They were in the car, Lee concentrating on pulling out of the driveway when Zack announced he was moving to California.
“All the best skaters are there.”
“Your family’s here.”
“I’ll visit. Once a year.”
“Ah, you’ve got it all figured out.”
As she drove, it was just the sound of Zack playing with his thumb-sized skateboard, gliding its tiny wheels along the car door, making it flip and do 360s. She told him interests change. What one likes at twelve isn’t necessarily what one likes at eighteen. “By that point you’ll probably have moved on.”
He didn’t say anything so it seemed like her comment was addressed – and answered in the negative – by the long-haired twenty-year-old collecting admission from behind the counter.
“Hey, how’s it going?” Lee said, matching her style to his.
“Another day in paradise,” he answered with his usual goofy smile.
Lee paid the twelve dollars and released her child to the dangers of the indoor skate park with half pipes and ramps and rails. A flock of fellow middle schoolers greeted Zack the minute he swung the park door open, set the board down and pushed off. The door shut behind him but didn’t block the loud repetitious sound of grinding. She peered through the window trying to track his movements. It was impossible because the park was so expansive, but one time she had been inside, and been impressed by the dedication of the little men. Generally, they staked out one area, repeating a move again and again, the other children videotaping on their phones and playing back the footage so skaters could correct the position of a foot on takeoff or smooth out the landing. The way the skaters were stationed here and there across the landscape of hilly ramps and rails made them look like diligent miners.
Such a sport could only encourage a work ethic, she told herself, and yet separated from it, in the waiting area where the older skaters employed there hung out, her heart raced.
Another Day in Paradise, manning the admissions counter and letting the kids in, wore the kind of black hoodie that Zack had taken to wearing lately. Twin metal bars had sprung from the guy’s nostrils since their last visit. But he seemed harmless enough. She’d spoken to him once at length when Zack had begged her into a double session. The guy had grown up on an island off the state of Washington, then moved here to New York, bouncing around in the same general area of Long Island. He’d gone from one island on one coast to another island on the other coast, he had noted blandly. He lived with his mom, a nursing aide at South Nassau Hospital; and said his dad had been married six times. He offered all of this with a lack of inflection. Often, when Lee pulled up to deliver Zack to the park, Another Day in Paradise was out front under the awning with a pack of Marlboros in the pocket of his flannel shirt, visibly enjoying a smoke, and Lee was always on the verge of jumping out to lecture him about children and messages.
“Maybe it’s his way of asserting himself,” her fifteen-year old daughter said of the nose piercing when Lee told her about it afterwards. “Because he still lives with his mom.”
Lee smiled to hear her daughter speak so astutely. “Maybe.”
But she decided that talking to Zack about it would be a good thing.
“You know the smiley guy at the skate park? The Another-Day-In-Paradise guy?”
“What about him?”
“Did you notice anything about him today?”
She decided to drop it.
“What? Tell me.”
“Mommy’s worried you’re going to get your nose pierced like him,” Katie said.
Zack reeled back, disgusted.
“Phew,” Lee said.
And so the next time he begged to go she felt less awful about driving him there.
Cesar disagreed. Not only with letting him go, but with letting him ride, period. This was especially so after seeing his lackluster progress report.
“That’s ludicrous! What planet do you live on? Everyone skates,” Lee said.
“He should be concentrating on his schoolwork!”
The following morning, while the rest of them were sleeping, he loaded Zack’s skateboard, his long board and his mini – all the boards Zack owned – into his car trunk, slammed it and drove off.
Zack cried so hard he couldn’t catch his breath. School was out – for teacher training – and he was without the one thing that made him happy.
“Cesar, you’re turning him away!” Lee warned, reaching him by phone. “Do you want him to move to California?” she blurted, then immediately regretted possibly jinxing it.
He cursed at her and hung up.
“Your father’s worried about your future,” she told Zack, hating to have to represent her tyrannical husband’s ridiculous point of view. “He’s not doing it to be mean. Study for an hour, then we’ll figure out what to do.”
Zack opened his science textbook and memorized definitions of velocity and resistance, sniffing every few sentences.
“Was that so bad?” Lee said after the hour was up. “Now think of something else to do with the day – a second best. How about biking?”
She was pleased to see him hop on his bike, but less so when he returned with his friend’s spare board. He made do riding sullenly around the block.
“I see them at Union Square, a big group of them, older kids. Potheads,” Ryan said. “I’d be careful if I was you.”
