Durham Skate Park
My father used to tell people I thought of my skeleton as more of a suggestion than a fixed reality. I was always breaking parts of myself. By the time I was ten, I’d fractured my femur and dislocated my jaw. I broke my ankle, tweaked my spine, and chipped a tooth by the time I graduated high school. There was nothing wrong with my bones or my coordination. I wasn’t brittle or calcium-deficient or athletically challenged. My problem, the doctor told my father, was a lack of risk aversion. My father saw the problem differently. To him, the problem was simple: it was my skateboard. To me, discovering that board - wood grain deck, hot pink wheels, black rails and gullwing trucks - was like finding a limb I should’ve been born with but wasn’t. The board was my ride, my teacher, my twin.
I graduated high school and went to the cities where I would teach myself to skate. First Los Angeles with its wide angles and hot lights, then Berlin with its tight corners and graffiti. I did Boston and Buenos Aires and Marrakech, where the air was metallic and dry and everything shone dull copper like the surface of an old coin. But in the end, I always came back to Durham, a city that fit me like an old leather jacket, edgy enough that I didn’t feel embarrassed to call it my own, but small enough that I felt safe there, even with my father breathing down my neck about getting a real education. By the time I came back for the last time I was thirty-nine. I had all kinds of education. I knew kickflips and ollies and grinds. I knew where to find the best time in at least sixteen international cities. I knew how and when my body needed to move. I knew my own heart. I asked my father if he could say the same and he grunted and lit a cigar, turning his back to me in the garage where he still tinkered with the engines of cars that never moved.
Staying in Durham wasn’t on purpose, but I sank back into the Piedmont more easily than I meant to. Before I knew it, I had a job working in a restaurant across the street from what used to be a tobacco mill. The city had a skate park that overlooked a downtown skyline I hardly recognized - glass towers jutting up where they weren’t supposed to, entire buildings gone, condominiums jutting their awful, angular balconies into the sky. Skating there, with teenagers mostly, I could feel myself aging with the city. I knew that, to some, it seemed like the city was getting younger. But I knew differently. My bones aged, and the city’s bones aged. On the nights when I skated late, the soft air moving through my long hair, the city and I acknowledged what was missing in each other. I used to fall asleep on the bench overlooking the park, my board cradled in my arms. “You’re a bum,” my father said when he came across me one night. “An actual bum.” It didn’t seem like such a bad thing to be, and I told him so.
Mid-Autumn of that year, someone stole my board from my chest while I was napping. January of the next year, my father died of a sickness he never told me he had. Without my board I couldn’t skate and without my father I had nothing to lean my ideals against. I spent the next six months knocking around my father’s house like the bum he’d always thought I was. I took to smoking his cigars. I stared into the engines of the cars he’d tried to fix and got lost in their mechanical mazes, losing whole hours in the soot and the shine of the pipes. I saw the city from his windows but did not venture out. The house was sunless and stale. The kitchen filled with fruit flies. I was almost ashamed when I finally found their culprit beneath the dryer, a spoiled orange, white and soft with rot.
The morning after I found the orange, I woke up before the sunrise and walked to the skatepark. It was empty when I get there, just as the sun was rising over the low brick facade of the police station. I stared at the expanse of cement, the deep bowl that most were scared to use, the ramps and the railings. And then I started to move.
In the light of that early morning, I was skating without a skateboard, skating but not skating, moving across the pavement and the ramps and the railings, moving the way I’d always known how to, except differently. And I could feel all the places where my bones had broken and they ached with an electric intensity that pushed me across the park until I was sweating, until the sun had risen and people had stopped to watch, until I forgot exactly what it was I was missing.