was a gaudy sign that said: ELEPHANT EARS.
“Elephant ears!” Freya said. “I’ve never had one. Are they actually made from elephants?”
Freya was 95% sure they weren’t made from elephants, but that uninformed 5% was the reason why she had asked the question out loud. Elephants were way too cute to be snacking on their ears, Freya thought.
“No you doof, they aren’t made from elephants,” April said. “They’re made from oil, butter, and sugar, which is probably worse.”
“Yum!” Freya said.
A zit-faced boy with foggy glasses sat hunched inside the elephant ear stand. Freya rested her arms on the wooden surface, folding her hands and digging her chin into her knuckles. She looked up at the boy and smiled. “How much for an ear my dear?” she asked.
“Four tickets,” he said.
Sweat ran down Freya’s neck. With all the lotion covering her body, she figured she was going to be as reflective as a mirror within the hour.
She pulled twelve tickets from her pocket and handed them to the boy. “Three please.”
“I don’t want one,” Clementine said.
“I don’t want to eat before we go on rides,” April said. “Maybe later.”
The boy looked at Freya and shrugged his shoulders.
“Three please,” Freya said again, batting her eyes this time. The boy started to blush. Freya turned around and glared at her friends. “We need to take in the full experience. That means eating unhealthy food and going on rides and playing rigged games. We’ll eat them while we’re in line. My treat!”
Freya knew they were hungry; they were just being picky. What about the chardonnay they had drunk at Times Square or the weed they had smoked while kayaking on the Potomac River? Were those things more acceptable than this?
The boy laid out some tissue paper. He delicately painted each elephant ear with a butter brush (a regular J.M.W. Turner, Freya thought) and sprinkled cinnamon and sugar on top. When he finished, he set the three elephant ears on the tissue paper. Freya leaned forward to catch a whiff. It was heavenly. She stacked the elephant ears on top of each other and tried handing them to her friends.
They shook their heads.
“Come on, you two,” Freya said. She tilted her head sideways and took a bite from the elephant ear at the top of the stack. Wonderful tastes danced on her tongue. “They’re so good!”
If this was what real elephants tasted like, then she wanted to become one of those crazy poachers and kill them all; have an industrial freezer stuffed full of them at her house.
“Maybe later,” Clementine said.
“How do you not get fat eating like that?” April said.
Freya gave her stomach a couple of pats. “I get fat,” she said. “I just suck it in around you two so I can fit in.”
Clementine laughed. April didn’t. Maybe the joke was too real for her.
“Looks like I’m going to be eating all three because my lame friends don’t know how to have fun,” Freya said. “Challenge accepted.”
Freya carried the three elephant ears around the fair, watching ecstatic kids play games, bleeding their parents’ wallets dry from all the times they lost. She didn’t think someone could miss a ballon on every dart throw, but a scraggily-looking boy with a tank-top proved her wrong.
The line for the Ferris wheel was long, wrapping around a fence that would give someone Tetanus just by looking at it. Freya finished the first elephant ear and started on the second. It had way more cinnamon. She started to get thirsty.
“Can one of you get me a drink?” Freya said. “My mouth is so dry.”
“I snuck one in,” April said.
“You snuck in water?”
“No!” April lifted her shirt. There was a plastic bottle of rum tucked in her jeans.
“You sneaky little … I didn’t know you brought alcohol,” Freya said.
“You think we’re going to come to some hick town fair and not bring alcohol?” Clementine said.
“Are you sure we’re even friends?” April said.
A thick cinnamon mustache had formed in the sweat above Freya’s lip. “Oh, you two,” she said. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” they said together.
The line moved sluggishly as the sun continued its wrath. A smell started to settle within the line—dozens of Americans and three British girls baking. April managed to find a booth with water and bought a bottle for them to share.
“So freaking hot today,” Clementine said.
“Thank you for the weather report,” Freya said.
She finished the second elephant ear and went right for the third. She was almost full, but there was room for one more. Her fingers were covered in cinnamon and her shirt had a couple of spots of butter under the word CHEEKY. Her glasses needed a good wiping. A teenage boy smiled at her when he passed by and got in line. She smiled back and aggressively bit into the elephant ear. He laughed. It was the kind of laugh that preceded flirting, but Freya was too enamored with her deep-fried treat to notice.
The tune from the Ferris wheel was starting to get into Freya’s head. She watched the ride move slowly in a circle, eagerly anticipating her turn to look at the country landscape from above.
“I’m going to need to shower twice when we get back,” April said. Her face was like a scoop of ice-cream sliding down the side of a cone, melting away. “Just to get everyone else’s stink off me.”
“I’m thinking about doing a full-blown bath,” Clementine said. “Bubbles. Rubber Duckie. Everything.”
“I’m going to strip naked and just lie in my hotel bed for a while,” Freya said. “I don’t care what you think of me or if you’re in the room I just need to do it. Bare butt on those cold sheets, AC blasting.”
“Please shower before you do that.”
“Of course! What do you think I am, a psycho?” As she said the word psycho she finished the last elephant ear, wadded up the tissue paper, and threw it in a trash bin. She clapped her hands together, sending butter-soaked cinnamon everywhere.
They laughed. Freya laughed the hardest. She was acting a little bit like a psycho right now, but she couldn’t help it. She was excited to be in America with her friends, and she was especially thrilled to partake in one of America’s trashiest traditions—the county fair. What was it about overpriced games, unhealthy food, and rickety rides that brought in the masses? Maybe it was the idea of letting loose and not giving a rip, a place where a 167-centimeter tall British girl could ravage three elephant ears like it was nothing, like maybe she could eat even a little more, like one of those funnel cakes past the water gun game, because … America?
