Erika D. Price is a social psychologist, writer, and eternal student living in Chicago, Illinois. She writes all
her first drafts on the Notepad app of her iPhone, which sounds insane but is actually quite a convenient way to bang out ideas on the go while simultaneously looking like a vapid, perpetually-texting woman-child. In her spare time she eats marshmallows and wanders around Chicago’s lake shore. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
So you want to give up? That’s what confidence is, kid: a highly performative way of giving up. You want to be free of self-consciousness, for once and for all? OK then, I’ll hook you up.
Off I-71, just west of Cuyahoga Valley National Park, there’s an abandoned amusement park once owned by the Firestone Tires family, just sitting there moldering away. It’s behind a rusted gate with a feeble No Trespassing sign, off a gravel path that’s overgrown with bushes and birch trees and ivy, but it’s easily accessible if you go into the Park and walk across Whipp’s Ledges. The ledges are made of thin strips of slate, and dotted with trees and moss, and they hold moisture for days and days after it’s rained, so be careful: wear shoes with thick rubber soles and good traction. People come through the park all day, with picnic baskets and binoculars, for bird watching (there’s a big buzzard’s nest off the highway, by the Dairy Queen), so it’s best to go after dusk. But not too late after dusk, not midnight or anything. I hear an entirely different kind of visitor comes to the park late at night to carouse and pass around doobies and varieties of Hepatitis.
So go in the early twilight and bring a small flashlight, one that’ll illuminate the ground you tread without sending a bright beacon into the foliage and alerting every one of your existence. A hand-crank one from the hardware store will do. Otherwise, come lightly packed: no weapons, no coinage, no backpacks or purses. If you have to bring a Chapstick or a tampon or whatever it is you need, wear cargo pants. Bring only your essentials. That and your payment for the witch.
Once you walk north along the ledges for a while, you’ll see the fence surrounding the amusement park. You’ll have to edge across a thin strip of rock to get close—just shimmy across it, or walk sideways like you’re on a balance beam. Then you’ll be on top of the big cave they used to keep the bear in. It still has bars, like a cage, that’s how you’ll know. It was a whole menagerie back there: caves and cages full of reindeer, possum, iguanas. They say when the cages were cleared out and the petting zoo was shut down, they forgot one of the twin cubs. Whether he lived or died is a matter of which legend you’re partial to. It gives me the creeps, and at night it’ll shake your bones, too, but don’t worry over much, they closed the park up over twenty years ago. He’s got to be gone by now.
From the tip of the cave it’s quite easy to jump the fence into the amusement park. Just bend your knees or roll, you’ll be fine. It’s cement on the other side, of course, but it’s largely overgrown with soft weeds and wildflowers that’ll cushion your fall. You can climb down the other side of the fence, if you prefer—when was your last tetanus shot?
The amusement park, you’ll find, is rickety as shit. It was built in 1938. Snow White had just come out the year before, so the whole thing is built in this woodland, fairy forest kind of theme. Big toadstools made of plaster and wood. Gigantic lawn gnomes with beards you can slide down. Enormous fake trees laden with bushels of oversized apples you can climb into and peek out of. Donut stands with witches and dragons painted on the sides. There’s a roller coaster made to look like the jewel mine the dwarves worked in. The tracks are still suspended in the air, on wooden scaffolding, and there’s a yellow mine cart with chipping paint lying on the ground, upended, the safety belt frayed and squirrel-bitten. The front of the mine cart is pointing northeast. You’ll want to follow that.
By the entrance, a wood shack lies in a field of grass and shattered glass; reams of tickets still sit on the counter inside, and the old cash register remains there, rusting, its ancient type-writer-style keys all locked up. People’ve come through, kids mostly, and they’ve ripped all the money out of the slot. Vintage coins, hay pennies and the like. I wouldn’t go digging around for treasure if I were you. What you’ll want out of the ticket booth is the master key. It’s on a hook on the western wall.
You can explore the park for hours. I advise you not to, however, at least not on your first trip. Once it gets all dark and still, you can hear the cars on the Ferris wheel squeaking and swaying in the wind, and you can hear the ants and termites busily chewing through the wooden coasters, and you can almost hear the children screaming and squealing with intermittent sorrow and delight. Then, say, you’ll trip over an old-fashioned Barbie that’s missing its head, or a lunch pail with Captain Kangaroo on it, and you’ll pick it up without thinking, and you’ll find there’s a child’s hand hanging off the toy, too. Trick of the light, or the mind, I don’t know, but you can’t unsee it. So don’t meddle, and don’t dawdle.
The witch lives in the old ballroom, off the lake. Ain’t really a lake, it used to be a reservoir—they dumped their garbage in that big old hole, and filled it up with swamp water, and they put a waterslide in it that looks like a big old stoned caterpillar smoking hashish or whatever. Just head toward the caterpillar, and walk along the water’s edge. But do not. Go in. Don’t climb on his back or try crawling into his pipe. I seen teenagers wandering around in the park late at night, doing that kinda nonsense, high as kites—just for kicks. Some of them don’t even know about the witch. But she gets them, in her own way. The waterslide will cave under adult weight, believe me, and the reservoir is deep as a salt mine. So be wary.
The ballroom is on the northernmost tip of the reservoir. The front door is collapsed under some branches, and there’s a banged-up VW van in the way, vines growing through the hubcaps like tendrils. You have to go around, through what’s left of the Funhouse, to make it to the ballroom’s back door. It’s just a barrel and a wall of grimy mirrors and no roof. Don’t let it intimidate you. Don’t wander the maze.
