The Confused by Thomas Cox

There were only four things to do in Greeneville, Tennessee on a Saturday night. You could go to the movies, go bowling, go skating, or go away. The skating rink sat just off of highway 11-E. The sign out front was a large roller skate, and below it was a marqueed box that reads “Hot Wheels Family Skate Center” and their hours of operation. They were open during the week, but I had never heard of anyone going there except on the weekends. During the summer, when they were closed, the sign always read “Gone Fishin’” regardless of any changes in management.

My sister, Megan, only a year younger than me, had been going there every Friday and Saturday for the past two years. She never missed a day if she could help it. I hadn’t been in well over ten years, and never thought I would go back. Then, on the third weekend of January in 2015, I returned home for the weekend. My friend Brittany joined me. The two of us had been back in class at University of Tennessee Knoxville for a little over a week and were already tired of it.

“Let’s go skating,” Megan said.

“Hell yeah.” Brittany said.

Megan bounded out of the room to get her skates on.

I was going to answer with a firm ‘meh,’ but Brittany had sealed the deal. Once you told my sister you were going to do something with her, there were no take backs. Brittany used to skate all the time, and she missed it. I hadn’t skated in nearly a decade, and I tried to appear indifferent about it. I was actually nervous as hell. I didn’t think I remembered how to skate, and I was sure my coordination only worsened in those ten years. My best friend Morgan was back in town from our school and learned of the plan. It had also been almost ten years since she last skated, but she was sure she could pick it back up fast.

I didn’t want to try and talk Brittany out of going. She was super excited and talked about how much she missed skating. Megan was also excited at the idea of all of us joining her for skating. She looked up to me as her big brother and loved it when I did stuff with her. I didn’t want to let either of them down. Morgan, on the other hand, didn’t care what we did. She was along for the ride.

Part of me still wouldn’t have minded a sudden divine intervention or maybe a bad omen or anything out of my control that might have caused a cancellation (That didn’t involve anyone getting hurt). My sister had her own skates that my dad had found for her at a flea market. I mentioned to Brittany that we’d have to rent skates, and they may cost money and will be gross. There was no telling how many nasty feet had been in them. As I finished speaking, my dad walked into the house, and I heard the thud of skates hitting the wooden floor in the kitchen. He had three pairs of skates also from the flea market in his shed. I tried on the pair he dug up for me, and they fit perfectly. It was divine intervention towards me going (not the kind I was hoping for); I resigned myself to go. The three of them would support and help me, and I at least had good skates. I thought surely I could figure out skating, maybe even pick it up quick. I’d just have to think it through.

On Saturdays, the place opened right at 7pm, and Megan would be damned if she arrived any later than that. They closed at midnight. Tickets were eight dollars a person, and she wanted to get the full five hours out of it.

The building was a large warehouse built in ‘75. The bottom half was orange and the top yellow (both particular colors palettes ceased production by the 80s). My mother said the building has looked exactly the same since she moved to Greeneville in ‘77. It started as a skating rink and stayed one until ‘88 when it was a Big Lots for a year and then closed up. Wholesale couldn’t keep the skating away, and the place opened in ‘92 as a skating rink again.

The entrance is a small lobby with a window for a ticket booth. The door leading into the rink was a dark orange, and buzzed when you could open it. We bought tickets and walked in.

 

In front of us are two large wooden boxes with carpet on top that serve as seats for putting on and taking off skates. We do that. There is a line nearby of people walking up to the DJ and requesting songs.

Megan is up and going, first, the Regular. Brittany follows, the Veteran. She remembers exactly how it is all done, and blends in fast. Then Morgan next, the Natural. She picks it up just as quickly as she thought she would. She must have been born knowing how to skate. I am last, the Confused. The skates feel awkward on my feet.

The rink takes up most of the floor. A light blue cinderblock wall separates the rink from the rest of the room. I go around and around. I see the small concession stand and tables on the other side of the wall, and remember when I was younger and hitting my shins on the booths.

The motion makes no sense to me. How am I even moving forward? Push with my right foot, push with my left foot. Push right, push left. I can’t look around long before I lose my balance. Brittany the Veteran passes and smiles. Maybe I’m doing something right, but I don’t know what that is.

Around and around. I see the bathrooms and realize that I’ve never been in them. I was too afraid of public restrooms as a kid, and these still look ominous to me. The thought of falling while peeing makes me glad I went before we left. Push left, push right. I don’t know what I am doing. My feet never leave the ground. I am rooted and on wheels.

