The World’s Fair, at Night

Bless my soul, I’d nearly forgotten. Of course I can’t come with you. I have to be back next Friday to read a paper. We have a little Theological Society down there. Oh yes! There is plenty of intellectual life. –C.S. Lewis


It’s almost a relief the day is closing. It’s been a magical day at EPCOT—yes, of course it’s been a magical day—but I’m tired, body and soul. I’ve walked miles, my footsteps now on the concrete land, now leading me through flights of fancy and imagination: to the edge of the living seas and beyond time-space into energy itself.

Then I started trotting the globe, stepping from Germany to the Far East more easily than I make my weekly trip to grocery store. In China I lunched on curried carrots and potato, and by dinnertime I found it natural to stop for fish and chips in a village of barely nine hundred souls not far outside Hampton, England.

Well before then, though, my arches began to ache, and even in Norway the sun beat down on me, leaching me of color as surely as it fades a Mayan mural. Crowds of people pressed on every side: on the dirty flagstones of San Marco’s Square; in a tiled portico, tucked carelessly among the back alleys of Tangier; in tiny wooden boats steered impudently toward troll country. We all rushed headlong, from the Dragon Legend Acrobats to the British Invasion to Mo’Rockin, eager to make the most of our ticket price.

I had to pull away—alone, with Stephen—and we slipped into the perpetual night of the Plaza del Amigos. The air still pulsated with laughter, plastic stroller wheels turning, cash registers closing, flatware clattering on plates, intimate conversation buzzing and resonant.

But darkness lay over it all, muting and cool. Strings of lamps hung from one side of the square to the other, and blue light roiled up from the fountain, splashing heedlessly on. Lampposts gleamed globular and awnings stretched over the merchant stalls, packed with sombreros and ceramic icons, maracas and baja jackets. Stucco house-fronts surrounded the plaza on all sides, standing in their brightly painted coats—turquoise and brick red and canary yellow—with scalloped windows and wrought-iron fences edging the stairs, dim lights peeking out from second-story windows. And all I wanted to do was dodge up those stairs, past the “Cast Members Only” sign, and let myself in; I’d turn on the gramophone and mix myself a caipirinha, meet the family who lived there and ask them what they thought was the most important thing a person could do on this planet.

*          *          *

We come out half an hour later, emerging from interiority to find the sun sinking. The crowds are thinning, young families destined for hotel rooms and hot tubs and campfires. A coy wind blows across the World Showcase Lagoon, and Stephen and I hurry down the Mexico Pavilion stairs to lean against the fence and breathe it in. Shuttle boats skim noiselessly back and forth across the water’s sun-tipped surface.

It’s luxurious: the fact that we don’t have to be anywhere until eight-thirty, when we’re meeting Mom and Dad in Paris for pastries.

We meander to Japan, past the pagoda with its five square roofs all covered with sloping slate shingles. Gigantic paper lanterns stand like sentinels at the gate, blazoned with a lone calligraphy character. I wonder what it means. Something obvious? Light? Sacred ground? Is it a blessing? Peace?

This end of the Mitsukoshi department store crawls with greasy-haired teenagers in graphic tees and spectacles, huddled in gaggles around Naruto displays, Pokemon guides, Hello Kitty everything.

In our teen years, we passed through this section as quickly as possible, anxious to confirm each other’s good taste in glazed plates and books on bonsai gardening. We still look at the price tags and sigh over this iron teapot—that silk kimono—but now we lounge through the candy aisles as well, Stephen pointing out which are favorites of the Asian pianists at Michigan State University. This one tastes just like sugared rice starch. This one has a surprising spicy crunch—I think you’d like it.

And even among the anime merchandise, we find—with giddy smiles and pointing fingers—the Ghibli shelves. This print shows the Forest Spirit raising its antlers, walking on water. Here Kiki flies her broom over Visby. Porco Rosso watches the fallen legions of WWI ghosting to heaven—and the English major inside me has to ask, “That corpse you planted last year in your garden: has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”

Stephen pores over The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle (the one I’ll buy him for his birthday that year). I paw through their selection of stuffed totoros. This one’s too big. Not soft enough. This one doesn’t have a bag of acorns. But this one, this one’s shy and blue and owlish, and we’ll take home him to our niece for her birthday. She’s only twelve months, but we already know which Ghibli film we’re getting for her second birthday—and her third, and her fourth.

*          *          *

Outside the automated doors, lamplight glows among pruned pine trees and shadows encroach on the edges of the world. My watch reads seven-fifteen. The spring sun has been down for half an hour; the day has announced its closing, and I try not to think about how—two days after tomorrow—I will take a three-hour flight back to my life. I try not to think about the articles on Dorothy Sayers I should be reading for my annotated bibliography that’s due in a week and a half. And I certainly don’t think about Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble.

