A FAREWELL TO ROLLER SKATES - Kory Wood
"I want to be alone." Greta Garbo
"Ugh...Is she still there?"
Will and I hunkered close to the wooden pylons at the top of the jungle gym, avoiding scratchy splinters and swatting away wasps. Will sat slightly elevated, his hand perched above his brow in a keen look-out.
"Oh man, there she is! Erin! Disgusting." Will signaled for me to duck down even farther. His wiry frame and light lock of brown hair snapped in the wind. "How far away do you think she is, General Mike?" he yelled down from our roost.
"Estimating one hundred feet away, General Will and General Kory. She's looking around and crying. What a dork." Mike cupped his hands around his eyes, focusing his imaginary binoculars. He stood crouched at the base of our fortress, deftly hidden behind a large tire. There wasn't much of Mike to hide, though his vibrantly pale skin stuck out next to the solid black of the tire like a white flag.
I pressed down close to the platform, squinting away sweat and praying that Erin Brown wouldn't find me again. Please, for all that was holy, let me enjoy one recess to myself. No more pandering to some needy, silly little girl.
Living through the fourth grade at Horace Mann Elementary School was already perilous without introducing females into the equation. I had moved back for this school year, and had enjoyed a higher popularity than I was used to, but with that "new kid" novelty came the unwanted attention of the grosser sex, particularly Erin. I could barely turn around these days without bumping into her. Heavens, but she needed attention.
Erin followed me everywhere, lavishing me with compliments, giving me small gifts, and generally just staring. When we played tag, she always seemed to slow down when I was it. Thank heavens I was at the dentist the day one of the fifth graders suggested we play kissing tag. I might never have recovered after direct lip contact from one of her species. Thankfully, the game was swiftly outlawed upon its discovery by our playground Gestapo, the militaristic and frighteningly androgynous Mrs. Franklin.
Oh, Erin was cute enough, I guess. If you liked that kind of thing. Girls, I mean. But she was starting to get a little creepy. That morning, she unsportingly approached me while I was caught up in a rousing game of pogs.
Blast! The dozing sentries Mike and Will looked at me guiltily. They would be dealt with later.
"Oh, uh, hey Erin. Did you want to play pogs? Because I was just leaving for...the other side of the playground. You can take my spot."
"Oh....no. I don't know how to play pogs. How does it work? You just hit the....What do you do?"
"Well, you use this big one to......um, you hit the....you know, I'm not entirely sure myself." I was a slave to trends.
"That's fine, I don't really want to learn, anyway. I just wanted to show you this." She pulled from the top of her Sesame Street T-Shirt a small, bronze locket. "Look what's inside." She opened it and handed the small necklace to my quivering fingers. Inside the locket was a picture of me.
After I am dead, I am going to take a visit to the great video archive in the sky, loan out a projector, and watch several moments from my life. This would be one of them. I'm sure that a study of the combination of emotions on my face will provide hours of after-life entertainment for me.
I stood, both beet-faced and drained of color, flabbergasted and focused in rage, panicky and serene. I didn't know in what way to react. Should I show thanks or throttle her? No idea. What scared me most, though, was that beneath this jambalaya of emotions, in a cool cave, there waited an unwearied feeling, a little man with a reaction I'd ne'er felt before, a kind of grinding, churning, biting feeling only brought on by Erin. Was I....flattered? Joyful, even?
No, never. What would the guys think? My fingers relaxed and the locket swung back towards her chest. "That's....wow, Erin....Where did you get a picture of me?"
"I brought my dad's camera to school yesterday. It was while you were swinging. You love swinging."
"That's....great...." I looked at Mike and Will, and not-so-subtly mouthed, Help!
Well, the best solution either of them came up with was for Mike to suddenly stand up and push Erin down. We bolted like bank robbers and reconvened inside the large, cement tube on the other side of the playground. We laughed at the sounds of Erin's friends cursing us and all our descendants, and our victorious joy was capped by Erin's tearful wail lilting alluringly across the lawn.
Lilting alluringly? No, I'm sorry.
