Under Pressure

A short story where the acutely relatable goal of wanting to impress your parents unravels in dramatic fashion…

by: T.E. Cowell1

When I was fifteen, my dad drove me to the skateboard park in his truck and watched me skate around, standing just inside the park by the fence. I’d been skating for a few years by that point, but this was the first time my dad was watching me, so I thought of it as a fairly big deal. I wanted to impress him with my skills. I wanted him to say things like “Wow! You’re really good! I’m proud of you, son!” My dad hadn’t complimented me in years, not since I gave up playing basketball. Unlike basketball, he seemed to have mixed feelings about skateboarding. I think he associated the activity with drifters, outcasts, and with a subculture that he didn’t want me to be a part of. Although he’d never explicitly told me what he’d thought about skateboarding before, the fact that he hadn’t chosen to watch me skate until now spoke volumes. I saw this, then, as an opportunity, a chance to change my father’s mind and allow him to view skating in a whole new light, and understand how much it meant to me..

I wore the helmet that my parents insisted I wear because I knew my father would get upset if I didn’t. I didn’t always wear the helmet of course; in fact I hardly ever wore it because it wasn’t considered cool, and if there was one thing I wanted to be in those days, at fifteen, it was cool.

I skated around the park, getting warmed up, not trying anything too difficult, imagining the whole time my dad watching me by the fence. Knowing he was there, I felt a considerable amount of pressure. I plunged down into one of the smaller bowls in the park, came up on the other side, turned on my back two wheels and dove back in again. I pushed on to another part of the park, where the walls were both higher and steeper than they were in the previous bowl. I built up momentum and thrust up the wall, turned, and went back down it. Gaining even more momentum, I sped up another wall, and it was while I was attempting to do a simple trick on top of this wall, a grind that I’d done numerous times before without incident, that I fell in a way I’d never fallen before, plummeting to the ground wildly. The wall was over six feet high and I fell sideways, and while I fell I had no time to react to what was happening, because it happened so fast and because I was unaccustomed to falling while doing the trick I had attempted.

I hit my head and immediately blacked out. I woke up to my father frantically shaking me. I remember him helping me to my feet and saying, “Are you okay? Are you okay?” over and over again. I remember his eyes, how frightened they’d looked, how big they were and how full of concern they appeared. I remember that my elbow was tingling, similar to how your elbow feels when you hit your funny bone. Running my fingers over my elbow I felt a small indentation, a kind of fissure in the middle of the bone.

Obviously, my skating adventures for the day were over, even though I’d only been at it for five or so minutes, ten at most. Instead I walked out of the park with my father at my side. My helmet had been dented in the fall, and as my dad drove home he pointed out that if I hadn’t been wearing the helmet I might’ve died, or at the very least suffered some serious brain damage.

“Skateboarding’s too dangerous,” he said. My father’s voice had the weight and finality of a judge’s final verdict.

I didn’t say anything in return, didn’t agree or disagree, just stared out the windshield at the road and trees. I knew my father — if I agreed with him on this topic, or even hinted that I agreed, he would forevermore insist that I give up skateboarding for good. And if I disagreed, he would’ve become upset and argued with me, and then I would’ve gotten upset, fashioning a deeply unpleasant ride home.

I was afraid of my father, of the anger I knew was boiling inside him. I often didn’t speak freely around him, and sometimes I found myself holding my breath when we were near one another. When I was younger, my dad would sometimes spank me, usually for making too much noise in the living room while I was playing video games. I can never forget the sound of his feet pounding down the stairs from his bedroom, the rumbling sound of his voice yelling at me to be quiet, or the sight of his flushed cheeks as he entered the living room, where I sat frozen with fear. Or the feel of his strong hands lifting me up into the air as if I weighed no more than a feather before setting me down on my stomach on one of his now-bended knees so that he could smack my bottom continually — until it throbbed with pain, until I started to cry, until my mom came in the living room if she was home imploring my father to stop, telling him that I was just a kid.

Time spent playing basketball with my father in the driveway, shooting at the rim he’d nailed into a Douglas fir, seemed to restore the rift the spankings caused in our relationship. We’d bonded over basketball, and all of my father’s words of encouragement after I made a shot from the three-point line, or a good number of two-pointers in a row, filled my body with warmth. It made my chest, my entire being, seem to expand. He’d pat me on the shoulder sometimes with his large, heavy hand, and that felt good too. I could never forget his anger completely though, could never put it out of my head altogether.

Sitting in the passenger seat as my father drove home from the skate park, neither of us speaking, I kept replaying what had happened, the mistake I’d made that had led to my fall. One of my skateboard’s trucks, the back one, had to have been an inch or two in the wrong place, just off the coping. That was the only plausible conclusion I could come up with. If the back truck had been on the coping like the front one had been, I would’ve been fine, I wouldn’t have fallen, and my father, most likely, would have had an altogether different opinion about skateboarding.

Skateboarding was dangerous, is dangerous, but it’s also a lot of fun, and it’s very rewarding when you land a new trick for the first time, a trick you might’ve tried a hundred times unsuccessfully. There’s a moment of disbelief that occurs that is exhilarating, and an almost otherworldly feeling of accomplishment that rushes over you.

My father would never drive to the skatepark again to watch me skate. He would continue, for a time, to voice his opinion that skateboarding was too dangerous, but his words had no sway over me. At the skatepark I would continue to do the simple trick on the steep wall that had ended in a concussion again and again, and I’d never fall like I’d fallen the day my father watched me, nor even come close. I would continue to skate without the helmet against my parents’ wishes, and luckily I would never black out again.

It only happened that one time, the day my father came to watch me. It was a freak accident, I reflected on it afterwards, a one in a million chance.

  1. Header art by Peter Saunders. []

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