My hometown, Pueblo, is a blue-collar city that loves its country music. We can relate to the sad stories: Grandpa retired from the steel mill before it went bust, but my uncle and quite a few of our neighbors get laid off from the mill with no real prospects. Almost always, like many Pueblans, my family listens to KCCY, “Today’s Top Country.” We’re probably listening to it in the car that summer when my parents deliver me to Stacy Houston’s slumber party. Stacy is the other red-haired girl in our grade. This invitation feels different from parties I’ve been to before. We’re going into fifth grade. We’ll be the bosses of the school: I’m trained as a crossing guard, and I’m one of a few responsible fifth-grade girls who will cover the phone while the school secretary has lunch. I might be on my way to being one of the bouncy-haired, perky girls in Seventeen magazine who paint their toenails while wearing cute pajamas at each other’s houses. This party is only the beginning.
But it isn’t. During the night, the other girls stick my hand in warm water and paint my face with shaving-cream whiskers. I feel the shaving cream oozing over my upper lip and wake in a panic that I’ve had a nosebleed all over Stacy Houston’s carpet. I maintain my dignity. I don’t wet the bed, even with my fingers damp and lukewarm. Maybe, in fact, I am too stoic. Maybe I should respond with girlish shrieks and giggles. Whatever I did wrong, in the morning, the other girls mutter from across the living room: “Susanna’s a he.”
I never find out what it is to be a “he.” Not as pretty as the other girls? Not feminine enough? A lesbian, if I even know the term? Not wanted: that much is clear.
The slumber party hostilities abruptly curtail the afternoons I spend with Andrea in her sprawling brick ranch on one of the ruffle of cul-de-sacs that end in -bridge (Knightsbridge, Queensbridge, Kingsbridge) in a world as simple as her matching French Provincial furniture and walk-in closet and window seat, her freckles and braces, her kind parents and cupboards full of snacks. With one quick blow, the party cracks my trust in other girls, even warps my belief that I’m one of them.
* * *
That fall, I’m assigned to Ms. Razo’s fifth-grade class at Belmont Elementary, three blocks from my tri-level house.Most of my classmates are as familiar as cousins. Some of us have been together since kindergarten, a few even longer. But Richard is new. Even on picture day, most of the boys wear blue Adidas sneakers with rubber soles, striped polo shirts and Toughskins jeans, although some of them might add a tie because the girls are wearing Laura Ashley dresses. Richard wears a navy-blue three-piece suit, his naturally wavy caramel-colored hair tamed with a damp comb.
In his suit, he looks staid, but he is, in fact, the fastest boy in school. In time trials that fall, he runs the 50-yard dash in under six seconds. In the spring, he’ll be the undisputed champion of Field Day. His gaze is wry and serious, alert and curious, an expression I will forever seek in boys I like—about to laugh, full of unasked questions, brimming with a hidden interior life I crave to unearth, about to run away. Richard gives us a glimpse into the future: we will get more serious, change our outfits, lock our private thoughts away, until gradually we become adults like our parents, and maybe like Richard. He wears his shirts neatly tucked in and makes eye contact, as if he’s someone important. When our eyes meet briefly, I sense that he takes me seriously. I can’t imagine him being mean like the slumber party girls. I get the feeling that with Richard, and maybe with other boys, I might be important.
I don’t hang out with boys, of course. It’s just not done. And Andrea and the rest of the slumber party girls aren’t in my class. I see them on the playground, but I pretend I don’t. Anyway, I’m busy with Maggie. Maggie has dimples and a Dorothy Hamill pixie cut. Her best friend from last year has moved away. Maggie and I want to grow breasts and like boys. We share the commonly held opinion that the cutest boy in our class is Marc Calvert. He wears Lacoste polo shirts and Op shorts. His brown bangs sweep dashingly across his forehead. We girls hold him in such esteem that although he is the only Marc in our class, we almost always refer to him reverentially, by his full name. But Maggie and I also share secrets just between us. I know she is a little bit in love with a boy named Paul. She knows I like Richard, “like” with hearts around it.
During private afternoons, we use the old habit of playing with Barbies to explore the new tinglings we feel inside our training bras, the forming shapes we examine in front of the mirror, turning this way and that, sucking in bellies to make our tiny breasts look bigger, the swirl inside when a certain boy smiles at us or his hand grazes ours. I walk from my house to Maggie’s, sneaking my Barbie dolls in a small tapestry suitcase. On the way, I pass our classmate John’s house. John flings open his window and leans out to heckle me. “What’s in the suitcase? Are you running away from home?” I stare ahead, stick my nose in the air, and walk on, my heart racing in panic, glad he can’t see through the suitcase.
