I was on full display—spindly legs spread-eagle against the cool, gritty, black and white linoleum floor, shoulders pressed against the drab lockers. My short skating-skirt rose to a place of nonexistence. I told myself that the boys thought I was pretty, special, and cool. I told myself that out of all the girls at the rink, they had chosen me! I told myself that their crotch staring was how they showed they cared.
It felt thrilling and dangerous to be in the locker room, on the edge of the public parts of Skateland, with wriggling, live, hair-sprouting BOYS, one of whom had turned off half of the fluorescent lights. The remaining row buzzed and flickered as if an electrocution was in progress.
The Pepto Bismol pink cement walls, someone’s idea of the color of childhood, clashed with the army green lockers. The floor and walls vibrated with music piped though massive loudspeakers. Outside the locker-room hundreds of wheels spun fast over a varnished wood floor. Every few minutes there was the cracking sound of someone falling or hitting the metal guardrails. Outside the rink it was a glorious spring day. I imagine birds chirped. But, that was another world, far away. I felt I was on the inside of something important. It is only looking back now that I stop to wonder how this moment impacted all the moments that came after it.
In the windowless room I sat across from a line of four or five pre-pubescent faces. Their skin slick with the precursory oil and grime that foreshadowed acne. Some of them had unlaced their skates to get more comfortable. Three were on the floor with legs stretched out in the ways boys are known for, taking up twice as much space as their bodies needed. Two others sat on the wooden bench that lined the back wall.
The room smelled of male body odor, a scent I find both repulsive and exciting to this day. These were the kind of boys who pushed themselves to the limits, who moved through the world with reckless speed, who took what they wanted.
Blue Slushie dye had dripped down Buddy’s sharp chin and the front of his t-shirt. With his bowl-cut hair and blue-stained teeth, he was a leader, his family the ideal. We all worshipped his father, Ray, who owned the rink and coached us as we pivoted, triple-jumped, and spun ourselves inside out trying to gain his approval. Buddy held keys to the private rooms. He got to go behind the snack bar counter. On the brink of becoming a man, he had developed muscles the other boys could only dream of. His sister Jill was one of my best friends.
Years later bad things happened in Buddy and Jill’s house. A family accused Ray of sexually abusing their son and other families came forward with eerily similar stories. Buddy, Jill, and the rink were all cancelled, never again mentioned in our house. I didn’t dare tell anyone that when I slept over at Jill’s house her father asked his four children not to wear underpants to bed and that Jill suggested I do the same. She said it was because underpants were bad for circulation. Some things seem suspicious only in hindsight. In the locker room that day, we knew nothing of these transgressions. I watched Buddy, watching me, as he leaned forward and bit his lip.
Mark, whose shag cut looked even blonder next to all the dark-haired boys, had been selected to guard the swing-door of the locker-room. He had a habit of squeezing his eyes open and shut every few seconds, like his giraffe eyelashes were jabbing into his eye sockets and he had to try and wiggle them free without the use of his fingers. A few years later Mark would give me Love Is… drawings that he made on the school-bus. He would take me to my first concert, The Carpenters.
I was not yet allowed to shave my legs and I had not started my period. No way would I have risked a spread-eagle position—one my mother had termed “unladylike,” adding to the appeal of the pose— once I started menstruating. I knew girls with breasts who carried tampons and pads. I made fun of them but envied their entry into the woman-club.
“More,” said one of the boys. His hunger made me feel desirable.
Rolling my eyes and popping a gigantic pink Bazooka bubble, I used my hands to shove my legs farther apart.
When they asked, as at least one always did, I refused to move my matching under-pant cover to the side. I knew where to draw the line. Felt proud that I knew enough to know there was a line. It would take more than a corndog and a couple of games of pinball to get me to show my privates.
I wasn’t the least bit curious about the boys’ privates. Maybe this was the start of learning to be seen while the boys were learning to see.
Like a school of exotic fish, the boys moved together through the rink leaving us girls to marvel at the shimmer they left in their wake.
We were weird, wholesome, nerdy kids. Not the cool kind of nerdy portrayed in movies and literature—those good-looking, artistic kids with pink hair and sparkly braces on their already perfect teeth. We were not making noir films adapted from Tolstoy novels in our basements. We were whizzing around a strip-mall skating under a sparkling mirror ball and the only spectators who came to our shows and competitions were fellow roller skaters or their parents. We got excited about songs like The Archies’ Sugar. Our clothes were unfashionable hand-me-downs, our bodies ill-suited for team sports. Orthodontia treatment was out of our parents’ tax bracket. I went to school each day with marshmallow sandwiches in my Monkees lunchbox.
In the early 1970s, sitting on that cold plastic floor while boys stared at my crotch and the Archies sang You are my candy giiiirl, and you got me wantin’ you did not feel like an insult. I dreamed of being some boy’s candy and the revealing pose seemed as close as I was going to get.