The next few weeks traveled the same route. Erin somehow stayed enamored with me, and we did our best to dodge her pursuance. Every time we would sneak out of an Erin trap, we would meet up and slap each other on the backs and guffaw and laud the redeeming qualities of man and discuss Erin's many character flaws and funny nose and general girlish defects.
Somewhere down in the cool cave, a man hopped up and down, gallantly defending her through the fog of insults and cursing my friends and me for not reveling in her attentions. I snuffed him out and sat brooding, fearful of my hidden feelings and not knowing exactly what they were.
* * *
"God created man and, finding him not sufficiently alone, gave him a companion to make him feel his solitude more keenly." Paul Valery
I remember it was during one of Mrs. Barlow's art lessons that my fears came to a boil. We were drawing pumpkins and then cutting them up into small strips, after which we would assemble and paste the strips into the correct order again on a separate sheet of paper. The after-effect was a pumpkin that didn't look as good as it did before we cut it, plus it was covered in paste. I don't know why we did this, but Mrs. Barlow insisted it made us more artistic.
As she walked around the room, admiring our disfigured gluey gourds, smiling and nodding, she stopped suddenly and smacked herself in the forehead. "Good heavens, I'd almost forgotten. The roller skating activity!"
For some unknown reason, my heart simultaneously stopped beating and still felt as if it would burst clean out of my chest.
"Class, we are going to the 9th Street Roller Rink a week from today. Make sure and take these permission slips home to..." I was already day-dreaming. Roller-skating. Fantastic. Another way to embarrass myself. My family was not gifted athletically, and when things like balance were thrown in, well...I was sure I would spend most of the time licking the floor and nursing wounded elbows and knees.
"...and at the end, we'll have time for partners' skating, so start looking for that Special Sweetie now, gentleman." Mrs. Barlow chuckled in a high titter, and went back to perusing our pumpkins.
A quiet roar swept across the classroom. Girls exchanged knowing glances and feminine gasps, while boys sunk lower into their seats or feigned vomiting. But from across the classroom, through the back-left of my skull, I could feel the burning glare of two eyes. I blushed like a fire hydrant, never turning around. An excited terror melted all the bones in my body, and I sank down in my desk till my eyes were level with my Jurassic Park pencil case.
* * *
"Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it's awfully hard to get it back in." H.R. Haldeman
Gliding along to the music of Billy Joel and Whitney Houston, my classmates chortled and whooped on the floor of the roller skating rink. I had been tying my laces for the last half hour, the psychedelic lights bouncing around the room. Previous to tying my laces, I had managed to waste an hour switching out pairs of roller skates that were too small, too long, too tight, etc. The last pair I had given back on the grounds that they were “too girly.” Their appearance differed in no way from the other pairs, but I did my best in insisting that their cut was markedly ladylike.
I was at my stalling edge, though. My friends stopped by on every rotation and stared at me incredulously, beckoning with widened eyes and waves of their heads. I really, really, REALLY did not want to skate. I had tried skating on the carpet just from the bench to the bathroom, and that had ended in a close study of the ceiling as I lay on my back, my wheels spinning madly. Genetically speaking, I had a high center of gravity. Roller skating for me was like placing a filing cabinet on a skateboard. Physics were my enemy.
Mostly, though, I was using any opportunity to avoid being in the rink at the same time as Erin. I did not want to skate next to her. I would rather have all my toenails ripped off. There were just too many risks involved. First of all, there was no telling what types of diseases could be contracted simply from close proximity to a girl. Second, if anyone saw us skating together, it would be my downfall. I was already a lousy athlete, and didn’t need further barbs directed at my manliness.
“Hi, Kory.” I spun to my right and beheld Erin, resting on the edge of the bench about three inches from my person, but sitting in the opposite direction. My jaw dropped at her sneakiness. I was repulsed by the sight of her nauseating, cute little button nose, and was hypnotically mesmerized as her revolting silhouette was framed by the flashing, colored lights behind her. My eyes met hers, and the little man in the cool cave shot off a Roman candle.
“Oh. Erin. Hi.”
