by Karin Kallmaker
Two very different reasons brought Laura Izmani and Helen Baynor to the Beach Boardwalk for a symbolic ride on the biggest wooden roller coaster on the west coast. They part strangers, but only after sharing an experience that shifted both of their lives onto new tracks.
Their paths cross again decades later when Laura interviews with Helen to become the private chef for the Baynor household. Given what Laura revealed during that fateful coaster ride, she’s relieved that Helen seems to have forgotten her.
Fiercely protective of her children, Helen—now a famous stage actress and widow with teenaged twins—divides her time between home in a sleepy California enclave and the bright lights of Broadway. Continuing her carefully managed life until her children leave for college is all she wants.
Their first roller coaster ride together may turn out to be only a prelude…
GCLS Goldie Awards
Roller Coaster — Finalist, Traditional/Contemporary Romance.
...A large majority of this book has the two main characters separated by great distance (Helen in New York, Laura at her home in California)... It allows the reader to really learn a lot about each character independently, and for the protagonists to become friends before lovers.
Reviewer Anna, January 2012: Two women, an aspiring chef and an aspiring actress, meet on a stalled roller coaster for a brief but candid exchange that changes each fundamentally. Twenty-three years later, Laura Izmani finds herself interviewing for the position of private chef for the famous stage actress Helen Baynor... As Laura and Helen encounter romantic challenges with other people, Kallmaker quietly but effectively sets the stage for their relationship as they live and work together in a family setting. But there are still several secrets between them -- Laura continues to be reluctant about revealing their shared past -- and Kallmaker makes her characters work for a satisfying conclusion. Recommended.
Another carload of shrieking riders soared over Laura Izmani’s head. It took conscious effort not to duck. The fading tone of the screaming was then drowned out by the sharp, metallic roar of the rail. The riders were already at the next turn when the air in their wake sent bits of trash scurrying across the wooden planking of the staging area.
The long, snaking line of raucous, eager teens and adults finally moved out of the sweltering access tunnel. She welcomed the fresh air and clean sea breeze, but the lack of shade was immediately apparent. She ran a fingertip over the top of one ear—the tender skin there was already on its way to a sunburn. Her Santa Cruz ball cap was tugged down as firmly as possible over her short-cropped black hair, but it still wouldn’t quite cover her ears. She wasn’t giving up now, though. She’d already been in the queue for thirty minutes.
There was no way she wasn’t going to ride The Great Wave today. Today marked the anniversary of the day she’d left New York to come here. A fresh start was what she’d found, back in the town where she’d graduated from high school only a few years ago. She’d ridden this roller coaster so many times during those years. The memory of it was bright and true and uncomplicated. And before…The Big Mistake. Now that her life was firmly back on track, she was getting on a plane for New York tomorrow morning. The day after that she would see what she could pick up of her culinary training.
Another coaster load of riders disembarked and the line moved forward. She stepped into the way of the group of teens that had been angling at every possibility to slip in front of her. Sorry, dudes, anyone who’d ever ridden the subway in New York knew how to cut off a line jumper. It was all in the elbows.
After a few minutes she was on the final ascending stairs, bearing left because she wanted to be in the first car and she was willing to wait. Along the wall the old-fashioned drawing of a tidal wave looked exactly as she remembered it, as well as the bright red lettering that proclaimed, “The World’s Most Fantastic Wooden Coaster! Only in Santa Cruz!”
Finally, the last coaster before hers departed, exiting the staging area to the left. She loved the clack-clack-clack of the pull chain ratcheting the departing car up the first incline in its fight against gravity. On her right she was bombarded with the combined screams of the riders on the cars that would slam to a stop in front of her. It had only been a couple of years since she’d ridden The Great Wave, and she’d changed a lot—mostly not for the better, she reminded herself—but she had every intention of doing the entire ride with hands up in exultation.
The approaching train of cars was rounding the final curve with a clatter and screech of brakes when the attendant asked if she was riding alone. After she nodded, the teenager shouted to the crowd behind her, “Any singles? Room for one!”
