By David Martinez
I had a reverence for skateboarding, spoke about it like it had saved my life, and for the years in which I skated, and maybe more than I knew, it did. It was something my younger brother, Mike, and I did always together, and Mike—often my only friend through all our family’s moves, my only confidant even into adulthood—did save my life in ways I wouldn’t understand for a long time.
In a way, skateboarding was about outrunning. Outrunning my parents’ unhappy lives. Outrunning whatever misery it was that made them lock themselves away in their rooms when they were home. Outrunning ourselves, our flunking school or being expelled, our hate and mistrust and unease and guilt at church. Outrunning the sadness that was building inside, as wide and unstoppable as the ocean I stared at from the park we skated in Puerto Rico. It was about being desperate, accepting, and thriving within that desperation by deciding which bones were worth breaking for the thrill of some sense of progress. It was about outrunning until there was nowhere left to run, until whatever talents imparted to us through skating were useless, the way all skills and abilities will someday fail, the way no matter how hard we want it, how hard we try, some epochs can never repeat, and some things will never be the same—and maybe, though bittersweet, it’s for the best. Maybe an end is required for something to become imperishable.
I learned to ollie in our low-ceilinged basement in an Idaho winter in 1996, when I was twelve and Mike was nine. We learned on a shared, ten-inch-wide, outdated, heavy skateboard from the eighties, rolling around the wide downstairs area that no longer had carpet because it had flooded the year before. We took turns dodging, or accidentally rolling over and braking, our sister’s toys. I may have cracked a piece of tile—Mike may have cracked another piece. We fell. We hurt ourselves. We got yelled at. We failed for days, but by the time the snow melted and we could skate outside, I could ollie. My first real board was a Hook Ups Nabiki Demon Killer deck with a brown-haired anime girl in a ripped skirt and holding a long sword on a yellow background. I had Grind King trucks, Bones Swiss bearings, and Spitfire wheels from the shop we went to in Idaho Falls, twenty minutes from the small town where we lived until moving to Puerto Rico seven months later—we never lived in the same place long, and our skating started in Idaho and Puerto Rico and ended in Florida. After learning on that heavy and bulky monstrosity in the basement, I discovered that with new equipment, not only could I skate, but I could do it with ease. Mike became known as the fearless, little kid who could ollie and was always found wherever the older ones were. I became known as the fearless kid who could clear a garbage can on its side and jump off monuments in church parking lots.
Skateboarding was falling until we didn’t. There was nothing like sticking a trick after failing a hundred times in a row, nothing like understanding a micromovement until it became second nature. There was nothing like the excitement of sticking a kickflip or 360 flip, knowing it was my own feet that made the board spin the way it did, knowing that at least in that setting, I had mastery over something.
Mike and I learned to get back on a board the day after setting a crooked arm in a cast, learned from studying skate videos for hours, learned to fall all day for one trick—and those are transferrable skills. Those are skills that, through heroin addiction and job losses and arrests and restarts and mental health collapses, made it possible to keep moving. It gave us progression and taught us to cultivate a focus in a way no institution or family setting was ever able to. It saved our lives because it was something we did together, and though we eventually quit skateboarding, we never quit one another. Skateboarding became shorthand for a shared childhood and adolescence marked by a unique and unconditional love for one another that we’d never found anywhere else.
Our home held a tense current that hung in the air. My father seemed to want to play guitar with Mike and me or talk about movies and books, but most of the time his desire for some type of connection was overrun by his anger. Or he was distant, locking himself in his room to avoid the noise and chaos of having a family. It depended on his mood. Sometimes in the afternoons, when his religious zeal flared up, he’d step into the downstairs living room and yell as loud as he could to everyone in the house that it was prayer and scripture time. The chemistry had to be just right for him not to throw a tantrum. With a smile, he would sit on the loveseat next to the bookshelf full of the books he collected from the Folio Society, the large-print scriptures open on his lap. If my mother, sister, three brothers, and I didn’t immediately drop what we were doing to run to him, he would call again, ending with, “Come on, guys!” The longer no one paid attention, the more stressed he would become and the bigger the resulting explosion. If most of the family trudged in with a sigh, but not all, we would sit on the couch or loveseat while he yelled at the absent—usually Mike. Anything that didn’t result in everyone’s immediate compliance would end with my dad throwing something nearby, his scriptures at the wall or to the floor, a steel-toe boot to the chest if we were talking. He’d shout, “Fine! Do whatever you guys want, then!” as he stomped upstairs to his room, shaking the house when he slammed the door, which he broke more than once. The rest of us would roll our eyes and scatter. It was the typical example of a lot of family interactions with my dad.