Stephen and I call it the existential angst: when we no longer see the festival lights and manicured gardens, no longer hear the laughter and the theme music, smell the funnel cakes and chlorinated fountain water. Instead, you see your future falling apart: a life with a PhD but no tenure-track post, nobody to live with you and love you, artistic failure, no money to travel, no time to spend out of doors, no conviction that what you do matters anyway.

It’s a capricious demon, with little respect for Sorcerer Mickey’s magic.

We’re going to have pastries in an hour, but I need chocolate—now. We stop in Germany for Toblerone and coffee, which is still hot when we reach the United Kingdom. The little formal garden behind Lords and Ladies is empty when we arrive, and we step between dainty boxwood hedges and petunias to take our seat on a wooden bench under the aura of an iron-and-glass lamppost.

We can still see the knots of guests crossing and recrossing the walkway to France—but they are over there, through the trees. Aluminum foil rustles as we break off triangles of honey-almond Toblerone. We cross our legs at the knee and sip our over-steeped coffee, confessing our fears for the eight-hundredth time.

What if I’m never amazing at piano? If I never learn French? Never ski the Alps? Release the Arebin novels upon an unsuspecting world?

A ten-year-old boy appears at the gift shop doorway, dragging his exhausted father by the hand, a smartphone in his other hand. His GPS says Agent P’s next clue is right here! You just point your camera up like this, and it’ll activate the spy transmission! How else are Phineas and Ferb going to save the day?

They’re standing five feet beyond Stephen, and we drop into momentary silence. The dad inspects us: two twentysomethings on spring break, upper-middle class, remote, mildly gay. I wonder what his day job is and whether he’s had sex since his vacation started.

It’s not working, Dad! You just point your camera up like this—that’s what Agent P said. The kid tries again then hands the phone to his dad. He tries too, but it doesn’t take.

Maybe there’s a bug? You hold it up like this? (The dad looks at us again.) Huh. They’re probably going to have to leave it.

But how else are Phineas and Ferb going to save the day?

They’re probably going to have to leave it. And eventually they do.

Stephen and I watch them retreat, dubious. What a hideous game! Why would you do that at EPCOT? What’s wrong with children these days? What’s wrong with parents?

(And what is wrong with us, lost in the spiraling multiverse of our future fears? Do we not see that we are twenty-one and twenty-four, eating chocolate and drinking coffee? Do we not see that we are in the English gardens at EPCOT?)

*          *          *

Men in suits pace outside Le Chefs de France, listening intently to their cell phones. Women stand between the fenced trees or sit on the edge of the fountain, champagne flutes bubbling in hand. I watch them the same way I watch the water arcing through the lamp-lit night or the replica Eiffel Tower rising with fitting trompe-l’oeil behind the Impressions de France theatre.

Stephen receives a call and paces between the flower pots. I watch him too. He comes back, his long hair waving with his stride as his navy trench coat billows around him, revealing more of the orange waffle-knit embracing his supermodel figure.

“They’re here,” he says, and I fall into step behind him. He sets a determined tempo for the alley where the bistro tables are crowded with guests and the windows of the Boulangerie Patisserie glow golden like a pie crust.

It’s jam-packed inside, but we slowly shuffle through the line, past the Disney displays of plastic breads and fruits, photos of French countryside, stacks of cookbooks in artful disarray. Soon we’re hovering over the glass cases, gazing at the bountiful spread and debating their merits. Really, though, there’s no question. Stephen will get the strawberry tart, Mom will order the Napoleon, Dad will get crème brûlée, and I want chocolate mousse.

Somehow we find a table outside, though we have to hawk a chair from our neighbors. It’s getting colder by the half-hour, and we hold our coffees with two hands and cross our arms between spoonfuls. We small-talk about our days, showcasing the evening’s purchases.

Having eaten all over Europe in the last three years—Sachertorte outside Vienna, tea and carrot cake in the gardens of Blenheim Palace, feuerwurst on brötchen among the medieval streets of Rothenburg—I don’t know what to make of what’s happening to me. The walls around me are plastic, molded to look like stucco; the pastries here have two times the sugar than they do across the pond; everyone around me is speaking English.

I have to fight to experience this freshly as it is, because pastries in Paris as a last Epcot act has been a yearly family ritual since the early 2000s.

And what if nothing I do matters anyway?

I smile at Mom across the table, and I don’t think about Gender Trouble, and I listen to the faint and faintly French accordion music coming out of the bakery window, golden like a pie crust.