Laura had already tossed her ball cap on the seat and sat down on top of it when a woman settled next to her. They wordlessly sorted out the seat belts and locked them in place. Moments later they both tugged the bar firmly down across their laps.
After the attendant walked the length of the train, tugging on lap bars along the way, a voice on the loudspeaker intoned brief, unintelligible safety rules. As she remembered, Laura could only make out the part about keeping hands and feet inside the car at all times.
With a jerk the cars lurched forward into the incline tunnel, which was constructed of crisscrossed wooden beams and closely fitted slats. Every joint was studded with huge bolts.
“Not much padding on these seats,” the woman commented. She had a white-knuckled grip on the bar.
“It dates back to when people were tougher, I guess.” Laura gave her a distracted smile. They emerged from the tunnel and she found herself grinning at the stunning view of the vibrant Santa Cruz Boardwalk and long, pale, curving beach beyond it. She heard the other woman’s breath catch too.
“Time for hands up!” She thrust hers in the air, her stomach lurching, anticipating the top of the rise, where the track appeared to drop away to nothing. For a moment there was only sky in front of her, then the car banked hard to the right, wheels squealing on the rails. She yowled with delight as gravity took over.
Twists, short rises, a tight swirl down, then a long steep run across the length of the coaster to a second rise, their momentum augmented briefly by another pull chain, then swooping again—through it all Laura screamed, hands above her head.
One year. One year sober. One year of hard work, good food, freedom from temptation, and she knew no drug could ever feel this exciting. The ride was as fabulous, spine-tingling, breathtaking, stomach-churning, wonderful as she remembered.
It wasn’t over—they surged up the third rise, jerked hard, and were caught by the last chain that would boost their falling speed, climbing more than halfway as high as their initial ascent. She took a deep breath, giving her throat a break from shrieking. Coming up was the ride’s steepest descent and the last series of twists before they were back at the staging area. Clank-clank—
With a back-breaking jolt the car stopped just a few feet from the top.
It took Laura a moment to let her breath out. “What the hell happened?”
She realized then that the woman next to her had not released her death grip on the lap bar, and her eyes were tightly closed. Older than Laura, but not by much, she was pretty pale for a white woman, but now her pallor was so pronounced that at first Laura thought she’d pass out.
Then the woman spoke, her voice a thready whisper. “Please, dear God, tell me we’re not dead.”
“We’ll start up in a second,” Laura said. She’d never been on a coaster that had stopped before. But surely it wouldn’t be long. She gave her companion another look. “Are you okay?”
“If you’re scared of roller coasters, why did you get on this one?” And why, for heaven’s sake, did you get in the front car?
After a convulsive swallow, the answer was, “I’m not scared of roller coasters. I’m scared of heights.”
“Okay. So why the highest coaster in the park?”
“This is my graduation test. I think I’m going to fail.”
She was glad to see a little bit of color come back to the woman’s lips, but her eyes hadn’t opened. “You’re not hysterical and you’re not throwing up, so what’s to fail?”
“Give me a minute and either could happen.” Her lips pulled to one side. “She said go to the Boardwalk, take a few rides, it’ll be fun.”
“Sounds like you want to shoot someone for the advice.”
“My therapist. Helping me with desensitization.” The last word was sounded out as if it was being repeated for a spelling bee.
Laura looked over the edge of the coaster. It had to have been at least three minutes by now. “It could be worse. This could have happened just a few seconds later and we wouldn’t be leaning back against the seats. We’d be hanging against the seat belts and lap bar.”
After an unsteady intake of breath, the woman said, “That’s not very comforting.”
“I’m Laura, by the way.”
“Helen. Helen Baynor.” With an air of absentminded rote, she added, “Remember the name. Some day I’ll be famous. If I survive this.”
“I read somewhere that there are three fatalities a year at amusement parks.”
Helen’s eyes cracked open slightly, then she scrunched them shut again. “That doesn’t help!”
“Same article said ninety million people go to amusement parks a year. You have better odds at winning the big Powerball sweepstakes than dying at an amusement park.”
“Like that’ll happen.”
“That’s my point.”
