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Flesh and bone

by Today Letter

Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

There was a particular pleasure in trying to skateboard in 1995 in Boulder, Colorado, when you were 13 and shy and a girl. The real word for it was probably pride, and at that age, it was a sensation worthy of a few skinned knees. 

Jessica and I had decided to do it together. We had known each other for as long as any person can know another person outside of their direct blood lineage; we were each only in the world a matter of months before our mothers introduced us. I remember no time in my life without Jessica. She was always there, as essential to my reality as sunshine.

For a time, we lived close enough to walk, unattended, to each other’s homes, but our houses sat on opposite sides of an invisible line that divided one school district from the next. After kindergarten, we always went to different schools. It was likely a combination of these factors—a sisterly love, a social separation—that led to the continuation of our best friendship, even though Jessica was much more popular at her school than I was at mine.

I was no outcast, but managed to suspend myself in the middle-reaches of the junior high caste system, like an egg that decides to neither sink nor bob. The term “painfully shy” carries the fullest extent of its meaning in those years spanning the sixth to eighth grades. I was timid not just socially but physically, living with the persistent fear that I would somehow injure myself. I opted against learning how to ski, rollerblade, or even ride a bike. People who liked rollercoasters were insane. Gym class was an exercise in the definitions and limitations of torture. I was pretty, and I smiled a lot, and once you got to know me I was brave at least in my humor, and that is how I survived the social turmoil of middle school.

The skater kids were subdued, they liked art classes and wrote secret things in their notebooks that went on for pages. They hid loudly in clothes several sizes too large, an odd duality I found attractive.

Jessica was athletic, smart and funny and bold. And she was beautiful, with big, blue eyes and hair that naturally came in three shades of blonde, so thick that you could only wrap an elastic around it twice before the hair tie would threaten to break. I envied her smile, which was classic and photogenic, the kind of smile that would end up in a toothpaste ad if the right person was ever to catch a flash of it. She had two perfect freckles on her chin; sometimes we would draw a half-circle beneath them to make a smiley face. Jessica was great at volleyball. She loved rollercoasters. She was a snowboarder. She knew music, and a couple of years later she would start deejaying, sometimes flying to San Francisco for gigs. Jessica was cool.

And so it was undoubtedly her idea that we would learn to skateboard. But in an uncharacteristically bold gesture, I didn’t fight it. I embraced it, in part because I was starting to figure out that my path into future social acceptance would lie not with the athletes of team sports, but with the quiet coolness of the skater crowd. The skater kids were subdued, they liked art classes and wrote secret things in their notebooks that went on for pages. They hid loudly in clothes several sizes too large, an odd duality I found attractive. And there were cute boys. Naturally, when Jessica suggested we buy some skateboards, I was game.

We had no money, of course, and so we went to Target and found skateboards for $10 each. We walked to a park close to Jessica’s house and took turns riding our new skateboards down a sidewalked slope. We practiced kick-flips and ollies, and came close to neither. But we beamed with pride when we could make it down a hill and not fall off. We vowed to each other that we would get really, really good.

My family had moved to a different part of town when I was in the sixth grade, across the road from a small cattle ranch and next door to a family with llamas. I worried that one day the llamas would spit at me, and so I tried to stay on their good side, mostly with distance. Our house was tucked back from both roads that abutted our property. Behind our house, there was a large yard and then the main road, with the cattle ranch on the other side. Two grassy acres stretched out before the front of the house, and the dirt path of our driveway fed into a long and sleepy frontage road. It was on this latter road that I would practice my new hobby, since it was the only quiet bit of pavement around for miles.

Maybe the lesson is that risk leads to pain, but also to evolution, and that with no risk, there is no story.

There was nothing too impressive. I would walk to the end of our driveway, cheap skateboard in hand, reach the end, look both ways, put my skateboard down, set my left foot on top of it, and push off with my right, slowly at first, then a little faster. Sometimes I would switch the positions of my feet to test which was more comfortable. Once I reached a curve in the road, maybe 200 feet away, I would turn around. Back and forth, back and forth I went, stopping before I reached the llamas.

I puttered along slowly enough that I rarely stumbled, and if I did, I could usually catch myself, ending the movement in an awkward run rather than on the ground. And then one day I didn’t. It was something small, like a piece of gravel that had broken free of the road and struck a wheel. I fell backwards onto my right elbow and slid, my skateboard popping out in front of me like a toy wound up with a rubber band.

I didn’t realize I was hurt until I got back onto my feet and looked behind me at the road. There was a yellowish streak along the asphalt that ended where I stood. I don’t really know what it was, but I have always assumed it was skin. There was a little notch carved out of my right elbow, like a pyramidal stone had taken a scoop. Still in shock from the fall and not yet processing pain, I stared at the tiny but intense-looking wound, stared at the road, grabbed my skateboard, and went inside to wash up. It wasn’t until the hydrogen peroxide hit my flesh that I felt the damage, and then my skin cells shrieked.

It was a minor injury that would soon heal and leave only a sliver of a scar, but at that point in my life, due to my steadfast avoidance of activities that could result in bodily harm, it was the most memorable I had received. I told the story as though I had survived a great personal intrusion. In other words, I was ridiculous. I did, however, get back on that skateboard.

There may not be a lesson here. If there is, perhaps it is that our fear of pain can be worse than pain itself, or that the desire for acceptance can compel us to do things that are otherwise against our nature. Maybe the lesson is that risk leads to pain, but also to evolution, and that with no risk, there is no story.

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