That’s why people come to the fair, Freya thought.
“I can’t believe you just ate those elephant ears,” Clementine said. “That is so insane.”
“I was hungry,” Freya said.
“You ate three, Freya. Three ginormous elephant ears. I don’t even know how your tiny bod did it.”
“I won’t lie to you, it feels like someone is shuffling a deck of cards inside of me. But instead of cards, it’s slabs of deep-fried ears going up-and-down and up-and-down, weaving in and out of each other.” She sighed. “I was thinking about getting a funnel cake after we get off the ride.”
“Freya!” April said.
“I’ve never had one, OK. Just let me be me!”
April took out her phone and took a picture of Freya. She posted it to her stories on Instagram with the caption: How you look after eating THREE elephant ears. Freya thought she looked pretty good, all things considering.
It was finally their turn to get on the Ferris wheel. Freya sat in the middle of Clementine and April. A carnie, who looked like he had stumbled out of an audition for The Sex Pistols, pulled down the latch bar and locked them in. It was a tight fit, and if Freya wasn’t sweating a lot before, she was now.
The Ferris wheel was slow-moving at first. It didn’t get into a good rhythm until everyone was loaded onto the other cars. Once they got moving the wind picked up and felt cool on Freya’s skin. When they reached the top, she could see the entire fair in all its chaotic glory. She raised her arms and put them around Clementine and April. It was the high moment of her trip, both literally and figuratively. She didn’t realize her shirt had lifted above her inflated stomach, unable to cover the pounds of elephant ears trying to be digested.
“You have reached peak white trash,” April said to Freya.
“And I love it,” Clementine said.
“I could use that drink right about now,” Freya said. She slouched, noticing how big her stomach had gotten over the past fifteen minutes.
April pulled the bottle of rum from her jeans and handed it to Freya. She twisted off the cap and took a swig. Somehow, it burned worse than the sun on her skin.
“Bloody hell, that’s awful,” Freya said and looked at April. “How much did you pay for this?”
“Six American dollars,” April said.
“Sorry and sad.”
“Huh?” Clementine said.
“Means bad. This is some crap liquor.”
Freya took another drink and passed the bottle to Clementine. She took a drink and passed it to April. April took a small sip.
“I wish it wasn’t so warm,” April said.
“I know,” Freya said. “It felt like I was chugging soup.”
“I meant warm outside, but yeah, the drink is warm too.”
“Stop complaining about the weather. Sooner or later there’s going to be two feet of snow back home and we’re not going to be able to leave the house for months.”
As the Ferris wheel went around, so did the bottle of rum. They made sure to conceal it when they were at ground level. Freya figured the carnie had his own stash underneath the control box. How else could you get through a job like that? The bottle was about half full when Freya started to notice a few changes happening to her body. Her throat was starting to burn and her stomach was doing what was best described as a pre-emptive attack. Her shirt had given up on covering her belly. Her heart was beating at an irregular rate—not fast, but uneven. Her glands felt funny, as if they were leaking. Even when she had smoked the weed on the Potomac she hadn’t felt this bad. The blasted heat wasn’t helping either.
“What ride should we go on next?” Freya asked. She knew the next ride she was going on was straight to the khazi for a poop. She was hoping that a conversation would help her mind forget about the storm brewing inside of her.
Clementine pointed over to the far corner of the fair. “Oh, that one,” she said. “The pirate ship.”
A yellow and green ship swung back-and-forth like a metronome. Freya’s eyes followed it and she started to get dizzy. Things were starting to spin, which seemed impossible—she had only started drinking a few minutes ago. Everything was hitting her at once: the awful heat, the twice as awful alcohol, the three elephant ears, the height of the Ferris wheel, and being stuck between her friends with no room to budge. All of these things were a recipe for disaster, a horrible cocktail that was about to be mixed 70 meters above the earth.
They were at the top when Clementine asked Freya, “Are you OK?”
Freya didn’t say anything.
“Here, take another drink,” April said. “It will help break up all that dough sitting in your gut.”
April held the bottle of rum in front of Freya’s face. It was the swish! swish! of the brown liquid that made Freya’s eyes roll back into her head. She put both hands on the lock bar and projectile vomited all over the ride. Some of the vomit soared over the side and onto the other riders. People began to scream. April and Clementine were the loudest. There was a delay before another bout of screaming began. It was from a group of kids at the bottom of the Ferris wheel. Freya barfed two more times before the dry heaves began.
It must have been the smell that put Clementine over the edge, and she vomited next. It wasn’t quite as spectacular as Freya. April was the last one to vomit. It went straight into the floor of the chair, splashing up and getting all three of them wet. Their shirts, shorts, legs, and even their hair all had traces of it. It was just the worst.
When the Ferris wheel got to the bottom, the carnie stopped the ride. A boy with vomit in his hair was crying into his mom’s arms. Two tween girls were dumping water onto their shirts, trying to wash out puke stains. People were filming on their phones. Freya couldn’t help herself but laugh. There she sat on the Ferris wheel, belly out of her shirt, vomit dripping down her legs, her hair a sweaty mess. It was not a moment to be proud of. It was not something you’d want to relive again. But for Freya, it was an all-timer, a spectacular capper on the best trip of her life. Only in America, she thought. Only here could this have happened as it did.
Three elephant ears … how in the hell did she do it?
The carnie walked over, covering his nose with his shirt.
Freya leaned forward and asked, “Sir, can you tell me how to get to the funnel cake stand?”
* * *