Learning to Fall
The thing is, we aren’t perfect. And the people who expect us to be are just assholes. We fight sometimes. We backstab and nitpick. We form cliques and break confidences. We mess up. But I hope that we don’t turn away from each other in those moments. Because the moment we give up on each other is the moment we give in to the worst of the myths about women. If we overthrow our derbies because they don’t fulfill our ideals, we’re setting them up for failure. Expecting women to be perfect – to be everything and never fall short – is not a feminist act.
I stood in the doorway of the kitchen. Knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, helmet and skates, I was all geared up for a happy roll in the soft Florida winter sun.
“You look ridiculous,” my mother-in-law Elizabeth said, smirking. She was all perfume and haughtiness. “I can’t believe you’re going out in public like that. Let me get my camera.”
She followed me onto the sidewalk. I flashed a peace sign to her that I mentally removed my pointer finger from.
The people who expect us to be perfect are assholes. I wish someone had said that to me earlier in my life. I wouldn’t, of course, have believed it, because until recently, I thought that if someone expected you to be perfect it meant they believed in you. I also thought that there might be some possibility of being perfect; the perfect wife, student, bohemian, derby girl. I could have the tattoos and the degrees. I could have the perfect relationship. I thought I could have my pretty pretty dresses and my feminism. But I was wrong.
Before roller derby, I was scared to fall. People who are in control of their lives, who are creating their ideal selves, I thought, don’t fall. But, in derby, everyone gets knocked down. The only thing that people will remember about you hitting the ground is how long you stayed on it.
Letting go, being wrong, and falling down all seem like fairly passive modes of revelation. But in derby, nothing is just passive. Every yielding must be followed by an instantaneous exertion of force. Playing roller derby almost always results in revelation for the women that play it. They learn that they are weak, that they are strong, and more importantly, that they are both things at the same time. They learn that the only way to recover from a fall is to get right back up. They learn that it’s okay not to be perfect or that they already are perfect or that perfect is a fucking scam thought up by the man to keep women with balls in check. They learn not to be kept in check.
Roller derby opens up a space for women to relate to each other as bodies, as women, as concrete or ephemeral things, as bitches or sex kittens or neither or both. The performance of the sport enacts a fluid exchange of energy between the players, energy that can be absorbed, reflected, or deflected. It is an energy which is specifically and explicitly feminine.
Roller Derby Ate My Marriage
I was sitting on the stairs to our attic eating a ham sandwich. I hadn’t been home in days, but Daniel didn’t know that because he had been in New Orleans visiting friends. Professors with tenure and lovely duplexes in gentrified neighborhoods. I had been doing derby. My hair was a maelstrom of sweat and cigarette ashes.
“I can’t watch you do this,” he said.
“Eat that.” He formed his lips into a flat line across his face.
I stared at him through the thickness of my hangover. I hadn’t eaten pork for years, but I was hungry and tired and it was the only food in the house. It didn’t make sense for him to care about it, anyways. He loved ham and had never been attached to my shaky vegetarianism.
“Seriously?” I asked through a dry mouthful. “What the big deal? You eat swine all the time.”
“You don’t,” he said, “And it means something.”
It seemed like every little something meant everything to Daniel at that point, except the things that mattered. It was okay if I didn’t come home at night, but if I admitted that I had been smoking cigarettes, it was a problem. I could come home with visible hickeys, but I could not eat ham sandwiches.
My therapist, Arelys, listened to me freaking out.
“What THE FUCK? I’m fucking someone else and he’s pissed off because I smoked a fucking cigarette?”
“Tracey,” she said evenly, “When a person is having an affair, I think their partner always knows it on some level.”
“If he knows I’m having an affair, then why doesn’t he fucking call me on it instead of getting pissed off at me about all this piddling shit and being all passive aggressive about it?”
I was defensive. I felt guilty. I was having an affair and I was really mad at Daniel for not noticing or pretending not to notice. I was acting up, and Daniel, my husband and apparently, guardian, wasn’t setting new boundaries. So I was trampling all over the ones that were already there.
