Michelle Zamanian is an Iranian-American writer from Missouri living in St. Paul, Minnesota. She received her MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato, where she found her radio voice co-hosting KMSU’s Weekly Reader, an author interview radio program and podcast. Check out what she's up to on Twitter @mezamanian.
Skating was everything. If I closed my eyes tight enough when I passed the second turn, I felt like I was flying. The friction of my wheels against the gym floor felt like nothing at all. My face involuntarily settled into a smile. My blue mouth guard created a gap between my top and bottom teeth to breathe. Lungs burning, legs stiffening, heart thumping—the rhythm swirled into a flood of pain and then my brain released everything. Every bad thought, everything from my miserable life dissolved into sweet bliss. My body softened and then I really picked up speed. My record was thirty-one laps in five minutes. Not too bad, really. Definitely in the top five skaters in the league. I imagined every turn, every counter-clockwise lap, circled me back to the point before I was stuck on this island.
I moved quickly on my way to work. Sweat poured down my forehead and my back as I walked along the long stretch of open sidewalk towards the Kadena Base Exchange. The four-lane road looked like a huge crevasse carved into a path that should have led to the ocean, but stopped at a twenty-five-foot barbed wire fence. I felt my eye twitch three times. I stopped for a second and took a deep breath. I stared at the bunker that Megan, a fellow derby skater, told me about as I walked across the busiest street on base. She said there was a time machine inside. I knew she had to be out of her mind, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t get my time back.
The warm Pacific winds of Okinawa whipped around my hair until it stuck to my face. My backpack contained a water bottle, a change of business casual clothes, and a roll of paper towels. My bra already was soaking in sweat. I entered the exchange in shorts and a thin tank top.
“Arigatou-gozaimasu,” a woman said at a touristy kiosk bent slightly at her waist. She used both hands to give a beautifully wrapped gift to a man with a puckered face in a digital camo navy uniform.
I pushed through shopping carts and doddering service members into the women’s bathroom, then closed the handicapped stall behind me. A child’s scream poured out of the next stall. I grabbed my ears in pain. The florescent lights made the blood in my head pulsate. I quickly took off my clothes and blotted down my body with a wad of paper towels. I stood there waiting for the screamer to leave and for the sweating to stop. The door shut. A moment of silence passed before more babbling children poured into the bathroom without chaperons. I pulled my shirt over my head, hoping I wouldn’t sweat right through it. The business casual capris were a challenge to pull over my moist legs. I glanced in the mirror before leaving. My hair looked like a raven’s nest and the overexposed part of my skin was slick with sweat.
I walked up to Megan and planted myself on the huge stack of Turkish carpets next to our Italian wine booth. Megan got me the job. She knew I had to walk there in the heat and never gave me shit for being late. She knew what I was dealing with.
“Hey,” I said.
She lifted up her freckled head from counting a stack of cash on the fold out table and pointed her eyes towards the center of the BX.
“Hey, girl.” She grabbed a small stack of money and set it on the carpet next to me. “Here’s your cut for the week.”
“Thanks.” I folded the cash into a wad and stuck it in my miniature pants pocket.
It was almost enough. I had been saving my “under the counter” money from the shady Italian wine company for a new pair of roller skates. I kept it in my sock drawer, counting it carefully every time I added to it. I forgot how much I’d made a couple times. I was only forty dollars short of my five hundred dollar skates. My old skates were causing me extreme pain every time I put them on, but I wasn’t about to stop. When I skated, hell even when someone hit me, it was the only time I felt free on this claustrophobic island. My husband was crushing me and spying on me. He went through the books on my Kindle. He tried to make me cry every time he drove me to practice, when I couldn’t hitch a ride with another skater.
Megan asked, “Why don’t you buy a car with the money you’re saving?”
I shook my head. “The skates are everything.” I needed to fly out of here, I wanted to say, but couldn’t find the words.
A customer with a Subway sandwich hovered over the wine selection. The smell made my stomach churn. Robert, my husband, ate Subway day and night, even when I’d cook. “Can I help you?” I managed to sputter.
“Nah, just looking.” The customer held up his sandwich like he was toasting me, like he was mocking me.
After a few hours of watching the marketplace empty into the parking lot, I walked around the wine display to stretch my legs. Megan sat in the only folding chair, filing her nails.
“Has he taken you to get your driver’s license yet?”
I slowly turned my head towards her. My left eye began to twitch again. I grabbed my face and tried to close my disobedient eye. I didn’t answer because I knew I didn’t have to. Megan’s face shifted into the kind of contortion that only happens when the person you are talking about walks in. I turned around and Robert was right there, like a horror movie.
“Hey, baby, you almost done?” he grinned. He probably thought he was charming, too.
“Yeah, like an hour left, I think.” I took a big step back.
We both looked around, the place was deserted.
