She attacks the shirt with a dull pair of scissors. These are the same scissors she uses for everything: opening packages, cutting green onions, trimming her bangs, holding against her thigh on those tired and desperate nights. The tiny sleeves lay on her dirty carpet, and the cat sits on them before she can throw them out. Fine, leave them there. She drapes the now-sleeveless shirt over the dining room chair that doubles as office furniture in her room. The fans are blasting, but it’s still ninety inside, so she roots through the ice packs in the freezer until she finds a mask that she brings back to her bed and pulls over her eyes. Blue everywhere and a cold that shoots straight into her nerves until she can almost forget that important LA lesson, that you can have central heat and not central air. She regrets the nap as it’s happening, but there’s nothing she can do to stop it. Her body has melted into the sheets, and the cat has abandoned its post atop the shirtsleeves to settle on her chest where it almost strangles her as it kneads her neck. Do it, I dare you.
It is familiar, this feeling of suffocation. It’s the same one she had the last time she wore that shirt, when she thought someone would have to cut it off her. A broken shoulder and those sleeves, those tiny little sleeves that were always a bit snug over the muscles that had grown so large in the last three years. All the cross-training leading to that moment, when the shirt was too tight and the arm was stuck and lifting it was the worst pain she’d ever felt and why did the medic say to stay in the game? The moment she fell she knew exactly what had happened. Oh, so this is what it feels like. This is what it feels like to break a bone. To break a bone and suddenly have the whole derby season cut short. So, when the medic told her she was fine, needed a little tape was all, keep on going, she made damn sure they won so that it would all be worth it. She knew it was the last time she would skate for a long time, and even though every hit was a jolt of fire through her whole body, and even though she was already thinking of how the hell she was going to take off that shirt, she listened to the bad advice and scored 10, 20, 30 more points until the game was over and her face was as pale as it had ever been before.
She wakes from her nap, hours later, to a dark room and slush in her brain. She always remembers her dreams. In this one, it was tomorrow. Tomorrow, she forgets to tighten her wheels before tryouts, and they fall off, one by one. Everyone stops on the track and watches as they roll into the infield. Wheel, wheel, wheel, wheel, repeat, and then there she goes. Everyone stares in silence until her helmet cracks against the concrete with a smack, then they collectively shrug and move on. She hears that familiar sound of wheels on a banked track, the sound of roller derby, and she curls up fetus-like, just happy to be there. There was a time when just being there was enough.
The day of the shoulder, her wheels were firmly attached to her skates; there was no question of that. Falling wheels had nothing to do with it. She has a ritual. A compulsion some would say. The night before a bout, she takes apart her skates. She lines up all the parts. Wheels, bearings, nuts, in neat rows across her floor. She used to take it to the living room, but her roommates have put a ban on any gear outside her bedroom. “Yeah, that stuff kind of reeks,” said Anabelle, as if anything could be done about the smell. She likes the days when Anabelle is off with her boyfriend, hiking the Santa Monica Mountains. Those are her days of indulgence, when she closes her eyes in the bath for hours, the Epsom salt collecting at the bottom, the dirt rising accusingly to the top. She does not respond to the banging on the door when the third roommate’s bladder is ready to explode. If she does nothing, she knows the roommate will slap on some flip flops and use the toilet at the Starbucks down the street. They all keep the bathroom code in the Notes app on their phones, for emergencies like these.
When she gets out of the tub, wrapping herself in her ratty brown towel, she still startles when she catches sight of herself in the streaky mirror. She expects a narrow face half-obscured by unevenly-trimmed bangs, but instead it’s all roundness, the flesh growing everywhere in the months she spent off skates. It’s not what has grown, though, that’s the most striking, but what has failed to grow. The hair has come back in patches of a shade she does not even recognize. Some strands curl up in little half-ringlets, while others conform to a cowlick that has decided to colonize one side of her head. She reaches deep into the medicine cabinet and helps herself to the remnants of a crusted tub of gel left behind by one of her roommate’s ex-boyfriends. It globs up in places, but all in all the effect is softening.
The haircut had not been planned. It was a week and a half after the break, a day after the x-ray. She was mid-sob, attempting to tie up her hair with one arm, pull it away from her face, where the tears had become an adhesive, a sticky glue. It was not possible to do. So she went for the scissors, those same ones, but that, too, proved to be an insurmountable task. “Are you okay in there?” asked Malice behind the door, hearing those first delayed cries spill out of her, finally, after the days of numbness. She said nothing, just quietly unlocked the door from her half-squat on the floor, a squat that was still a thing of beauty, only a handful of days from the time of injury. Mal clocked the scissors, the look on her face. “Do you need help with your hair?” asked Mal, who had hung around since the fateful bout, an all-in-one service of French braids and careful fucks. “Yes,” she said, but it wasn’t braids she wanted. She handed over the scissors. The razor would come next.
