Cigarette Butt. It could lodge in my rear brake. Loose gravel. It could get caught in between my wheels. It could shift as I passed over it, pitching me over the white line. Bottlecap. It could carom off my left wheel assembly and into my eye. Broken bottle. That could jam my front wheels, throwing me into the air. Patch of unidentifiable wetness. That could cause my boots to slip sideways, placing me on the ground.
My legs ached from crouching at four feet. My knees winced at every impact between foreign objects and the wheels. Creases that had not graced the corners of my eyes five minutes before appeared and wrote themselves into my face. Faster than the velocity that propelled me down the hill my brain’s relays jerked my eyes over the upcoming road bed like a furious puppeteer. The mild grunt of escaping air from my lungs as my knees were driven into my spine by a dip in the road went unnoticed by the roar of white noise that filled my ears and quickly moved on.
The bottom of the hill approached, and my leg automatically formed the right angle that would hopefully cut my momentum at the stoplight. The harsh scraping of rubber being left on the pavement indicated to my body that it was safe to straighten, relax, and unclench muscles that I had involuntarily flexed. I waited for the light to change and adjusted the dented pads that covered my key joints.
Somewhere between Europe and North America, I had decided that I wanted to learn to rollerblade. There had been no peer pressure, no un-subtle advertising, and no real reason for the idea. I just wanted to do it, as silly as it sounded. Despite the admonitions of my parents, who were convinced that I was going to die, I had gone out and purchased the whole package – rollerblades, clunky looking plastic boots with ski type bindings and wheels on the bottom, a helmet, and protective pads. The helmet I festooned with a sticker I had received at school. The sticker originally read “Wanted by the FBI – a Drug Free America”. After my alteration, the sticker that ran across the back of my helmet read simply “Wanted by the FBI”.
Learning to blade was more difficult than I had imagined. The area of San Diego that I lived in was the opposite of flat. While the blades did have a tiny, installed brake that worked with an increase of pressure on the right foot, it was not made for rapid descents, merely flat gentle cruising. The technical way to stop was to form a “T” with one foot out and the other straight. While as effective as forming the “pizza” when skiing, it had a steep learning curve that first placed all sorts of abrasions on my body. Weeks passed, and after a lot of practice, I had mastered the odd gliding motion that one uses to propel themselves on blades. I also had decided what I liked best about my new sport – the downhill. I had been to the skate parks, and hopped on rails and jumps and I had lackadaisically toured around lakefront paths, but none of them could hold my interest.
The steep contours of my hometown that had first caused me no amount of anguish were now the core component of my addiction to speed. Once I could stop, I found no greater thrill than they quick exhilaration of skimming the surface of the uneven road, looking frantically for traps that would signal injury or death to my fragile body. Where I had at first avoided hills like the plague, I now purposely went out of my way to find them. My hands were black from the constant obsessive cleaning of the ball bearings in my wheels. At night, when I slept, I could hear the downhill wind cascading in my dreams.
I would start slowly in my best spot, wheels clanking against the road as I slogged up a winding two to three mile hill. At the top, the area leveled, and I would swing around in lazy circles to make sure my ankles, knees, bindings, and overall balance was ready. My legs would then push against the ground, wheels grinding, each step placing the items in my peripheral vision in a greater blur. Then I would cut right, down the hill with no recourse but to stop at the bottom. On the hill, I would gradually yet inevitably lower my height. My legs would bend at the knees so that my fingertips could brush the ground whipping by. I would lower my torso flat on the knees; head slightly out, so that my body was as aerodynamic as it ever could be. I had originally kept my arms behind my back, hands clasped. On one descent, however, I realized that my preternaturally fast reactions would have no chance whatsoever if I fell to protect my body with my arms behind me. From then on, they gripped my legs tightly.
Such was my pose one day skating as I dived down a perilous, narrow, and gravel filled bike lane. My feet pressed relentlessly against the curvature of the earth so that a misstep would not cast me off into space. The point of the wind’s spear didn’t even affect me as my swiftness cast it through me as if I was a mere wraith. I moved with my reflexes and quieted my thoughts. It was at this second of abandon that my eyes noted a hubcap blocking my meteoric descent. It was up on the corner; it was feet away, I shifted my weight to bypass it, forgetting that this corner had a thick layer of road sand; gravel, glass, and other small mysteries. I caromed into it and felt it catch one foot in its horrid grasp. I was free of the restraints of gravity, cast into the sky, soaring, caught in the caressing currents. I was on the ground. Blood seeped from half a dozen points on my right side and arm.
My eyes blinked. Liquid seeped from the right orb; I wiped unconsciously, cursing as grit clung at my cornea. My mind restarted. Fingers wiggled. Toes wagged. Legs twitched. Arms pushed against the ground. The assessment: surface damage. I was fine. Red fluid leaked from the wounds. Grimacing, I pushed small rocks out of the torn tiger rips that streaked my right bicep. There was nothing to do but to finish the run and lick my new wounds at home. Once out of the fiendish unnatural quicksand that had tasted my blood eagerly my wheels began to sing with speed again.
Preoccupied with paying extra attention to any old sudden hazards, and slightly diverted by the wind flaying my loose DNA to the ends of the earth, I hadn’t noticed the car next to me now keeping pace. I shifted over to the right, closer to the hungry concrete curb. Sometimes I would chase cars down the hill, cackling mercilessly at their slow emissions as I zoomed past them and rattled their windows. This one kept pace at my rear heel, just out of my vision. I refused to look, wary about the buried treachery of the road.The familiar whine of the siren almost startled me over the curb and into the brush. I ignored it. Then the voice cut in. It informed me that I was going forty miles an hour in a thirty five and I needed to pull over. Gingerly, I moved my battered muscles and stopped on a rise. Behind me, the metal grill of the cruiser grinned at me sardonically as its lights watched my every move as its driver approached. After a fifteen minute lecture about how I was “speeding” from the cop, I finally asked him how he had clocked me as radar worked on metal; not people. This not-so-innocent comment led to another ten minute lecture about being “disrespectful” to authority figures before I had my answer: he had been tailing me and watching his speedometer to see when, if ever, I would inch over the limit. I then refrained from stating some choice mental comments about how his actions were such a good use of police resources. For my restraint, I was rewarded, not with medical attention of any sort, but with him, “cutting me a break and letting me off with a warning”. Once back in his car, the cop pulled across the double yellow line, making an illegal turn to patrol back in the opposite direction. I waited until he had crested the rise, and then converted as much energy into personal momentum as possible, cascading fast enough down the remaining hill to melt any wings I might have ever possessed.