the museum of americana

a literary review

The Shelf Life of Roller Skates—Nonfiction by Kelly Martineau

Roller rinks encourage and repel intimacy. The low lights, the disco ball throwing stars onto skin, the flirty, furtive dance of skating away from your object of affection. Air thick with sweat and cheap cologne. Blistered hot dogs and the well worn suede of rental skates.

 

“Islands in the Stream,” released in August 1983, was recorded by the likely duo of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. In the song, they croon, This could be the year for the real thing. By December, two million physical copies had been sold, and the Recording Industry Association of America certified the release Platinum. That same year, my parents ended their twelve-year marriage, which produced one child who was seven when they divorced. 

 

The needle drops. Guitars, drums, synthesizer—all burst from the singular point of connection. The needle traces a circle, music etched in a groove of vinyl. 

 

Rental skates spend more time on the rack than on the rink, but skating is what ages them. Broken eye holes, frayed laces, the visible evidence of years of wear and insufficient maintenance. But the functional components—the trucks holding the wheels, the bearings that ease them, and the king bolts securing the mechanism to the plate—deteriorate at a faster rate, caused by the weight of a body hurtling around the rink again and again.

 

When my parents separated, I stayed with my father, and my mother moved an hour away. She “needed to find herself to become a better mother.” Do I remember those words as spoken or did her subsequent refrain layer them onto the track of my memory? 

 

In his introduction to Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Oliver Sacks muses on the relationship between music, memory, and the brain. He argues for the “extraordinary tenacity of musical memory, so that much of what is heard during one’s early years may be ‘engraved’ on the brain for the rest of our life.”

 

At the age of four, on hearing the first crackles and notes of “You and Me Against the World,” I would run to the bentwood rocker to be rocked on  my mother’s lap. Each time, the singer promised her daughter, When all the others turn their backs and walk[ed] away, / You can count on me to stay. 

 

*

The heart circulates oxygen to the lungs and nutrients throughout the body. Beating at an average rate of seventy-two beats per minute, the heart is the drumbeat of the body.

 

My first roller skating memory: I make a tight circle on the rectangular driveway of our rental house in Denton, Texas. My parents are inside. This is after we moved from Indiana and before the separation. Alone, I clatter over the cracks in the pavement. Who has taught me how to skate?

 

Oliver Sacks notes that trying to recover memory is so complex that we can never re-experience the past. When we recall music, however, it “becomes newly alive … We recall one tone at a time and each tone entirely fills our consciousness, yet simultaneously, it relates to the whole.” He likens the experience to physical activity, each stride executed one “at a time, yet each … is an integral part of the whole, the kinetic melody.”

 

At seven, I shouldn’t have expected much from the partner skate. At the first slow notes, often of Dolly and Kenny’s duet, I exited the rink. Everything is nothing if you got no one. If my father was there, I hoped he would roll over, offer his hand. But in my memory, he usually skated with a woman while I leaned against the carpeted wall in between us. 

 

Until recently, I thought Melissa Manchester, not Helen Reddy, was the singer of “You and Me Against the World.” Memory is fallible. But even false memory can point to truth.

 

Full-grain leather skate boots, when skillfully stitched, can last from ten to thirty years. The plates attaching the wheels to the boot can now last for ten. However, this longevity hinges on regular inspection, rotation, and cleaning. 

 

A tender body will hold fast to the slightest of wounds, warp it tight at the center of a gnarled spiral.

 

When my father took me to dinner a year after the divorce, he explained that as a grad student he could no longer give me the home or the parenting I deserved. I would move to Dallas to live with my mother. Even though he was right, I felt like a piece of furniture being shuffled from room to room. I could not understand then that the best decision for the child is not always the first choice of the parent. 

 

*

In the wake of the separation, my life revolved around Tuesday nights at the Denton roller rink. My dad let me go only if I had cleaned my room, so every Tuesday afternoon I tossed and stuffed and slid things into cursory place so I could escape to somewhere else. 

 

Each Tuesday, I welcomed the cool interior of the rink and shed street shoes for my skates: white value leather with red and blue stitching. With the music heartbeating in my body, I sat on the carpeted bench, my socked feet on the carpeted floor. I still remember the bodily pleasure of sliding my foot into the boot, of tying a durable double knot.

 

Roller rink staff administer preventative maintenance to each skate on a three-month rotation. They soak the wheels, scrub each clean with a Brillo pad, and clear the bearings. A ritual of care. 

 

Sometimes I met a friend at the rink, but most times, I skated  alone. To beats and ballads, I rolled my red wheels along the polished planks. I felt the air slip past me, felt myself gain speed and surety in forward motion. For the sad girl with skinny legs and three-foot braids, every lap was a leap, a temporary unfurling.

 

Thirty minutes of roller skating raises the heart rate to 148 beats per minute. Regular exercise lowers the resting heart rate, makes the heart more resilient. 

 

On May 27, 1983, Irene Cara topped the Billboard Hot 100 Chart with her dance anthem, “Flashdance … What a Feeling.” Feel the rhythm … / Take a hold of my heart / What a feeling / Bein’s believing.

 

A song can only exist over time. As the needle traces itself into a tighter and tighter circle, the music builds and rises, ebbs a bridge into the world.

 

~~~

Kelly Martineau‘s essays and poetry are forthcoming or have appeared in Entropy, Welter, Sycamore Review, and The Florida Review, among other journals. Honors includes a Pushcart Prize nomination and selection of her chapbook manuscript, Sirens | Silence, as a finalist for the 2020 May Day Mountain Series and the 2020 Newfound Prose Prize. She lives in Seattle with her husband and two daughters.

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