Sunday, February 12, 2006

Let the good times roll...

With Valentine's Day right around the corner, the notion of romance is on display everywhere you look, so it was only natural this weekend that my thoughts would turn to rollerskating.

Actually, the subject of rollerskating came up in a recent conversation, and as I thought back to what was a regular event on Friday nights in junior high school, I began to reminisce about its role in my earliest attempts at courtship.

As hard as it may be to believe, the social outlets for pre-teen adolescents in north-central Pennsylvania around the early 80's were somewhat limited. In the fall, it was the football game on Friday nights, with a post-game gathering at either McDonald's or Pizza Hut. During the summer it was miniature golf, followed by ice cream at either Dairy Queen or Carvel. Throughout the rest of the year, most Friday nights were spent at the indoor rollerskating rink. With its pulsating music, array of the latest pinball and video arcade machines, and the requisite disco ball, it was like our own Studio 54. Many minutes were spent early Friday evening standing before my closet, trying to decide which 100% polyester shirt from Chess King would be the one to finally get the 8th grade girls to take notice. That time was later doubled when the choice of thin leather tie was added to the ensemble...

For me, a night at the rollerskating rink held the hope of unrequited romance finally becoming requited, and possibly even some form of physical contact with the opposite sex taking place. For most of the night, I (along with most of my other male classmates) tried to appear nonchalant as we hung together in quiet desperation, occupying ourselves with endless games of Pac Man and ordering our 3rd, 4th, and 5th slice of pizza. But what we were really waiting for was the fleeting opportunity to make our move: the slow skate. Back then, some of the telltale songs that signaled the beginning of the slow skate were "Open Arms" by Journey and "Babe" by REO Speedwagon.

Spaced throughout the evening in small groups of two or three songs, the slow skate provided legitimate cover to approach a girl and ask if she would like to spend some time with you. The timing of the approach to ask the question was crucial: ask too soon in the night and she may have forgotten and wandered off by the time the music started to play; wait too late and she may be off in the girls' restroom with her friends or have already said yes to someone else. A more formalized method of bringing us together face to face was the official "Snowball Skate", where the boys would line up along one wall and the girls would line up along the opposite side of the rink. It was up to each person to plunge forward in front of hundreds of their peers and skate across the no-man's land in the middle of the rink to go up to their intended partner and ask for a skate. Minus the concentrated machine gun fire and pre-sighted artillery bursts, I can imagine that was it was similar to the fear that the young G.I.'s must have felt as they headed across the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.

Of course, once the person accepted your invitation to skate, the risk of public humiliation wasn't finished. There were basically two forms of the slow skate: the cool way and the lame way. The cool way involved the boy skating the entire song backwards, enabling him to face his partner as in an actual dance. Naturally this required coordination and poise, and the ability to make those constant turns around the oval rink while looking in the other direction. An added bonus was that it gave a legitimate reason to place both hands on the girl's hips, which in pre-pubescent terms was practically the equivalent of third base. The lame way was to skate alongside your partner while holding their hand, which resulted in the two of you looking not so much like an actual couple but more like a brother and sister crossing a busy street. Eye contact was practically impossible, as your focus was kept on avoiding a collision with one of the other pairs of skaters, while occasionally looking with veiled contempt and envy at the popular boys who knew how to skate backwards. Conversation was limited due to the high decibel level and the fact that you could only turn your head slightly in the direction of your partner as you held your gaze forward.

The other form of social interaction between the sexes at the skating rink was the make-out session in the moodily lit corner over by the lockers among the piles of coats. This was reserved primarily for the established couples and those lucky enough to have successfully navigated the physical and verbal pitfalls of the slow skate with a new partner. I was only able to pull that move off once, as I recall. The shirt from Chess King must have worked its magic that night--that, or her judgment was temporarily impaired from the several gallons of Drakkar Noir that I had applied earlier that evening. She was from one of the nearby rival schools, and therefore unaware of my designated spot as just the likeable funny guy on our school's social totem pole. I remember sitting next to her on one of those large, round plastic benches surrounded by other couples who were already in the process of making out. After a moment or two I just leaned my head in and went for it, and before long everything was bubble gum lip gloss and wet tongues and heavy breathing. That, and an instant erection that I prayed wasn't noticeable beneath my new Jordache jeans.

I think we met up at the skating rink the following week or two, but as I recall she began to date one of the boys from her own school. Once we were old enough to get our driver's licenses, my friends and I moved on to other things to do on Friday nights--most of which involved aimlessly driving around town while listening to "Jack and Diane" by John Cougar Mellencamp and "Detroit Rock City" by Kiss. Oddly, this provided very few opportunities to engage in make-out sessions with the opposite sex, or even hold a girl's hand for that matter. I'd like to think that these days I have the dating ritual pretty much in hand, but I suppose that deep down the sense of excitement and uncertainty from putting yourself out there before someone that you're interested in has never gone away. Fortunately, the measure of a successful date does not require rollerskates anymore. But if I ever do happen to find myself at a rink with someone when Journey begins to play, at least I know how to skate backwards now...