A Prairie Skateland Prison

By Sara Aase

With apologies to Sarah Anderson, wherever she may be…

It was 1980 and I was 10, part of a caravan of kids barreling 35 miles west from Barnesville, Minnesota all the way to Skateland. The drive was a familiar commute, Fargo being the home of West Acres Mall and other North Dakotan destinations bigger than a Red Owl grocery or Ben Franklin drug store. That empty stretch of I-94 was so flat it always shimmered, as hypnotic as moving water, squat buildings popping up from the horizon occasionally like bobbers. Then the majestic expanse of sea that was the Skateland parking lot appeared on the horizon, dwarfing the shabby building behind it. The noise of those crammed beside me in the station wagon broke over me like waves as all of us together spied our destination.IWS_SA_SL

I was as excited as everyone else. Of course I wanted to skate, to feel the moment when wobbling eased into confident strides. Once I could coax some momentum from my wheels, the rhythmic clunk would travel upup  up through my legs to the beat of Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls.” There would be roller-rink wind in my face, music in my limbs. Except that, being slower, quieter, and clumsier than your average kid, I dreaded the obstacles standing between me and bliss: The crush from the parking lot, to the door, to the skate rental desk, where I knew I would find myself last in line. I wished myself onto the roller floor, magically – not from the car, but all the way back – straight from my living room sofa, upholstered in a loud aquamarine floral pattern, where I had most recently been ensconced with an apple and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

To an introvert, other people are hell. Of course, nobody tells a kid that. I only knew I wanted the same things as other kids, but just couldn’t seem to do them the same way. My friends skipped, darted, and hurtled around me, standing still, a prisoner inside my own head as I struggled with what to do next. My 10-year-old self responded to the anxiety this caused by rushing, which of course made things worse. On this Saturday, as I fumbled with the laces of my stiff brown ankle skates, heat crept up my neck as my younger sister Laura eased onto the floor. “Hurry,” I thought. “Hurry” was what everyone was always telling me, the word like the flick of a riding crop, a fresh prick of panic. So “hurry” was what I told myself now, automatically, even though there was no actual competition onto the skating floor. “Hurry,” I thought, because even though nobody else noticed my struggle, I did, as if watching myself in a movie. “Hurry,” I thought, for no other reason than to try to escape myself.

I pushed myself gingerly from the bench just as birthday girl Sarah Anderson bumped her wheels over the edge of the carpet strip, her normally pink cheeks flushed to neon. Sarah was my frenemy, though I didn’t have that word to help sort out the confusing feelings of fidelity and enmity she inspired. She was my doppelganger – another pastor’s kid living just down the block, our churches facing off across the street from each other. Blonde to my brunette, Sarah with an ‘h’ to my plain ‘a,’ she was a year younger than me but anxious to show her superiority. By way of introduction, after my family moved to town, she had knocked down my snowman. Later one summer whhhen she tooled past me on her bike, I ditched my training wheels immediately, even though I had to use a tree to stop. Here she was, beating me again.

IWS_SA_SMAs I flailed blindly out from the bench, my skate caught on something. I looked down to see my tennis shoes still lolling on the floor. I couldn’t believe it. What were my shoes doing there?! Where were they supposed to be? Looking up, I saw, for the first time, the wall of lockers around the corner and well back from the skating floor. How would I make it over there with both hands full? What if I fell? The expanse of carpet between me and the lockers seemed as long as a football field. I pictured myself picking my way over now, hanging onto benches and pinball machines, my awkward moves broadcasting to every kid in Skateland what it was suddenly so clear I had done wrong — not storing my shoes before donning my skates. Duh.

Horrified by this realization, my brain started to fog over with the absurdity of my situation. I couldn’t just leave my shoes here – someone would steal them, of course. Any 10-year-old knows that. Why was I such an idiot? Tears pricked behind my eyelids and I flopped hopelessly down next to my stupid shoes. Then I noticed the bench’s metal bar, screwed into the floor. Ah-ha. I wiped my eyes, grabbed my shoes and tied them furiously to the bar, making sure to double- and triple-knot them.

As I joined my group on the floor at last, my adrenaline subsided and my shame slowly faded to a feeling of smug triumph. For two hours, gliding around the floor, I could pretend I was just another kid, having fun at a roller skating birthday party. Not just any kid, in fact, but a super-secret extra-smart kid, whose superior intelligence would one day be revealed to the world. I may have been the last one on the roller rink, but I bet I’d be the first one out at the end. In fact, as I gained speed, I imagined my friends crowded around me back on the carpet, admiring my handiwork. “I’m tying my shoes up next time, too,” they would say. While my imagination floated, giving me a warm buzz, a cold, reptilian part of my brain whispered that I had to make sure nobody actually saw what I had done. Deep down, it stored my bumbling truth — that I wasn’t just like everybody else.

Then, it was time to go.

As you can guess, my trial at the foot of the bench went exactly as before, in reverse, as I discovered to my increasing panic that I couldn’t undo the knots in my shoelaces. I could feel people rushing down the carpet behind me as I pulled with all my might. “Wait!” I shouted in my head, too stubborn to yell, desperate to fix myself. No matter — a microphone blaring out commands for the hokey pokey would have drowned me out. Crouched on the floor, nobody could see me.IWS_SA_SN

As the crush of kids reversed itself out the door into the parking lot, I could feel myself being left. It wasn’t a sudden hush, of course, in a noisy roller rink – just that eerie sense you get when you know your people have gone, as if your souls are somehow connected, like an electrical current. I rushed out into the parking lot – no longer a promising seascape, now just a cracked expanse of asphalt. Too big. Too empty. Except for the prairie wind, which hit me with full force, like an ever present bully. Yes, it said, pushing into me. They’ve gone.

They were my people. No matter how much I felt I didn’t fit in, I still needed them. But I hadn’t let them know that. Now they were gone without me, and it was all my fault.

After I told a grownup that I needed to use the phone, I sat back down on my bench. There was nothing to do now but wait, alone. As my thoughts drifted back to Tom, Becky, and Huck, the sounds around me faded away. My fingers traced the double-knotted loops of my shoelaces, and tugged.

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Sara Aase is a writer living in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in Paper Darts, Minnesota Monthly, Mpls/St. Paul, Utne Reader, and other publications.

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