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The Beginning of Everything
Author: Robyn Schneider


SOMETIMES I THINK that everyone has a tragedy waiting for them, that the people buying milk in their pajamas or picking their noses at stoplights could be only moments away from disaster. That everyone’s life, no matter how unremarkable, has a moment when it will become extraordinary—a single encounter after which everything that really matters will happen.

My friend Toby came down with a bad case of tragedy the week before we started seventh grade at Westlake Middle School. We were fanatical about Ping-Pong that summer, playing it barefoot in his backyard with aspirations toward some sort of world championship. I was the better player, because my parents had forced me into private tennis lessons ever since I’d been given my own fork at the dinner table. But sometimes, out of a sense of friendship, I let Toby win. It was a game for me, figuring out how to lose just convincingly enough that he wouldn’t figure I was doing it on purpose. And so, while he practiced for the mythical Ping-Pong world championship, I practiced a quiet, well-meaning type of anarchy toward my father’s conviction that winning was what mattered in life.

Even though Toby and I were the kind of best friends who rarely sought the company of other boys our age, his mother insisted on a birthday party, perhaps to insure his popularity in middle school—a popularity we had not enjoyed in elementary school.

She sent out Pirates of the Caribbean–themed invitations to a half dozen kids in our year with whom Toby and I shared a collective disinterest in socializing, and she took us all to Disneyland in the world’s filthiest burgundy minivan the last Tuesday of the summer.

We lived only twenty minutes’ drive south of Disneyland, and the magic of the place was well worn off by the end of sixth grade. We knew exactly which rides were good, and which were a waste of time. When Mrs. Ellicott suggested a visit to the Enchanted Tiki Room, the idea was met with such collective derision that you would have thought she’d told us to get lunch from the Pizza Port salad bar. In the end, the first—and only—ride we went on was the Thunder Mountain Railroad.

Toby and I chose the back row of the roller coaster, which everyone knows is the fastest. The rest of the birthday party was fighting for the front row, because, even though the back is the fastest, the front is inexplicably more popular. And so Toby and I wound up divided from the rest of the party by a sea of eager Disneyland guests.

I suppose I remember that day with such enormous clarity because of what happened. Do you know those signs they have in the lines at theme parks, with those thick black lines where you have to be at least that tall to ride? Those signs also have a lot of stupid warnings, about how pregnant ladies or people with heart conditions shouldn’t go on roller coasters, and you have to stow your backpacks, and everyone must stay seated at all times.

Well, it turns out those signs aren’t so useless after all. There was this family directly in front of us, Japanese tourists with Mickey Mouse hats that had their names embroidered on the backs. As Toby and I sat there with the wind in our faces and the roller coaster rumbling so loudly over the rickety tracks that you could barely hear yourself scream, one of the boys in front of us stood up defiantly in his seat. He was laughing, and holding the Mickey Mouse hat onto his head, when the coaster raced into a low-ceilinged tunnel.

The news reports said that a fourteen-year-old boy from Japan was decapitated on the Thunder Mountain Railroad when he disregarded the posted safety warnings. What the news reports didn’t say was how the kid’s head sailed backward in its mouse-ear hat like some sort of grotesque helicopter, and how Toby Ellicott, on his twelfth birthday, caught the severed head and held on to it in shock for the duration of the ride.

There’s no graceful way to recover from something like that, no magic response to the “getting head” jokes that everyone threw in Toby’s direction in the hallways of Westlake Middle School. Toby’s tragedy was the seat he chose on a roller-coaster ride on his twelfth birthday, and ever since, he has lived in the shadow of what happened.

It could have easily been me. If our seats had been reversed, or the kids in front of us had swapped places in line at the last minute, that head could have been my undoing rather than Toby’s. I thought about it sometimes, as we drifted apart over the years, as Toby faded into obscurity and I became an inexplicable social success. Throughout middle and high school, my succession of girlfriends would laugh and wrinkle their noses. “Didn’t you used to be friends with that kid?” they’d ask. “You know, the one who caught the severed head on the Disneyland ride?”

“We’re still friends,” I’d say, but that wasn’t really true. We were still friendly enough and occasionally chatted online, but our friendship had somehow been decapitated that summer. Like the kid who’d sat in front of us on that fateful roller coaster, there was no weight on my shoulders.

Sorry. That was horrible of me. But honestly, it’s been long enough since the seventh grade that the whole thing feels like a horrifying story I once heard. Because that tragedy belongs to Toby, and he has lived stoically in its aftermath while I escaped relatively unscathed.

My own tragedy held out. It waited to strike until I was so used to my good-enough life in an unexceptional suburb that I’d stopped waiting for anything interesting to happen. Which is why, when my personal tragedy finally found me, it was nearly too late. I had just turned seventeen, was embarrassingly popular, earned good grades, and was threatening to become eternally unextraordinary.

Jonas Beidecker was a guy I knew peripherally, the same way you know if there’s someone sitting in the desk next to you, or a huge van in the left lane. He was on my radar, but barely. It was his party, a house on North Lake with a backyard gazebo full of six packs and hard lemonade. There were tangles of Christmas lights strung across the yard, even though it was prom weekend, and they shimmered in reflection on the murky lake water. The street was haphazard with cars, and I’d parked all the way on Windhawk, two blocks over, because I was paranoid about getting a ding.

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