Maggie and I make pizza from a boxed Chef Boyardee kit and eat in the sunshine on her back deck. After we unzip my little suitcase, the Barbies do standard stuff like get their hair done and go to the prom. But after prom, Ken and Barbie make love beneath the tree in Maggie’s backyard. Their naked plastic bodies knock in the grass. We keep looking over our shoulders to make sure we’re alone.
* * *
Sometime around Valentine’s Day, fifth grade becomes the year of roller skating. When hormones begin to course beneath our puppy fat, and the scent of middle school infuses us with bravery, someone discovers that Friday afternoons are free skate at Stardust Skate Lanes. Most Fridays, on Dad’s way to work the evening shift as an editor at the newspaper, he drives Maggie and me to Stardust Skate Lanes. Along with almost all our whole class, we eat pretzels and melted-processed-cheese nachos and clomp in our skates up and over the carpeted bridge that leads to a walled island in the center of the rink, where we feed quarters into Centipede and Frogger and Ms. Pac-Man machines. We skate to “Little Red Corvette”, “Billy Jean”, “Freeze Frame”, “I Love Rock N’ Roll” and “Hey Mickey,” and because we are in Pueblo, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
I have outgrown my roller skates at home, metal flatbeds whose red leather straps buckled over my sneakers. Cruising up and down the sidewalk, the metal wheels broadcast my approach via harsh scraping sounds. Stardust Skate Lanes is a whole new ballgame. The rental skates are pale brown leather smeared with other people’s greasy fingerprints, with orange wheels and long orange laces I have to wrap around my ankles and double knot so I won’t trip over them while I skate. Patchwork-print utility carpet, splotched dark where skaters have dropped nachos and spilled cola, surrounds the rink. The bathrooms are embarrassing. The stalls have no doors. Maggie and I take turns acting as a human shield while the other pees.
But the rink is glossy wood, and our hard rubber wheels ride on smooth ball bearings. At the back of the rink, a rail and a wall of rough, easy-to-grab concrete brick provide a studio for perfecting new moves. The boys speed skate. (On wheels, Richard is fast, but not the lightning-in-jeans that he is in a footrace. Skating makes him less exceptional, though still unattainable.) The girls skate backwards, wiggling their bottoms experimentally in their Jordache or Sassoon jeans. I become a decent roller skater—I can skate forwards and backwards, cross my feet over each other, turn around while in motion.
When the DJ announces couples skate, we girls stand behind the stairs, gossiping. We practice skating with a friend, holding hands, our legs rigid so our skate wheels won’t collide and pinwheel us across the slick rink floor. Sometimes, the boys shruggingly ask somebody to skate, letting the girls take their hands and chatter at them as they loop the rink. Jody and Susan and the other girls, cute brunettes, fly by with hands linked to one boy or another. When Maggie skates with Paul, I stand awkwardly alone. Richard stands equally alone, a few feet away. Do boys not ask me to skate because I am a “he”? Maybe it is because I chew my cuticles. I can’t blame the boys for not wanting to hold my ragged, slobbery hand. Finally, I grasp for the diversion of rolling to the snack bar, my wheels awkward like slow motion on the stained carpet. I pretend I am thirsty for another Coke. I look around as if I am waiting for a friend.
* * *
Toward the end of the school year, before I flee to the snack bar, Marc Calvert rolls up.
“So, will you skate with me?” he asks as the DJ starts to play some romantic song, maybe a duet with Kenny Rogers and some female star. Honestly, I’m not paying much heed to the song. For months I have preferred Richard, but when Marc chooses me, my stomach erupts in butterflies.
I double take like in the movies, look behind me to make sure he means me. Then I mutter some kind of yes and we roll onto the smooth rink, his fingers clasping mine. Our feet glide in unison as we skate silently, and our wheels never clash. My hair lifts softly in the breeze we create as we move. Off to the side, on a bench in front of the shoe lockers, I see Richard watching us. Maybe he looks a little forlorn. I want to think, “Too late for you!” Inside, though, I wish I were holding Richard’s hand.
I don’t remember Richard skating with anyone, then or ever. He stands to the side, above it all. Maybe he is still thinking about the homework at which he outshines everyone. Maybe he isn’t interested in girls. Maybe he thinks girls don’t like him because he chews his cuticles, but I don’t know that yet.