My mother shut herself in her closet to read romance books or stood and watched TV while holding our youngest brother on her hip. She nodded with a disinterested yes to whatever we had to say—we had no need to avoid her. She seemed to live in a perpetual state of dissociation, wanting to be gone but with nowhere to go. My dad laughed at her Brazilian accent and scowled at her ideas, and she in turn would make fun of him when he threw his tantrums and broke whatever was nearby. She was always looking for peace and wanted us kids out of the house, always, and she sent our four-year-old brother, John, with Mike and me as we wandered Bayamon and Old San Juan after moving to Puerto Rico. Mike and I took turns watching John while the other hid behind a building or bleachers with a foot-long bamboo pipe I’d made.
The symptoms of our parents’ unhappiness allowed Mike and me the opportunity to do whatever we wanted but also inspired a need for attention so strong it bordered on dangerous. So, we were gone all day, feeding off the attention gained from other skaters and kids by skating handrails and gaps no one else would try, in the evening commiserating with all the other broken children with a blunt or a bottle or later pills and needles, gathering anyone who wanted to be around us. Mike and I were gatherers, strange magnets who attracted a collection of the damaged, both when we were together and later when we lived apart as adults.
Our skater group considered ourselves serious skateboarders, a different breed, though other kids and parents saw us stereotypically: reckless, unsupervised, smokers, anti-jock, punks, dropouts, drug addicts, lost adolescents. Either the stereotyping became true because we bought into them, or they were true and that’s why we were the way we were. I needed skateboarding in a way I thought was my own, and I think they did too. Our group deemed ourselves different from those we considered casual in their skating. We were different from those who played school sports sanctioned by parents and school and church and teachers and coaches. We never felt like we had any of those on our side. We judged those kids, thought they only skated on the side because it was a fad, and they would quit whenever football or basketball or baseball season started, or their coaches or parents told them to, afraid of an injury. We never saw them hit up the handrails or learn to 180-flip an upright garbage can. Now, the judgement seems silly, but at the time, skating was our religion, and like the fervent, we had our versions of sanctity. We revered people like Carlos, one of our best friends from our neighborhood in Puerto Rico. One day, Carlos, Mike, and I dragged the wooden box I’d made in shop a few blocks out to the basketball court, like we did almost every day. There were two outdoor courts and an indoor one. The middle court was slightly higher than the first one, and between it and the sidewalk, behind one of the hoops, was an eight-foot gap of grass that descended slightly until it met the pavement. I had ripped my ankle out of the socket on that gap maybe a year before and had to hobble around on crutches for a month. We set the box up on the decline, leaving a healthy gap between it and the basketball court, and skated it, flipping the board into slides and grinds down the metal rails I’d put on the sides. We kept pushing the box out farther and farther, testing ourselves and what we could do. Carlos wasn’t nearly as experienced as Mike and I, but we egged him on. Mike told him all he had to do was pump faster and not be afraid to stay over the board. Carlos pumped, sped up to the box, ollied up, but not high enough, and caught the back of the board on the edge, fell over the top of the wood, and landed on his right arm which he’d stretched in front of his face. Mike and I flinched and walked over to Carlos, who was screaming when he came up, his arm bent into an L two inches below the wrist. While some of our group helped him home, he cried and yelled at us that we shouldn’t have told him to try.
“Fuck,” Mike said, and he and I lugged the box back home in silence. Mike and I knew how to carry a silence, carry one another’s secrets so the other wouldn’t have to be always alone. When we got home, we didn’t say a word, and since no one asked, we didn’t need to.