She opens up her bottom dresser drawer, and it’s black, white, black, white alternating over and over again. Scrimmage shirts with her name and number printed on the back. She doesn’t need to wear the shirt, the newly sleeveless one. She has other options. She feels that by wearing it tomorrow she’s jinxing things, but not wearing it feels pathetic somehow, like an admission of weakness. She wants to make a statement when she walks into tryouts and laces up her skates and gets on the track without so much as a shoulder brace.
She didn’t ask the doctor for a copy of the x-ray. When he pulled it up on screen, cheerfully, she thought he was about to tell her everything was fine. He pointed to the picture like it was obvious—See? A fracture!—but it looked like nothing to her. He secured the sling too tight, and her elbow was already cramping before she’d made it out of the dim office. Nobody had heard of the greater tuberosity. “The round part,” she got used to saying, pointing to her shoulder. Everyone thought because she didn’t need surgery, she’d be back in no time. “You didn’t even tear the rotator cuff? Lucky!” It was barely an injury, nothing to brag about. She took pictures of the bruising, the ghost of the blood that had dripped down beneath the skin, but the lighting was too dim, it didn’t pop. Nothing worth posting. She made the mistake of hanging around the track that first month, trying to stay relevant. Malice showed off for her during practice, and she cheered from the stands, slapping her hand, the one attached to the good arm, against the metal riser. She’d never been so uncomfortable in her life. She stopped showing up just as she was on the verge of investing in a seat cushion, the kind they sold at merch for skaters’ visiting parents. She went on medical leave, the reduced dues giving her something to throw at the mounting doctors’ bills. The league cared that the skaters had insurance, but nobody checked how shitty it was. You break it, you buy it.
In sports, you’re allowed to have superstitions. A lucky sock, a prayer to a god you don’t believe in, a special handshake with a cherished teammate. Her list just happens to be longer than others’. She’s particular, intuitive. The night before tryouts, she lines up her makeup across her dresser. She knows that seems a little backward—who wears makeup to work out?—but derby isn’t like other sports. It’s a performance; she wouldn’t ever go out there without this shield. She lays the glitter on strong. They all do. The butch girls, too, line their eyes with sparkles, little flakes of shine that end up everywhere after a bout. She’ll pull down her tights and watch the twinkle as the glitter flutters into the toilet bowl, its rainbow swirl when she flushes. She’s mesmerized when she sees photos of herself after a bout, often mistakes herself for someone more glamorous, more self-possessed.
She didn’t touch her makeup during her recovery, wouldn’t have been able to use it anyway. A lot of things are difficult when your arm is in a sling. When your dominant arm is in a sling. Driving is forbidden, but she did it anyway, took hold of the wheel with one arm, fumbled with the turns. Typing, signing her name, putting in a tampon, all became clunky, awkward, hard to do. Sex, too, became an odd game. She tried her left hand, but the rhythm wasn’t right, her balance was off. She made use of her tongue, but her heart wasn’t in it, her position was all wrong. She let herself be touched, but all she felt was the sling rubbing against her bare skin, a reminder of all the maneuvering it took to pull her top off. Her shoulder muscles pinched with every move, foretold another sleepless night. She was surprised that Malice kept coming back, treating her so gently. “You don’t have to stay here,” she said one night when she failed to get in the mood. “I have nothing to offer.” “Don’t say that,” said Malice. “You’re just exhausted.” Malice offered her a sleeping aid, stayed up with her when the pill made her drowsy but unable to close her eyes. She felt like a shell of a person, undeserving of such care.
The morning of tryouts, she keeps her phone close, throws off her Screen Time calculations with pickup after pickup. She doesn’t care that Mal hasn’t texted her, that’s what she tells herself. What she’s checking is the clock. Her meal must be timed perfectly, consumed early enough to avoid the twisting of her gut on the track; too early, though, and she’ll lack the necessary fuel. The meal itself is a practiced combination, a recipe composed over time. Yogurt is to be avoided at all costs. Eggs, on the other hand, are easy to consume and filled with protein. Eggs she can keep down.
Driving to tryouts, she cues up her bout playlist. In LA, what you listen to in your car matters. It’s the background noise to the crying as you sit in traffic, pretending the car is a private refuge, that nobody else can see in. Today she needs music to match her resolve, music with something to prove. When she turns a corner, she cuts sharp, tugs on the wheel with her right arm to convince herself her shoulder is healed, that she’s ready to start the new season like she never left.
