"Second star to the right!" She called out, laughing.
Her voice carried easily over the autumn wind as we flew above the confusion of lost boys, giggling girls, and parents trying desperately to remember. We were not flying very high, but the lights and people seemed so small and far away that, for the moment at least, the world below us looked like a miniature toy carnival.
"Second star to the right! That's what it feels like!" She said, and she took my hand in hers, kicking her feet in the air as if running and, throwing her head back, laughing. The wind turned her long hair into a ribbon of fiery gossamer, trailing out behind us.
"No hand holding." Said the bored voice over the speakers and she dropped my hand with a petulant huff that carried frustration layered with a relief at the easy excuse to let go.
It's coming soon, I thought sadly. Our reason for being here. Our Goodbye.
Moments later, we slowed, seats gently rocking into one another with creaks and groans as the great spider of machinery lowered its chain web of swings back to earth.
"That is the only ride I want to go on!" She said, jumping out of her seat and launching at me in a fiercely quick hug. She was as exhilarated as I was anxious.
"Let's go explore," she said. Then she twirled around, waving me to follow before skipping off on her tippy toed wings into the confusion of cotton candy.
Tinker Bell came to me in the midwinter of my twenty seventh year.
I had left Neverland long ago by that time. My life was one of goals and deadlines, of power and responsibility, of control over one's own destiny. I had grown to see the mantra of "never grow up" for what it was: a cartoon fallacy. I walked away from childhood willingly, eagerly, and as happened so frequently in the stories of the aged, before I realized what I had left behind.
The eternal minutes of years cast my soul into a new body, one that was much larger and slow than my soul remembered. That body was led by a series of unfortunate events to a bleak hospital wing where it paced in the hallway like a madman. As I waited for Death to visit my family as it had when I was a child, I recognized it immediately as the worst and best night of my life. It was in that ward, on December 27th, when she appeared as if by magic, right when I needed her most. I remember the time as if the clock is still hovering in front of me bathed in a pall of blue light. It was 7:04 PM. On that exact day, at that exact time, I looked into the soft, brown eyes of the girl who would become my very deepest love.
When I first kissed her, when she finally- after what felt an eternity- floated into my arms, the rest of the world dimmed, its color draining away for the brightness that was this magical fairy. On that day, I forgot the foolish and false importance of wife, house, and job. I forgot the goals of adulthood- or that there was even such a concept as strange and foreign as "grown-up."
On that day, I met my Tinker Bell, and she called me back to Neverland.
Screams descend from the rickety roller coaster and the caramel scent of kettle corn settles in my throat like a coating of pitch, think and cloying and making me feel as though I am suffocating on sugar. Tinker Bell floats before me, laughing in the rush of kids who call and shout to their friends. She acts for all the world as if this were the only place she was meant to be.
I want nothing more than to be away from this wretched madness. I want quiet. I want space so that I'm not shoved in the back by a dramatically gesticulating seven year old who will just die if he doesn't get funnel cake. I want to be lying in the dark with Tinker Bell's head on my chest, listening to her slow dreaming breath as I hold her, gently kiss her head, and try desperately to sleep for a few more minutes before the wine-dark dawn descends. I want to be anywhere but here. But more than that, I want to be with her. And here with her is better than anywhere without her.
So instead of my quiet darkness, we float together through the cacophony of blinking, candy apple lights as I try to draw breath through the thick air, try to smile, and try not to fear.
"What about the Ferris wheel?" I say, pouring as much syrupy happiness into the question as I can manage. "That's kind of like the swings."
She looks at me as if I'd just suggested that she eat a large and particularly purple sea creature.
"Ferris wheels are boring!" she groans, and just as I'm about to protest, her face makes its remarkable night-to-day change, radiating a smile that dims the lights around us.
"Let's go see the animals!" she shrieks, grabbing my hand and skipping forward lightly, pulling me as if I'm a rag doll.
She's always been able to pull me, magically casting me about like a toy despite her tiny size and my much greater weight, and age. She need only grab my hand and I could be lifted into the sky on her magical fairy dust laughter.
At least, that's how it had been. Before. Lately, we flew less often. I weighed considerably more these days, and she cast me about considerably less.
