“Hey, Halen,” I squawk from the front seat, turning to face my derby wife. “I’m gonna tattoo six shooters on my thighs.”
“Yeah,” she smiles. She’s looking out the window at a homeless dude shuffling his way through the gas station parking lot. Halen has sparrows on her chest, bees on her knees and a one-eyed lady on her arm. She doesn’t ask why I want the tatts. She just gets it.
I repeat the statement to my husband as he gets in the car. Winter wraps a plume of frigid air around his satin jacket and the blue plastic steering wheel.
“You’re gonna what?” he almost chokes. “Your parents are gonna love that.”
After nine months of awkward house party encounters and arguments over who gets to keep which friends, my jilted, angry, now ex-husband tells me defensively I was just too intimidating to be sexy. And the sports bra was way too prevalent.
I quit my job.
I sell the house.
I take the bus to Calgary to buy myself my dream car, a used Subaru Impreza Outback, and name her Bu. We drive back to Edmonton in the burning cold, Bu’s bike rack creaking with excitement above my head.
I fill her to the hilt with snowboards, bikes, pens, papers and cameras. I love her.
Together, we run to the hills.
Er, drive. I text my wife about every boy who isn’t intimidated by me. She always texts back. Bu and I drive 12,302 km in 8 weeks. Clean cold tickles my brain and shuttles remnants of self-doubt out of my grey matter, filling it with sparkling inspiration. I can almost not hear tearing velcro and whistle tweets. Almost.
“Should I stay or should I go?” I ask Ann Fuckin’ Halen. We’re sitting at a long dark bar down the less frequently puked-on end of Whyte ave. I’ve just returned from sliding down those monstrous mountains, wandering over Rocky Mountain foothills in the dark, and nailing down dreams that cold houses, stand offish husbands, and a general lack of confidence kept at bay.
I pull my journal out of my bag. A boy with long red curly hair gives me a drink, tequila and soda. I didn’t know when I asked for it that the drink was one actually named after this red headed boy. And he didn’t usually work there. I just liked tequila and adding soda seemed a little more refined than a shot.
My wife and I divide a page in my journal into two categories: stay, and go.
On the stay side, roller derby.
On the go side, mountains.
Stay: hooked up.
Stay: easy money.
Go: ski bum.
Stay: facing fears.
Go: starting fresh.
After some debate and rapid fire stay-go-stay-go, while our eyes get more shiny and our smiles more slippery and our laughs a little higher, a little more loud and a lot more easy, we decide I should stay. And go home with the red headed boy. He remembers me from that game in the hanger a few months ago. He’d come up to talk to me after the bout but there were lights and sweat and I had to rip up the track and we crouched down around people’s knees where it was a little more quiet and he wanted to say something but back slaps and screaming and beers on heads and then he was gone.
But now it is quiet and we’re laying on his bed and I’m telling him I’m moving to BC and he’s telling me he’s moving to Toronto and we both get really quiet for a moment.
A year later, roller derby is in the midst of a packed season. I’m totally owning the guns that have come to keep me honest. Then, guns fire. Windows shatter around my head. Hissing, spitting sounds on wet pavement. And Richard Buckner‘s solemn voice. I stumble out of Bu’s mangled body. My legs feel like anvils. I got hit by a semi truck. Bu got destroyed by a semi truck.
It’s time for me to leave.
Beyond the kitchen window, undulating mountains are covered in snow. I like playing in them. A lot. But right now, I’m trying to find my skate bag. It’s been 8 months since I’ve put on my skates. I know there will only be 5 people at practice. I know what to expect, and I know I will hate this. Starting from the beginning. I’m muttering and slamming and growling in my throat.
That red headed boy watches me stumble around an unfamiliar kitchen. He grabs me by the shoulders and gives me a little shake, then pulls me into a cozy hug.
“Why are you doing this? Just get your shit and get out of here. Stop running from it.”
(I’m going to skip over starting another league, the WKWRDL. I’ll also skip how, unbelievably, the women started it, multiplied, hunkered down and ruled the BC interior region within six months. Suffice it to say this one was a little easier than the first time, maybe like being pregnant. I hear your body spreads out and finds its position more efficiently than it did the first time. And the beautiful people around you, nodding knowingly, who’ve come to the same spot for the same-but-different reasons, who’re all happy to make babies and totally be with you when you pull your hair out, but who’re also looking forward to the after party. And you know how much its gonna hurt, and how every dire contraction is worth the incredible, life-affirming result. Or so I’m told.)
I’ve just experienced the highest high I have ever imagined. No, wait. I couldn’t even have imagined this. Sure, I’d thought about it in fleeting seconds when my imagination wandered into make-believe territory. And yeah, every sprint interval, every squat, every truck and trailer drill was meant to get me here. But no, I never had the audacity to think I’d play for Team Canada. I’d actually only ever thought the sport would get to this level when I was at home having babies and looking forward to when they could wear their mom’s jersey to bed–if they wanted to, of course.
I’ve also just experienced the worst, belly collapsing sadness. Not the gut wrenching pain of a heart break, or the hollow dry-mouth-concave-chest feeling when someone dies, but the solemn shoulder-slouching contemplation that comes with turning around and climbing down the mountain after you’ve reached it’s peak. There’s no inspiration to get to the bottom. It’s gnarly-ness is now annoying cuz you’re so friggin’ tired, the roots are grabbing at your toes, and shit, going down hurts the knees. But you can’t just stay on the summit. I can’t hold the moment in the semi-final game against England, when I knelt before the jammer line with women I somehow inherently knew how to play with, when I turned to face the Finnish girl and we melted into a hug, or in the final game when I felt how Atomatrix absorbed my hip crushing into hers, or the deep water floaty feeling of hearing people scream for your country. And to them, you’re it.
Before Team Canada, I wasn’t able to come to a conclusion about why I really played roller derby. I just did. What ran me off my bike and into a pair of skates, what kept me there even when I tried to pull away from it. People always, unfailingly ask me, and I never had the just-right answer until the day I drove home from work with shaky hands and quivering tummy, as Coach Pauly’s congratulations-you’re-on-the-team email still whirled through my head. I read it three times. And then I read it again.
For me, roller derby has three defining emotional features from each stage of life.
It’s first obvious catch, the hooking point for most people, is childhood glee. Roller derby is tag–the half-scared, half-excited and totally flat-out exhilaration of someone chasing you. Or when you’re chasing someone. When you can almost believe that if you run (skate) fast enough, you’re flying just a little ways off the ground.
The next layer is a bit of adolescent aggression. When you’ve got all those fresh hormones raging through your newly elongated limbs. And how good it feels to let ’em rip, to just crush your body into someone else’s body.
And these are all wrapped up in the best stage of all–adult control. When you start realizing, as an adult, that you have the power to use life’s rules to get what you want. To go where you want. When working with someone is better than working against them. When you sit down with a beer, after a hard night’s sweat and you’re pleased as shit cuz you know you did a fine job.
Because you can have your candy-sprinkled fudgey cake, smash it in someone’s face, and lick it when and how you want to. And not feel like you have to run it off. That’s why I play roller derby.