It is hard to avoid looking at one another on the rink because you’re in a circle: somebody’s always following you, you’re always following somebody. That being said, men like Rob try to mind their own business as much as they can. If they could just ask Keith to turn off the lights, they would more than happily skate around in pitch darkness, the sound of their wheels gliding smoothly over lacquered wood as the only evidence they were in the room. Or better yet, if they could build miniature rinks in their homes, so they could flip their own light switches, and roll around in their own total darkness. I am glad none of them do, though. It means I can watch them. If they don’t want to look at me while I do it, so much the better.
This is Rob’s routine: he spends the first few minutes at Glen Park in his car in the parking lot. This is what the kids my age usually do, taking last swigs from disposable water bottles before stumbling in. I thought Rob fell into this camp for the first few weeks until I started listening closer on my smoke breaks and heard the arias. Only the highest notes from his speakers could pierce through the plastic and metal of the sedan, and when the parking lot was quiet enough it sounded like someone was sending morse code signals from a long distance. After about fifteen minutes of sitting in the driver’s seat with his eyes closed, Rob would turn off the radio and step out onto the asphalt, the laces of his skates already tightened. He had been wearing them in the car.
After such a ritual, you’d think he’d be a better skater than he actually is. Perhaps if we played any opera he’d be able to skate like he does when his eyes are closed in the driver’s seat, with class, with grace. Perhaps it’s just because he’s always looking down at his feet.
Al runs the snack bar. Sometimes he wants it to be like a chaste, off-brand Cheers, and sometimes he just wants to go home. Near the end of my shift, when nobody new is renting skates, he gestures me over to do some tandem reconnaissance.
When is Jazzercise Guy gonna topple, he asked me one night.
He doesn’t have his skates tight enough, I said. Nobody ever has their skates tight enough. All that work is going to his ankles.
You’d think they’d learn, Al said. Or that they’d feel it.
They’ll feel it in the morning, I said, reaching over and taking a stale chip from the corner of his nachos.
Al took one too. No, he said, you’d think they’d know they’re not rolling smoothly enough. When my dad taught me how to skate as a kid, he told me that I wouldn’t be doing it right until I felt like I was flying. It took me until after I was a kid, and all that time I knew I was fucking up, because it felt like I was on a pair of stilts with wheels. My dad would try and correct me whenever he came with me; he never said practice is perfect because he wasn’t perfect and I wasn’t perfect, so why bother. I always wanted to skate behind him to follow his technique, but he stayed behind me and shouted commands instead. I guess that’s why I can’t really picture my dad skating, Al said, ‘cause I never got to watch him.
Al scraped the last remnants of the Cheez Whiz with the edge of a tortilla chip while I tried to remember if I’d ever seen him skate, even once.
Glen Park’s self-appointed star, Cas, emerged from the disco era highly enriched, and he wants everybody to know it. Most of his tricks are variations on a pelvic thrust, but he has a new title for them each time he comes in, which is at least weekly. The pattern for this is an adjective or a verb plus a ’70s film starlet’s last name. The Freaky Fonda. Struttin’ Streisand. He shouts these to Al, who consistently flashes a peace sign despite being a little pissed that this is going on year three for this particular ritual. As with most of the cheesiest things about Glen Park, you kind of have to be a good sport.
Cas’s friendship with Keith Fortune, the rink’s DJ, is a constant point of discussion between Al and I, mostly for its obscure origin.
Cas needs his alliance, Al once conjectured, otherwise how’s he going to keep at least one Commodores song on the playlist every Thursday? I see Al’s point; there are always a few songs that sneak in close to Thursday’s closing time, and when they come on, Cas looks up at Keith, does the Kickin’ Keaton, and winks.
Glen Park, Connecticut, was far from the jive even forty years ago, so it’s hard to imagine their sense of sharing a history as anything more than being similarly groovy people in a decidedly less groovy world. Still, when they’re alone together, it’s easy to imagine them enacting memories from the same life.
When I take out the trash on Thursdays I like to hover near the dumpster at the back of the lot and watch them smoke the joints Cas stashes in his oversized shirt cuffs. In the cast of the spotlight over the parking lot it’s hard to tell their silhouettes apart, their only distinguishing feature being who’s holding the flame at any one time. The quiet of that hour is so profound that after three years of listening to it, it’s all I can hear of their friendship, so that when Cas waves at Keith blasting some Supremes record over the loudspeaker, he does it with the sound of a decade long silence.
I should say that these men’s names are entirely my own invention, unless they pay by credit card, when I can keep their receipts and record them in my log. It took a minute to attach Bruce’s face to his receipt when I found him vomiting in the bathroom. Nausea isn’t uncommon at Glen Park, simply because we strap disorienting footgear on people and tell them to go in a circle for five hours. Bruce underestimated the effect of this, and like most other college kids, took the retro charm of the activity as a call to get ironically soused beforehand.
The puke was unironic, his tears even less so. When I took his hand after I had mopped around the toilet, it felt genuine, even though his eyes couldn’t stay fixed on mine, and kept rolling backwards in his head. The moment would remain unchanged by his remembering, I decided, because he wouldn’t remember it at all. So I stayed there to hold him up from falling into the toilet until one of his friends came in and I pretended to be management, screaming How the hell did you let this happen, I’m not here to take care of your sloppy friend, what the fuck is wrong with you?
