On a roll again
“Don’t break anything.” That’s what my husband told me as I headed out for my first skate in at least two decades. He was rightfully skeptical about my decision to unearth the dusty Rollerblades.
We’d stayed strictly locked down for more than a year because my immunosuppression meds put me at high risk for severe COVID-19. A hospital visit for a broken bone was the last thing I needed. But I was reasonably confident I would not get hurt that badly.
I fastened my ancient wrist guards, stumbled out the door and wobbled down the walkway. As I neared the sidewalk, I picked up speed and, having forgotten how to brake, I smashed into my car.
“I’ll be fine!” I yelled, without looking back.
Like a lot of grade schoolers of the ’80s, I spent a great deal of time in roller skates. Our next-door neighbors had a double-wide driveway, and the added-on lane was super smooth, perfect for practicing my zigzags while listening to Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” on my Walkman knockoff.
I was the oldest and only girl on the block, and the boys nicknamed me Judge Wapner after the guy on “The People’s Court,” likely because I mediated their disagreements about who hit whom first. I didn’t look the part of a jurist with my Jams shorts and gapped teeth, but like Wapner, I was opinionated, and in my opinion, I was the best skater on the block.
By middle school, the roller rink was the happening place for richer girls’ birthday parties. I was glad to have my own pair of skates, but I never had cash for the snack bar. I didn’t understand the crouched speed skaters and didn’t have the guts to try to land tricks, but I did once couples skate (no hand holding) to “Red, Red Wine” with a boy I never saw again.
In high school, I got a set of inline skates second- or thirdhand. By then, skating birthday parties had fallen out of fashion; people were trying to get into clubs and going to shows. Nerdy and uncool, I learned to blade on the smooth side of the driveway next door when I wasn’t reading fashion magazines or books recommended by Stephen King in “Danse Macabre.”
I took the Rollerblades with me to college. I’d gotten my gapped teeth fixed that summer, had acquired glasses that I thought made me look smart, and had traded my grunge staples for crop tops and Lycra. I skated the hell out of that campus. I felt strong and free, full of potential.
During Labor Day weekend my freshman year, while skating near the dorm, I had my first conversation with Michael, the young man who’d later become my husband. We were both sweaty. He was covered in mosquito bites. It was Houston, after all.
Fast forward 20 years, and I got sick. My immune system turned on one day and then refused to shut off. It thought my muscles were the enemy.
The pain became so severe and I got so weak that Michael had to help me get out of bed and get dressed. He had to carry stuff for me and open just about every container in the house. We had discussions about what to do if I no longer could get up our townhouse’s stairs or if I’d eventually need a wheelchair.
It took more than a year, but I finally got on a monoclonal antibody that did the trick. It took even longer to regain most of my strength. And then came COVID-19, and so began our intensive cocooning.
On daily work calls, my colleagues shared how they were entertaining themselves while staying distanced. A colleague mentioned she’d ordered some roller skates. I looked them up and became intensely jealous. Despite the fact that I absolutely could afford a pair, I couldn’t bring myself to drop several hundred bucks. Instead, I pulled out my dusty Rollerblades.
Once I made it to the street, muscle memory kicked in. I was no good, but I was rolling. It felt amazing. I beamed into the wind.
My street is a court, basically a big circle with some moderate ups and downs. On my first down, I freaked out and threw myself into the grass. I figured it was a better option than crashing into the asphalt. I wasn’t hurt, thanks to those wrist guards.
I went out every day after work and skated until dark, and I got better quickly. Mindful of careless drivers, I was not comfortable listening to music because I knew I wasn’t steady enough to react quickly if a car came along, so I went without tunes.
One day I wore my “Wear a mask” shirt. As I came over a hill, I saw a man at his car. I was about to skate past him when it dawned on me that I’d left the house without my mask. He probably couldn’t have read my shirt, but I was so overcome by my own hypocrisy that I yelled my confession at him: “My shirt says to wear a mask, but I forgot mine. I’m going to get it!”
And that is when I hurt myself the first time. I tumbled forward and mostly caught myself. I ended up with just a skinned knee and a couple of bruises. I decided I should invest in some kneepads and a helmet.
As the summer got hotter, I thought I was ready to leave my circle. I was wrong. I still wasn’t great at braking and had to grab at ivy on the neighborhood sound wall to slow down. I turned right back around and returned to the safety of my circle.
I eventually managed to convince my broken brain that it was OK to spend money on a new pair of roller skates. I even ordered zebra print laces for them. (The zebra is the official symbol for rare diseases. Med students are taught: “When you hear the sound of hooves, think horses, not zebras.” But zebras exist too.)
Around that time, I decided I could drive to an empty (and flat) parking lot and finally get to listen to music while skating.
That was when I really hurt myself.
I was listening to Tracy Chapman, very likely singing along, and I fell flat on my rear. I’m lucky I didn’t fracture my tailbone or hip, given that long-term steroid use gave me osteopenia. I was sidelined several weeks by my injury and during that time invested in yet more padding.
I’ll be honest: I haven’t skated a ton since that bad fall. My third COVID-19 shot in September finally made it safe for me to return to work, and it’s dark now long before I get home.
But I’m not giving up. And now that I have almost as much gear as a football player, I’m probably not going to break anything.
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