Sometime shortly before Mardi Gras, dressed in short derby shorts and a skimpy crop top, I had sat on his lap and daringly (within the context of our sexless relationship) tried to kiss him. With tongue. He playfully slid me off his lap, edging me away with his elbow in a reflexive move that we both knew well. I thought, “He doesn’t want me. He married his best friend.”
Well. Maybe so had I.
I had already been semi-crushing on my derby wife, the magnetically athletic and sincere Rock Bottom, for a few weeks, but something in that rejected kiss solidified the already growing wall between Daniel and I and broke down any last resistance I had in my pull towards her.
After a long Fat Tuesday in Mamou, Rock and I found ourselves slow-dancing to a neo jug band in Layfayette. I leaned into her broad shoulders and rested my face in her hair. She drunkenly, but flirtatiously pushed me away and said, “You cannot make out with me. You’re married.”
I was a gallon of bourbon into the night and cocky as all get-out. “Girl, I don’t need to make out with you. A bisexual belly dancer in the bathroom just gave me her phone number.”
We danced until the Saloon closed. Then we half-followed a drunk on a bicycle home until we were sure he wasn’t going to fall down in traffic. We pulled over a dozen times that night, in parking lots, fast food drive-thrus and on the side of highway, alternating between making out and her patient explanations that she wasn’t into me. Fine, I thought, I could accept that, but it was fucking Mardi Gras and my marriage was deteriorating and she was pretty and I was going to have a good time. And, as I accidentally confessed, I adored her.
When she dropped me off at my house, I said, “Kiss me goodnight.”
“No,” she responded. But she did it anyway.
It was pretty confusing on all counts. I didn’t actually feel any differently about Daniel, meaning I didn’t love him any less. But we hadn’t had sex since our wedding day, almost a year before. He was never much of an instigator and I had given up. Why had I given up?
I looked back at every dalliance I had had in the past decade carefully, real or imagined. All women, no men. Not women like Rock, though. It was all leggy model types and typical beauties. No broad shoulders. No baggy basketball shorts. I had always been attracted to the kind of girl I wanted to be, a sexy feminine ideal.
I jogged past my derby friend Tricky’s house early one morning. She was awake, padding around in sweatpants. We drank coffee on her porch.
“I think I might be gay,” I told her.
She snorted. “Wouldn’t that make everything easier?” she asked.
“No, actually, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t. I love my husband.”
“Yeah,” she said, “but so then if you were gay then this whole thing with Rock could be like not his fault and not about your relationship. It could just be about some fundamental biological need you have to fulfill”
“That doesn’t sound easy,” I said. It sounded terrifying. More than terrifying, it sounded wrong. It sounded like if I decided to be gay that I was somehow going to be able to get away with duplicitous and deceitful behavior and ride off into the sunset with my new sweet girlfriend on the back of a unicorn on a sunset of rainbows. Like Daniel wouldn’t be pissed or hurt or fucking devastated because I had some fundamental biological need.
I don’t think that many people think of me as a person who represses her needs and desires, but in reality, I was. I spent a lifetime seducing men because they wanted to fuck me. And when I did give in to my deviant desires to be with women, I found women to fuck that I also wanted to be. Harvard graduates with delicately long torsos and spunky geek rock girls with pierced nipples. With Daniel, I found a way to avoid the responsibility of seduction and a way to embody my ideals. All of them. I got to be hot and tatted up and also married and totally respectable.
I got to be everything, the ineffable perfect that the assholes say is possible. And it wasn’t enough. Because I realized that I didn’t want to move to New York or Boston and be the quirky undersexed wife of an academic. I didn’t want to live my life in an ivory tower in the suburbs of cool. I wanted to stay in Baton Rouge. I wanted to play roller derby, eat ham sandwiches, get a dog, and have a relationship with someone with whom I felt mutual. Someone with a vagina.