* * *
One day at my house, Maggie catches me listening to KCCY. She reaches out, turns the radio a few notches up the FM dial to the rock station—whose call letters I’ll forget, although I know it isn’t KILO, the hard rock station, only listened to by Benito, a preternaturally mature boy who rips the sleeves off his T-shirts—and assures me, “This is much, much better.” Almost immediately, I’m addicted. I have purchased only one record in my life—Kenny Rogers’ Greatest Hits. But on Saturday, I take my carefully saved allowance to Alco. While my mom shops, I pore over the bin of record albums. I settle on Journey’s Frontiers. Alone in my room, I hinge open the denim-patterned case of the turntable I received for my third birthday but have mostly used to listen to Read-Along Story Books. I drop the needle on the songs I’ve learned at the roller rink. “Faithfully,” “Separate Ways”—these songs are even better than “The Sounds of Silence,” which I sometimes borrow from my parents’ shelf to play in my room at night. How do balladeers manage to describe the sensation of love, aching and queasy, like the feeling of hunger that sometimes appears, mysteriously, unwarranted, after you’ve vomited? How do they describe so well the sadness at knowing you must part from a love you haven’t yet known, to move on in life even while loving someone as passionately as possible, given that you don’t actually know that person yet?
After she gives me the gift of rock and roll, Maggie makes a confession. I’ve been asking for it, really, noodling aloud over why on earth Marc asked me to skate.
“Does he think I like him?” I persist. “I mean, he’s totally bitchin’.” (We’ve been reading YM magazine in the school library, trying to master the nonchalant affectation of Valley Girl-speak. Sometimes I forget to use it, although my parents have begun requiring me to put a dime in a jar every time I say “ya know,” because it drives them crazy.) I go on, “But I have to be honest, I’m like really into Richard.”
“So … since you ask …” Maggie takes a deep breath and looks out the window. “I kind of got Marc to ask you to skate,” she finally confesses.
My face goes hot and my eyes sting, but I don’t cry in front of Maggie. I don’t show my feelings to anyone, even her. I picture her flashing her dimples at him, possibly assuring him he will only need to hold my hand one time in his entire life. She wanted me to feel happy, this once, she says. Her gesture is simultaneously generous and mortifying. No one but a true best friend would take care of me that way, without having an underlying goal of humiliating me. But I still am embarrassed, as embarrassed as the time I was jumping rope on the playground and my skirt fell down. Like that time, no one saw what really happened—well, no one but Maggie and Marc. But they know, and I know, and that is three people too many.
* * *
Molly asked Marc to ask me for a reason. My Stardust Skate Lanes days are numbered. In early May, my parents sit me and my sister down for a serious talk. I’ve always known they are religious—we attend church every Sunday, dressed up to be respectful to God—but I had no idea that my dad intended to become a minister. I learn new phrases: Join the clergy. Become an ordained pastor. Go to seminary. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word “seminary.” Dad has always been a reporter, an editor. My school classes tour the newspaper, like some kids tour factories, and we wave at my dad at his desk in the newsroom. I don’t yet know what this will mean, save this: In August, we’ll sell our home, leave our friends, and move 100 miles away to Denver. My sister and I cry. My mom cries. We negotiate our sadness away: we will get a puppy to soften the blow.
I am excited to move to the big city. Still, the news contains pubescent tragedy. I won’t go to the middle school up the street, the way I’ve always thought I would, or attend East High, the same school my dad graduated from. My grandmas won’t be just around the corner. I’ll leave my friends, and in a tragic twist that does not escape me, the boys I’ve taken for granted as past playmates and future prom dates will not be the ones, after all, who will tease me through junior high, be my sympathy dates, give me my first kiss, break my friends’ hearts, pull me close in the seat of a car. Everything’s different. The brakes are off.
One of my last days at the roller rink, I skate over to Richard and stand before him. I have to know. I take a deep breath and ask him if he likes me. (Later, friends will tell me this was brave. To me, it isn’t brave; it’s a flaw, this desire to know, this inability to stop myself from putting a boy on the spot, risking my soul for knowledge.) He says maybe.
“It’s important, Richard,” I say, levelly, not pleading. “Do you like me?”
He says it is a secret, and so I know the answer is yes. Then he smiles, a Mona Lisa smile that is tranquil beyond his years, his greenish eyes fixed on a distant point.
We still don’t skate together. I never hold Richard’s hand. But that day, or one right after, I know something has changed for me. The music has started to become a part of me. When I hear the first notes of “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart),” I break away from my clump of girls and skate faster. I glide around the rink, my arms pumping, my feathered hair blowing in the wind, my eyes shielded by my grey plastic eyeglasses, my polo shirt securely tucked into my high-waisted jeans. I got my ears pierced for my tenth birthday, and by spring my slightly dangly earrings blow enticingly in the wind.
I am free, I am fast, and I am passionately hoping that one day soon someone will yearn for me. I sing along silently, my lips moving while I skate. Someday, love will find you. Break those chains that bind you! True love will remind you, how we touched and went our separate ways. A child falls in front of me, skidding crosswise on the slick rink floor. It is too late for me to turn aside. Instead I gather myself and leap over her, land, and sail on in a moment of ten-year-old glory. I look around, hoping someone saw. Nobody did. I’m on my own. But I’m free, and I keep skating, keep listening. I’m moving forward.