Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Classic Skating: Puberty On Wheels

I was eight years old when I was first introduced to Classic Skating. A neighborhood mom had called my mom to let her know they’d be celebrating her son’s birthday over roller skates and outdated rock music in the local roller rink.

I was thrilled to be included. The party in question was for a child a couple of years older than me. His mom was obviously behind the invitation. I wasn’t cool enough to be a thought for this soon-to-be-ten-year-old. But I didn’t mind. I’d have a chance to literally roll with the older crowd in our town’s mobile tween rave.

The very next Saturday my parents deposited me into the musty warehouse near 9000 South in Sandy, Utah. I trotted to the front desk in my neon green MC Hammer pants my mom had sewn for me and a black t-shirt that said “TOTALLY RAD” in all-caps diagonal red print.

A large colorfully-lit sign with two letters burned out welcomed us to C assic Fun Ce ter. A bar where a teenager passed pairs of damp skates to enthusiastic athletes sat just in front of an oval-shaped slick floor with one hundred rotating skaters toilet-bowling their angsty way to chronic vertigo and osteoarthritis.

I told the employee my shoe size and a minute later he handed me two orange roller skates. The laces had been broken in several places and sloppily tied back together so the knots caught at several of the shoelace holes.

A minute later I entered the stream of traffic where I’d spend the next hour desperately trying to catch up with my desired friend group who didn’t seem to notice I had been invited to the birthday party.

A pimple-faced DJ blasted classic rock tunes, which he occasionally interrupted to scream over the crackling loudspeakers at someone who had pushed another skater. “This is your last warning,” the minimum wage teen bellowed at one point. The pusher didn’t stop and several more empty last warnings were issued as "Wipe Out" by The Surfaris played for the third time in a row.

Retro tunes faded in and out while colorful lights and a disco ball at the center of the room flashed and dazzled the arena. I glided in the circle of majority, alone, and sort of wishing I could go sit with the sideline neighborhood moms who were whispering to one another about their divorces and the most recent bad advice they had heard on Dr. Laura. But with each passing song, I willed myself to stay and roll in faux confidence, convinced this was better than social forfeiture.

We had been skating for a while when suddenly the DJ announced that it was time for something called “The Snowball.”

“Boys, you have twenty seconds to ask a girl to skate with you. Pairs only for this next song.”

I froze. Pairs? Like a date?

Wholly unprepared for an introduction to sexual tension, I was abruptly commanded to enter the world of teenage hormones and adolescent monogamy. I quickly scanned the room, desperate to follow the crowd and avoid standing out, noticing the available girls getting quickly snatched by the fifty or so boys who all seemed to know The Snowball was coming before it was even announced, like they had read about it in a guide I hadn’t yet seen.

I frantically skated in several different directions, searching and searching until I saw what I’d describe as a “flock” of teens crowding a bench just next to the rink. There were six of them, all girls, poised and posed and ready to be picked for a boys-choice three-minute romantic romp.

In my memory I gracefully glided in their direction and turned my left skate perpendicular to my body to slide into a stop, just like I had seen in The Mighty Ducks, which was playing in theaters at that time. I selected what I imagined was probably the prettiest of the group. She was wearing a hot pink oversized sweatshirt that had fallen down her right shoulder. The scent of her recently-permed hair nearly overpowered Classic’s nasal onslaught of body odor, stale popcorn, and hint of vomit.

“Will you be my Snowball partner?” I asked, extending my right hand the way I had seen the other boys doing. The girls, all probably around 16, laughed as my selected mate arose from the bench to join her unlikely suitor for a slapdash cougar date.

“He’s so cute!” I overheard one of the unselected friends gasp as we skated away—I, completely oblivious to her patronizing tone and feeling very much like Classic’s most eligible bachelor and ladies’ man.

The lights quickly dimmed and a lovers’ song began to play as I and this girl, whose name I discovered was Melissa, began floating in unison around a proverbial watering hole. I saw the neighborhood boys doing the same, each of them hand-in-hand with an age-appropriate date. “Mine is the tallest,” I smugly bragged to myself, certain this meant I had bested my peers in a round of competitive sex by securing a partner who towered over me.

After a couple of loops around the rink in which Melissa and I exchanged no words, I started to grow bored of it all, and I began looking for some sort of exit strategy. I had noticed every time we went by the teen girl group on the bench Melissa would wave to her cheering friends and I suppose that’s what gave me the rotten idea.

Now remember: I was eight. I was not emotionally mature enough to understand the concept of autonomy and consent in the context of dangerous acting stunts. I probably shouldn’t have even been allowed to attend this party in the first place. It was entirely irrational that I was so certain Melissa would enjoy this particular prank as much as I would.

As we rounded the curve and approached her friend group again, holding hands and not talking, I roughly yanked Melissa’s arm without warning, causing her to fall backward to her near death. Melissa hit her head. There was blood. The song was cut off and the overhead fluorescent lights presumably only ever deployed during night cleanings were fired up.