I’m not sure how the locker room phenomenon started. I’m guessing I was short of money at the snack bar and one of the boys must have offered me the gig. Getting paid to have usually mean boys pay attention to me, a boy-shaped twig with a pronounced overbite, must have seemed too good to be true.
With eye-spasming Mark on guard, the boys would stare at my crotch for as long as I would allow, usually in the neighborhood of five minutes, or until someone uninvited entered the locker room and we all scrambled to look nonchalant. Looking back, it wasn’t a great deal for Mark. Always having to stand guard and miss the show, he must have had a serious shortage of social clout.
I alternated my gaze between the boys’ rapt faces and the sparkly rainbow pom-poms tied to the laces of my white skate boots. I couldn’t fathom why they would agree to give me twenty-five cents apiece to look at nothing.
“Pay up,” I said when I thought they’d gotten their money’s worth. “I’m starving.”
I took the dirty quarters they sprinkled into my palm and said, “See ya, losers.”
What I meant was, thank you for paying attention to me.
What is it to be seen? We hope it leads to our being understood and appreciated, but by putting ourselves out there we risk being ridiculed, overexposed, misunderstood—the opposite of appreciated.
In the Skateland snack-bar, I asked for the usual— corndog and large coke and then walked into the adjacent smoke-filled game-room. I ate my lunch standing up next to Buckaroo, one of the few pinball machines whose back-glass featured a fully clothed girl. Alongside a horse, she stood strong without any hint of a come-hither-look. Most of the other machines had slogans like Whoa Nellie! She’s Ript n’ Ready! over artwork of Nellie, wearing hot pants and holding large cantaloupes in front of her breasts while a drooling man sat at her twelve-inch heels.
I wonder now who chose those games for kids in a roller rink? And who was smoking in a kid’s game room? I don’t remember children smoking cigarettes so there must have been adults creating all those toxic clouds.
Spectators had congregated around a boy who was manning the Buckaroo flippers. He rammed his hip into the side of the machine to shift the weight towards whichever jeweled bumper he wanted his metal ball to hit. He smirked and we held our breath as the points mounted and he claimed a new high score. He never pushed so hard that the game ended with flashing lights scolding him for a TILT! GAME OVER! The good ones never did.
My game felt over before it had even begun. I tried not to care that I wasn’t the girl asked to share the slushie, hold the hand, or accept the ring. I had to work harder, be more clever, if I was going to find ways to stand out. My older, prettier, more popular sister was a majorette and a cheerleader. Boys wanted her and she only need give a twirl or two to seduce them. Knowing better than to try and compete with my her, I chose a different route. I was less gender conforming; I scorned the prim and prissy in favor of the bold and brash. Fast skating, dirty talking, loud laughing. I favored baggie boy clothes when not in girly skating outfits. The short skirts helped me to fit in, but left me feeling like I was in drag.
Surely I must have guessed that the flowery girls like Jill and Lisa—girls whose skin turned brown instead of freckly in the sun, whose developed bodies moved across the skate floor with the grace of swans, who could afford to throw away the males’ attentions because they knew full well there would always be more to come—had likely refused the invitation to meet in the locker room during the old-person-couples-only-skate. Surely I must have guessed that I was a last resort, an easy mark.
I look back tenderly on that child who felt she had so little to offer. I want to tell her that she will not always feel unlovable, but she will spend a lifetime fighting the urge to look outside herself for validity. I applaud this #MeToo generation of women who are seizing their power instead of adopting assumptions based on prevailing sexist views of their worth.
I placed my quarter on the glass top of the pinball machine all those years ago in a room that smelled of smoke and sweat and lust; part of my childhood remains on top of that machine, waiting for my turn.
Anne McGrath’s work was noted in the 2020 Best American Essays series, she received a Pushcart Prize special mention, and she was the recipient of fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Anne has work published in Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Ruminate, Entropy, Columbia Journal, The Writer’s Chronicle, and other journals. Her visual essays have been featured in The Indianapolis Review, Ilanot Review, The American Journal of Poetry, and Thrush. Find her @TheAnneMcGrath on Instagram.
Great essay! I grew up around places like this, never feeling like I fit in because my single mom changed addresses too frequently. But I saw, smelled, and heard everything as I read your work.
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Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment, Damaged Skull!
The epic you managed to hint at, amidst a tawdrily incongruous setting, makes of a potentially little story something that lights up in the dark.
I was taken to Skateland from time to time myself, remember it as an odor you transcribed to perfection and a spectacle that almost always let me down.
I’m glad, however, that you could find, in it, a template for adolescence, as it is lived between hope and despair; longing and cynicism; greasy nutrition and a score of unexplored possibilities.