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Behind the Rink by Michael Berger | Word Riot
Creative Nonfiction

February 15, 2015      

Behind the Rink by Michael Berger

I was abducted from a birthday party in a roller rink when I was seven years old. Skating clumsily one moment, I was deposited in a rotting alleyway the next. We were in our single digits so the world felt monstrous and maze-like. Everything seemed like a gamble, even tying our shoes. Our parents stunk of cologne, their eyes saggy with stifled ambition. I suppose Reagan was president and the economy was uncertain. But the adults around me wore gaudy, sparkling clothes. They bought them at boutiques that hugged the sides of wave-thrashed cliffs. Everyone looked glitzy, yet chilled to the bone. We were at the rink to celebrate the birthday of the richest kid I ever knew. He got that rich because his mother invented a type of disease-fighting robot. They may have only been in an experimental phase but they still generated excessive profit, enough to throw a party in the roller rink. Which, of course, was every seven-year old’s secret dream.
      I’ll never forget the ordeal of the present opening. It made me feel cut off from all that I loved because it had absolutely nothing to do with me. The birthday boy had one big box the size of a grand piano: inside it were other boxes. He opened his nesting boxes in the rumpus room – a musty carpeted cave you could rent out– while we gorged on cake, punch and our own party favor bags. The lion’s share of the funds did not go to making our party favor bags exciting. Yet the thrill of having a party favor bag was still vivid. I guess that was the one thing that bound me to some fraudulent sense of inclusion. All the same, the present opening was aggravated and tedious and everyone was getting scratchy from the syrupy, recycled air. With the quickly diminishing boxes, it appeared the limited edition Japanese robot he wanted wouldn’t be there. His mother had tremendous freckle-speckled breasts. Under her strident laugh, I was convinced I was still a malformed baby. Cunningly, I found a way to be in her line of scent as it radiated from her chest. Too young for real desire, I still moved towards magnificence I couldn’t understand.
      Stuffed with junk, we spent an hour skating around in circles on the roller rink to disco. I’m staying alive, I told myself – but I wasn’t. I was too young to be so graceless. Nothing felt as unnatural as strapping on those bile-green skates and trying to move in them. I remember the peculiar smell of the roller rink too, like a plastic glacier slowly disintegrating. Gripping the rails and sweating, in spite of the stale chill, I pretended I was just fine. But everyone knew better.
      The rink was packed with athletes and lovers, everyone showing off and looking sick at the same time. It was like a movie that nobody had seen but knew existed. Men skated in tight taupe pants, women in clingy pink satin. I had just gotten brave enough to skate three feet away from the fuzz-covered rails. My shorts were short, my shirt nearly translucent: so puny and exposed, if I leaked anything, everybody would notice. People zipped past me, blowing metallic gusts on my face like breath from a vending machine. I flailed for balance and smiled away my shame. But I wasn’t discouraged. I was getting “good” at this sport of going around in circles with wheels on my feet beneath crisscrossing jets of pink, indigo and lemon lights. Trembling for leverage, I rolled closer to the center, towards the fast lane for advanced skaters who looped breezily in countless revolutions, their legs glistening and their faces glazed like mannequins. The center of the rink was where souls accelerated. This was it: I was in their stream now and moving with them! But then— huge hands had me!
      Grabbed me! Nobody I knew, I could tell instantly. He smelled differently, for one thing, like old sweaters and motel lobbies, or like Grandpa if he was someone else’s Grandpa. A stranger taking me, meaty paws clamping under my hairless armpits. We sped around the rink once, twice, four times, my hair blown back, my eyes watering in the refrigerated air, as he held me aloft. And then he skated right out the exit with me, polished lanes becoming bumpy, torn-up carpeting – I was numb, tongue-tied– and around the corner of the building where he lowered me gently onto the asphalt.
      Coldness puckered my arms. My back was turned so I couldn’t see him. I just waited for what was next. My fingers tried to talk. My ears tried to explain. I was all jumbled up, having a foreign moment. The man sounded like he was unlatching something, preparing for the next rite. Had anyone seen?
      That minute in his grip was so terrible yet freeing and went faster than I could ever imagine. So I had him to thank for that: a feeling so unreal I relive it every year. Hovering in the disco rays, I was both a victim and a gift and my smooth, fragile body drank up all the colored lights. But then again, maybe I was just an obstruction. He was a racer – maybe a maniac too, quite capable of cold laughter while he touched me. Would it be now: his hands searching? I had no idea what this could mean, the idea of a person touching another person in ways they don’t want. I had to recall this scene through the years, tweaking it with my unfortunately acquired knowledge of what the world is and what its inhabitants are capable of doing.
      I wouldn’t turn around. I couldn’t. I needed to pee, a feeling that grounded me, kept me tethered. Yes, focus on holding in my urine. I flexed so I wouldn’t do it in my shorts. But then I didn’t hear his nostrils fuming any longer, or his tight sweater rasping against his chest. He was gone. Vanished. Not a word between us, nor a hand either, just the sound of heavy air. There was nothing in that alley to see, except blackened figures grinding against a rotting wall. All the lights were busted out. The only glow was from cigarettes or pagers. Touching isn’t something that happens in cold storage. It happens back here.
      Back behind the roller rink, life was insatiable. I forced my eyes down that black alley mouth, reeking of exhaust and popcorn, or maybe it was just sweat and piss, while shadows contorted. I could feel my future in its ruined teeth, a place where all caverns caved-in, all wishes imploded. I was like a thief with my rented roller skates on that had no business being outside. But nobody came for me. Nobody cared. They were all getting ready to go home, packing up all the presents, sweeping up the sugar. Going home was the logical thing after a day of stifling ceremonials. Nothing really had happened after all. Except to me. Between two worlds, I could go everywhere and nowhere. Always. It was a remarkable lesson to feel, in my body, at such an ignorant age.
      But mostly I had to pee. So with uncertain courage I skated into the dark of the alley and found my place there.

My pictureAbout the author:

Michael Berger is a writer and teacher living in Las Vegas, Nevada. He is an editor of the arts and writing magazine, The Salted Lash, which is affiliated with the arts collective, The Iron Garters. Some of his other work can be found at The Rumpus, Pank, Dogwood, The Bolt and forthcoming in Whiskey Island.

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