“We’re hanging by a thread hundreds of feet in the air and how come you’re not scared?” Helen sounded like she might cry.
“It’s not a thread. It’s steel on steel.” Why did I end up next to a nut case who’s afraid of heights? “And there’s lots of things they can do. There’s these locking brakes on the cars that keep them from rolling backward. They could release them and let us go back the way we came. We’d end up…” Laura leaned over the edge of the car, peering at the rail behind them. “We’d end up near a ladder.”
“Shoot me now.”
“You’d have to open your eyes, probably.”
“To get shot?”
“To get down the ladder.”
“Not happening. I had them open when we went up the first time. That was it.”
Laura cast about for something to talk about that didn’t involve heights, death or roller coasters. “I’m training to be a chef.”
“Really? Do you like cooking?”
She glared at Helen’s profile. “No, but all the glamorous jobs washing dishes are taken.”
Helen’s lips actually twitched in a near smile. “Stupid question. Sorry.”
Laura decided to let it slide. “I was training in New York, but came home for the past year. Well, as much as home is anywhere. I lived here with kind of distant relatives for a couple of years after my mother died so I could graduate from high school.” No need to explain that her father had reluctantly found the living arrangement for her, after being confronted with the unpleasant reality of a mixed-race daughter turning up on his doorstep. She’d gotten on her own two feet the moment she could. He’d been embarrassed by her? Well, she had been even more embarrassed by him.
“Where’d you live before that?”
“Jamaica. My mother was a student in Florida when she got pregnant with me. I was born in Florida and we stayed there until I was eight and her money finally ran out. Then we went back to Jamaica.” People tended to think that meant she’d lived some place exotic, but the only difference she’d found between the tracts outside Kingston and a slum in Manhattan was better weather.
“I was wondering about your accent—it’s faint but comes out more in the cadence.”
“Really? I didn’t think I still had an accent. Are you like a Henry Higgins?”
“No, though I’ve studied Eliza’s part repeatedly.”
“Oh. So you’re an actress.” Helen was probably very attractive when she didn’t look as if vomiting was imminent. No doubt good looks were an asset, and lots of her good looks was due to sable brown hair that brushed her shoulders. It had been pulled back into a ponytail but tendrils had escaped during their ride, curling against her neck and temples. “And you’ll be famous some day so I should remember your name—that kind of actress.”
“What have you been in?”
“I was nearly in Rain Man.”
“Oh, that was a good movie.”
“And almost got to be a hostage in Die Hard.”
“Don’t,” Helen said. “I have friends who think that’s incredibly amusing. Especially since I was nearly almost a hostage.”
“So are you rehearsing to be Eliza Doolittle?”
“I’m up for the role in Pygmalion for a run off-Broadway. But I’d have to leave L.A. I’d have to give up the idea of being a big movie star.”
“Is that a really bad thing?”
“I like the stage more. I always have. But my agent says anybody who is anybody is in the movies.”
“So let your agent be a movie star.”
A ghost of a smile crossed Helen’s lips. “My boyfriend says he doesn’t care where we live.”
“So why do you stay here? Are you forcing yourself to ride roller coasters to get a part in an action movie?”
“Yes. My agent says I need one big break.”
“An unnamed hostage is a big break?”
“It’s how the business works.” Now that she was talking, Helen couldn’t seem to stop. Her color had come back and she seemed oblivious to the passage of time. Laura guessed it had to have been eight or nine minutes now. The sun was mercifully to their backs or her ears would be turning into cinders. She’d have a burn on her neck, though.
“But you could actually be on stage if you went back. Actually working.”
Helen nodded. “I’d have to dump my agent—she doesn’t know the stage world as well and never did.”
“So she got you out here to get into the world she knows. You don’t sound happy.”
“Two years of not working beyond a walk-on in a commercial. Thank goodness my boyfriend has money. His family lives up north. Cattle ranchers and gold pioneers, very old California money.”
If I had someone to bankroll me, Laura thought, I would go after my own Chez Panisse with both hands, and not look back. Helen seemed to only know she wanted to be an actress, which was like herself saying she wanted to be a chef. What kind, how, where, for whom—those were the bigger, harder questions. She’d spent the last year asking herself every one of them.
