I was sixteen. We’d been skating in the basement of a church somewhere out past Grand Bay. Boxes and flatbars and splintering kickers were scattered around the slick floor in arrangements understandable only to the rowdy kids attempting to use them. The Skate Church idea was nothing new; it was a staple of many North American Protestant churches’ youth evangelization campaigns, and had been for years: you weld a couple rails together, nail angle-iron onto the edge of a few boxes, offer up your dusty gymnasium, and before you know it, the hormone-ravaged sinners will be trading in their Emericas and pizza pockets for thong sandals and locust mash––or so the thought seemed to go. They probably assumed we were all on drugs. We didn’t do drugs; we didn’t even drink. We were some of the most level-headed kids we knew––not that you can’t do drugs and be level-headed at the same time, but that’s how we were taught to see it. We weren’t straight-edge either, we were just suburban and careful and probably afraid.
I know Andrew was there, and Matt and Rob, and maybe Colin. And Christian was there, with his little brother Corey––they’ll know what I’m talking about. What was the name of the church? How long did they let us skate before they called the preaching break? I remember Christian had invented this trick––for all we knew––where he’d pop his board up and catch it in a nosegrab, run for a few steps, then whip it around in a kind of hardflip/Sal-flip while jumping back on. That night he hucked it over an orange pylon, slamming and slamming on the frictionless floor, his board torpedoing at the feet of nearby kids, until he eventually stuck it. I can see Andrew cruising around, probably trying to wall-ride the poor church’s walls, conquering everyone in S-K-A-T-E. I seem to remember Matt getting real close to learning kickflip backtails. And knock-kneed, slow-rolling Rob, consistently locking into back-noseblunts on the little blue rail and blowing our minds.
After a while they wheeled out a TV and we all had to sit on our boards and watch 10 minutes of a Christian skate DVD called Livin’ It, directed by Stephen Baldwin. The video sought to clue us into the idea that we could be both rad and holy. On the screen, a crew of pimply skateboarders and BMXers hand-picked by Saint Stephen landed not-quite-pro-level tricks in uncool clothes, sat on hotel beds reading their New Testaments, threw fast food at each other, and recounted the rock bottom moments that had urged them to get on a first-name-basis with the Lord. At that time, I myself was heading full speed into a staunch Roman Catholic phase that would last me another four or five years, and I would regularly accompany Andrew and Rob to the Youth Group at their church, and carpool to various retreat weekends around the Maritimes. Thus my heartrate had sped up considerably as soon as the other antsy skaters started scoffing at the video and whispering through it, but even to us zealots, it was intensely embarrassing listening to these born-again Extreme Athletes in the TV-invoking pop-religious clichés while adjusting their beanies. Catholicism breeds a particular kind of religious scruple concerning the sanctity––the specialness––of true and deep faith, even in teenagers, and this Charismatic Protestant way of touring the country’s skateparks to find total strangers to pray over––it all seemed kind of trashy. To me, faith was private, internal, slow-moving and gentle. It had nothing to do with amassing followers, because it was too preoccupied with a stupefying wonder at its main prospect: that everywhere in the gargantuan universe lived a presence that had not only your survival, but your joy, in mind.
After the video, a man from the church asked us questions like: Did we ever wonder what that feeling of emptiness, deep inside, was asking us to do? Did we wonder where we would go after we’d died? I remember feeling tricked, thinking, Of course we do, and growing furious at the idea that someone could have the gall to stand in front of a group of children and pretend to have these answers. Eventually they let us skate again, and so we did, if initially in a sort of deflated way. No kid should have to take part in a high-focus activity––in which their ankles are at risk of permanent injury at any moment––while their developing mind is still derailed by riddles about their soul’s destination, the destinations of the souls of their best friends. Despite it all, Rob eventually pulled his back-noseblunt, and we yelled as loud as we could, smacking our tails.
Me being the first of us to get a license, it was my parents’ green Subaru station wagon we’d driven in from across town, and I was the chauffeur for the cold ride home. Ten minutes from the snowed-in church we approached my family’s summer cottage, or, I should say, we approached the hill on which our cottage had stood on its stilts for nearly a hundred years before it had been, only months earlier, burned to the ground by teen arsonists who’d apparently never encountered a copy of Livin’ It.
“Let’s go look at the ruins,” one of us said. The cottage was accessed by a steep, long, unpaved driveway cut out of dense forest, wide enough for one small car, and it veered, as you chugged up it, slightly to the right. We came to the bend where the snowy driveway joined the road and I slowed to a crawl, signaled a left, aimed the car at the white column ascending through black trees, and stepped on the gas.