Megan popped her head between us. “Robert, if you have time, help us put all the wine away and we can get out of here now.”
Robert turned towards me, bowed slightly like the mama-san at our most frequented ramen restaurant, then brought his head up and said, “Anyfing for you my dar-ring.”
“Hilarious….ly racist.” I handed him a box. I felt like throwing up. “Thank your lucky stars this place is deserted.
“Aw, you love it,” he smiled.
I didn’t. I hated him, but I could see him for a moment. His brown hair was shiny with sweat. He looked more at home in civilian dress than he ever did in an army uniform—it never fit.
I almost forgot how repulsive his comment was. “Can you get kicked out of the army for being an asshole?”
“No, it’s actually a requirement.”
Robert sat in front of the TV relentlessly changing channels. My TV. The TV he bought instead of buying me a wedding ring. We were poor when we got married. For all I knew, we were poor now. We didn’t have a wedding which was fine, but I had said I wanted a ring more than anything. I’d picked out a beautiful, art deco style ring with a Montana sapphire. It was everything I’d dreamed of. It was everything he kept from me.
“Do you know anything about that Japanese bunker on the edge of base?” I asked, staring at the clock on the wall. The second hand ticked loudly, clockwise.
“Not really. Just that some of them have unexploded bombs around them. That’s why they tell us not to wander around.” Robert looked at me like I was up to something. “What have you heard?”
I flinched. “Why are you so suspicious of me? You didn’t used to be like this.”
He got up and walked into the spare bedroom. I heard him say, “Why are you so self-destructive?”
I stood up and walked towards him. “Don’t walk away from me. And don’t change the subject.”
He walked out of the room and patted me on the head, his tall stature creating an uneven power dynamic. “You get so angry so fast. It’s adorable.”
“This is just like Christmas.” I walked into the kitchen and pulled out my bottle of Jager. I could feel myself shaking. My eye twitch was back. I took a shot. “We need to go to counseling. I’ve been going on my own, but it won’t do any good unless you come with me.”
He folded his arms and stood in the kitchen doorway. “Slow down there, sister. You might pull something.”
“Ha fucking ha. Classic you. You can’t take anything seriously.”
“Again. Do it again.” Ratchet smacked her wrist guards together. “No more lip from you, Fury.” Her comment was directed at me. She was running practice again—one of the team captains. Our team couldn’t keep a coach to save its life.
“Okay, whatever, kans-ass,” I muttered under my breath.
Her resting bitch face looked alive and unrested. “You’re from Kansas, too.”
“Lies.” I was from Missouri.
The gym floor was slick from the humidity The doors to the facility were wide open to a beautiful view of the beach. It was times like this that made it impossible to enjoy the view. I already had lost a gallon of sweat. My gear was soaked through and the whole league was suffering from severe derby stank. One time Slamera’s dad, who was visiting from the States, came to a practice and told me I was the sweatiest skater he’d ever seen. I wasn’t sure what to say to him. Could I say his daughter was the bitchiest Lieutenant’s wife I’d ever seen? And that her stupid giant diamond ring would take someone’s eye out?
Ratchet blew the whistle four times. “Fury, come to the center of the rink.”
I skated towards her. I looked at my teammates who were circling up in the center of the track. They were staring at me. I felt like this was about to be an ambush. “What is this about?”
“Do your plough stops.” She pointed to the floor in front of her, like I was a toddler.
I closed my eyes wishing I was skating my daily laps, circling back in time, instead of dealing with this. I took a deep breath, remembering the last girl that punched her in the face and how she got banned from derby on the island. “In front of everyone?”
I raised up my wrist guards and shrugged my shoulders. I picked up my pace and ploughed. I nailed the stop, but Ratchet still looked pissed off.
“Do your t-stops.”
My face was hot from humiliation. I looked at Megan. She was pretending to find the open rafters of the gym ceiling interesting. What a friend. I went onto the track. I picked up my momentum through the turn and tried my t-stop on the straight away. My left leg stayed straight like it was supposed to, but my right foot refused to catch the floor to make an upside down “T”. My wheels made a loud scuffing noise against the polished wood. I thought I felt a breeze strong enough to knock me on the floor, but no, Slamera’s toe stop had come off her skate. She never tightened them enough. I fell on my knee pads, like a good skater would, popping up in the two second timeframe, again like a good skater would. I immediately fell again, this time backwards, hitting my helmet on the floor. Everything flickered to black.
I felt like I was in a time warp. All the events that led up to my time on the island flashed before me like a Lost episode. Sounds warbled and light and dark flashed around me. I woke up long enough to throw up. The last thing I heard was: “Medic!”
“How have you been feeling the past two weeks since the accident?” The counselor held her legal pad against her chest as she looked at me, then Robert.
