Monday, August 22, 2011

skate or die!

The lights dimmed. The mirrored ball dangling over the smooth wooden oval began to spin, delicately flinging shards of reflected light over every one and every thing. I knew what had to happen. I knew what the deed was that should happen. I skated over to my friend James.

I gotta take a little time
A little time to think things over
I better read between the lines
In case I need it when I’m older

“Want to skate [with me]?” I asked, mumbling in the last two words.
“Ok”, he shrugged, in his shy way. 

We began skating, side by side, the sweet, soulful sound of the 80s – Foreigner – washing over us. I concentrated on trying to set my feet down gently in their heavy, metal-bottomed skates. The other girls could glide. The other girls could skate effortlessly, pushing gracefully off of each foot, without the merest hiccup in cadence or speed. My skates, on the other hand, clanged loudly against the floor each time I pushed off and I lost momentum repeatedly, which sent me forward in a lurking, jerking fashion.

Now this mountain I must climb
Feels like a world upon my shoulders
And through the clouds I see love shine
It keeps me warm as life grows colder

I had been watching the other girls, some skating over to boys they liked, some waiting for the boys to come to them. Even on a fifth grade field trip to the big skating rink in the city, the chips had fallen and we could tell what our futures were. Forget the stupid story of the ugly duckling, and late-bloomer redemptions – that shit is a lie. Everyone knew, even then, who the girls were that would have boys clustered around their lockers in just a few short years, come high school. We all knew – those who would be them, and those of us who wouldn’t. The other girls had flowing hair. The other girls had glowing skin. The other girls had legs, actual legs, that were tan and long in shorts, and borderline shapely, for god’s sake, even at 11 or 12. I never wore shorts. My legs were chunky, pasty white, mottled with chicken skin colors even in the height of summer, and knobbly-kneed. My hair was always cut blunt, not in layers, and was perpetually the wrong length – short when everyone else’s was long, and long when everyone else went Dorothy Hammil.

In my life there’s been heartache and pain
I don’t know if I can face it again
Can’t stop now, I’ve traveled so far
To change this lonely life

The outcome was, deep down inside, known, but everything else – all the steps – were a giant puzzle that I was still trying to figure out. It seemed like it still could work for the rest of us, if only we knew the secret to putting it all together! I could identify all the parts, but could not for the life of me figure out how they fit together, while the other girls – the girls with legs – seemed to be able to see easily what followed what. They took a look at the pieces spread on the table top – bits of colors called love and attraction and flirting and looking good and being cool in the right place and the right time – and slid them into the gaps, smiling down at the perfect scene they had created, with a devoted guy by their side and legions of others panting after them.

I could see the supposed to here – you’re supposed to have someone that likes you, that you like, that you ask to skate with you, that you hold hands with, that you exchange notes with, that you remember forever the sound of the wheels whooshing smoothly over the wooden boards, the sight of the white squares of light gliding over their face, the feel of their warm hand tentatively in yours. But I couldn’t identify love or attraction or flirting or anything else. It seemed like James came close enough. After all, we spent lots of time together. He would come over after school and we’d head into the forest, looking for frogs and fish and snakes that we’d put in jars and bring home. We’d eat berries and sometimes assemble model cars, quietly sitting side by side at a card table. What else could people be talking about, with this whole love thing?

I want to know what love is
I want you to show me
I want to feel what love is
I know you can show me

The song was passing by. We weren’t speaking. This was not our element. This was not the space of our friendship. This was not our pace, to be trying to keep up with the others. We had remained friends by being ourselves – James, shy and socially cautious, and me, somehow perpetually out of synch with all the other girls, somehow never quite understanding what was going on. Maybe he didn’t either. But we both liked frogs and trees and being outside and not talking about anything deep and eating the sort of incredibly sweet Oregon blackberries that grow best out in the country, far from anyone else. This rink, this self-proclaimed palace of skating, was not the setting, not the parameters, of our relationship. But I was desperate to figure out if I could be like the others, at least on some level. Part of me wanted to fit in – I wanted to be one of the other girls, at least for a moment, at least while skating, making memories, and moving onto the next stage of life – even though I had no idea how to really make it happen.

It was now or never. The song was nearly over. Wasn’t it possible, just barely possible, that someone like me could fit in, could figure out this puzzle? I reached out and, a bundle of nerves, grabbed James’ hand. He jumped and looked at me. And I knew I had made a huge mistake. I was not going to remember his face with the sliding lights, gazing at me with anything remotely resembling interest or excitement or intrigue or love. The expression on his face was confused, startled, and wary. It was clear that we would never speak of this again. I couldn’t cross over and was stupid for ever thinking of such a thing. My skates clunked down loudly on the boards, and the song couldn’t end fast enough for either of us.

I’m gonna take a little time
A little time to look around me
I’ve got nowhere left to hide
It looks like love has finally found me


  1. Wonderful story that triggers those feelings of awkwardness that I genuinely believe that all of us feel much of the time as we journey through each supposed phaze of our lives. I love the way you bring out all of those feelings on the spot, providing that sense of urgency and panic that happens when one wants to fit in.