Our next door neighbor was sitting in his kitchen, naked to the waist, as was his custom. The sound of a vacuum cleaner emanated from the interior of his house, with the occasional radio station popping through in the moments when the vacuum was turned off. It was Sunday, and the first day in recent memory that could truly be described as beautiful. Earlier, M and I had done some yard work; he pulled weeds around the Illinois prairie grass that he’d started cultivating when we first moved here, and I uprooted dandelions with a garden tool, a never ending task that can only be approached with Zen patience. Muggy had just visited, and although I was exhausted from her whirlwind three day tour of Chicago, I missed her, and wished she could have seen this sunny day from a vantage other than the car ride back to Cape Cod with her traveling companion, Mark.
I was processing a lot of bad work-related news; there was the death of a colleague’s friend who had just succumbed to cancer, another colleague had totaled her car on the expressway the same day - she walked away uninjured, and the countdown to layoffs was in full swing. Two weeks from now we’ll all know where we stand with regard to employment, and the need for distraction has ramped up considerably. Last night after a visit to the Chicago History Museum with Muggy, we went to see a roller derby at the UIC Pavilion on the near south side. I was apprehensive - all I knew about roller derbies was that participation could lead to serious injury, and I was concerned that without a pre-screening on my part, it would turn out to be a lowlight for Muggy, that she’d return to Cape Cod filled with visions of injured skaters in her head, and resolve never to visit me again. A coworker had suggested the outing, she’d been to a “bout", as they’re called, about a month ago. Another colleague of mine had gone to one a couple years ago with unfortunate results - a skater fell to the floor, and as she struggled to get up another skater accidentally stepped on her neck, paralyzing her.
I knew one of the skaters, although admittedly not very well. #1980 on the Hell’s Belles team, who goes by the name Megan Formor (pronounced “For More”), is my husband’s first cousin once removed - at least I think that’s how they’re related. She’s my husband’s father’s brother’s wife’s brother’s daughter; they share no blood, and are 13 years apart in age. I’ve spent some time in the same room with her at the annual Christmas eve party held in a near west suburb where empty milk cartons lit up from the inside with colored lights pass for holiday decorations; there was a wedding that we both attended a couple summers ago, although we sat at different tables and managed not to interact; and there’s the occasional barbecue in Michigan at the vacation home of M’s uncle on the fourth of July.
The first time I set eyes on Megan, I despised her. I was visiting Michigan with M and my in-laws at their island summer house on Magician Lake, and she had arrived by pontoon boat from the mainland, where Uncle Doug kept house. Where my in-laws consider one extra person at the table company, Uncle Doug entertains a nonstop litany of visitors who walk in and out of his summer house, which has been named “Dougie World”. There’s no such thing as a quiet morning in Dougie World. My in-law’s island cottage is named “Frog Alley” after the first date they ever went on, when my father in-law took my mother in-law to observe some frogs in a nearby marsh. He was a biology major, and my mother in-law appreciated the fact that he didn’t "try any funny stuff", as she puts it. At my in-laws lake house, I can spend entire days doing nothing but reading and sunning on the dock. Megan walked from the pontoon boat into this island paradise clad only in attitude and an American flag bikini. I’ve never been much of a flag waver myself, but I found it repulsive, if amusing, that someone who considered herself to be patriotic would wear Old Glory on her tits and ass in front of mom and God and apple pie. She had bleached blonde hair, dark eyebrows, and the voice of a much older, much more jaded woman. She had no problem expressing her opinions loudly, which contrasted sharply with my favored style of getting to know extended family members, which generally consists of remaining mute in their presence for the first three to five years, observing and absorbing, then surprising everyone in year six with the fact that I own a larynx.
M wore a t-shirt printed with the word “pants” that he bought from Mujibar and Sirajul's gift shop next to the Ed Sullivan Theater.
“Why does your t-shirt say pants?” she asked, as if he were wearing a shirt made of dog shit and beach whistles.
“It’s David Letterman’s company,” I offered. Megan stared at me as if I’d just spoken Chinese.
“I don’t get it,” she said flatly, her hands clenched in fists at her waist, elbows sticking out, feet planted apart in a superhero pose.