“Whatever I do, I have to get over my fear of heights,” Helen was saying. “A balcony scene—a producer called me directly to see if I was interested in an O.B. Romeo and Juliet but I didn’t think I should leave L.A. and I turned it down.” She chewed her lower lip. “God, was that a mistake? I don’t know what to do.”
“So you decided the least you could do is ride a roller coaster.” Laura let her gaze turn to the palm tree lined streets.
Another smile flitted briefly across the expressive mouth. “That’s not crazy, right?”
“I’m not the best judge of crazy.”
“I couldn’t hide it any longer and there’s more wire work all the time these days. So I took desensitization classes and therapy and finished that and was doing pretty well. I can ride in glass elevators now, that sort of thing, when before I would break out in a cold sweat and barf. But she said—phobia therapist—that if I was at an amusement park, what a victory it would be to ride a roller coaster.” Her eyes opened a fraction.
“Is your guy really cool about moving wherever you need to for work?” Normally, Laura wouldn’t pry, but she didn’t want Helen to ask her about her love life. Women in relationships always asked. It was a I’ve-shown-you-mine-now-you-show-me-yours kind of thing.
“He says he’d go with me. He wants to get married. I think I’m going to say yes.” She smiled, finally, a genuine smile and her eyes opened all the way. “I’m kind of crazy about him too. He gets me. And wants me to be famous and as rich as he is and he says that being Mr. Helen Baynor would be the best thing he could want. So I have to be somebody. I gotta be a contender.”
The dead-on Brando impression made Laura grin. “I am going to run my own restaurant some day. I spent all of this year doing grunt work in a couple of places in San Francisco. Chop, peel, bake. I put away some cash and now I can pay more tuition.” And if I keep myself on limited funds, she added to herself, I won’t have any to spend on things that are bad for me.
Helen turned her head and they made eye contact for the first time.
She had amazing eyes. That was the first thing Laura thought, and she didn’t realize for a moment that she was staring. But they were exceptional—large and expressive, and a color somewhere between blue and gray. Her lashes, lips and brows worked together to emphasize the rapid shifts from fear to humor to affection and back to fear again.
Then she blinked and Laura snapped back to their present predicament and what Helen was saying.
“You don’t sound as young as you are. I thought you were my age, from your voice.”
“I’m twenty-two next month.” Laura wasn’t sure if she should be offended. She sounded old?
“I’ll be twenty-seven this fall.”
“Why, do I sound old?”
“Oh. I don’t know. You’re so calm when every time the wind kicks up a little bit I think we’re going to blow right off the track.”
“They’ve had near gales and nothing’s fallen off.”
“People do this in gale-force winds?”
Helen arched an eyebrow. “You don’t say ‘like’ and ‘you know’ every other sentence either.”
“I could, like, change that, you know, if that would help.”
Helen gave her a smile, which faltered when someone in a car behind them started shouting as if someone on the ground could hear. Laura angled over the side to look, but didn’t think anything new was happening below. Maybe ten minutes so far? Or it could be fifteen? Her watch was hanging on her backpack, down on the ride platform.
“It can’t be much longer.”
The shouting continued behind them. Having looked at the track, Laura tried not to think about how they would get down if the ride didn’t resume. There were no ladders to this part of the track, no safety walkway. So they had to have a plan to let them roll back to where they could exit the cars, didn’t they? To get them from here to somewhere safe to walk down? She opened her mouth to say this, then realized she’d only upset Helen more. She’d have to keep her speculations to herself, for a while at least.
Finished Karin Kallmaker’s “Roller Coaster.” It is such a delightful, heartwarming story. Perfect metaphor using the roller coaster ride to set up Helen & Laura’s journey.
How KK writes human behaviour is so realistic, insightful & nuanced, you can’t help but get sucked into her characters. She takes you along for the ride. Brilliant story, light-hearted, feel-good journey, captivating characters, soul-satisfying result—what’s not to love? An unconventional romance that provokes one’s psyche.
A Must-Read! Highly recommended!