A trendy new sport took the world by storm in the 1990s: roller hockey. Inline skates, roller skates with the wheels arranged in a line rather than the traditional arrangement of two wheels in front and two wheels behind, became popular in the late 1980s. Soon after this, people began playing hockey on these skates. I was terrible at any kind of skating, but I enjoyed watching hockey, and when professional roller hockey came to nearby San Tomas last summer, we went to some games as a family. Tonight, I was going to be watching this most stereotypically 90s of all sports with someone else.
Plumdale is a semi-rural town spread across a hilly area, and because of this, I often felt isolated from my friends. My closest friends in school lived far away from me, so I never saw them outside of school. After I was old enough to drive, I had a little more of a social life, but still not much. I had no idea where many of my high school friends lived, which is why I was a little nervous tonight. The house in front of me now was a place I had never been before. What if her parents wonder who I am? How does this work anyway? Is it okay to do things with friends who are girls? What if she thinks I like her and this is a date? What if I realize I do like her, and she does not like me back? I nervously knocked on the door.
“Hey, Greg!” Rachel said, opening the door. She was of average height and build, with straight medium brown hair, and she wore jeans with a dark green solid-color shirt. “You ready?”
“You have the tickets?”
“I’ll buy tickets there. They don’t get a big enough crowd to sell out.”
Rachel stepped onto the porch and gave me a hug. I smiled.
“Do you know how to get back to the highway from here?”
“Yes,” I said. I worked my way from Rachel’s house to Highway 11 north, passing through hills dotted with oaks and houses on large lots. Highway 11 passed through much of this same hilly oak woodland environment as we continued through Plumdale and entered the next county. The grass on the hillsides had died and turned brown already by this time of year.
“So do you go to a lot of these games?” Rachel asked. “What’s the team called again?”
“Mountain Lions. I went to one with my family last week. And we went to two last year.”
“I didn’t even know there was such a thing as professional roller hockey.”
“It’s new. I hadn’t heard of it until last year.”
“Interesting. And who are these players? Do they just have tryouts? I don’t think there are school roller hockey teams, are there?”
“A lot of them are minor league hockey players, like regular ice hockey, and this is their summer job.”
“That makes sense.”
After about ten miles, Highway 11 entered the end of a long valley, approaching a small city called El Ajo. It was after six o’clock by the time we got to El Ajo, and most of what daily commuter traffic remained at that hour was headed in the opposite direction from us. Traffic was smooth as we headed north through El Ajo, another small city called Morgantown, and the large sprawling metropolis of San Tomas. We arrived at the arena in downtown San Tomas about fifty minutes after leaving Rachel’s house.
“This stadium is new, right?” Rachel asked, looking at the large glass wall at the main entrance to the arena.
“Yes,” I replied. “It just opened a year ago.”
“I think this is where my parents saw the Eagles. They said it was really nice.”
“Probably. They’ve been getting a lot of big concerts here.”
After buying the tickets, Rachel and I walked into the building. The main entrance led to a very wide stairway leading up to the concourse. From the concourse, walkways led down to the seats on the lower level, and small stairways led up to the seats on the upper level. I found section 128, and we walked down to our seats, just a few rows up from the court.
“These are good seats,” Rachel said.
“Yeah. The most expensive seats for these games are only fourteen dollars. Like I said, they don’t draw a huge crowd. They only use the lower level.”
“Who are the Mountain Lions playing?” Rachel asked as the players from each team began warming up on the court. The players skated on a surface made from blue plastic tiles that had been placed where the ice usually was during Stingrays ice hockey games.
“The San Diego Breakers.”
“San Diego,” Rachel repeated. “Who is in the Mountain Lions’ league anyway? Do they play teams from all across the country, or are the teams just out west, or what?”
“The league has teams across the country, and a few in Canada too. But there are separate Western and Eastern Conferences that only play each other. So we only play teams in the western half of the US and Canada. The Western and Eastern champions play each other at the end of the season. I think that’s late August. It’s a short season.”
“I see, Rachel replied. I then proceeded to name all eight of the other teams in the Western Conference, but I sensed that Rachel was getting bored with me. I decided not to continue on and name the teams in the Eastern Conference.
The Mountain Lions scored a goal about a minute into the game; I stood up and cheered as the red light behind the goal came on. “That goal came fast,” Rachel noticed out loud. “Do they always score quickly like that?”