“About the same.” I looked around the room. The last time I met with a counselor—by myself I might add—I had to walk to the Chili’s To Go because I still didn’t have a license and it was too far away to walk to the real office. The counselor who was previously on the island told me to run for the hills. He said Robert wasn’t going to change. We both agreed his red flags could escalate into physical violence, but he had no advice about where I could get money to leave.
“How are things at home? You said you saw a counselor on your own?”
“Yeah. I tried to get Robert to go with me,” I said.
The counselor looked at Robert. Her glasses slid forward down her nose. “What changed? Why did you agree to go to counseling now?”
He shrugged. “She’s been more depressed since the concussion.”
I shook my head. “No. He’s just paying more attention to me. He’s a medic, so he cares more about my physical aliment. He thinks he can fix me now.”
I knew his face would turn to red jasper.
He stood up and paced. His height and stature felt intimidating in the small office. He sat down on the only seat that wasn’t next to me. “I give you everything you need. Why do you act like this?”
“You give me a hundred dollars for three weeks of groceries and won’t give me access to the bank account. You treat me like a child.” I stared directly in his eyes, pulling an alpha move. I knew it was pointless. My eye twitched relentlessly.
The counselor finally said something about how we needed to find common ground. I said there was no common ground. It was all his ground and he was just allowing me to live on it.
The next day, Robert walked into the house after work and didn’t say anything. He went straight to the spare bedroom and closed the door. I waited a moment. I didn’t hear anything crashing or any fists punching into walls, so it probably was safe. I popped up from the couch and walked to the door and knocked.
I spoke to the door. “Um, you probably don’t remember when I told you, but I volunteered for this running-with-the-bulls event with the Hashers out in town. I kind of forgot about it, but I told the league I would do it, like, forever ago. I tried to get out of it, but they said no. It’s at six… can you take me?”
A muffled monotone “sure” came through the door.
I gathered my gear into my shiny red gym bag. I put on my black tights and tiny red shorts. I passed the time until five-thirty by watching another episode of Star Trek: Voyager, the one where Seven goes back in time and stops the Voyager crew from making another terrible mistake.
He came out of the room about ten minutes too late if he took any wrong turns, and he usually did, to make the six-o’clock kick off. My mouth pursed into a flatline, keeping back the flood of my anxiety. The Velcro handle of the red gym bag dug deeply into my palm as I squeezed every ounce of frustration into it.
In the car, he didn’t make me cry, but he didn’t say much either. Some shitty pop-punk cover of an actual good song like “Jolene” played on the speakers of the tiny Toyota and I tried not to make faces. I could feel the resentment of having to take me out in town, instead of to Torii Station, radiating out of him like a fallout halo.
“I don’t understand why you want to be around those people. They are jerks.” He looked straight ahead.
“I love skating.” I stared at the road, still fascinated by driving on the left side. Everything was the same, but backwards. Like mirror, mirror.
“They treat you like garbage.”
“Only some of them,” I said. I hated that he was right.
“I’ll be at the end of the race at seven. Is that enough time?”
I got out of the car in my socks with my skates in my hands. I shrugged, “Sure. Wait, do you know where the end is?”
He didn’t hear me. Or, as the counselor said, “he didn’t listen." He drove off, leaving me staring at the car as it disappeared into the island traffic.
At the drop-off point, I could see the crowd gathering around the starting line. I had put on my pads in the car. I put on my skates as quickly as I could. I glided smoothly across the paved parking lot and I waved at my teammates. They waved back reluctantly. They could see the drama that came along with me, like my own personal rain cloud.
I skated up to the crowd. Some of the skaters had tinfoil bull horns on their helmets. Megan even made herself a pair of tinfoil balls that hung from around her waist. The Hashers already were intoxicated, which is what they do—drink and run and run and drink. They were passing out pre-run beers to everyone. Each Hasher was dressed in white with a red bandana across their forehead and tied in the back. Some of them looked like the Karate Kid, some of them probably were named Daniel-san.
“Hey, Megan,” I said.
“Hey, girl. Just in time.” She pointed at the drunkest Hasher with the starting gun.
“I can’t believe they let him use anything that looks like a gun in Japan.”
The gun fired off the starting shot, we gave the Hashers a minute lead before the bull-skaters took them out with their foam bats. The trail was mostly concrete, but some of it was laid brick, which was extremely bumpy on quad skates. I felt my brain trying to rattle right out of my skull.
One of the skating bulls ahead of me lost her foam bat so I vibrated to a rough stop, bent down on one knee pad, and picked up the childish weapon. Once I got back onto the smooth concrete, I started to speed up and catch up with the faster, less intoxicated Hashers. I swung back my arm like I did when I was a kid playing Tee-ball, hitting the runners like they were fixed objects in space. The contact made a dull pop with each swing. I mostly went after the younger men. Swing. Pop. Swing. Pop. A couple of them got lippy with me. Swing. Pop pop. Swing. Pop pop. It was like Whack-A-Mole.