“Why aren’t you skating yet?” She stared at me so intently, the urge to vomit seemed nearly unavoidable, though it seemed to be a good vomiting. That didn’t make sense to me at all. Snappiness and short answers seemed the way to go.
“Couldn’t find skates that fit. Is that ok with you?” I accompanied this last sentence with what I thought to be a cool eyebrow lift.
She seemed a bit hurt, but clutched her hand to her chest and came even closer to my face, sadness and stars glinting in her eyes. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to tease you. If you don’t like skating, that’s totally cool. I don’t really like it that much.” Her face moved a few inches away from mine again, which was great, because I didn’t want to toss my nervous cookies directly onto her nose. “I don’t like skating that much…by myself, I mean.”
The air hung still momentarily, the lights stopped flashing, and Billy Joel rested mid-verse. “Oh,” I loquaciously spouted. “Well, I, eh….Skating is dumb, anyway.” I hadn’t taken a breath since I had noticed her sitting next to me, and decided now would be an optimum time.
“Yeah, for sure. Skating is dumb…..by yourself…”
I stared longingly and blankly. “No, it’s just always dumb.”
“Kory, do you want to skate around the rink with me?”
Panic. “No. I can’t. I…don’t want….Skating…..It isn’t….” I leaped from my bench and rolled to the men’s bathroom (I use the term “rolled” not in the sense of traveling by roller skates, but more in the sense that, because I was wearing roller skates, I was rolled end-over-end, snowball-like, towards the men’s room). Once inside, my breaths caught up with me, and sweat poured off my brow like a flattened sponge. I swayed and bobbled over to the first stall, quickly entered, and sat on the toilet, staring at the tan wall of the stall door in front of me.
* * *
“I wanna hold your hand,
I wanna hold your hand.
I wanna hold your hand.”
“But dude, you HAVE to, man!”
“But I really, really don’t want to.”
“Dude, she asked you to roll around the rink with her. You have to do it.” Will stared at me through the crack in the door to my Fortress of Solitude.
I sat on the pot, hugging my knees up to my chin, my discarded roller skates on the ground in front of me. “No, I don’t have to do it. I don’t have to do anything. What happens if I don’t? Nothing. Maybe if I don’t, she’ll even think I’m a jerk and start ignoring me. Which would be fabulous.” The little man in the cool cave took off his shoe and threw it at my stomach wall.
“Man, I’ve already done it. It’s not that bad.”
“You’ve what?! Erin asked you to roll around with her? That’s…that’s gross! Did she hold your hand? What was it like? Does she…does she even want to do it with me anymore?”
Will grunted in exasperation. “No, nerd, not Erin. Ashley Benson asked me. And yes, I did hold her hand.”
I gasped and choked back a gag reflex. “Could you feel the germs?”
“No,” said Will, glancing around secretively. “Can I tell you something? You can’t tell anyone.”
“Sure! I promise, cross my heart, I won’t say anything.”
I saw Will’s eyebrow and the corner of his mouth both lift into mischievous grins. “I think I liked it.”
As my world shattered and tumbled around me, the little man in the cool cave smirked up at me knowingly. “I’ve been trying to tell you,” he said.
* * *
"Hell, madam, is to love no more." -Georges Bernanos
The moment I exited the door of the restroom, I was hit by a wave of righteous female indignation.
“Ooo-ooo-ooh, Kory, you bozo, I can’t believe you told Erin no! What a jerk.”
Thanks, Shelley, good to see you, too.
“If you don’t go over RIGHT NOW and ask her to skate with you,” said a girl with massive, brown curly hair, “I will kick you in the knee every recess for the rest of the school year.”
Geez. “Alright, alright, good honk, where is she?” My eyes darted around nervously. “She’s not still crying, is she? It’s not like I punched her in nose or anything.”
“Oooooh, boys!” Shelley clenched her face and stamped her foot. “You just don’t get it at all.”
We approached the bench where Erin sat, though trying to see her through the throng of comforting females was tricky. They patted her back and cooed and shot flaming, hot looks of molten death at me.