“Sometimes. Roller hockey is usually higher scoring than ice hockey.”
“Is that because the goalies and players on defense aren’t as good? Or because of how the skates and puck move on the court differently from on ice?”
“That might be part of it. Also, the court is the same size but there is one less player on the court, compared to ice hockey.”
Another rule difference between this roller hockey league and most ice hockey leagues is that roller hockey games are played in four quarters, instead of the three periods in ice hockey. A few minutes before halftime, with the score tied at three goals each, Rachel nudged me and pointed to the right, to the section next to us. “What’s going on?”
I looked in the direction she was pointing. A group of four teenage girls was screaming and cheering. One of them held up a sign; I could not read it because it was facing away from me, toward the ice.
“It looks like some teenage girls being silly,” I said. “And one of them brought a sign.”
“I can’t see what it says.”
“Me either. Probably something about the team or one of the players. That’s what those things usually say.”
“Probably not with the name of the TV station, though, because these games aren’t on TV.”
“TV station?” Rachel asked. “What do you mean?”
“You know, like how people will hold up signs at games, but they’ll use the name of the TV station on the sign, to try to get on TV.”
“I’ve never seen that!”
“I’ve just started seeing this the last couple years. Like, say, if there’s a Chicago Bulls game on NBC, someone will make a sign that says ‘Nobody Beats Chicago’ and have the N-B-C at the start of each word prominently highlighted.”
Rachel took a second to think about this. “That’s clever!”
“The best one I ever saw was on a football game on Fox. Someone made a sign that said ‘Steve Young is a FOX.’”
Rachel laughed. “Wow,” she said. “Steve Young? That’s one of the players, right?”
The game continued; a San Diego player got a penalty for roughing, and the Mountain Lions scored on the resulting power play. “What does power play goal mean?” Rachel asked.
“San Diego got a penalty, so they have to skate one fewer player on the court for two minutes. That gives them a disadvantage. And if they get scored against with fewer players on the court because of a penalty, that’s a power play goal.”
“Oh!” she exclaimed. “I’m sorry I’m asking so many questions.”
“It’s ok,” I said. “I don’t mind. I’m sure I’d be asking you questions if we were watching volleyball or running track. Those are your sports.”
“I didn’t know you were this into hockey.”
“I didn’t grow up with it. It’s just been the last few years, since the Stingrays came along.”
Halftime came shortly after the power play goal. “I want to buy a T-shirt,” I said. “You want anything?”
Rachel looked confused. “You want to get me a T-shirt?” she asked.
That was not what I was trying to ask. “I’m not going to pay for it, I didn’t mean that,” I blurted out. “I just meant if there was anything you needed while I was up.”
“No, thanks, I’m okay.”
I walked to the souvenir stand feeling confused and ashamed. Words are hard sometimes. I was just trying to ask if she needed anything while I was up. I had not planned on buying her something expensive. And the way I answered made it sound kind of mean. My mind seemed to work differently those of from people around me, and sometimes it felt hard to explain things in ways that people understood. I hoped that Rachel was not mad at me or hurt in any way.
I got back to my seat just before the third quarter started. Rachel did not seem to be bothered by my poor communication earlier, which was good. The silly teenage girls in the next section were just as entertaining to watch during the third quarter. In addition to holding up their sign, they started performing cheers and dances. They apparently caught the attention of the arena audiovisual crew; a camera operator now sat near them and showed them on the big screen on the scoreboard during stoppages of play.
“Look,” I said to Rachel, pointing at the girls on the screen. “It’s those girls in the next section.”
“Yeah,” Rachel laughed. “They’re funny.”
The camera zoomed in on the girl holding the sign. She was short and thin, Asian, with straight dark hair, wearing a Mountain Lions shirt similar to mine and face paint in the Mountain Lions colors of purple and gold. The PA announcer said, “Hey, Mountain Lions fans, let’s give it up for our Fan of the Game, Elizabeth Santiago!” Rachel and I cheered, along with the rest of the people in the arena.
“Elizabeth Santiago,” I said after the crowd quieted down.
“What about her?” Rachel asked.
“One of my friends from Jeromeville, he lived upstairs from me in the dorm, his name is Taylor Santiago. I wonder if he and Elizabeth are related? They look like they could be.”
“That would be funny.”
