by Emma Bernstein
art by Belle McDonald
Even if you’ve never been, even if you grew up in the claustrophobic crush of a city where no one knows their neighbors’ names, a corner of your memory is reserved just for the idea of it: a once-in-a-blue moon occasion; the trample of boots in an open field; deep-fried everything and popcorn so salty it scorches your tongue; the sky swing; muddy Converse flung against a blank sky; the old wooden roller-coaster that lurches under you so that you feel your stomach drop–but afterwards, breathless, you grab your friend or cousin by the hand and run again to the back of the line, your heart thumping to the tune of “just once more” until the sky deepens its hue and fireworks rain, kaleidoscopic, over the town you’ve known all your life.
Yeah, you remember the county fair. You remember the heat of it, the sweat slick on the back of your neck. Most of all, you remember watching the painted trailers barreling down the highway in late summer, bearing with them the small-time miracle of one promised happy day amid all the boredoms and injustices of your long childhood. Like a birthday or a New Years Eve, except that the fair is not marked on the calendar; appearing suddenly from nothing and nowhere, it is unmarred by expectation.
Maybe the county fair is not even a county fair. Maybe it is the first truly hot day of spring, after a long winter, when you and your friends ditch school to eat cherries on the beach in Pescadero and gather sea salt in the backs of your knees. Maybe it is the morning you and your brother sit in the bed of an old pickup, groggy before dawn, and watch a thousand hot air balloons billow up from the blue-green field and out over the Sandias. Or it is a night that starts slow, just you and a few people that you wish you knew better trading anecdotes over shitty wine coolers, but gathers steam by your shared will to feel something worth remembering; someone plays that song, and even though it is silly and earnest, you have all decided to lean into this moment, so you lie on your backs on your new friend’s blue rooftop, or on the asphalt of your high school’s parking lot, or under a peeling swing set and a sky full of stars, and you sing along and let yourself love these people lying next to you and this night, which is nothing except what you make of it.
The summer ends. The carnival heads on to another town, leaving behind a bellyache and crushed grass on the fairground. School starts again. Still, you remember how it felt, how you let yourself get caught up in the wonder of bare legs and funnel cake. The county fair is not always a county fair, and if you try, if you can forgive the absence of a ferris wheel or a big top tent; you can make a carnival of any day. Listen: those could be trumpets and bells in the distance. Let’s watch the road for painted trailers, and let’s make our own joy while we wait.