Dave comes in with his son Matt every Sunday afternoon, when we offer our less-popular Matinee Skate for half-price. I’m pretty sure Dave makes sure he has exact change, because he always makes a big show of passing off a $5 bill to Matt so he can pay his own dues. One time Dave spent the last of his cash in the lobby vending machine, and as he was swiping his credit card Matt gave me a look of supreme guilt, like he was stealing something very precious. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I was glad that I could finally learn his dad’s name from a receipt.
Unlike Al’s dad, Dave is a great teacher. He learned how to skate backwards pretty early on so that he could skate and talk to Matt. Just relax, Dave says. Keep your eyes on me. His smiling face, when it’s facing me, keeps floating further away as Matt chases it. Then they round the corner and I watch Matt bite his lip in determination as his dad rolls closer. Face, turn, face. They never take their eyes off each other, but it seems to work, because they never fall either.
That is, except for one day about three months ago, when with every lap Dave seemed to look a little more through Matt to the bland sheen of the floorboards. The skin under his eyes was heavy, and maybe purple, although the light at Glen Park is always low and it was hard to tell. On lap twenty, he looked up and met my gaze. Usually when men notice I’m watching them, I try to look extra bored, but this time Dave regained his smile, and I smiled back.
Dave waved me over. Would you mind skating with my son for just a minute? he asked. I have to take a call. He smiled again, apologetically, like he was saying something he silently knew I would understand.
Of course, I said, I love kids.
He turned to Matt. Do you know who this is? he asked.
The doorman! Matt shouted, and grinned up at me.
That’s right, Dave said. That’s right, I echoed, and wanted to cry. Dave skated over to the snack bar and hunched on the plastic bench across from Al’s counter, his back to the rink. I could hear some of what he was saying every time Matt and I passed. No, you can’t have him on Saturday, the Cougars game is that morning and I told the school I’d volunteer to coach. We made a lap. I know weekdays was the agreement Mandy, but can’t a guy just go and teach his son how to do a manly thing for goddamn once. Another lap, I was skating backwards but I wasn’t as good as Dave so I kept sliding across the rink, and Matt’s eyes kept swimming. I don’t know why he likes it here so much, it smells like some queer’s jockstrap. I kept getting more and more ahead of Matt, but I wanted to look closer into his eyes to see if he knew that word, knew what it meant. I tried to slow down, forgetting that you can’t use the back brakes when the back of your skates are traveling forwards. Matt tumbled into my arms as I was falling. It was unclear whether I was catching him or he was catching me.
I didn’t see this at the time, but Dave twisted his ankle as he leapt over the partition between the snack bar and the rink, after the crash. I only saw him once he had crawled over to where Matt and I lay, our limbs entwined and splayed out together. For a minute he lay down next to us, and we were three forms huddled on the parquet floor. He shook with laughter. Well, aren’t we pathetic? Dave said, and continued to chuckle as skaters stopped to help him and Matt up from my tangled form.
Sometimes I dream that they know I’m watching. What tricks would they do for me, if they did? What grace would they find? The men who come alone usually circle listlessly, like their own vultures. As opposed to Jazzercise Guy, who skates like he’s charging a battlefront, they don’t seem to care whether they’re finishing any laps, even when they’re on their three hundredth. Don’t they know going nowhere is what rollerskating is about, that it’s beautiful, that we’re doing it all the time? I dream of them slowing, starting to spin, turning, turning, pirouetting in place.
On certain nights, when the flask under the counter is nearly empty and the fumes from the skates’ leather turns sweet, I forget to name the men. Maybe it’s me not wanting to—without names their rotating shadows seem all of a piece. Who’s to say they aren’t in orbit around each other, that the thing pulling them around and around is the strange attraction of being a moving body surrounded by space.
Man #6 lifts one of his legs, and my eyes train on him. All eyes train on him. He is the center; all the skaters are speeding towards him now, or drifting away. He keeps his arms and leg suspended as he rounds the corner towards the snack bar, and it seems like he will keep them up forever, or that his last leg will lift up too and he’ll float up to the ceiling.
Al sees this, gives a loud hoot, and flashes me a thumbs up. I know he watches, too, but doesn’t watch himself watching. After however many years, it’s hard not to feel for these men as they lift themselves from the weight of their bodies, as they let their skates carry them out of their skin. Few do it, but the ones who keep returning here find their way. It is what will keep Man #6 coming back, and it is what will keep me watching him: the repeated realization that your body can feel something new again, after all this time.
On the day that I quit this place, I’ll go out and join them. I’ll tell Keith to fire up the rink’s 4-manual Wurlitzer pipe organ, which hangs from the center of the rink, nearly forgotten until Organ Night every year when the elderly come meander across the rink, remembering ballrooms. He’ll play some old classics for me, too: Til We Meet Again, Let Me Call You Sweetheart, You Belong to Me. I’ll tell him to turn down the lights, and the men and I will float out onto the rink in total darkness, all of us in an eddy of what we can’t see.