The next day, Carlos was back at our house, arm in a cast, and ready to get back out and skate, did a kickflip in our driveway, and we revered him for that. He didn’t have to be, and didn’t want to be, home. He chose to hang out with us, to break himself with us, and we loved one another for it. None of us had a better place to be—it seemed the strongest bonds I made were with those who didn’t have a better place to be.
Everything had to be paid for. The more complex the trick, the more impressive, the higher the risk, the greater the price that had to be paid. It was paid different ways. Time put in equaled skill and comfort on the board. Skill and comfort equaled learning to fall, which diminished the severity of injuries—though they could never be avoided completely. It meant new ledges and banks and stairs and rails and gaps became attainable. It meant evolution, and coming from a depression-filled and stagnant household, evolution was something we were thirsty for—and, to counter the rules set by school and religion, we, as the punks we were, wanted it on our own terms. Mike was always getting detention or suspension and was eventually expelled twice—once when he was twelve and we were leaving Puerto Rico, once when he was thirteen and we had just moved to Florida, each time for possession of weed—until he dropped out in high school. I failed my classes, skipped school so often I had a teacher who didn’t know my name, and eventually dropped out after providing my brother with the weed that got him expelled the second time. But despite the difficulties, I yearned for that progress only skating had been able to provide.
Skateboarding offered that—progression on my own terms. All I needed was a board and time, and I had all the time in the world.
One of the skate spots we hit up was in downtown Bayamon—though we had to walk some miles to get there. It was a park with a few stairs and a couple skateable benches where a homeless woman lived. It was the first I had seen someone in such a miserable state up close like that. She paced barefoot, murmuring to herself in urine-wet sweatpants—I watched her and wondered how she got there. I wondered how easy it would be for me or anyone else to end up like that—not knowing that one day I would wander around the haunts of the homeless, buying and shooting heroin and smoking rock, or that Mike would end up living on the streets, sleeping behind department store dumpsters, spooning his equally homeless girlfriend the morning the cops would arrest him for vagrancy and violating probation, the last morning he would ever spend outside of prison. I wondered how dangerous it was for that woman in the park in Puerto Rico—she was small and young. I lowered my head when she looked our way, though, because she screamed and chased anyone who showed her even the slightest attention. I wanted to talk to her but never did. Instead, I hit up a ledge along the side of a four-step that led down to a brick sidewalk, which made a soothing sound as my wheels rolled across it.
It was always Mike and me. We were testaments to one another of the collected neglect and hurt we tried to hide from everyone else. We needed to be seen, so I kickflipped off baseball dugouts in front of teenaged crowds into the grass below, or I hardflipped the seven set of stairs during lunch at school only to get the board taken by a teacher after sticking the landing. Both Mike and I broke our boards heelflipping off bleachers, tumbled down handrails, slammed into mini-ramp edges made of concrete. It was all worth it to us for the prize of being noticed. Mike continued to skate in his cast after breaking his right arm on a steep hill—the exact spot where I’d broken my arm three years prior. His first cast was just green wrappings around a metal brace. He seemed to wear it for months because he kept breaking the bone over and over—his straight, coal-black, indigenous hair and brown skin, shorts so baggy the bottoms hung to his ankles, and shoes two sizes too big because he wanted to wear the same size as me. Still in that cast, he once climbed up on a foot-and-a-half-wide, eight-foot-tall brick wall to skate along the top and ollie off.
“Mike, man,” I said while walking with my group of friends on the sidewalk below. “That’s a bad idea. You’re going to fuck up your arm.”
“No, brother,” he said as he pumped his board forward above me. “I got this shit. Don’t worry. Watch.”
I watched. He didn’t have the momentum needed when he hit the floor and fell forward onto the arm, still in a cast, but he never let on that it’d hurt. When he went to the doctor a couple weeks later, the doctor said the arm hadn’t healed, gave Mike a new, blue wrapping, and sent him home. It never did heal right.
