He and I stood side by side at one end of what was supposed to be an outdoor basketball court but that he and his boys had turned into a DIY skatepark. It was August in Southeastern Ohio, hot and humid as hell. We were alone, he and I, and at a pause in our skate sessions, dripping sweat. We had not spoken while we skated and not introduced ourselves. Except for the sounds our boards made, we were silent, until he spoke to me unexpectedly, gesturing at the court.
“We made everything here,” he said, “or at least we stole it.”
The green bench from a university tennis court.
A line of cinder blocks stacked two-high and caulked together, forming a crusty ledge that looked is if it were made to fuck up someone’s shins more than to skate.
Two wooden kickers like hulking sundials in the middle of the court.
Three parking blocks, all waxed, slick, and shiny in the afternoon sun.
The plywood quarter pipe on the baseline opposite of us.
The metal pole above the quarter that should have had a backboard and rim attached to its top but didn’t, as if it had been decapitated by an anti-jock proletariat.
I didn’t respond right away. Cataloguing all the park’s features again, I imagined how it came to be. I pictured a mass of bodies dressed in black hoodies and pants, silhouettes with tufts of hair sticking out from under their rolled beanies swarming the court at 3 a.m. The bodies strained as they lifted parking blocks and a bench from the bed of a truck. They lugged long sheets of wood and two-by-fours out onto the court. Shapes rose from the ground and they captured them with drills that whined and screws like big spider legs.
Then, I imagined their escape. One black silhouette slid into view from the truck’s back window, then two, three, four, and five. The truck rumbled. Red tail lights ignited like flares. The truck bolted away from the court, a blur emitting Cocteau Twins as it traveled away, took a hard right, and disappeared. He and his boys had made this space their own, I thought to myself, completely in awe. How fucking cool. The park. The boys. Him.
I found the park on accident, skating through my university’s campus looking for potential skate spots: knee-high benches, stair sets, embankments, hills. I had moved the week before from Utah to Ohio for a graduate program in English. For years, I told myself I wanted to leave Utah, to find out if I could belong to something beyond mountains and what had been a near-lifelong practice of Mormonism. With a twin-sized mattress stuffed into the back of my car, crates of books, a mismatched assortment of plates and utensils I took from my parents’ kitchen drawers, and my skateboard in the passenger seat, I left.
In the week that I had lived in Ohio, it became clear to me that in my plans to get away, not once did I realize what I would find beyond Utah’s border. When I left, I sped into what had only ever been east and the horizon, and then farther east, and simply away. I felt so excited to be out of Utah and into a world that was so unrecognizable it made me feel like a child again. It seemed I could do everything over. I could never once say I believed in God or Joseph Smith. I could have no path, no idea of what I should be or how I should live. I could skate through neighborhoods, where I wouldn’t find a Mormon church or anyone who knew I had strayed from the path I was raised to follow. I felt free, but the sweetness of that freedom changed quickly once I settled in Ohio. I had nowhere to be. I had no God or church. The days felt still and barren. I failed to imagine how lonely getting out would be.
“It’s all sick,” I finally responded, “that you guys made the kickers and the quarter, that you just took over the spot.” I began to feel something between how picking up my first prom date felt and meeting a professional basketball player whose jersey I owned.
He nodded, as a thank you. Then, he began to talk about the cops and the logistics of the court. University cops drove by all the time, slow and suspicious, but they hadn’t ever done anything about the blocks or bench, he assured me.
“The place was pretty much ours,” he said.
Ours, I thought.
I looked at him. I wanted to believe ours, that I could be included in this group that created something as raw, independent, and as free to me, as the DIY park. I wanted to belong, simply, but I became self-conscious as I really began to look at him.
A barbed, silver hoop hung bull-like from his septum, a single gold ring from his ear. I had never pierced anything because I was Mormon, because of a job, because of the pain. I obsessed over the approval of higher-ups, those who existed in my life and those who loomed in the future. It seemed he didn’t have those feelings, or if he did, he didn’t care.
He wore glasses, baggy Dickies pants, and a white shirt that was so ragged and splotched he had to have owned it for years. I wore brand new pants and black and white Nike skate shoes. I looked like I might as well have come to the courts to play pickup basketball.
His hair was a crazed blonde, likely bleached in someone’s apartment bathroom, and blown back as if he’d been electrocuted cartoonishly. I payed a barber in downtown Salt Lake City to cut my hair before I moved to Ohio, a nondescript undercut: faded sides, a flowing top. The style by then had become so popular that it lost its edge, due partly to the sad, quasi-buns into which men often pulled their hair. And due partly, for me, to the way the style was a modest, respectable crew-cut, like those I sported when I was Mormon, that a bald-fade and four inches of pomade-thick hair tried to disguise.
