by Alissa Bird
Roller skating is more than a sport; it’s a style, one that includes shiny spandex shorts, bikini tops, bright helmets, and colorful suede Moxi brand skates. Roller skaters, often women, live in coastal towns like Long Beach, San Diego, or Venice, where they soar down the boardwalks, inspiring envy in every glide and roll.
By the summer of 2020, three months into the Coronavirus, and as California entered a second wave, millennial women everywhere jumped on the next fadwagon (having already adopted a dog, started a garden, and mastered sourdough fermentation), roller skating. But any real skater, like the cashier I met at Fritz's Skate Shop in San Diego, will tell you, as she told me, that people have always been skating. To think it's a new thing is to be grossly mistaken.
“But it has recently become very popular.” She said this as she spun herself behind the cash register.
“Must be good for business,” I said, handing her the pair of sparkly orange laces I picked out in lieu of an actual pair of skates. Fritz’s was sold out of those until December.
The sudden skate craze didn’t surprise me. Many of us saw lockdown as an opportunity to gain new skills, and to, somehow, remain productive. More time on our hands meant more time on our phones, and in April 2020 Tik Tok experienced the largest uptick in downloads in app history. Tik Tok was a treasure trove of roller-skating inspiration. Girls in iridescent skates with candy-colored wheels strutted and twirled to the catchy rhythms of Dua Lipa and Silk Sonic, promising admission into a world of cool. Roller skates, unlike their clunkier step-brother, roller blades, weren’t just for cruising but for dancing. With the help of a Tik Tok tutorial, you could learn to moonwalk, grapevine, or spin in a garage, on a driveway, or on a level patch of sidewalk. You didn’t have to go anywhere.
I started shopping online for skates in July 2020. By then, every vendor from Amazon to the online Moxi Skateshop warned of a production backlog. They wouldn’t be available until October at the earliest, three months away. Three months in the time of COVID-19 might as well be three years and eBay was my last resort.
Finding a woman size seven was the next impossible task. There were skates a-plenty for the small-footed. Were I a teensy size five like my mother, or a size four like my best friend, I wouldn’t have a problem. But any shoe connoisseur could tell you that a size seven is the most common women's size (a fact I learned when my husband worked for Tom’s Shoes). Apparently, me and many hopeful skaters out there are these common women.
I limited my options to either Moxi (a retro skate company started by a derby champ known as “Estro Gen.”), Chicago, or Impala brand skates. My two younger sisters, OG skaters since 1995, told me these were good ones.
As kids, in our cul-de-sac in Perris, California, a suburban settlement on the outskirts of the Inland Empire, we rollerbladed all day long, long past when the street lights came on, listening to Savage Garden and The Cranberries. As far as we knew, roller skates were limited to the roller rink, while roller blades were made for the streets. In my early twenties, when the three of us lived together in San Diego, we’d walk two blocks from our one-bedroom apartment to a parking garage to rollerblade. At night, on the top level, we’d blast Beyonce and skate through shadows and lamplight.
But time rolls on, and after marrying and moving to Los Angeles, I only skated one time. I rollerbladed nervously around the Rose Bowl, making my husband ride his penny skateboard behind me. My sisters made a big change too; they switched from blades to skates.
While I couldn’t see them, we shared our skating progress from afar. My sister Sam created a private Instagram account named Rollerbirdy (a play on roller derby and our last name) for my sisters and me to collectively update with our latest new moves, or rather their latest moves. My sisters were making quick progress, already skating backward and jumping off curbs. Meanwhile, I was still searching for skates. Every time I checked the Instagram account, I felt like I was falling further and further behind.
Sam, obviously the most committed of us, upgraded her gear with abandon. She purchased a rainbow skate strap to carry her Chicagos over her shoulder, and a leather bag to house, not only her skates, but her road wheels (for asphalt), jam skate wheels (for dancing at the rink), and a bowtie-shaped wrench to swap out her wheels and adjust her bearings. Not to be outdone, my sister Bethany went full tilt buying the real deal Moxi’s—the finest skates out there. The COVID-19 skate craze had gotten to them too.
My last run-in with roller skates was two years ago at my friend Max’s 30th roller rink birthday party. My rentals that day cost $15. They were brown with neon orange laces and a humid interior. So, when I realized that Moxi skates cost around $300, I was shocked. I didn’t have a full-time job. Was it okay to spend this much money on a quarantine splurge? My husband reminded me that he spent money going to Malibu two times a week for surfing. This would be my outdoor hobby. My only hobby. Thus far, I passed the time during quarantine tackling ambitious recipes, reading every article in The Atlantic, and doing Yoga With Adriene on my living room floor. Everyone I knew already had their skates. Bethany and Sam got theirs at the start of COVID-19 before the production shortage. A friend, also down in San Diego, found a rouge pair on OfferUp, while my best friend, Emi, out in Brooklyn, bought a child’s size pair because her feet were so small. These were her, recently-separated-from-her-husband, 31st birthday gift to herself. Only Emi’s new roommate, Tiff, was my skate-less companion; she too was feeling the size-seven struggle and couldn’t find any either. After half an hour of searching on eBay, I finally found a pair of sleek, size seven Chicagos. The boots themselves were flawlessly white, like ice skates, attached firmly to shiny silver plates. The toe stops and wheels were hot pink and rubbery, like Barbie skates. They were $220, not cheap, but less expensive than my husband’s surfboard (even cheaper if you consider the gas money he spent commuting to and from the waves). They would be here within the week.
