Wednesday 23 Jul 2014

Crabtown Observed No. 17: Death Match! Roller Derby vs. the Blank Page

Brandy “Marzipain” Tomhave

She was a freight train with tits and she was heading straight for me. Coach Ballbricker loved to terrorize new girls trying out for the Charm City Rollergirls. Fresh Meat she called us.

I was focusing on my crossovers at turn three when I caught her glare in the corner of my eye.  She did not need to take her mouth guard out to say, “Your ass is mine.”  I crouched down low in my knee length t-shirt and tried pitifully to brace myself for the impact of this angry bombshell with neck tattoos.

Ballbricker slammed her leopard print shoulder into my soft mom boobs with such velocity she sent me sailing over the rink.  Gravity laughed and threw me back down, my hips then back then helmeted head bouncing off the hard wood floor.

“She hit me!” I thought.  In all my 40 years, no one had ever hit me.  “Get up!” she yelled the next time she rolled by.  That was the first but not last time I got beat up on skates.  Every time you play roller derby, it is fishnets and fights.

Photos: Brandy Tomhave

Photos: Brandy Tomhave

I grew up watching Roller Derby on television. My grandfather adjusted his bunny ears on Saturdays so we could pick up the Bay Bombers out of Oakland.  My favorite player was the hard hitting blond Amazon Joanie Weston- Raquel Welch’s inspiration for “Kansas City Bomber”– who could swing her hips to sweep opponents off the floor.

But I did not want to be Joanie Weston when I grew up.  I wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder. Eventually, in college, I decided it would be even better to be Walker Percy. The truth is, I was never the athlete but always the bookworm.

My mother, the ex-P.E. teacher, used to shake her head when she dropped me off at the library. “Wouldn’t you rather play outside?” she asked.  Summers in central California feel like a pizza oven. My chubby thighs stuck together as I ran from her Pinto towards the cool dark stacks of the library, where the air conditioner whispered hello.

As a kid, I launched an imaginary newspaper from my closet and wrote fables just for fun.  I once stood proudly in front of my grandparents and read my essay about why all good pencils are yellow.  Then in college I majored in English and stopped writing unless I absolutely had to, convinced that I had nothing to say and that everything had already been said better before.  Who do I think I am? I wondered, and spent the next thirty years trying to answer that, sort of.

Self-reflection is not really my style.  I have always said that I want to write, yet done everything possible to avoid it so as not to have to deal with me. Luckily, there are plenty of distractions, which I have driven like a kamikaze into the ground.

Most recently I was a jammer on the roller derby track, the player who laps opponents to put points on the board.  Derby is a full contact sport where there are no “I’m sorrys.”  I began playing the year after I buried a father I barely knew and committed a mother I knew too well. It was so much easier going up against men and women half my age and twice my size than facing down my demons on a blank piece of paper.

What writing I have done outside work and school I have done secretly, shamefully, and quickly, in frustrated stops and starts, like masturbating with a pen. One day when I was out of town, my husband discovered my dirty little stash of papers. When I got home, he confronted me. “You are a writer,” he said.  “You keep writing the same thing over and over again, but each time you stop.”

It’s true.  Ever since my mom had what was gently called a “nervous breakdown” when I  was 17, and the rest of my family went MIA, I have been scribbling piles of sentences, trying to explain how her mental illness did not just happen to her. But a few pages in I stop because writing feels like betraying my mother. Telling stories has consequences.

In November 2003, when I was 39, I finally called 911 to tell them my mom was attempting suicide. This time I was nearly to the point of not caring enough to stop her. She had a fist full of pills and a spiteful determination. While I was on the phone she wailed, “You want me to kill myself?  I will!”  The operator crisply said, “Rescue is on its way.”

Really?  I grew up on my knees beside my mother’s bed, trying to think up reasons why she should want to live, never telling another soul about those bad days and nights. All the while, apparently, rescue was just a call away. Why hadn’t I called 911 sooner?

Because they took her away. I was so pissed about the whole damn thing — about having a crazy mother of a mother — that I refused to even visit her. She was on a 72 hour lockdown, without anything to wear, so the hospital called and told me to bring enough stuff for an indefinite stay. How do you pack for Crazy Town?

I stood in front of her closet and reviewed her wardrobe with a ruthless eye, not wanting to select anything that might make matters worse, anything which might somehow alienate or label her.  Anything with cats on it was out. So was everything black, red, or funny. In my opinion, when you are locked up, stick with pastels.

After I took my Mom’s suitcase to the asylum’s front desk, I drove 3,000 miles home to Baltimore, where a dozen how-to-write books wait for me on my dresser each night.  I still have not read them.  Blowing the dust off The Autobiography Box, A Step-by-Step Kit for Examining the Life Worth Living, I am now surprised to discover that once upon a time I filled out its first page.

Under the heading “Your Family” I wrote, “My father was a selfish, delusional, reckless sociopath who abandoned me when I was six months old.”

I continue, “My mother is a fiercely talented free spirit crippled by mental illness.

Which illness?  All of them.”

I learned in roller derby you can’t play scared. I finally realize the same is true for writing.  As Coach Ballbricker would say, “Just effing do it, Marzipain.”

At 40 I was the oldest roller girl in Baltimore — a breakout rookie my first year. Nothing could stop me.  When my skate caught in my skirt, the skirt came off.  When my shirt stuck to my pads, the shirt came off.  When my team won the championships, I held our trophy overhead wearing little more than a bra and a smile.

I am a late bloomer.

Now nearly 50, I am finally effing writing.

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4 Comments

  1. Brilliant Marzi!! Absolutely Brilliant!!! I want more!!

    Reply
  2. Paigey says:

    Marz, you are a wonder on skates and off.

    I grew up with a mother like yours – though my choices have been different – and you’re even stronger than I knew.

    Reply
  3. Whipstick says:

    This is amazing!! I’m so thrilled that you’re writing, Marzi!! Can’t wait for much much more. :D

    Reply
  4. Susan says:

    I loved EVERY WORD!!! You are a writer, and a damn good one! This is eminently readable, and extremely enjoyable. . . . and touching, and real, and Baby Girl, maybe, just maybe your life isn’t as different from everyone else’s as you may believe. . . . thanks for sharing the skeletons. . . . .believe me, we’ve all got ‘em! I love YOU.

    Reply

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