When I was thirteen, I participated in an after-school activity ambiguously—and generously—named “Lifetime Sports.” At my North Carolina private school, a place particularly dedicated to social hierarchy, your position on a team was determined as much by popularity as athletic ability, and as I was fundamentally lacking in both coolness and hand-eye coordination, I thought I might as well try life-sporting. Participation would involve periodic trips to a local roller rink.
This was 1998, when roller rinks were just becoming passé. My friends no longer held their birthday parties at the local rinks, and, generally, they smelled kind of funny (the roller rinks, that is). But the activity seemed to have immediate perks. I already owned a kickin’ pair of plastic teal roller blades. I imagined perfecting the dance routine from Will Smith’s “Men In Black” music video, gossiping with my friends as we attempted to maintain both our sick grooves and our balance. And maybe, with dedicated practice, we would even dominate those limbo competitions (it was such injustice that toddlers were allowed to compete with those of us taller than three feet, skates included).
It was more than okay, though. Though I never triumphed at limbo or lived up to Will Smith’s slick moves, I quickly discovered that the roller rink was the absolute best place to think about sex.
I can’t articulate exactly what it was that turned the roller rink into fantasy-on-wheels for me. It certainly wasn’t the act of skating, as I discovered when I tried ice-skating too, hoping for similar physiological results. Between the cold, the unwieldy weapons strapped to my feet, and, most critically, the absence of music, I found myself completely unfulfilled and with a damp, sore butt to boot. No, the feelings I sought only came from visits to those dingy rinks—their smell of ashtrays, sweat, and desolation.
In retrospect, part of what I craved was the roller rink’s ability to detach me from the everyday. Because I frequented roller rinks as they were on their way “out,” they seemed to exist apart from the regular world. It wasn’t cool to go to the roller rink, per se, but it also wasn’t exactly a trip to yesteryear. Because the rinks had slipped into that ambiguous space of almost-nostalgia, they made me feel comfortingly removed from the world of “cool,” from my everyday existence as a hapless, flat-chested cluster of insecurities. Every time I visited the roller rink with my fellow life-sporters, I could beg the disc jockey to play the Goo Goo Dolls’s “Slide” and, as Johnny Rzeznik sang with abandon about running away to marry the beautiful May, I could—with Johnny’s biceps in my mind’s eye—be May, be beautiful. I could slip into my own, reimagined music video. I was the tragic girl in the white prom dress, running tragically through town, moping tragically at the diner counter where Johnny-with-his-biceps would croon in my ear. I could contemplate the exhilaration of being wanted so much that someone wrote a half-decent song about me.
To be clear, I also spent plenty of time with the Goo Goo Dolls and Third Eye Blind in my bedroom at night, seeking rapture by smuggling my Discman under the covers and allowing my thoughts to dwell where they might (oh, what I’d have given for “I Want You” to have been in that roller rink DJ’s catalogue). But those nights always concluded in frustration and a sense of isolation, feelings I never experienced while gliding around the rink. The lights of the rink were always dim enough that the space felt secure and sufficiently—if paradoxically—private, but I could still discern my fellow skaters, my friends. So when my thoughts took a turn for the bleak and angst-y (“Will anybody ever love me? Will I ever get to run across town in a flouncy prom dress? I bet no one has ever felt these feelings before.”), I could take a respite from my trauma-drama. I would rejoin my buddies for some therapeutic chatter on how broodingly beautiful David Boreanaz looked in the last episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” conversations that inevitably led to even more fantasy fodder.
But the beauty of the roller rink was the ease with which you could glide—literally—in and out of conversations, and in and out of your own thoughts as well. When I was content to inhabit my fantasy space, I could do so with tangible evidence that there were other people in the world who, I realized, must possess their own vibrant, tumultuous, inner lives—even if, of course, my own thoughts and desires were the most vibrant, most tumultuous, and totally most special. To a great extent, the roller rink was to me at age 13 what a coffee shop is to me at age 28: a place where I can retreat into myself while comforted by the bodies around me. The roller rink appealed to me like a womb with a door—the cradle of music surrounding me, constructing a wall between my thoughts and environment. And yet I could emerge back into presence at any time, if my fantasies ever turned scary or overwhelming.
And they were always fantasies. My love of the roller rink had nothing to do with the possibility of meeting someone there and experiencing a real, in-the-flesh romantic interlude. True, years later I did swoon when I watched the roller rink love scene between Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci in “Monster.” But as a shy and anxious 13-year-old, that wasn’t what I wanted from these venues. What I wanted—and what I gained—was a communal, yet anonymous space both to contemplate my desires, and to attempt to understand myself as someone who desired in the first place. As a public space for my teenage romantic fantasies, the roller rink let me explore—in public—a vibrant erotic inner-life, without self-consciousness.
Of course, I was extremely self-conscious of these sexual thoughts in every other context. Around the same time, I would bring Sophie’s Choice with me to read during free time in school, captivated and horrified by its sexual frankness. It was in English class that I reached a prolonged and no-holds-barred description of fellatio. After racing through a few paragraphs of the sordid details, I shoved the book into my backpack, cheeks burning, waiting till I could get to my bedroom and surf waves of desire with the ever-present awareness that my sisters were in the next room and my parents across the hall. Even here, my anxiety generated a superstitious terror that my thoughts would appear flamboyantly above my head in a comic strip thought bubble. Or maybe, à la Harry Potter, my book would begin reciting its racy contents aloud, in the voice of a sex-phone operator. Maybe my parents would hear me sigh with happiness when fantasy-Taylor Hanson ran away with fantasy-Rachel to have sex in a mountain cavern. But never, never in the rink.
The roller rink never became a space for masturbation-on-wheels, which sounds in any case dangerous. But I always relied primarily upon my mind as a pleasure generator in the first place. A sucker for narrative, my fantasies often involved elaborate plots, say, about narrow escapes from bloodthirsty pirates on deserted islands. (I grant you that my storylines needed work.) And of course, lots of interludes for passionate love scenes. Lots of them. And I was satisfied with just my hormonally-propelled mind. I never needed masturbation to experience the exhilaration of a wish-fulfilling tale about Taylor Hanson.
What a physical pleasure it was to roller blade in the rink, aligning fantasy with motion with hyper-sincere, late-nineties alt-rock. I could adjust my speed to align with the intensity of both the music—I requested “Slide” every time—and the “plot point” I was developing about Taylor or Johnny. My mind and body felt in sync, and I felt an illusory—yet fulfilling—sense of achievement. Roller blading became the genuine enactment of my desires. It made the fantasies feel as real as they could ever possibly be.
I don’t think that I have visited a roller rink since I concluded my tenure as a life-sporter a decade and a half ago. But part of me wonders if I should give the roller rink another whirl. Perhaps it would bring me to a new liberating space of sexual possibility. Until I fell on my ass. Lord knows it's been almost fifteen years.
Rachel Vorona is an English doctoral student living in Washington, D.C. She also writes creative non-fiction and personal essays at positiveandpromise.wordpress.com. You can find her on Twitter here: @RachelVorona.