“It’s kind of an in-joke from the show,” I started,
“I don’t get it,” Megan said again. I let it drop.
I’d emailed the Hell’s Belles to track Megan down, just to let her know I’d be there - it would have been rude not to, and sent a quick note letting her know our group would be there rooting for her. She responded warmly, saying that this was an important bout for her team, they’d be up against their arch rivals, the Double Crossers, and could use all the support they could get.
Once inside the pavilion, I spotted my colleagues several rows away, and found two seats for me and Muggy. We’d missed the pre-bout show, which I’m told was quite entertaining, and involved a belly dancing troupe called Read My Hips. An announcer took the stage and introduced the players one by one, and when Megan was introduced, I was struck by how fearless she looked. She wore a red helmet flecked with sparkles, mismatched striped leggings, and a red uniform with her skating name and number emblazoned on the back. She played fiercely, blocking the skaters behind her, getting right up when she was knocked down, and going after whoever had tripped her up to deliver payback.
I was impressed. I was an ice skater in my youth, but never took to roller skates. I tried on a pair in Anna’s kitchen on President Street, and fell backwards onto my tailbone so hard that I closed my eyes and kept them squeezed tight for a few seconds, feeling as though I’d been sent into another dimension. The only time I’ve worn roller skates as an adult was at the Rainbo Roller Rink in Uptown with Mimi, a couple years before it got town down and turned into Rainbo Village Condos. I had more success at Rainbo than in Anna’s kitchen, but I eventually fell there too, and a fellow skater who’d witnessed the fall gave me some pointers - I was leaning back too far, and showed me a practice space on the second floor where I could go at my own speed. I got a pretty nasty bruise afterwards.
I thought about what it was about Megan that bothered me so much. It wasn’t generational - we’re almost a decade apart, but I have plenty of friends and colleagues around her age who I can relate to. It was something about her brassy attitude, which grated on me, but made her such a good skater. She was unsinkable, courageous, fierce - everything I wish I could be in the face of aggression.
At halftime the Belles and the Crossers sat on the sidelines, and while the Manics and the Fury duked it out on the floor, I walked up the stairs to the gallery, over to where Megan sat with her team. I got close enough to shout her name, but not close enough to tap her on the shoulder, we were separated by a metal guard rail.
“Megan,” I yelled once, and then a second time when she didn't respond. Someone joined me in shouting her name, and I looked up to see Denise and Mike, Megan’s sixty-something parents, a few feet away. They weren’t the only parents in the crowd, in our section a silver-haired man in a red t-shirt with the words “Deb’s Dad” rang a cowbell every time the Belles scored, and a husband and wife team of medics - Mama Vendetta and Papa Doc Vendetta, watched their daughter, Varla Vendetta, skate across the floor. There was gray hair scattered throughout the pavilion in concentrations I wouldn’t have expected.
Megan looked up and saw me, rose from her seat and rolled over to where I stood. We embraced over the guard rail, and she thanked me for coming out.
“You guys are kicking ass,” I said, which is probably the most I've ever said to her. Denise came down from her seat and hugged me, and after a moment of small talk we all returned to our seats. On my way back I passed a merchandise booth, and my eyes lit on a red cap-sleeved t-shirt with the Hell’s Belles logo printed on it - a woman's ankle and foot in a roller skate, the point of a devil’s tail winding around it, the entire image surrounded by a heart. There was one left in my size. I had to have it.
I sent Megan an email when I got home:
That was so much fun! I had to cut out early with my friend who’s visiting from out of town to meet up with her friends, so I only caught a little of the second half, but I have a feeling there’s a bunch of us who’ll be coming back for more and now I know not to schedule anything else on a bout night!
I didn’t even realize I’d referenced her skating name saying we’d be coming back “for more”.
She replied with:
I am so glad you could make it! Next time we will have to hang out after. You missed a great second half - we ended up winning by almost 100 points and I won player of the game!
I know it sounds cheesy, but I left the pavilion hoping to hang on to some of Megan’s attitude over the coming weeks. Whether on not I remain employed things will be tough, colleagues will be eliminated, and if I get to keep my job I’ll have to pick myself up off the floor and start skating in circles, regardless of the obstacles.