There was one terrifying spot in particular at a school we didn’t attend in Puerto Rico, years later—an unnaturally long and high twelve set. Mike and I and our friends had to squeeze through a bent part of a gate to get in. It was good, smooth concrete, soft, as far as concrete goes, but slanted at a crooked downward angle at the bottom of the stairs, and it scared the shit out of me. I rode up to it and stopped at the top, tense, many times before actually ollieing the set. I didn’t like doing it. As much as I loved skating, loved hitting up the benches and ramps and ledges and lips, doing tricks over parking cones and small gaps, I did not like hurling myself down dangerous stairs or onto large handrails. I did it. I wanted to prove that I could to whoever was interested, but I did it trembling. I rolled away from the twelve set after sticking the landing, feeling accomplished but also lucky that I hadn’t broken my leg, not wanting to try the stairs again but knowing that I would while my friends cheered me on. The only other person in my group to ever attempt those stairs was Mike—everyone else had more sense. Years later, when we were in our thirties and he was in prison, I sent him a piece I’d written about that set of stairs.
“It’s good, brother,” he wrote back. “But you have to put in there that I only ever tried those stairs to impress you. You were my fucking idol, man. I was always trying to impress you, and I mean, if you write about it, it doesn’t mean shit unless you say that. That’s like the most important part.”
He was right. It was the most important part. I wanted Mike with me everywhere I went, all the time, and he often seemed like the only person who wanted to be there with me. Even after our lives slowly drifted apart, that remained true. We made plans to write his book together after he got out of prison and could tell me all the fucked-up shit he couldn’t say over the phone where the guards listened. I was going to somehow make money to help him for when he got out, so it would be different than the last time when he left the halfway house. It was all going to get better. It was all going to be okay. We were going to be old men sitting on a porch together, laughing through the aches we’d accumulated, finally free of what we were trying to outrun on our skateboards, through our drugs, through every mistake we’d ever made.
Skateboarding taught us a lot, taught us to hold on, to be tenacious, even long after we’d quit. Once, when I was in my thirties, I was hit by a car while crossing an intersection, and for a couple years, I flinched every time I had to cross a street or parking lot, every time I had to drive through a crosswalk, until I started watching skate videos again. I stopped flinching as I began to remember what it was like to know I might break myself somehow but to throw myself onto a ledge or over a bank anyway. I forced myself to watch, to remember what it was to defy pain and gravity for the thrill of catching the board under my feet, midair, after flipping it and hovering for a moment until meeting the pavement with enough velocity to roll away with style. It was the same skill used when I thought I was losing my mind during my third week sick with COVID, when the brain fog associated with the disease melted my ego, and I saw myself scattered on an endless plane. In my delirium, I shuffled over to my living room and picked up Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish,” clutching each word, which made more sense to me then than it ever had before. I was determined to not let my mind become destroyed, and holding on to Naomi’s insanity seemed my only chance of facing my own insanity head-on. Skateboarding taught that it was possible to face some things, like some types of madness, head-on.
I stopped skating after dropping out of school at sixteen, not because of friends or girlfriend or new car—I didn’t have any of that. I had slowed down in Puerto Rico as my drug problem got worse, and by the time we’d moved to Florida, I felt there was something so wrong with me that I just couldn’t do it anymore, and it faded from me. Mike stopped soon after, after falling and launching my last skateboard—a Toy Machine Monster deck—down a sewer grating. He avoided telling me for days, and by the time he did, I’d already stopped caring. The last time I skated was half a decade later in Florida after our little brothers had gotten a couple boards and a kicker ramp for Christmas. I was coming home from the landscaping job I had after having met up with Mike and our friend D, another former skater, the three of us on methadone. I decided to show our little brothers, nine and eleven, how it was done. I asked one of them to borrow their board, terrified I would end up breaking it and cause them pain but needing to try anyway, still needing to be seen, aimed toward the opposite side of the kicker ramp, and pumped as fast as I could. I was going to kickflip down it the opposite way—something I would have done with ease five years prior and not floating on methadone—but, like Carlos years before, I caught the back of the board on the ramp, hovered horizontally about five feet in the air for a moment, and came crashing down on my left shoulder with an audible tearing sound. I lay in the middle of the cul-de-sac asphalt, gasping. D and Mike, dirty from work, ran to me and asked if I was okay.
“No,” I said, and pulled for air. “I’m not.”
I lay there for a long time, and when I went inside the house, my mother asked if I was okay. I told her I was fine, grabbed some ice, and went to sleep.