But now I can feel her throwing me about, can feel the warmth of her hand in mine, pouring into my arm like sparkles, cascading down and up my spine to make my feet feel light and my hair stand on end.
The power of Tinker Bell's touch.
I don't want to let go of her hand. I want to squeeze it, clutch it. I want to pull her towards me and bury her in my arms, to close my eyes and breath the winter scent of her hair as I used to. But instead I look down at her hand holding mine and can see the awkwardness seeping into the corners of my vision like fire eating a picture. As soon as it had started, the moment passes, and she lets my hand fall away.
Such is life with Tinker Bell. Lifetimes of seconds, wrenched away from me as we float above the world. Together and ever growing apart.
The reek of cotton candy slowly gives way to the dark, earthy scent of straw and manure as the shouldering crowds are replaced with tiny shrieks and strollers creaking in mud ruts. Tinker Bell skips ahead with a laugh and I look at the hand she released, suddenly heavy with it's great ring of guilt.
There is a woman wearing my guilt ring's pair. A woman who is sitting at home doing something wonderfully mundane, like reading Jane Eyre for the 137th time, or cooking kale and lentil soup with the burner on high and way too much cumin. She is a woman connected to me by years of love and awkwardly unspoken distances. A woman humming a Lucy Kaplansky song to herself while her husband floats through a blinking, shrieking Neverland with his fairy girl.
I can feel the weight of this guilt pressing down on my shoulders and head like a wet, wool blanket, muggy in its damp, accusatory heat.
It is this weight, I think to myself, that makes me too heavy for Tinker Bell to cast about anymore. But even as I think it, I know it's not true. It's not my fear and guilt that is pulling her away. It is her.
She is changing.
As much as could be expected from a girl. And such is the price you pay when you fall so deeply in love with someone so young.
Despite my best efforts to be a better person, the sight of ducks and sheep makes me think of food.
"We could get something to eat," I suggest, unsurprised at the slight crack in my voice that I'm pretty sure only I heard.
She speaks, and something about meat and gluten is lost in the sudden honking of a donkey who has had just quite enough pulling on that particular ear, thank you very much.
"Well," I say, trying to make my voice into the epitome of an ironic joke, "you don't want to ride, and you don't want to eat. I'm not sure what we're doing here."
Despite my attempt at feigning humor, I sound how I feel: petulant and whiney. She rises from petting a white angora bunny and looks at me with eyes full of confusion and concern, and only very lightly sprinkled with hurt.
"I wanted to spend time with you." She says. "Just with you."
She tilts her head slightly in the way that has always announced a thought on the verge of a decision, then she smiles and brushes my lips with a quick and quiet kiss so tender that it feels like she is dressing a wound.
Maybe, I think, she is dressing a wound, a great wrenching wound of choices and betrayal. And my face flushes with embarrassment and that heavy weight of wet, hot guilt.
The truth is this: As much as I love my wife, her life would be forfeit for the life of my Tinker Bell. It hardly matters that she would likely say the same- she has the same conflicts and demons, the same choices. The thought of those choices fills me with warmth, and love, and wretched self-loathing.
Tinker Bell, oblivious, aware, giggling, flutters to the maligned donkey to stroke it gently, calming it in that way she has of calming everything she touches. She smiles and skips and laughs, flying from animal to animal as if breakfast never happened, as if the earthquake never shook her heart, as if her world didn't come tumbling down around her over mustard and basil omelets and stupid-for-gods-sake-why-does-everything-have-to-be-called-heirloom tomato slices.
Unlike me, she is happy. She can be happy because she is young. Today is a goodbye, and this type of goodbye is easy for the young. In a sense, this type of goodbye is the entire purpose of being young, and it never catches the young by surprise.
It caught me by surprise, though. Springing out of no-where at breakfast- at least I saw it at breakfast. Looking back, it's obvious now that it really started the moment I first laid eyes on her.
How long since I've felt the weight of her pressed down happily on my lap? How long since she carelessly threw her arms around my neck, knowing that if she lost her balance, I would catch her? How long since I had a stolen moment of her love in evening's quiet darkness?