Even after these realizations, though, it still wasn’t clear to me that my marriage would end. Daniel and I, I thought, were bigger than these petty superficial structures. He didn’t want to have sex with me, so surely he would be happy to be relieved of the burden. We could live out our lives as best friends in some polyamorous utopia. We might not have been soul mates in the way I had planned, but surely we would never be separated.
“Are you going to divorce me?” I asked him a few days after our come-to-Jesus, relationship-shattering conversation.
He looked at me incredulously. “What would you do, Tracey?” he asked.
Not that. I wouldn’t have divorced him, not ever, no how. Not only was he my best friend, but he was also every ounce of proof that I ever had that life could be ideal. He was all things to me, and I wouldn’t have given him up for every blonde co-ed on campus. I didn’t realize that I already had.
Because Daniel didn’t want to be the husband of a lesbian. He didn’t want to have some idyllic alternative lifestyle set-up. And as he would point out to me later, those sorts of things are generally agreed on in advance.
“You signed on for a very traditional marriage, Tracey. That was what you wanted,” he told me when he called to tell me that divorce papers would be arriving. “And then you got bored. You can’t just decide on your own that we’re going to have some sort of open marriage. Those kinds of arrangements are made to suit the needs of both partners, not just one.”
He was right. It was another symptom in the wanting-to-have-it-all syndrome. I was the one who cheated and I was the one who lied. I was the one making out with derby girls in the living room while he slept. I was the asshole. But it wasn’t, as he supposed, because I was bored. I had been totally fucking confused. All the things I thought I wanted were chimeras and all the things I actually wanted were totally taboo.
In one of our last conversations, Daniel said to me, “I still believe in you.”
And I was so relieved. Because I thought that I would die if someone didn’t believe in me. And that someone had to be him, because he was just so ideal. And if someone who is pretty much perfect believes in you, then you can’t be that bad, right?
The answer to that question is complicated. On the one hand, it is yes, I am that bad. On the other hand it is a question mark, an interrogation of that belief. Daniel’s belief in me was based on his sincere faith that I could be ideal and believed in. And he wasn’t being an asshole. He just didn’t know that I was starting to think that this whole idea of possibly being perfect was, in some inherent way, assholic.
Because the very real truth is that I am not perfect. I am gay. I am not going to be able to fit into the mainstream. I am not going to get to have my girlfriend and my tattoos and my pretty pretty dresses and my young hot husband and my heterosexual privilege, too. I am going to have to make choices. And what I choose is blondes in basketball shorts and Baton Rouge.
What I choose is in the context of roller derby. I chose a version of myself that falls down, that sometimes does not commit. That gets hurt in very real ways and hurts other people. I choose an edition of myself that is not fucking perfect. It’s not even that cool. But it’s real and it’s resilient, and my team gives me a place and a way to make that choice every single day if I need to. But it’s a me that cannot be reduced to roller derby, even though it might be a product of exactly that thing.
My life now is not what others might consider ideal. I’m divorced. I have a girlfriend. I don’t have a picturesque Spanish Town porch swing and I don’t wear dresses anymore. I also don’t let men think that I might want to fuck them to flatter them or to make myself feel pretty. Frankly, the desires of men disgust me. I hate their tiny dicks and their giant egos. It’s the women in my life that make me feel beautiful despite being deeply flawed. I feel beautiful when I can knock over a woman half my age and twice my size. I feelbeautiful dancing all night with my team after skating hard all day. I feel beautiful being loved a woman who is willing to put me on the ground to teach me a lesson and who will cheer when I get back up.
Men? In my sport, they’re just the refs.
Their job is to count the points and stay the fuck out of my way.
This is from my master’s thesis “Beating the Red Stick: My Love Affair with the Red Stick Roller Derby”. It is part cultural history of the sport, part ethnography of the girls on my team, and part memoir. I’ll be spending the next year or so working it into a book. I am always interested in the ways that roller derby has changed women’s lives. If you have a story, well, first of all you should probably be writing on LDG, but secondly, I’d love to hear from you. firstname.lastname@example.org
Also, the article I quoted from at the beginning of the piece is Villainelle’s “This Feminist Darkness” on LDG. Read it.