Lee had a long inner chuckle over Cesar’s brother-in-law, of all people, looking down on potheads – something he’d considered a perfectly respectable designation for himself before having a kid and moving to New Jersey. Now he was in Cesar’s boring, backward camp. She wanted no part of it.
Still, the comment needled her. She sat Zack down again.
“I’m not going to get my nose pierced,” he said.
“It’s not that.” She suppressed a smile and tried remembering what she’d memorized to say. “So, okay, you know about stereotypes, right? Like they say African-Americans are just into hip hop and basketball when meanwhile Obama was our best president ever.”
“And just like there are stereotypes about people of different races, there are stereotypes about people who do different sports – including skaters. Uncle Ryan, for example, reminded me that some people think skaters are potheads.”
Zack’s brow crinkled. “What’s a pothead?”
She looked at him incredulously to see if he was mocking her. He wasn’t. “Someone who smokes weed – I mean, marijuana – all the time. You had a unit on that in Health, right? I remember you looking up definitions. You couldn’t find ‘gateway drug.’”
“O-kay,” he said, further wrinkling his small brow, sounding unsure of where she was going with this.
“Well, so we know that stereotypes are really stupid, but I have noticed a few of the older skaters who work at the park seem to have pretty lax ideas about what they do with their bodies.”
“The smiley guy with the thing in his nose. Right, Mom?
“Who smokes out front!”
“He’s killing himself.”
“He is. And now, I don’t know anything about him – besides the fact that he’s grown and still lives with his mom – but it wouldn’t surprise me if he also smokes weed – I mean, marijuana. And I see that the older skaters are pretty friendly with you kids.”
Zack leaned back in genuine horror. “Mommy. If you’re asking me what would I do if he or anyone else offered me drugs, do I have your permission to punch him in the nose and run?”
“You certainly do.”
“You’re ruining him. I don’t approve of you taking him there,” Cesar said after discovering that all the boards had been stolen back from his trunk and placed in hers.
It was Friday morning. She’d nearly survived the first week of back-to-school, and promised to take Zack to the park that evening.
“I don’t need your fucking approval. Go back to whatever planet your from.”
He headed to the car for work and got in.
“I don’t take him that much.”
“You should be taking him to the library!”
“Fun’s important too!”
That evening, after forcing Zack to finish all the homework due Monday so she couldn’t be accused of raising a slacker, Lee pushed Cesar’s comment to the back of her mind and drove Zack and a friend to the park.
“Your father’s an idiot. He believes in stereotypes. I don’t,” she said.
“I don’t either!” Zack shouted from the backseat and so did his friend.
“Skaters aren’t slackers!”
She was pleased to hear the boys spontaneously shout the slogan after her, amending it to “Slackers Rule!” as they raised their boards over their heads, marching through the parking lot and through the entrance.
Inside, it was an even more festive atmosphere than usual. Normally wrist bands were given and the two-hour time limit was adhered to but tonight the collection of admission fees was haphazard and no one got bands. Pizza was delivered, the boxes stacked so high the delivery boy staggered unable to see over them. Slices were grabbed and yet she saw no money change hands. There was a new skater behind the counter joining Another Day in Paradise. This one was taller and skinnier with a scruffy look that reminded her of this one particular street person she used to see camped out in Thompson Square Park before the East Village gentrified. He had Frankie, one of the regulars Zack’s age, toss him a Rice Krispies treat marked $1.00 each from the goodie basket on the counter, then, after wolfing it down, toss him another. Lee surmised he owned the place.
Another skater employee she recognized came out from the back room. He had such cherubic looks with his dark wavy hair framing his pink-rose face, it almost hurt to look at him. Seeing her waiting around, Cherub smiled in a warm open way.
Good looks like these had to be a mixed blessing, Lee thought. Because of them, his mother had probably overindulged him. And so he had grown up believing: Life’s a Party. Lee heard the thought and shuddered, reflecting on her own admittedly permissive relationship with Zack, too scrumptiously adorable for words.
“When you someday see what you’ve created, you’re going to regret it!” Cesar liked to say. To which she liked to answer, “Fuck off!”
She leaned against the Gatorade-sticky counter, then found a cleaner spot, taking shallow breaths to avoid the locker-room odor. Cherub was talking to Frankie the way he might to a younger brother – not surprising since Frankie, she’d heard, came more than three times a week. The kid was gulping Red Bull Cola, and Cherub regaled him with a story about drinking sixteen in one day and later laying awake all night, his heart jumping like a fish. Frankie laughed and cracked open a fresh one.