By the middle of the fourth quarter, the Mountain Lions were leading by a score of eight goals to four. I was not paying attention to the game as closely as I had been earlier, since the Mountain Lions appeared to be in position to win. Besides, Elizabeth Santiago and her friends were more entertaining.
Each team scored one more goal; the Mountain Lions went on to win, nine goals to five for the Breakers. As we walked along the concourse toward the exit, I noticed Elizabeth Santiago and her friends walking near us.
“There’s the Fan of the Game,” I said to Rachel, gesturing in Elizabeth’s direction.
“Are you going to ask her if she’s related to your friend?” Rachel asked quietly.
“No. That would be too weird.”
“Yeah, it might be.”
We walked back to the car. It took several minutes to get out of the parking lot. “So when you do leave for school?” I asked Rachel as we sat in the idling car.
“The middle of August. I’m excited and nervous at the same time. It’s a weird feeling.”
“I know how that is. I went through that last year. Do you know what you’re going to study?”
“I’m thinking something like psychology or sociology or something like that. I’ve always been interested in that kind of stuff.”
“You said you’re working at that bookstore this summer?”
“Yeah. I got that job through a friend of my mom’s.”
“How do you like it?”
“It’s okay. It’s not very busy there.”
“Makes sense. Sounds like a good job for you.”
“Yeah. Are you working this summer or anything?”
“No. Just trying to make the most of the summer before I leave, and hang out with friends as much as possible. I’m having lunch with Paul tomorrow. Things were a little weird last time we talked. I haven’t seen him since he got back from Santa Teresa.”
“I don’t know. I couldn’t tell. I just got a weird vibe.”
Paul Dickinson had been in my class at Plumdale High; I had known him since seventh grade. He and Rachel had gotten together and broken up several times over the years, and I had given up trying to keep track of whether or not they were together at any given time. It seemed like they were not currently together. Paul had just gotten back from his freshman year at the University of Santa Teresa, about 200 miles south of Plumdale; I wondered if the weird vibe was because he had met a girl there and not told Rachel. Or if Rachel had met a guy and not told me.
Rachel and I talked about life and school and other things for the rest of the drive home, down the San Tomas Valley through Morgantown and El Ajo and into the hills separating the San Tomas and Gabilan Valleys. It was a little after eleven o’clock when I pulled the car up next to Rachel’s house. I wondered what to do now. Do I just say good night? Do I walk her to the doorstep?
“I’ll walk to you the door,” I said hastily, opening my car door.
“Thank you,” Rachel replied.
We walked up the walkway to her house and stopped at the door. “Thanks for coming with me,” I said.
“Yeah! I had a lot of fun! I didn’t even know roller hockey existed.”
“Now you do.”
“Yeah. I’ll see you soon, Greg.” Rachel gave me a big hug.
“Yes. Have a good night,” I said as the hug continued for several seconds. Rachel let go and turned around. “Good night,” she said, smiling, turning back toward me.
“Good night,” I answered, walking back to the car. As I started the car, I could see Rachel walking through her front door. I backed out back to the road and drove toward home.
I turned the radio on; the R.E.M. tape I had been listening to before Rachel got in the car came back on. Rachel was a good friend. I could not tell if she was interested in being more than that. I felt a little ashamed of some of the awkward moments from tonight, especially the conversation about the t-shirt. I just did not understand girls and how all that was supposed to work. Was tonight a date? Not really. Probably not. Maybe. I didn’t know. How does everyone else know all of these rules? Was I even interested in Rachel like that? I wasn’t when we were in high school, but she was always nice to me, and she was one of the few high school friends still keeping in touch with me regularly. I did not understand girls, but I seemed to understand something about being friends with girls, so maybe that’s what I should be right now. That still did not change the fact that I wanted a girlfriend. This was all so frustrating. Girls and relationships were, to me, like taking a test without ever having been to class.
When I got home, I said hi to Mom and telling her how the game went. Mom had fallen asleep on the couch in front of the TV and woke up as soon as I walked in. I went straight to bed after that and closed my eyes, trying to shut out from my mind all of these frustrating and confusing thoughts as I drifted to sleep.
(By the way, Elizabeth Santiago is in fact Taylor’s younger sister. I found that out the next time I saw Taylor; he asked me what I had been up to, and when I mentioned the Mountain Lions, he said that his sister was at a game and they made her Fan of the Game. Small world.)