Malice listens to Sia power anthems unironically to get herself pumped up. On the morning of that bout, Mal pulled up in front of her building with the windows down, screaming along to “Unstoppable,” waving one fist in the air. She hated Sia, but she couldn’t help but smile. Mal’s energy was infectious. “We’re going to kick ass today,” said Mal. “They have no chance against our new star jammer.” She accepted Mal’s compliment, saw no need to deflect it with false modesty. She knew how good she’d gotten, knew the team was relying on her to score the bulk of their points. She and Mal were unafraid of the risks; they didn’t worry about getting hurt. Later she’d look back and blame it on their arrogance. “You’re so fast, you’ll do three laps, easy,” continued Mal. “They won’t see it coming.” She basked in Mal’s praise, forgot to go over the list of gear in her mind. She skipped many of her rituals that day.
She arrives to tryouts and feels sick. The bathroom already smells like shit. That’s normal on game days, tryouts. The girls pop Tums, pass them around to settle stomachs filled with nerves and last night’s carb-loading, later to be replenished with beer. “No thanks,” she says when the bottle of candy-colored pills reaches her. She refuses the energy chews reflexively, too. Anything can topple her body’s delicate balance. The women sneak looks at this new girl, this interloper, unrecognizable with her cropped hair. It isn’t until the shiny new helmet goes on, offering this specifically limited view of her head, that they realize it’s her, that she’s made her way back. The new helmet is a blank slate, clean without stickers, without her name or number, devoid of personality. She didn’t hit her head, so she didn’t really need a new helmet, but the old one feels cursed, like a vessel for her bad luck.
Malice has told her she doesn’t think she’s ready, but Malice doesn’t know a thing about injuries. When she first made the ranks of team skaters, bumped up from the purgatory of the sub pool, she saw Mal listening to a group of skaters compare injuries, bond over their breaks, and thought Mal was nursing a trauma so big, she couldn’t bear to talk about it. Mal was one of the All-Stars, a big deal, her derby crush before she was her real crush, one of those skaters with what they called a “magical ass.” Opposing skaters were drawn to it, sucked into its orbit and unable to escape. She didn’t know that Mal was like her, just waiting to see where she’d fit in, which sect she’d join. There were the tib fib girls, with their x-ray photos easily accessible on their phones, ready to show anyone who would listen where the rods and screws were. The ones with rotator cuff tears, who made shoulder braces look like fashion statements. The forty-somethings with their knee braces, the daredevils who bouted in finger splints. OG skaters liked to reminisce about the “good old days,” when small, dainty jammers got their clavicles busted in by burly blockers, when everyone had a distinct role. The concussed were the lepers. Nobody wanted to be them, to catch what they’d got. Some of those girls would return, but they usually disappeared before they ever got the chance to relive their former glory. There were some injuries from which you just weren’t meant to come back.
She launches into her warmup laps before anyone has a chance to approach. She feels them looking and swings her arms in wide circles, daring them to doubt her. The arm circles help her, too, to loosen up the muscles that tighten on impulse, muscles that hold memory, that are ready to contract in their attempt at protection. It took her months of PT to get here, months of a man shoving his hand deep into her armpit, the deepest she’s allowed a man to shove anything since she was sixteen and stupid. All the months of deep-armpit massage and still, she has to will her body to relax.
Malice is one of the tryout judges. Mal sits in the Stats booth, stares down at the tryout checklist to avoid looking at her. Every time she laps around again, clocks Mal in the booth, she exaggerates her crossover, pushes her extension. She picks up speed and welcomes the cool breeze striking the beads of sweat that have collected under her shirt. She is confident through the skills portion, but scrimmage takes her by surprise. She doesn’t know how to take a hit, gets penalties for skating into the infield to avoid contact. Nobody shows her pity on the track, but she sees it in their glances as they sit on the benches sipping water and Gatorade. The smiles say your time will come, but it’s not now. They’ve forgotten what she was like before; she’s someone new now, has to work her way back up. She’s the first to leave when tryouts are over. She doesn’t go to the bar down the street for celebratory beers, can’t be around anyone when the results come out.
“Congrats,” Malice says to her the next time they meet at the track. She snickers, has nothing to be congratulated about. She’s been kicked back into the sub pool. “I mean it,” says Mal. “Coming back is scary but you did it, you put yourself out there.” She nods, gingerly climbs the stairs on her toe stops. She steps out onto the track and begins her endless circle.
is a retired banked track roller derby skater. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Meridian and X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, and she was a recipient of the Kasdan Scholarship in creative writing. She lives in Los Angeles where she works in film production.
ART: Biophilia by Kathy Bruce
Kathy Bruce is an environmental sculptor and collage artist whose work explores human forms within the context of poetry, literature and the natural environment. She received an M.F.A from Yale University School of Art and a certificate from The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Ms. Bruce is the recipient of numerous grants and awards including a Fulbright Hayes Senior Scholarship Grant for Lecturing and Research in Puno Peru 2012 and 1983, and a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Fellowship. She has exhibited her work in the US, and internationally including the UK, Senegal, Taiwan, France, Denmark, Peru and Canada.