About three-quarters of the way through the session, the back door to the park swung open and an online skater was carried in like a wounded soldier, biting back pain. Thompson Square came over and asked targeted questions, gave him a bag of ice and diagnosed a fracture. Moments later, the other door swung open and a red-headed kid came running past the counter holding this nose, trailing blood.
“You again! Every time you come!” Another Day in Paradise said, half in annoyance, half in fondness. He came out with a roll of paper towels to mop the blood from someone’s board while the boy disappeared into the bathroom. Lee wished the session was over so she could whisk Zack home.
Just then, a dad entered, clean shaven, with the good looks of a young attorney. Cherub gave him an animated high-five while Another Day in Paradise waved the son in. Of six or seven, the boy was holding his board like a surfer ready to catch his first wave.
Lee stood by the counter; her legs were tiring but Zack would have a fit if she pulled him out early. She tried to decide if she wanted to wait it out in the “lounge,” on the corduroy sofa that looked copped from a curb. She was in jeans so she didn’t think she’d pick up anything but the thought of sitting there amid rowdy teens playing Guitar Hero, angling to steal the remote from each other depressed her. She glanced at her watch – fifteen minutes left. Propping herself up, she turned her attention to Cherub who was talking with the nice clean-shaven dad.
If only more people like Mr. Young Attorney hung out here! Lee thought. Besides having a kindred soul to speak to, some of the older skaters could end up converted – set on a path to law careers and respectability. He was just the kind of guy she’d like to introduce Cesar to. “See, skating’s not counter-culture!” she’d say. She couldn’t wait to get Cesar off her back and settle the stupid argument. Finally.
By leaning toward Mr. Attorney, she hoped to catch his attention and chat. Maybe complain about her square, authoritarian husband. Mr. Attorney might have an unsupportive wife and they could bond over the misery. But he was too busy catching up with Cherub to notice her.
She tried not to feel the sting of grade-school exclusion. She hoped he hadn’t sized up her torn black jeans and trendy taxi-yellow off-the-shoulder sweater and labeled her a Cool Mom wannabe. She wasn’t any different from him, she thought, stepping closer.
He was laughing at something Cherub said, indistinct but followed by the clearest sentence she’d ever heard: “Hey, man, I’m out of Vike. Hook me up.”
“You got it,” Mr. Attorney answered, reaching into his pocket and tossing out a pill bottle, which Cherub gracefully caught.
“What’s wrong?” Zack said while she was driving him and his friend home.
She continued practicing the breathing she’d learned at yoga but those words kept repeating themselves in her head.
At the house, walking Zack in, she stopped short. “What’s that on your wrist?”
He smiled proudly at the bracelet of Red Bull soda tabs he’d made for himself.
They’re converting him! she thought, her heart going so fast she might have downed a whole trunkful of Red Bull herself.
“Why can’t I go?” Zack asked the following Friday.
“Because I said so. Because skaters are grungy and there’s no such thing as an athletic scholarship for skating, just cracked elbows and knees. Two people almost killed themselves.”
“Jason had a nosebleed. He always gets nosebleeds.”
“That other kid had to be taken to South Nassau.”
Zack looked at Katie, who shrugged.
“Open your book. Study.” Lee pointed at his jangling bracelet. “And get that off your goddamned wrist.”
“What’s with Zack?” Cesar asked that weekend.
“Oh he’s mad at me.”
“Forget about it.”
“For not going to the park?”
“So take him.”
“Are you crazy!”
He peered at her closely. She crossed her arms. “Stop looking at me.”
“Nothing happened. Shut up.”
“Take him to the park.”
“I said, ‘shut up’.”
“Take him. I thought you were so worried about turning him away, having him end up moving to California.”
“I’m not worried.”
Just to be sure, however, that night she went into her son’s room after his lights were out.
“You’re not planning to move to California, are you?”
Zack shook his head on the pillow.
Reassured, she rubbed his head. “Thatta boy.”
“Australia’s got some great skaters too.”
Karen Regen-Tuero works in long-form television; and has taught at Queens College, City University of New York. Her short stories have been published in a number of journals including Glimmer Train Stories, The North American Review, Slice Magazine, and The Adirondack Review, whose editors recently nominated her for a Pushcart Prize. She has just finished a novel.