There are some pool tables near the concession stand. Just four of them, but that area used to be full of pinball machines. At least ten of them. I would go to the skating rink just so I could play pinball. Wouldn’t even skate. They had my favorite table, Jurassic Park, long ago. I wish it was still here so I could go play it.

Everyone, but the little kids holding on to each other for dear life, is passing me. I want someone to hold on to for dear life, but being the only guy here over 16 but under 35 makes it difficult to find another Confused to lean on where someone wouldn’t call the police or raise an eyebrow. I think hard. Push with my right foot, push with my left foot, and then coast. Turn coming up. Lean left and push with right. Wide turn, almost too wide. Dodge the elementary kids. Now push left, push right, coast forward.

A middle schooler cuts me off in the straight away and looks me in the eyes. He stares, asserts his skating dominance, and takes off. He is long gone before I can make the next turn. I am not sure if I’ve been humiliated or not. I mess up the turn, my trajectory now heading towards the front of the building. I correct a bit to aim for a bench, and reach one that is empty. I sit down alone and think.

This isn’t my place, these aren’t my people. I am an outsider. I don’t understand the rituals, the right of ways, or anything here. If I am going to not feel excluded, I have to figure out how to skate. I think about it more. Push left, push right. Coast. Turn wide. Push left, push right. Around and around and around. Turns confuse me. I watch others do them. They are flawless, defy physics. Right over left behind right over left behind right over left. Their feet point forwards, they move in a curve. I try to think it through, reason it out. I stand up and scoot out onto the rink. I move to pick up foot, shake, and stumble. Morgan the Natural passes.

“I can’t figure out turns.” I say.

“Don’t think so damn hard about it,” she says. She’s mastered turns already. I see Brittany in the crowd of skaters. She never forgot how to turn. I go back to my methods.

Push right. Push left. Coast. Turn wide. Push right. Push left. Coast.

DJ comes on over the intercom.

“Relay race!”

Everyone not in a racing mood gets off the rink and sits down somewhere. Megan the Regular participates. Relays are too much for my mind to process. I can’t go fast, and having to keep in my lane would be impossible. I have enough trouble going straight while keeping my balance. Morgan and Brittany sit next to me on the bench, talking.

“I can’t believe I remember how to do this,” Morgan the Natural says.

“It is easier than you think,” Brittany the Veteran says.

I sit, remain the Confused. Fall Out Boy starts playing overhead. The air smells of sweat and greasy food.

 

It was October 2006 at Greeneville Middle School, the night of a dance. I was in the seventh grade. The cafeteria floor was clear of all tables and flooded with pubescent hormones. A stage at the front of the room housed the DJ, always taking requests. No one knew how to dance, but the lights were dark enough that no one cared. People judged, but they all danced anyway. Enjoyed themselves.

I sat off to the edge, and ate overpriced pizza and drank soda. My friends sat with me, but they also danced from time to time. I didn’t. A teacher was scolding two girls nearby for sneaking off into a corner and making out. She said everyone could see what they were doing. They seemed unfazed, but I was horrified at the thought. I didn’t want anyone to see me.

The dances were the epitome of fun within Middle School. If you didn’t go to the dance, then it was because you were a loser. I didn’t want to be a loser. I wanted to dance. I didn’t know how to do it, and I’d think about it over and over.

I walked out onto the dance floor among the other middle schoolers, started to dance (if you could call it that), and then fell apart. I couldn’t understand what I was supposed to do. How do I move my body? Everyone looked at me. The eyes of my classmates, my teachers, the principal, the former students in the class pictures on the walls. All eyes. A classmate stood in front of me, looked me in the eye, and started dancing. I coiled inward, and walked back to my place on the edge of the room.

Fall Out Boy started playing. The air smelled of greasy food and sweat.

 

The relay race is over. Megan’s great at skating. She fell down once, but it didn’t bother her. She got up, kept going. I wish I could skate like she does, like there is no real effort required. She rolls over to the three of us and sits down. We rest on the bench. Dance music starts playing. Brittany the Veteran begins dancing, a feat I thought impossible in skates. I look to my right, and my sister is also dancing with other Regulars.

“Be careful Brittany,” Morgan says, “Don’t want to end up in some kid’s wet dream.”

Brittany keeps dancing, the middle and high schoolers looking at her do not daunt her. Neither do the thirty year olds. Eyes are on her, more eyes than I’d ever want on me.

“Why don’t you dance?” Brittany asks Morgan.