Probably each of us secretly believed he’d be the chosen one of our friend group to get sponsored, move to California, and one day turn pro. What other lives could we have imagined for ourselves, and why would we have bothered? Time was still on our side: the average age of the up-and-coming skaters in the magazines seemed to be about 19 or 20. Sure, we’d passed the prodigy mark, but we were doing fine. Besides, next summer was going to be our best yet: we’d film hundreds more tricks and progress like crazy. We began sentences with stuff like, “When you’re pro,” or, “When we’re all pro.” We imagined what might come out of our mouths in our first interviews. We wondered whether it would be too weird to skate a board that had your own name on the bottom.
I’d gathered enough speed that we sailed up the driveway mainly on momentum, bouncing and howling. It had been lightly snowing all night, and the gravel sat under a fresh white foot of powder, but we had 4WD, winter tires, and anti-lock brakes. Except, as we neared the crown of the hill, our momentum escaped us. We leveled out at the crest, but then, even though I hadn’t taken my foot off the pedal, we stopped. The wheels sounded like four power drills. It wasn’t a layer of fresh snow above gravel and mossy earth, but a fresh skin of snow on top of well-established ice: a narrowed, capsized hockey rink, a luge track whose walls were tree trunks, and our car teetered at its starting gate.
We began to slide backwards. My “whole life” did not “flash before my eyes,” but I know what they mean. As I wrapped my arm around the passenger headrest, twisted my torso around, and stood on the brakes—whose anti-lock credentials had nothing on this hill—the entire scope of the situation, all of its possible outcomes, dimensions, horrors, jumped at me with what I can only describe in physical terms: all the life-and-death data closed in on me. I was pinned inside a tiny box of pure action. I think we say that time “grinds to a halt” in times of crisis because of how we’re given access to 10 times as much mental information as we had only a second before—in this way it’s a lot like smoking weed, though I didn’t know that yet. My new psychic container was built of: the snow-reflected white of the high-beams out of the far corner of my left eye; the platoon of black tree trunks whipping by on either side, lit red by our tail-lights; the slack faces of Matt and Rob in the back seat and Andrew up front beside me—but no, Andrew wasn’t there, he’d got a ride with Christian, probably; he always corrects me when I bring him into this memory. He wasn’t in the car, but my mind insists on sketching him in. I guess because the idea of one of us meeting death before the other seems, still, completely nonsensical. The terrified expressions of my friends looking to me to somehow help, and their bodies turning to look out the back windshield; the jolting of our accelerating backward car; the observation that none of us had screamed yet, that, aside from the hornet’s buzz of the anti-lock brakes doing all they could, it was silent in here; that no, the anti-lock brakes were working, because I was steering. I could steer. The increasing km/h value of our downhill speed, backwards, dodging trees, limbs squeaking across windows and the looming knowledge that there was only about 15 feet of flat at the bottom of the driveway before the shoulder and then the lane of the two-way rural road that most treated like a freeway at this time of night, with the speed limit being about 80 km/h, plus the knowledge that the mouth of the driveway was basically hidden, it should really have one of those yellow HIDDEN DRIVEWAY signs, since to a night-time motorist it came out of nowhere, and that in a second we’d shoot out of this driveway into oncoming traffic as if off the end of a waterslide. The idea of an eighteen-wheeler and its mass; the question of whether, all things considered, it might be safer to aim for the trees; the knowledge that it was too late; the cost of damages to the car; the disbelief of my parents when they learned their son had died in such an adolescent, meaningless way; the crunches of demolition in action movies; as well as, strangely enough, the recognition that my driving skills had become pretty decent in my first licensed year, and that I was in fact guiding us backwards through this tunnel of death like a goddamn pro. The steering-the-opposite-way thing was operating on a muscle memory I didn’t even know I had: that maybe, if we were lucky, or if the universe still had cause for us to live, I could bring us out of this.
We skidded down onto the flat. I cut the wheel hard and we curled to a stop in the oncoming lane. No cars to be seen. The white world was silent. But we were not dead, and this was not the afterlife we’d heard about earlier. We were alive. We sat through a long, necessary pause, then Rob yelled something very loud. I can’t remember whether, on the drive home, after laughing with giddy, reverberative energy about how grateful we were to still exist. I can’t say whether any of us made a joke about cottage-driveway-to-fakie, but I hope someone did. Snow fell and clung to the windshield, but soon enough it would all melt, and so would the hidden ice, and there would be no more booby traps laid for us. Because life would keep on coming: spring would roll in, bend into summer, and school would end. They’d sweep the streets and parking lots, string the nets back up in the tennis courts, and we wouldn’t have to skate in churches anymore.