The next morning, as the methadone was waning, I woke up and ran to the bathroom to puke in the sink, my body feeling off and twisted from my injury, only going to the doctor when I had to. I had no insurance, so the doctor decided to do nothing about the disconnected clavicle. It became another badly healed wound, worth it in the end, if only for the retelling.
Of course, skateboarding couldn’t save us from everything—what we didn’t know growing up is that it couldn’t even save us from most things.
It didn’t save Mike from developing septic shock in prison in Tucson after weeks of having been sick during the time of COVID. I didn’t pick up the phone when an unknown number—which I knew was Mike, unknown numbers were always Mike—called me at 3:00 a.m. I’d had problems sleeping that week, had been nervous and anxious, staring at the dark ceiling, feeling hot even though it was cold out. I knew something was off, though I never expected it was Mike’s end. We’d been talking about our skating days not too long before—even in our thirties, we talked about when we wandered as unsupervised children and how insane it seemed to us looking back.
It could have been the prison that had called. I was his emergency contact and beneficiary, the way I was always his emergency contact and beneficiary when he was alive, when we were kids and he followed me everywhere. The prison called my dad a few hours later, after not being able to get a hold of me, to say that Mike was unconscious, that he might not wake up. When I found out, I was already exhausted, not having slept the night before, but prepared for work at home in my button-up shirt and pajama pants. My dad wasn’t the one who called me. It was our younger brother, John, whom we had taught to skate before he was out of diapers. My dad was at least halfway from Phoenix to Tucson by the time John knew, by the time I was called and told that my oldest and best friend was about to die.
What Mike had left me as his beneficiary, all his belongings, was a small box of papers, old shoes, and a cup caked with dried coffee. But in those papers was an envelope with a letter I’d written him, one of two letters he had—the other was a letter to my parents that had been returned to him. Under the flap of the envelope was written over and over in the proud hand of a perpetual little brother, professor, my current occupation. What Mike had left me was the gift of being seen.
Sometimes, when we were still kids or young adults, after Mike got in trouble or arrested, our mom would glare at me and, with that venom that comes from a soft, angry voice, say, “I never thought Mike would’ve ever done any drugs or alcohol or anything, because he was always with his older brother. I always thought you were watching him. I never imagined you boys were ever getting into so much trouble.” Her outward anger never lasted long, though, before she went back to her shows, back to the closet with her romance books, back to wanting us out of the house. She never knew what to do with us, and I think she really wanted me to be responsible, so much that for years she made me think that I was, made me forget I had been a child too. Forgetting was what they’d always done best, and Mike and I were nothing if not forgotten. We would hang out in the cool air with my high school friends till three in the morning some nights, drinking Bacardi 151 and smoking weed until we could barely stand or our parents, noticing our absence in the early hours, would come hunting us down. We could barely stand, but we could still skate, and we did, in the dark, laughing and dodging the crack vials on the sides of the concrete. We were broken but magic, because then everything was magic. Everything was before us. We felt we could be broken and maimed but not killed.
That time in which we spent all day on the street skateboarding, laughing, smoking, just walking down busy sidewalks and back alleys will never come back. Mike is gone. Our friends are gone, many also dead or in prison, and I’ve lost contact with most of the survivors. We had that childlike hope for a future that would never exist, a future that was always impossible because it would have required a sturdy past. What we had in those days was one another, and I loved Mike more than anyone. And he loved me, and we saw one another, noticed one another. I was lucky to have him. At that age, there was a salvation in that skating obsession, something so ethereal and particular to a youth who doesn’t yet understand how much they will lose, how much the obsession can maintain for a while, but in the end will never be enough. Maybe nothing is ever enough. Maybe we were never meant to live perpetually in wonder at the world, frozen in a time capsule like a desired purgatory. Maybe what we’ve been building all this time are those epochs, moments we never realized were pure. Maybe that’s all we’re ever meant to be left with.
David Martinez is a Brazilian American writer who has lived all over the United States, Brazil, and Puerto Rico. He earned his MFA in creative writing from UC Riverside Palm Desert. His most recent work can be found in Please See Me, Writers, Resist, Charge Magazine, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. He currently teaches English and creative writing at Glendale Community College in Arizona. You can find him here: davidmmartinez.com.