“Because I want to be so scary no one will ever want to masturbate to me,” Morgan says. The DJ comes on overhead again, “Time for the Ladies’s Skate. Ladies, onto the rink.”

They get up and skate. I am alone at on the end of the bench. I look at my phone. It is a little after 11. I look around. The DJ is taking a request from a small child. Neither is sure what the other one is saying. People enter and leave from the entrance, even though the place closes in an hour. The lines at the bathrooms are long. I don’t even want to think about trying to pee in skates right now. The DJ comes on overhead again.

“Girls in the corner, don’t do that. We can all see you.”

I didn’t catch what they were doing.

The teenager behind the skate rental counter stares off into the distance. A kid walks up to ask for the bolts on his skates to be tightened. This brings her back to reality. I have no idea what or where the bolts on a skate are located and make a mental note to ask Megan later. Now it is Men’s Skate. I don’t go out there. The boys all skate too fast, and I’d get run over, fall down, or worse, humiliated in front of everyone.  Megan, Brittany, and Morgan skate back to the bench. They talk with each other. The tables around the concession stand are full of parents. They all sit and talk to fellow parents, and eat overpriced hot dogs and popcorn and pizza. It is bottomless soda night, and I wish I was taking advantage of that. Someone orders a big plate of nachos and cheese, but trips on someone else’s purse in the floor. The nachos go flying, and crash land on a nearby table. People scream from getting hit with chips and cheese.

The pool tables are empty. No one is interested in pool. I miss pinball. The benches along the wall are full. People want the group skates to finish up so they can get back to all skating together. The Cha-Cha Slide comes on overhead. The DJ asks for everyone to dance. There are five or six Middle Schoolers, none of them in skates, dancing off to the side. Brittany turns to me and asks if I want to dance. I say no, my legs freeze at the thought.

 

It was the 3rd of January, 2015, just two weeks ago. I was in Memphis visiting Brittany. There was a family reunion while I visited, and I was invited. It was a formal occasion, celebrating her grandfather’s 80th birthday. The room was large with wood floors and table-clothed tables. On top of them were elaborate centerpieces: glass bowls and plants. I was sitting at a table, off to the side of the dance floor. On my second rum and coke the band started playing, and we were encouraged to dance. I had on a tweed jacket and a bowtie (looked kind of like a professor). All of the other guys wore ties, suits, and dress shoes. I had on Converse. The only person there I had known for more than a week was Brittany. I didn’t know anyone, and no one knew me.

She asked if I wanted to dance, but I wasn’t feeling it. She danced anyway, wanted to have fun. I did too, and wanted to get onto the dance floor. I couldn’t, my legs wouldn’t let me. They froze in place, and I was overwhelmed with fears of dancing in front of everyone. I was also afraid of disappointing Brittany. Did she expect me to dance? I didn’t know. I ended up grabbing something to drink, and leaving the room. I felt a headache building, and my legs hurt slightly. The music was too loud. My brain was too loud. I sat outside on a bench in the cool and smelly Memphis air with one of Brittany’s uncles, Kenny.

“I don’t know anyone in there,” Kenny said, “And they’re family.”

“How long you been away?” I asked.

“Like, ten years.” he said.

“So we both don’t belong here.”

We sat in silence for a while, sipping our drinks.

“Why didn’t you dance with Brittany?” he asked.

“Because everyone was staring at me,” I said. We talked about movies and games and books for the rest of the evening. They ended the party by playing the Cha-Cha Slide. I went back in after the music ended, and Brittany and I left.

 

The DJ announces All-Skate for the rest of the evening, everyone can skate now. The air is hot and smells of grease. Megan, Brittany, and Morgan are already on the rink, going around and around and around. Skating would end at midnight, only half an hour left. My legs hurt, and I feel a headache building. Push left, push right. I watch people skate. Push left, push right. Lean left, cross right. Straight feet, curved turn. I try to understand. Push right, push left, coast, lean left, cross right, turn, push right, push left. I think and think and think. Around the rink. Around my mind. Inward the coil tightens. The room is getting darker, eyes turn towards me. Why am I here if not to skate? Ever inward, more eyes. Push left push right push left push right. Do it now or end the evening on the bench. Lean left cross right turn push left push right. Around and around and around. This is it. Push left push—

I stand up.

I stop thinking.

I skate.

___________________________________

Thomas Cox is a senior at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He studies English and History, and has had poetry published in Phoenix Literary Arts Magazine and Zaum xs.