I considered myself fairly worldly for my age, and certainly more so than Bryan. The girls in my neighborhood were undiscriminating fiends for kissing tag. Plus there had been that whole thing with Amy Janicke the year before, in third grade, when I pedaled out to her house on my Schwinn (I still remember the address: 2119 Constellation Trail) to give her a stick-pin with an A on it for her birthday. I had even won out over a rival swain, John Porter—but what was I supposed to do next?
Then again, Bryan had something of a home-court advantage where Cindy was concerned. Our fourth grade was divided into five classes, separated by moveable walls that prevented clear views of the neighboring classes but couldn’t hold back the gales of fourth-grade laughter that frequently blew in from Mrs. Janssen’s “area.” Mrs. Janssen was a very funny teacher. Mine was not. My teacher was a dead-serious, middle-aged German woman whom I suspected had seen some terrible things before coming to the United States, and in her own way she made every weekday morning as ominous as Cindy Wilcox made it something to look forward to. I despaired when I heard laughter coming from Mrs. Janssen’s area, which I knew meant Cindy and Bryan were in on something that didn’t include me. The only thing worse was when I knew our classes would be playing with the parachute during our separate gym periods, and that Bryan and Cindy would both be sitting under the same collapsing nylon canopy.
In any event, from his desk in Mrs. Janssen’s class, just tantalizingly out of my view from our shared pencil sharpener, my friend and rival Bryan was better positioned to study the reconnaissance and consider a strategy. Bryan was (and probably still is, to judge from the time I ran into him a few years back) well-liked and easily trusted by both sexes, which in turn made it easy for him to find out about Cindy’s comings and goings, in some cases from Cindy herself. To his credit, Bryan was also sportingly generous when it came to sharing information with me. Though we must have sensed that only one of us could “have” her—whatever that means in fourth grade—pursuing her, at least, was still something we could do as friends. We routinely rode our bikes past her house together. And so it was that we got Bryan’s mom to drop us off at Skateland one slushy Sunday when we knew Cindy was going to be there.
Bryan and I were fairly matched on skates. We both had the staying-up and wobbling-forward thing down pretty good. My plan, and I still think it was a pretty good one, was to learn to skate backwards so Cindy and I could take the couples’ slow-skate together, provided I could muster the courage to ask her. That way, regardless of whether Cindy knew how to skate backwards herself, we could still look into each other’s eyes as we declared our mutual like. The big objective, of course, was to ask her to “go with” me. I didn’t mention any of this to Bryan, thus giving him no reason to suspect anything in my surreptitious romantic-arsenal-building beyond a dogged resolve for continual self-improvement.
Unfortunately, then as now, there’s no place at a busy roller rink to practice backwards-skating undisturbed. Not without feeling one’s pint-sized self to be in imminent danger of being squashed by an enormous toppling woman or clotheslined by a pair of kids in grubby knee-length hockey jerseys zipping in and out between the rest of the tottering mannequins at top speed. I set up shop near the middle of the rink, just at the edge of the hurricane’s eye, the off-limits central calm criss-crossed exclusively by pro-type skaters in tight, shiny pants and skates that looked like tennis shoes with wheels. I spent as much time scuffing the reinforced butt out of my Tuffskins as I did standing up, but I felt like I was making progress. I felt like I had just started getting the hang of it when one of these mustachioed lounge-lizards of the skating world decided to impress his girlfriend by skating right over me where I sat tugging at my laces and getting ready to pull myself up again.
I saw him bearing down on me from perhaps 20 feet away, spreading his legs in a big ricketsy bow of skin-tight, forest-green fabric and pointing lewdly between them to indicate his intentions. He had to swerve wide to get me into his path, too, letting go of his girlfriend—in my mind’s eye, I still see her falling away like an expended rocket booster. I panicked and started to bolt just as he was passing over me, smacking him full in the nuts with my forehead with enough force to actually knock him down. I really beat it then, skating—forward—as fast as I could, leaving him sprawled out on the rubber-streaked floor massaging his groin and swearing he was gonna kick my ass, “you little faggot.” Terrified, I spent the rest of the afternoon cowering behind the pop machine, still afraid to show my four-eyed face long after Captain Tightpants had probably retired to the DJ booth for a restorative rail of cocaine.
My mom had agreed to pick us up at dinnertime. In the interval, Cindy had arrived and Bryan had summoned the sweaty-palmed suavity to ask Cindy onto the floor for the slow-skate. I don’t remember who had to skate backwards to make this arrangement work, but Bryan spent the ride home mooning from the back seat of our phantom-gray station wagon while I sat up front and sulked. I do remember that the ABBA song “The Winner Takes It All” played on the radio. Though I admit that, like all adults, I’m somewhat prone to recasting childhood thoughts in adult language, I also remember thinking, yeah, doesn’t he just. The winner takes it all. So funny to think about now, this Weltschmerz at 10.
The roller rink still smells the same as it did then. Not Skateland, necessarily, which probably isn’t even there anymore (it used to be on Grand Avenue in Billings near the Suds Hut), but roller rinks generally. All of the rinks I’ve been to smell like old popcorn and nacho cheese, birthday cake and disinfectant spray, with a metallic bottom note like the way your hands smell after you’ve been gripping a metal railing. Roller rinks smell like kids, somewhere between potato-chip-breath and the grape bubble gum and crackling enzymes of preteens who will soon decide that roller-skating isn’t anonymous or concealing enough for comfort anymore. The same two or three little kids in too-big hockey jerseys still weave dangerously in and out, racing each other at the peril of everybody else—mostly smaller kids and their young parents. Never too good at guessing ages, I still try and pick out one or two of these whippersnappers who look like they might be the same age as I was when the Fates conspired to drive Cindy Wilcox and me asunder.
As it happened, Cindy and Bryan never did start “going together” either. Shortly after our day at Skateland, her family moved to a different part of the Heights—and, at that age, when someone starts attending a different school, they might just as well have moved to another city altogether. Neither Bryan nor I saw her again until she mysteriously reappeared during our freshman year in high school. No longer quite as pretty as she had been, we agreed, though maybe our judgement was impaired by smoldering hurt feelings and all the other, less complicated beauties suddenly promenading the locker-lined hallways of our dreams.
A few days before my 10-year reunion, I found a wallet-sized picture of Cindy while helping my parents move out of their house—not the one I’d grown up in, but the place where a cardboard landslide of K-through-12 effects was still settling years after I’d moved out. I took the photo to the reunion, thinking Cindy might get a kick out of it. She didn’t, and neither did her husband. In retrospect, it must have looked pretty weird, especially since she and I had barely exchanged two sentences all through high school.
Last time I went to the roller rink, I didn’t hear “Funkytown” or the theme from Dukes of Hazzard, both of which were eagerly anticipated selections for skaters circa 1981. No “Dreamweaver” either, the spaced-out beginning of which would have signaled the beginning of a couples’ skate once upon a tight-panted time. All the slow-skate songs were relatively new—other, younger people’s ballads. Which was fine, since I still don’t know how to skate backwards anyway. My palms get sweaty and smell like rust just thinking about it.