My recent aimlessness was nothing new, though amplified by the pandemic. Close friends had moved out of L.A., I felt lost in my career, and I deeply wanted to be a mother. Lying heavy beneath every waking moment was the great, grieving giant, my infertility. My husband and I had been trying to get pregnant for four years. Quarantine seemed to make it all worse, so much time in my house, so much time in my head.
COVID-19 and infertility had caused the same damage all the plans chucked out the window coupled with an ever-increasing uncertainty. It was already difficult to think about the future, another Christmas without a baby, another birthday, more quarantine. The past was more accessible. The past was nostalgic. The past felt safer. Tree swings, basketball hoops, and now, the roller skates. The further from motherhood I grew, the closer to my childhood I returned.
Fortuitously, on a Friday night while my husband and I sat alone in our living room, drinking a 4:45 pm cocktail, they arrived. After an early dinner, I tried them out in the street in front of our house. I sat on the curb and laced them up, winding the excess lace back and forth around my ankle. I shimmied myself onto the street and timidly began to skate. The road was bumpy and, like many of the streets in L.A., in need of re-paving. Instinct told me to go slow, but the slower I went, the more easily my wheels caught on loose pebbles of asphalt, threatening my balance. Soon enough, I found my rhythm and coasted steadily, making long, Y-shaped strides with my right foot and then my left. Within seconds two young children, a girl and a boy, ran down the street and plopped themselves on the curb right in front of me to watch. A woman, who I assumed to be their mother, came trailing behind them.
“What is she doing?” the little girl asked.
“She is roller skating,” the woman replied.
A man, probably the dad, joined them. He smiled at me and put his hands on his hips. With the four of them staring at me, I considered going back inside. I was embarrassed enough being a thirty-one-year-old and the sole person playing outside on our street. I didn’t need an audience. But if I didn’t skate now, when would I? If not here, in the safety of my home, my street, my neighborhood, where? I couldn’t let a couple of kids and their parents scare me out of my new hobby. I was doing this for me. This was my outdoor hobby after all.
I decided to suck it up and break the tension.
“Hi there,” I said to them, making a wide and rickety loop in their direction.
The little girl waved.
On my next pass, the husband nodded at me.
“Why are you learning to roller skate?” he asked.
Why am I learning to skate?
Because I want to?
Because of quarantine?
Because this is what you do when you don’t have children?
“I have always wanted to,” I said.
“You've been to the roller derby then?” he asked.
This man knew something of skating but nothing of my quarantine boredom. He wasn’t my type of millennial, he was another type, a young dad.
“I have not been to a derby,” I said.
“Well, it's incredible. You will have to check it out. You can’t believe how fast those girls go,” he said.
The millennial parents tried to coax their children back towards their house, but the kids refused. They wanted to watch me skate. Even without COVID-19, our neighborhood was quiet, made up mostly of retirees, people even less inclined to leave their homes now. My lone presence in the street signified a change not only in my routine but in the neighborhood routine. I was the event of the evening. Just a twiggy girl in yoga pants and Barbie skates, but at the very least, someone doing something.
Maybe it should have felt good to bring a smile to those kids, or if not a smile, at least some mild entertainment, but I was annoyed. I was skating for myself, not for someone else’s amusement. Even that was complicated. I was only doing this because I didn’t have anything else to do, because I was searching for a new identity, one outside of mothering. Really, I longed to be a mother helping her child take her first wobbly strides in a new pair of skates or even like these millennial parents, the parent on the curb with my kid watching someone else skate the day away. The further that fantasy drifted, the more determined my resolve to make something else of myself.
When I am roller skating, I look like I am seventeen years old. I have the same thin blonde hair, tanned legs, and jean overalls. I choose smooth concrete surfaces and pretend I am Michelle Kwan as I glide across them. I complete a timid spin and think, 2.3, 2.6. The crowd cheers.
I’ve changed in the last two years since my first rickety roll, I’ve upgraded my pink wheels for orange and yellow road wheels. Road wheels have smoother bearings and can handle more challenging terrain. I switched out my white laces for the sparkly orange ones. I bought a rainbow shoulder strap, like Sam's, to carry my skates like the real OG skater girls do.
When I was little, I didn’t think mothers could ride bikes, climb trees, or roller skate. I didn’t see them doing those things. I thought mothers cooked, cleaned, dropped off the kids at school, and watched soap operas in the afternoon. That was every mother I knew, and yet I still wanted to be one. I still want to be one.
But, every now and then, when infertility is less loud, I try to be grateful for the time I have had with myself, the time I have had to decide who I really want to be and what it is I want to do. If anything, it has only clarified the type of mother I hope to be—a mother who cooks, cleans, works, and then, in the evenings, slaps on a pair of gold shorts, flaunts a bikini top, and sails down the boardwalk.
Alissa Bird is a current candidate for an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside. She is the managing editor for the UCR literary journal, The Coachella Review. Her work has appeared in The Coachella Review and Reservoir Road Literary Review. Follow her on Twitter @AliBirdMurray