Baltimore writer Elizabeth Hazen describes a life-changing summer outing on wheels.
It was an early summer idea. Why not roller-skate? My friend Jane had recently taken her five-year-old daughter to a birthday party at Skateland, and her appetite for wheels had been whetted. She tried to articulate her desire to skate, but all she could say was, “It was so much fun. I had so, so much fun. We need to go back.” I was skeptical, but it was June. School was out, the weather was hot, and we all needed something to look forward to.
When I was young, I shied away from social gatherings. Even roller-skating was a solitary act for me. I’d pull on my white roller skates with hot pink wheels and spin circles around the basement. I never tried anything too tricky, but I loved the way it felt – like flying – and I loved the way those skates made my feet look more important. At age nine I was sure I understood a few things about the way the world worked, especially that not everyone who is put here actually belongs. Often I wished I were invisible. But on my roller skates in my basement, no one could see me and whatever I was feeling – anger, shame, isolation – diminished until all that was left was motion, the rhythm of wheels against that concrete floor, and the safe half-light of being underground.
Long after I outgrew those roller skates, my solitary nature plagued me. I skipped pep rallies in high school and avoided the dining hall in college. There I honed my antisocial inclinations by staying home weekends and watching episode after episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” When outside I eyed the people who threw Frisbees across the quad with suspicion, designated people who planned day trips to hike or pick apples as “fun” by which I meant “shallow,” and disdained the girls who adorned their mirrors with strips of goofy photos taken in those little booths. If you had asked me what I thought about people above the age of 10 who roller skate, I would have rolled my smudgy black-lined eyes and refused to dignify the question with a response. Yet in my mid-30s I found myself in a crowded roller rink, wobbling on rented skates.
It did not take long to put the plan into action. Just a couple of weeks after that initial spark, Jane had convinced about a dozen of us, mostly writers and teachers, to spend a Saturday night skating. She and I had gotten ready together in a manic buzz. We were teenage girls dressing up for a dance. We wore coordinating fluorescent knee socks, arguably a far worse offense than showcasing photo booth strips. On the way to the rink we cranked up Violent Femmes and sang along. Even before arriving at Skateland, I was having a blast.
There was nothing extraordinary about the scene: a timeworn wood floor surrounded by stained carpet and a low wall against which rogue skaters periodically slammed, neon lights that only partially lit up to spell “Ska-eland,” questionable restrooms, a slightly less questionable snack bar, and pulsing music. The skaters themselves created a music all their own with the hum of wheels on the wood. Many were young and fast – maybe eight or nine years old, weaving through the less agile skaters, donning neon skates and broad grins – but others were teenagers and 20-somethings who clearly spent lots of time in roller rinks. They had all the moves: barrel rolls, grapevines, crossovers. Many skaters danced as they glided across the floor, and everyone was smiling.
We were the only element of the scene that did not mesh. The clientele was primarily African-American and primarily young. We, in contrast, were primarily white and middle-aged. We teetered around the rink, struggling to maintain dignity even as we tried not to fall on our asses. One of our group hit his backside so hard when he fell, the bruise turned eggplant-purple and merited a name. But he kept on skating. While the men wiped out, the women danced to hip-hop in the middle of the rink. Twice the referee asked Jane and me to stop taking pictures and move out of the “fast lane.” We laughed at our own ridiculousness and scooted aside. Jane and our friend Vanessa requested a long list of songs, culminating finally in the DJ’s acceptance of Madonna’s “Get into the Groove.” He waited half an hour and seeing that we weren’t going anywhere played the song. He introduced it by saying, “Don’t get mad. This is a request,” and when the song had finished said, “Okay, back to normal.” Nearly all of the other skaters took a break in the intercession, and I reminded myself that many of them were not born until a decade or two after Like a Virgin.
In spite of our conspicuous presence at Skateland that night, I did not feel alienated. There was no hostility, no judgment that I could see. Everyone was just having a good time. I couldn’t stop smiling as I watched my friends fly by, try backwards skating, fall, get back up, call to me from across the rink to join them. I may not have moved with the grace or agility of my nine-year-old self, but I didn’t wipe out either. And I knew that if I did fall, one of my friends would risk toppling over to help me back up.
Elizabeth Hazen’s poems have appeared in The Threepenny Review, Salamander, Bellevue Literary Review, and other journals. She teaches English at Maryvale Preparatory School.
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