Q: You went to Universal Studios? How was Harry Potter World?
By the time the broom lifted me off the ground for the second ride around, I just knew breakfast was pulling an Eggs Benedict Arnold, and that I was in deep, deep trouble.
The hard part should’ve been over. Our newly minted 21-year-old hated surprises. Sniffed them out at every turn. Shook Christmas packages and declared their contents like a border patrol agent. Knew we were pregnant with her younger sister a solid month before we told them. And yet we’d managed to trick her into believing we were sending her back from Christmas break to college, alone, for her birthday—whereas in actuality we’d booked flights for all of us, plus her college roommate, down to Burbank. I photoshopped a fake boarding pass, feigned the need to park the car for a proper goodbye, dropped her, her corpse-sized bags and her mom and sister off at the terminal, swung into the long-term lot, then lugged three people’s carryons back to where I left them. As I rolled up, the wheels of two suitcases clattering on the saltillo tile floor like the clack-alack of a railway train, E’s eyes bugged out. For the first time in forever, she looked like she had no idea what was going to happen next. Because she didn’t.
“Want to go to Harry Potter world?”
Hell yeah, she did. She’d been talking about this exact thing—Harry Potter World, on her 21st birthday—for seemingly as long as there’s been a World containing Harry Potter. It was too much for her to process at once; she didn’t so much explode with joy as leak it out over the next several hours. As we loaded her checked bags onto the conveyor belt I looked back to find her shaking in happiness and disbelief.
But that was Friday. By the time Sunday rolled around and we were actually inside the park, on our second-consecutive spin through Hogwarts on a Forbidden JourneyTM it was my stomach, and apparently my inner ear, doing the quivering.
For a kid who was scared of pretty much everything, I’d taken great pride in maintaining my counter-characteristic love of rollercoasters—like an iguana that was good at jigsaw puzzles. So I didn’t think in a million years that a little indoor ride inspired by a set of kids’ books was going to take me down. But something about the interaction between the flashes and dizzying motion of the movie screens in front of us and the ride itself tossing us like pancakes on a spatula bubbled up all kinds of trouble. We heaved to a stop in front of Hagrid, who asked our car, “You haven’t seen a dragon, have ya?” And I responded—too softly under all the commotion for anyone to hear—“You don’t happen to have any dramamine, do you?”
Thankfully I made it all the way through the story of the Boy who Lived without being the Man who Puked. But the insider’s guides had all recommended hitting the thrill rides all at once and as early as possible, so off we went down to the lower level—my wife, two daughters, E’s roommate and I—with me and my gurgling stomach hanging out at the back, trying to keep up and trying even harder not to make a scene.
E’s statements on how she would celebrate this exact moment had taken on familiar themes over the past, ooooh, three years. “I would be DRUNK, sipping on BUTTER BEER, in my ROBES and with my WAND, at the front of ALL the rides!” In fairness to her, she played it far more responsibly. Yes, there was a breakfast cocktail, though it was more Shirley Temple than Rob Roy. Around noon a friend Venmo’d her money for a fruity frozen drink in a plastic Tiki cup that looked all-too-much like the bad-luck idol Peter and Bobby Brady tried to bring back from Hawaii. But the smell of mango overrode any alcohol it may have contained. She sucked it down before we reached the front of the Jurassic World ride, none the worse for it. Even our youngest was handling it like a pro. “Honey, if any of this feels like a lot just know that it’s all perfectly safe,” my wife told P as we passed a sign that warned people with motion sickness not to go any further. I swallowed hard and stepped forward, with all the enthusiasm of a man volunteering to be eaten by an oncoming T-rex so that the children might be spared.
Two down. Two to go.
I breathed the deepest sigh of relief my organs could manage when I saw that the Transformers ride had been temporarily shut down. “I guess it’s on to the Mummy then,” said my wife, a little too quickly, as the younger three skipped ahead.
The good news about the Mummy ride is that it actually moves, rather than just shaking you like a in 2-liter of soda front of a screen. The bad news is it does it in the dark, removing the ability to anticipate which way the car’s going to throw you. And then it does it backwards, with relish, just to mess with you. We came back out into the light and our youngest shouted, “Let’s do it again!” and everyone else said “YEAH!” except the wet, queasy blanket of a dad clutching the safety rail. But the backpack was already stuffed inside the locker, and Nintendo world looked about as fun as watching other people play Super Mario Smash Brothers, and it was E’s birthday. So of course I went along.
Lurching off the ride like a drunkard for the second time I finally confessed to my wife that things were going south for me and my digestive tract. She eyed me, head to toe.
“I think it’s food poisoning,” I said, choking down what felt like a river of lava rising in my throat. “I think it’s the eggs benedict.”
She and I had been splitting meals at the hotel restaurant with P, our youngest. Granola with yogurt had sounded like perfectly responsible pre-adventure fuel to me. Runny poached eggs with hollandaise sauce on a bed of pastrami had been our daughter’s preference. No need to guess who won.
“You sure? That was only a couple of hours ago,” H said.
I nodded, worried what would come out if I opened my mouth to speak.
“I think you’ve got motion sickness,” she said, and I waved it off like she’d just diagnosed me with scoliosis. It’s one thing to be born with an aversion to heights or an inability to whistle; no one likes admitting that a thing you used to love and be able to do all day long can turn on you so suddenly.
The afternoon took pity on me and calmed the hell down. We took the studio tour, slithering along the back lots in an open-air bus, casually watching Jaws wreak fiery havoc on Cabot Cove’s dockside fueling station. To avoid getting sick I closed my eyes during the King Kong and Fast and Furious 3-D portions, as well as whenever Jimmy Fallon came up on-screen. The kids, now aware of my condition due to both me confessing and the Voldemort-like pallor of my skin, seemed content to mostly wander around Hogsmeade, making displays dance and chimneys catch fire with the flick of their wands, and begging us to buy them things. (The wands, fortunately, did not work on us, though apparently other parents were affected.) Still, I saw the sign everywhere; the red-outlined circle with the slash through it, right across the person holding their stomach as they…toss both themselves and their cookies off the front of a boat while being chased from behind by a life preserver? Seriously, what is this?
The Despicable ride was my last attempt at overcoming my brand-new personal flaw, and I failed just as hard here as I had elsewhere, going so far as to turn Minion-yellow right before the vehicle stopped jerking us around. The girls rushed back to Hogwarts for one last intestine-turner before departure, while I stayed with the bags just outside the castle gates, sucking down whatever water was left in the bottle and feeling very much like a kid who’d just rammed their head into the column during a failed attempt to reach platform 9 ¾.
Still, I took it. I’ve been E’s stepdad since she was 9 years old, and 12 years—most of it adolescence—of up-and-down moments, with seemingly more dips than peaks, will leave you hanging on for dear life to these all-too-rare glimpses of sheer happiness. Particularly if and when you have anything to do with it. I’ve often remarked to H that I feel like I’m making myself sick trying to have some kind of parent-kid bond with E. Before this trip, I’d only meant that figuratively. But without a doubt it was worth all the Pepto Bismol in Los Angeles to hear E say “thank you” and feel the soothing power of deep gratitude behind it.