Suddenly we were all faced with a day-lit Classic Skating—something we had never seen or imagined or wanted to imagine. The floor was littered with ubiquitous carpet stains we hadn’t previously noticed through the darkness. Sweat-soaked t-shirts and rampant acne now had no place to hide. The mere visibility of dilapidation had the curious effect of magnifying the scent of mold.

Melissa was collected from the floor and returned to her friends with some bandages and probably the phone numbers for several personal injury lawyers while I was abruptly stripped of my skates, like a young Tonya Harding, and cast to the food benches to sit with the neighborhood moms.

For the remainder of the party Melissa lay on the benches, occasionally staring a bitter monologue in my direction, which I thought was really quite unfair considering how popular I had made her in front of all of her friends. Such an ungrateful Nancy Kerrigan was she, moping about a second-place finish to my first-place performance while the Russian postponed the photoshoot.

That night I was dropped off back at home. “How was it?” my mother asked her budding sociopathic offspring.

“I’m a really good skater.”

Over the next several years I returned to Classic for many a party. “You have to do your birthday at Classic,” Doug, a fellow seventh-grader, told me in 1997. “The girls are so hot at Classic.”

Doug had taken it upon himself to teach our entire town of prepubescent boys about sex. His formal course was held in the locker room of South Jordan Middle School just after gym class. “Chicks are obsessed with butts,” this emaciated 12-year-old informed us in his off-white Fruit of the Loom underwear. “They go crazy for butts.”

The very next week I hauled my own butt back to Classic Skating for yet another birthday party. I was no longer eight. I was now a tween, tortured by my own body the way all 12-year-olds are. Fully powered by hormones that didn’t seem to produce the same results as all of the other boys in my class who fantasized about their Snowball dates, I found myself subconsciously wishing they’d do at least one all-boys romantic skate.

Nonetheless, in order to avoid standing out I set my gaze on Molly, a girl at my school whom I had heard others describe as pretty. She would be a perfect Snowball partner. And she really was, or so I found out when the time came and we began gliding on the same floor to the same dimmed lights that afternoon in Utah’s hottest mobile meat market.

Molly and I circled the familiar floor, hand-in-hand, Molly’s face covered in glitter, my navy blue JNCO jeans slipping down my flat ass. The 90s dating scene was vibrant as ever and I had truly arrived. Molly didn’t comically tower over me in both height and age. We were nearly equals, only four inches apart, and I’d make up that ground at least by high school. This was the peak of teenage bliss; nothing could interfere with the limitless possibility of youth in this, our sacred skating rink.

We heard it before we saw or smelled it. It wasn’t even a surprise. It’s sad how much it wasn’t a surprise. An eight-year-old boy just behind us hanging onto the hand of a much taller teenager coughed, and that cough was followed by the sound of liquid hitting a gym floor.

Suddenly the overhead lights—the same ones from my own violent past—were deployed without warning. Hormonal teenagers with now-seen pit stains rolled to the perimeter of the skating arena as a minimum-wage employee with a bowl-cut and braces repeatedly dragged a dry push broom over a very large pool of what was clearly orange-soda-induced vomit. Skaters gagged and snickered until the stomach bile had been sufficiently spread to the point that no spot appeared to contain a critical mass of the hazardous bodily fluid.

The lights were again dimmed. Snowball proceeded.

Molly and I glided back into the stream of sexual traffic. “That was a close call,” Molly said about my second brush with Classic catastrophe.

As quickly as it came, the vomit was forgotten, the way any undesirable but common affront might be, once discarded. The carpet stains, the armpit sweat, the mold—the ugliness only seen when everything is illuminated had turned back into a hidden afterthought. With the recalibration of its usual staging, Classic resumed its routine and its characters reclaimed their positions like Hollywood extras after a director called “action.”

A couple of moms in long jean shorts and holding babies could be seen in the corner of the room, whispering to one another about their marriages. The DJ at the edge of the skating floor was now screaming at a set of eight-year-old boys without dates who were rotating in the opposite direction from the other rolling patrons. “We will take your skates away if you don’t stop,” he emptily threatened.

On a nearby bench a new group of 16-year-old girls with feathered bangs sat poised and posed and giggling.

Eventually the birthday parties and adolescent hangouts concluded and we were all retrieved. Our moms and dads or older siblings who pretended to be above it all arrived in the parking lot to collect their tween or teen who had just taken another step toward coming of age with the help of this pubescent petri dish at the center of our growing valley. We rode to our separate homes, most of us in the back of minivans, listening to Garth Brooks or Alanis Morissette or Third Eye Blind.

We walked into our houses and scrubbed our arms and hands and legs, as demanded by our mothers. And then we climbed into bed, still feeling a little dizzy as we closed our eyes and wondered how long it would be before we could return.

(Design: Joshua Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)

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