I started to wonder if I had trespassed when I first dropped my board to the blacktop and pushed diagonally across the court, around its perimeter, up the quarter, and to its metal coping. Hadn’t the cylindrical bar made a stifled bell sound when I stalled on it, as if to alert the park makers I was there? Come see him, it said. Come look. Deem him worthy or not.
I glanced toward him, trying to make out from the way he stood if he felt I was as much as an outsider as I felt I was. He looked ahead, used his right foot to run his board over the blacktop back and forth, while he stood in place. Suddenly, he asked if I was from here.
I told him no. I came from Utah.
He asked why I was in Ohio.
I stumbled and told him I studied English.
I added that I studied writing, specifically.
Creative nonfiction, I added again, but none of it sounded right.
He nodded, said something like “cool, my dog,” and told me he studied art. He laughed after and admitted he was shit at skateboarding, but he didn’t care. He did things because he liked them. He seemed to talk so easily and honestly, and I hated that I couldn’t do the same.
I thought about how I could have mentioned Georgia O’Keeffe or David Hockney, my favorite painters, when he told me he studied art. Red Canna. I could have raved about Red Canna and the way the petals bloom on the canvas, becoming themselves, it seemed, again and again. And A Bigger Splash, how eerie I thought it was. The empty chair and sky. The bay windows on the house that show only shadows of trees and more houses. The bare blue sky. The still diving board and the splash. Had he seen it? If he had, did it make him feel alone, too? I mean, the backyard, the pool, these human spaces without humans, but the splash. What did he think of the splash at the center of the painting? It scared the hell out of me that the only sign of life in the painting was also a perpetual moment of submersion. The splash will never fall, and the body will never emerge, but I didn’t tell him that.
We both began to skate again, pushing ourselves in different directions. I felt mortified as I skated at the crush-like feeling that swelled inside of me. After only just meeting this man, I wanted to be in with him, with the other boys, to have a stake in the DIY park. I could cut the bottoms of my chinos off and only wear white socks, I thought. I could get a stick-n-poke tattoo of a banana or a spaceship, something with no meaning or purpose but to exist. I could learn to like shoegaze and Pavement and Television and stuff that sounded like The Smiths but hadn’t been canonized. I could find a diving board, an actual diving board detached from where it once hung over the deep end of a pool. I had done this exact thing before, at a house where I once lived in Utah. The board was long and turquoise and rough to the touch. I propped it up on walls and stairs around the outside of the house so I could ride up and down. I put cinder blocks underneath the board and made it into a ledge. I could do that in Ohio. I could make a space on the court for the diving board, and I could skate it as if I were running off the edge, sprinting, crouching to jump.
It all sounded so silly. I know that, but I also know I meant everything I quietly thought at the park that day. Beyond myself, my clothes, my body, and all I had been, there was something better. I want to say now it seemed like there was something better, but I’m not so sure. I’m not stupid enough to believe he didn’t have problems or wants of his own. I know I projected so many of my own wants onto him. But I couldn’t deny my fascination. I couldn’t deny this feeling of want. I had traveled over a thousand miles from Utah to Ohio. I thought I had gotten away. And yet I felt inescapably like myself.
I can’t remember if it was me or him who left the park first, but I imagine it was me. I probably got too sweaty. Had something to read for class. Had to call my mom. The DIY park started to seem like a daydream anyway, dissipating in the late-summer heat that made me wonder what the fuck I thought I was doing there.
I gathered my things and began to walk with my board under my arm away from the court. But he stopped me.
He reached his fist out, with what felt like confidence that I would know what to do. I reached my fist out to him, and we knocked our knuckles together.
“I’m Dylan,” he said.
Every day after the first time I met Dylan, I hoped to see him at the park. I hoped he would wave. I hoped to see him in the same ragged shirt. I hoped his hair color changed or that he buzzed it all off. I hoped to see him fall hard and laugh and laugh, because he didn’t care.
I hoped, really, if I were alone and skating around the court, as I most often was, that someone walking by would see me fall, tumble forward and push my hands out in front of me toward the blacktop. As I lay on the ground, I hoped someone could hear me laugh, too, and see me spread my arms out to my sides and stare up. I hoped I looked as if I were floating in water.