Yet this morning, as if the past were a mythical land where forgetting was sugar, she graced me with sweetness. This morning, she came to me and, tasting her careless love, I wept inside for its sudden bitter tinge.
It was on her tongue as well. Squirming uncomfortably on the lap she used to rest on so well. Telling jokes to laugh about instead of kissing my stubbled cheek. Sitting awkwardly, as if trying to finish a distasteful chore. She would never admit it, but she tasted the bitterness as strongly as I.
That moment on my lap, unlike countless moments before, was different. Something had changed- she had changed. From the dark closet of her young mind was pulled an invisible gown of realization that, once donned, could never be stripped from her. We both felt that garment on her, together, in that same, shimmering moment.
Suddenly, she bolted off of my lap, turning in a dramatic show to suggest that we "do something fun" and that we "spend time together." Awkwardness darkening the scene like spilled ink.
And so we ended up here, Tinker Bell and her Peter, floating from the petting zoo back to the chaos of cotton candy, as I try to carry this weight of guilt and search for my happy thought that will keep me flying.
But I can't find my happy thought because the only thought I have is that Tinker Bell is leaving me forever. The only thought I have is the knowledge that things are... different.
"Let's go in the funhouse!" I say, less for an honest suggestion than as a dressing to staunch the flow of my tears.
"Ha!" She barks, throwing her head back. "There's no way you're getting me in there with you!"
I just begin the descent into the cavern of her insinuation when a voice calls out to her, using her birth name.
Tinker Bell turns, smiling.
"Hi, Alexa!" She beams, and the two girls dive into a pool of conversation- about boys, and music, and Jenny McIntyre's red suede pumps- as if they had been swimming together in the words for the past half hour.
Feeling as substantial as a ghost, I dissolve into the funhouse to join my brethren of forgotten specters. The irony of the dark cavern filled with crooked, rubber skeletons and scratchy speakers howling their silly groans and wails is actually soothing. I trudge through tight corridors lit in sickly green, barely aware of the fright that I am expected to feel, but growing ever more afraid as I come closer to the exit that will eject me back into the real world where things really are scary and confusing.
I pop out of the funhouse at the same time as two boys who squeeze roughly past on the staircase, weaving through the crowd like gazelles to bound off for another rapid adventure. When I reach the girls, who are still somewhere in the middle of a conversation in a foreign language, it becomes apparent that I was not missed.
"I can't," Tinker Bell says, nodding to me as if I had not just returned, "I'm here with my dad."
"Hello, Alexa." I say, and I note that I sound as strangely old and formal as every parent who's ever talked with a child's friend.
"Hi Mister C," she says, turning back to her recruitment mission even before she hits "mister." "Cecilia, you have to come! He asked about you!"
Tinker Bell groans and, for the first time, looks uncertain and afraid.
That, I think, is my cue. This is our goodbye.
"You should go, sweetie," I choke.
It isn't what I want to say. Even buried in the tomb-green lights of the funhouse, I wanted to come up with something more meaningful. I wanted to say something like: It's all different now, you're different. My lap is no longer your favorite seat. I can't sleep holding my little girl as she breaths on my chest. I'm no longer your Peter Pan, my love, and it's time for you to be another's Tinker Bell. It's different now, and even if you won't admit it, I have to. That is my role, to tell you that it's okay, that it's time for you to fly away. But I want you to know, my sweet, magical pixie, that I will always be here for you, if ever your wings get tired.
I wanted to say this, to tell her of my love for her, to lift her in a hug and smell her hair one last time, but I've left Neverland. I've become a grown-up and grown-ups are cowards who hide their truths in platitudes, so I cover a sudden choking sob with a yawn and say:
"Go on, sweetie, go meet this charming prince of yours. I'm pretty tired anyway. Have fun and call us if you need a ride home."
Delighted terror drifts down from the Ferris wheel as she looks at me, head tilted in lights that turn her hair into a copper flame that singes my heart.
"I love you daddy," she whispers, throwing her arms around my neck and kissing my cheek quickly. I breath in her winter scent as she lets go and flies away on her tippy toed wings into the confusion of cotton candy.
She never turns back to see the tears fall to the cheeks of her aged Peter.