Then, on the other side of the Funhouse, you reach the back door, and you make sure nobody else is around. Then you take that key and unlock it. Simple as that.
The witch is what I call her, but I don’t know if she chose the moniker. Maybe it’s because of the Snow White theme of the whole place. She wears a lot of black and brown, hippie clothes mostly, and hemp booties. You’ll probably find her sitting in the dead center of the ballroom’s marble floor, meditating, or perhaps lying on her back staring up at the painting of the Seven Dwarfs and the Evil Queen on the ballroom ceiling, looking contemplative.
When she hears your footfalls, she will call out:
“What have you brought me?”
And then you tell her, and set it down. What were you told to bring? Jam? And crackers, that’s all? Oh, don’t forget that Activia, she’s an old woman. Well what were you expecting her to request, jewels? She lives in an abandoned amusement park, kiddo, she needs sundries. So tell her what you’ve delivered and leave it there on the floor.
She may challenge you to a game, or throw you a riddle. Mine was: “What rises and grows short even as you lose it, what flares and strengthens steel, what can be good or bad or keep us at an even keel?”
To which the answer was: Temper, obviously. She got a little overeager with the homophones. But don’t act like the riddle’s too easy, or she’ll get a little pissed and make you play Trivial Pursuit as well. And she has the original board, with the old, old box of questions—“Who was the official United States hair consultant to the 1984 Olympics?”—you’re not gonna win that one. At any rate, placate her until she instructs you to come forward.
So, you know, approach her. Don’t be scared, for you’ve come to eradicate fear. You have to want it. She’ll eventually pour two glasses and ask you to sit with her on the veranda. This means you’ve won, and lost.
The witch has, seriously, gallons upon gallons of the only thing in this world that can truly eliminate doubt. One pint purges a man of all reticence—and all concern for other people’s thoughts of him—for an untold amount of years. There is not a shred of social anxiety, a string of apathy, a tossed-off interpersonal insult, or a glaring personal failure that can reach you, when you’re on her drug. Really, it’s not a drug. It’s a potion, that’s why they call her the witch.
One pint with her and you’ll never have a worry again. I call it the Fuck-It Elixir. You float, inhumanly confident, billowing across your own existence like a clean white cloud. Some say she takes your soul along with those sundries, but no heaven can beat the feeling. So, you know, fuck it.
Well, there you go. That’s all there is to it. It’s still early, you could go tonight, if you want. Any last questions?
And then what? What do you mean, “then what”? You’ll finally get to see if low self-esteem really was your only limitation. But, eh, you won’t care either way. Huh? No, I don’t “have any suggestions.” You’ll see.
Why am I telling you? Because confidence is fungible, my friend. When you take a sip of that juice she gives you, it’ll suck the ego out of some other prick and siphon it into your own oversize head. Hm? Because I think it’s good to knock successful, content motherfuckers down a peg every now and again, is why.
The confident people, the ones on the top of the world—they need a sip of doubt and self-loathing, don’t you think? Have you ever met someone with high self-esteem that wasn’t a little bit of a sociopath? How many entrepreneurs, inventors, CEOs, politicos, and geniuses—how many dreamers of world-changing dreams—are also skilled at the small, grounded human stuff, like empathy? Like apologizing? Like knowing when to say ‘enough’? Success is kinda monstrous, isn’t it? Whatever, I don’t expect you to agree. But you will.
You’ll drink that stuff, and it will last untold years, and then it’ll wear off and you’ll wake up and suddenly it’s five, ten years later, and you’ll be at the apex of your life, maybe you’re a cardiologist or a literary agent or a stock broker, and you’ll find you’ve been pushing and pulsing through life, clocking people in the jaw, smiling in a huge phony rictus, lying and sweating and doing lots of blow and not sleeping, and you’ll realize you’ve made it, and you have a lot of responsibility, a lot, and the elixir will wear off and you’ll find you don’t have the will or faith to do it anymore. You’ll cease to be the man you were, your brain will go foggy and you’ll be aware of your flaws and you will see the detritus of the relationships you’ve thwarted and the people you’ve crushed in your climb to the top, and you’ll get self-sick, and you won’t. You won’t keep it up. Your employees will keep asking for answers and you will say, “I ‘unno.” You won’t be sure if your ideas are any good. You won’t be sure you deserve the two hundred grand you make. You’ll be concerned that nobody that works for you likes you. You will realize that old, familiar feeling, so long-gone: you don’t even like you.
And you will quit, and come home, and start teaching Special Ed part-time and eating at the Dairy Queen near the buzzard’s nest and telling hick kids about the witch who gave you confidence, and sapped you of your soul, for a while, until you got it back.
And you’ll be washed-up, fat, divorced, swimming in debt, pock-marked, and fighting to stay sober. You’ll sleep in a studio and you’ll cry more than you sleep. You’ll go through every day bloated, and lonely, and under stimulated. You’ll miss the city and your clean, capped teeth; you’ll miss your crisp suits and the Chablis you had in your cellar. You’ll look at the ground instead of into people’s eyes. You’ll spend hours each day journaling about your feelings and calling the men and women you’ve fucked, trying to apologize. You’ll drag yourself to 12-step programs for problems you don’t even have. You’ll never sleep in Egyptian sheets again. You will feel the full weight of every selfish thing you’ve ever done, or even considered. You will feel the judgment and disgust and pity and annoyance other people feel for you like a hundred thousand searing fish hooks piercing all your papery flesh. And you will see, at last, that a person cannot validate, earn, or justify his existence.
But you will be a person. And that will be enough.