Stories Punchberry Jam - james simpson

Published on May 29th, 2013 | by Punchberry JAM

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Punchberry Jam - james simpson

Roller Derby Makes Me Brave, Part 4: The Kindness of Derby Girls

I’d seen the flyer near the door of my local coffee shop: A new roller derby league was forming, just a few towns over from mine. A shot of espresso-scented adrenaline hit me. Roller derby! Here!

It had been nearly two years since I’d attended my first bout, and as alluring as the idea of derby had been, I knew I wouldn’t commit to the long drive to the nearest league. So the idea of becoming a roller derby girl had simmered in the back of my subconscious, always on the periphery of desire, a shadow identity just out of reach. But there on that coffee shop flyer was a reminder of my Shadow Self staring back at me in black and white. I tore off one of the flyer’s paper fringe strips printed with an email address and headed out into the February cold to my car.

That night, I sent an email asking for more details. The first official practice was happening that very week. What great timing!

I didn’t go.

And then I didn’t go the next week. Or the week after that.

My Shadow Self kept telling people that I was going to try roller derby, but the other half of me didn’t really believe it. I kept saying it, and then I kept putting it off.

In the end, it took me six weeks to work up the nerve to get on skates. And even then it wasn’t at a practice, but in an empty rink where I could shuffle and fall without anyone seeing.

I wish now that I had gone to that first official practice, that I had let my desire make me brave sooner rather than later. If I’d gone to that practice I would’ve learned about derby stance. I would’ve learned about protective gear and how to fall without hurting myself so badly. By going it alone and trying to protect myself from the emotional discomfort of being awkward in front of strangers, I fell backwards, and I fell badly.

With a seriously bruised tailbone and an inflamed sense of fear, I waited another week and a half to get back on the proverbial eight-wheeled horse – still not at an official practice, but at a Saturday night open skate that some of the derby girls frequented. I emailed in advance to say I’d be there. I had no idea what any of them looked like, but I figured they wouldn’t be that hard to find. I was right.

I spent the first hour alternating between skating from wall to wall in the miniature kiddie rink and sitting down to rest my legs. (These legs hadn’t seen any kind of exercise for years.) When the league’s founder saw me standing on the edge of the main rink watching people zip around with ease while I calculated my chances of successfully joining in, she skated over and coaxed me out onto the floor. We skated four slow laps before my legs burned with the effort and sent me back to my seat. That night I made it around the rink 10 times without falling. Not 10 consecutive times, mind you, but 10 times nonetheless.

I didn’t know then that these women would become my teammates, and I’m sure they had no idea how much they gave to me that night. They spoke words of encouragement. Someone let me wear her kneepads so I could try a few more laps without so much fear of falling. Others simply chatted with me, which is a true gift when you’re the new girl. Someone offered to give me an old pair of skates that she’d bought at a flea market so I wouldn’t have to use rentals at my first practice. When I first showed up at open skate that night, I wasn’t sure I’d last an hour. I ended up staying until the rink closed at midnight and then joining everyone for a late night snack at a nearby diner.

And then, tired and happy and buzzing with the excitement of something I couldn’t quite name, I drove the two of us home, me and my Shadow Self. I needed some rest; my first practice was coming up in two days.

A slightly different version of this essay originally appeared on The Word Cellar. Reprinted with permission. For more writing from Punchberry JAM (a.k.a. Jenna McGuiggan), please check out her blog.

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