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A Near Miss

by S. Isabel Choi

Wally was the first to kiss me. Inside a roller rink in New Jersey, let’s say 1988, I sailed around curved corners and pumped my knees in rhythm to hits from Casey Kasem’s American Top 40: “Head to Toe” by Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, “Need You Tonight” by INXS, “Don’t Be Cruel” by Bobby Brown. Once a week, my mother dropped me off for my lesson with teacher Joan and returned after running errands or stealing a few hours away from parenthood. I’d retreat to the back corner of the small rink, away from the main floor with strobe lighting, and practice moves like the Grapevine and Shoot the Duck.

One afternoon, I wanted to spin fast, and swung my arms around to create momentum before folding them into my chest. As I slowed to a stop, Wally rolled up next to me and placed a hand on my hip. I can teach you new tricks, he said. He pushed me off into partner-skating, and I reveled in the attention. From then on Wally made sure to find me in the rink. He squeezed my shoulders. He circled my waist. He planted brief, wet kisses on my lips, which I pursed tight and wiped away when he wasn’t looking. Wally had white hair, and I was twelve.

A month or two went by, maybe more. Unknown to me at the time, Joan and her friend had been watching. Wally was not an instructor, but apparently he approached other girls, on other days of the week. The women recognized what I could not. They witnessed him cross lines that “just didn’t feel right” until, one day, they told someone. Wally was banished. He stalled on his way out and pulled me aside. I’m sorry if you misunderstood my affections—you reminded me of a girl I loved like a daughter during the Korean War, he said. The elaboration, the manipulation of his plea gripped my throat, kept me from speaking. Joan’s actions gave me just enough resolve to lock my gaze and bore into him the unsaid: You’re lying. He walked out of the rink for the last time, my silence breaking over him.

I never told my mother.

S. Isabel Choi (sisabelchoi.com), a lawyer by training, lives in the Bay Area and has indulged in ice cream every night during shelter in place. Recognized as a Notable Mention in The Best American Essays series, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and long-listed for the 2020 First Pages Prize, her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Slice, Fourth Genre, Ninth Letter, the Underwater Railroad, and The Rumpus.

* This essay originally appeared in Sweet Literary #13.1 (2020).

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