“Crazy bitch!” a Hasher yelled.
SWING. POP POP.
My face was red. My lips were open, lungs gasping for air. This wasn’t like the runner’s high that I got from skating laps. This was vengeful, angry and terrifying. I wanted to take them down, maybe because it wasn’t a fair fight.
“Fury!” Megan yelled. “Stop!”
I turned around and looked at her. She saw me. The real me. The ragged, angry, not in control, grasping at sanity beast in me. My shoulders sank. My left eye twitched uncontrollably. I dropped the bat. She gave my shoulder a wrist guard tap.
“Why don’t we skate to the end and chill with the Hashers for a bit?”
The whole spread was about two miles, which was about nothing on skates. At the end of the run the Hashers had barbeques and tons of booze. For some reason, there was a group of runners sitting on a long block of ice. Megan lead me around and introduced me to some of the ex-pat Hashers. I spotted the last guy I wailed on with my bat and I turned away.
“Maybe I should try to go home,” I said quietly to Megan.
She replied loudly, “Don’t be silly. Let’s go talk to your victim.”
“Hey Petey-pants, meet Fury.”
He held out his hand. “You’ve got a strong swing.”
I shook his hand. “Thanks, Mr. Pants. Sorry about that. I promise I don’t think you’re full of candy or anything.”
“Have a drink with me and I’ll forgive you.”
I looked at Megan. “Skates and booze are not a good combination.”
“Take off your skates. Drink away,” Megan said.
I took off my skates. My feet sank into the sandy grass next to the sidewalk. Petey gave me an Orion beer and we sat on the ice block watching the sun set against the palm trees of the park, which was next to a public beach. Not like the kind of beach you have in Florida, but a netted off area so jellyfish don’t eat people alive. It’s imported sand, next to giant wave breakers. Well-engineered, created beauty.
Everyone kept offering me drinks. “You look so sad,” they’d say. “Smile.” I refused most of the offers, but ended up having five drinks. Four were various Japanese lagers, one was habu sake delivered in a floral Dixie cup. Habu sake tasted like my sadness felt; poisonous and overdramatic. The time passed slowly. The sky drew lines of blues and purples as the sun set and I realized Robert wasn’t coming.
“Megan, I’m going to go see if he’s at the start. Maybe he mixed up.”
“Don’t do that. He told you he’d be here. Come home with us. Make him miss you.”
“I don’t have a phone. I don’t even have my ID. I can’t get on base.” My eye started to twitch again.
Megan looked at me with pity and resignation. “Why the hell didn’t you bring your ID?”
I started to cry. “I didn’t think he’d actually leave me here.”
Everything after that was a blur. I walked to the beginning and back to the end three times. All the locals were staring at me, crying, drunk, red-faced and sweaty. The street lights illuminated everything I tried to hide. I finally made it back to the end. I gave up.
Megan flagged me down and whispered in my ear, “You can still come home with us if you want.”
“It’s ok. Maybe a ride back?”
When I climbed into the back of her van, the spins were taking over. I opened my eyes and stared out the window, watching the lights pass me by like I was in a warp field bending time. I was moving faster than I ever had when I skated my laps. Round and round. My eyes wobbled, barely catching the wisps of elliptical movements. The insides of my eyelids were illuminated with color. I sank deeply into the warm feeling of circling through the hidden, the connected depths of my mind.
A hand tapped the side of my face. I wiped drool from my lips.
“Wake up, Fury. We’re here.” Megan pulled me back.
At Kadena’s gate, Megan explained to the guard I had left my ID at my house. They let me through with promises not to do it again. Megan dropped me off outside of the duplex. It didn’t matter though; I couldn’t get inside. I sat on the porch and watched various geckos and snails slink around me for about ten minutes, hoping Robert would show up. He never did.
I put on my skates and glided down the hill towards the bunker. I needed to know what was down there. The wind whooshed past my ears, a smile grew bigger the closer I got. My eye started to twitch, then suddenly stopped. The five-minute journey felt like an hour. It was almost like I already had taken back a little bit of my time. The bunker entrance was covered with rusted, slime-covered signs in English, Kanji, Arabic and German. One sign showed the various ways a stick person could explode. I stomped over the gravel and greenery to get to the entrance.
There was a concrete wall with a chain metal gate lining an archway. I pulled the edge of the gate and it opened easily. Inside the dark, cave-like structure, there appeared to be nothing. I could walk directly into this black hole and be swallowed up into nothingness. I put my hand forward. In the darkness, it seemed to disappear. I walked inside the darkness, one skate in front of the other. It felt a lot like dying. It wasn’t as scary as everyone told me it would be. Letting go of everything was easy. The starting over part was hard.