“What?! Alright, alright, I’ll talk to her! Just…everyone clear out, ok?”
Will and Mike snapped to. “Yeah, yeah, everybody, move away! Step away, step away, move along….”
The mob grumbled back onto the skating rink, disappointed in missing their spectacle but quickly swept up in the flashing lights and pop music.
Erin’s head was still down, her small body hopping up and down every few seconds from the tears. I sat down next to her hesitantly. My hand hovered momentarily over her shoulders, then dropped back down to my side, lost and confused. She shuddered silently. Something in me wanted to hold her and stroke her hair, but a stronger part of me wanted to push her off the bench and run screaming from the building.
“So…” I said. “Are you….doing fine?”
She stopped shaking momentarily and turned her face up to stare at me through her fingers. Her blotchiness was evident even in the poor lighting.
My head dropped and I sighed in exasperation. “Look, Erin, I didn’t know that you wanted to….well, I mean, I…..I’m gonna be honest with you, I don’t know what I should do now. I can’t really….I mean, not that I don’t want to, I just….Skating is hard… for me….and you are….How is….eh….”
“OH, HONESTLY!” gasped Erin. “Just go skate with me, you stupid jerk.”
“Ok, thank you.”
She stood up, sniffed impressively and skated gracefully out to the edge of the rink. She turned around and stared at me, waiting.
Like a wounded buffalo, I trundled my way over and followed her onto the floor. She skated next to me as I hugged the wall, relying mostly on an unseen wind behind me to propel my rigid form forward.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her rolling along, smiling at me, her hands clasping and unclasping. From across the rink, I watched as Mike and Will poked their heads above the skate racks. They held their hands above their heads and laced the fingers, grinning maliciously.
“Maybe we should hold hands,” said Erin.
“No, I don’t think we should do that.”
We continued our hampered stroll ‘round the rink. I felt the eyes of my class boring holes through my body.
“Should we hold hands now?”
“Please, Erin, I’m rolling in a circle with you. Can that not be enough?”
More wheeling, more silence. The D.J. came over the speakers.
HISSSS POP “Hey, guys! That’s all for today. Thanks for coming out to 9th Street Roller Rink. Drive safely!”
I summoned all my powers of balance and started working my way back towards the exit, but fell almost immediately. Grunting with irritation, I rapidly unlaced my roller skates and threw them across the rink, bolting through the exit. I was relieved and disappointed, free and frustrated. The little man pushed against my stomach lining, trying mightily to drag me back to Erin’s side.
* * *
“Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.” – Song of Solomon 2:5
“General Will! General Kory! Avast! She approaches at 2 o’clock!” Mike gesticulated wildly to his front. “She’s closing in!”
Will and I conferred. “General Mike, General Will and I think it’s closer to 11:00. Where is she?”
Mike shook his head and grunted, then pointed.
Oh, no. There she was. Erin, again. I Superman-ed into the tunnel slide and hid. Ever since that day at the roller rink, she and I had managed to avoid each other. In fact, I hadn’t even caught her looking at me once in class, and when we played tag, she didn’t even hover back to let me catch her.
“Here she comes! Hide! Deeper in the slide!” Will waved me down. I cowered against the static friction of the slide wall and waited fearfully.
Mike’s salutation drifted up to our platform. “Hey, Erin, what do you want? Don’t come too close, we don’t know for sure what diseases girls have.” I burrowed in my trepidation, expecting her unwanted attention.
“Will, do you want to come down and play tag with me and my friends?”
My mind blanked.
“I...eh….” Will looked at me and shrugged perplexedly. “We…well, I guess I could come play.” I shot him as infuriated a look as I could muster, but he hopped out onto the fireman’s pole and dropped out of sight.
Extracting myself from the slide, I stood on the platform and dazedly watched as Will walked away with Erin. The little man in the cool cave sat down in his lawn chair and opened the book of crossword puzzles, resting for a few more months. Will kept a safe distance from Erin as she stared him down. She chattered at him sweetly.
“Would you like to see what’s in my locket, Will?”