Expectation is a dangerous thing. This meme dangled in my prefrontal cortex as my lower torso guided me across the track to line up against Pandemic Prime, #313. We were down seven and there was only time for one more jam. This elevated the risk quotient to the highest level. It was time to make a move. The problem was, as the football announcers like to say, the other guys get paid to play too. Pandemic had painted her face the tint of rain forest bromeliads to accompany the green and gold fishnet skinsuit of our opponents, the Lilith Ladies. I was clad in the black and white bee-striped minidress of the Milwaukee Maenads, my skin-tight spandex sleeveless jersey top labeled with #00 and sporting my nom de plume, Athena Rose, my turquoise quetzal tattoo peeking out from my naked shoulder salty and glistening. There were two minutes on the clock. This was it. We were fighting for the first victory of the first bout of the all-female roller derby season.
The Ladies had been serving us up on a platter all night, their blockers dominating our girls, but we were only down seven points, which placed me in striking distance of a dramatic come-back, vintage Brett Favre-style—but maybe without the fourth-down bloody vomit if at all possible. You know: ladylike. (Insert curtsy here.) Pandemic Prime was new this year but had proved a formidable opponent. She was smooth, slashing through the lanes created by her blockers. I was her counterpart, and I had to make a move now or all would be lost. I was the difference between One and Oh and Oh and One.
The whistle blew. We’d called a play called Black Hole, where our blockers angled the opposing players in toward the interior of the track and then pushed them straight through to the outside, theoretically vacating a lane for me to shoot through on the inside. Problem was, Pandemic could exploit the same gap. So the play called for me to beat her off the line and check her ass to the inside so she cut the track and had to pirouette in reverse to get back in play before she could advance. Black Hole was an all-out strategy. We bet the house. The expectation was that the Ladies, being up by seven, would play conservative and lack the motivation to stave off the total assault. But like I like to say, because it’s true, expectation is a dangerous thing. They’d outplayed us the entire game so far and I didn’t actually expect they would play nice in the final jam.
I checked Pan inside, just like it said in the playbook, our shoulder pads clacking, but I immediately felt that she gave way too easily. Her body pirouetted behind me like a slippery eel. This was the perfect countermeasure to Black Hole, and our team practiced it all the time. We called it White Dwarf, but whatever the Lilith Ladies called it, White Dwarf would effectively nullify Black Hole, taking our oversell and using it against us. The Ladies crashed us to the inside. Half our team had already cut the track. Which meant they’d all have to backtrack to get back in-bounds where they’d skated out. Our Black Hole collapsed before it had a chance to yawn open. White Dwarf trumped Black Hole every time—unless—unless you played an audible that we called Black Hole Horizon to prepare for exactly this contingency, which we, because I was the jammer this jam, as I had signaled casually when we lined up by patting our lead blocker Sassie Suzie on the scruff of her tattooed neck, had.
As soon as our blockers felt the Ladies’ line giving way too easily, like in a called screen play in football, they would switch blocking assignments as they cut the track on the inside. The idea with Horizon was it threw the other team off balance so that the lane that in Black Hole was designed to open to the inside now was rerouted to the outside, which ought to give me, as the outside jammer, an advantage to slice my way around the resetting blockers. It all depended on trust and instinct. As soon as the blockers felt that they were facing White Dwarf, I had to sell out completely to the outside and sprint for the lane, cutting back around the ring at a ridiculously sharp angle. If I kept with Black Hole, but not Horizon, the result would be a train wreck as I’d crash into my own teammates like a heedless striped billiard ball. Horizon was an act of faith. I launched outside.
But Pan was incredibly fast. We were in a footrace for the Horizon gap, she actually a half step in front because she had inside position. We both knew I was faster in a sprint. I was smaller, had a faster metabolism; hell, I was fucking meaner, wilier, more motivated; but she was lither and better positioned, perfectly balanced, never flustered, even though her center of gravity was higher.
It was like we were illustrating a twenty-first century adaptation of Sun Tzu’s Art of War in slow motion. Moves. Countermoves. Anticipation. Reaction. Adjustment. Taking what the opponent gave you and using it against them. Knowing your playing field. Changing the playing field. So, in my second stride blasting outside, the question not quite risen to the prefrontal cortex but caught down in my amygdala, was, did Pandora have one more trick up her sleeve—or was it an all-out footrace? I had three strides to decide. So far we’d each met each other with Newtonian precision, my action met equally with her opposite reaction. But there was one more wrinkle you could layer onto Black Hole Horizon. And as the come-from-behind jammer, engaging it or not lay solely in my court. Two strides to decide. My blockers in front of me wouldn’t know whether I was doing it or not. I had to trust them to do their jobs blindly and based on our game so far I didn’t know if that trust was warranted. One stride. But since we were down seven, I made my choice. Half-stride. The option was this: Black Hole Horizon Interstitial.
When my blockers felt that I was neither hitting the inside lane of Black Hole or the outside lane of Black Hole Horizon, they split their blocks at the first curve to both outside and inside, and I split them right up the seam like Charlton Heston through the Red Sea. That was the only option and it took me a half step to decide it was the only option to win. If I didn’t hit that hole at the half turn of the track, it was a melee scrum and the Ladies’ superior size would destroy us down the stretch. The only problem with Black Hole Horizon Interstitial was it depended on me beating Pan to the hole. And she was closer. The hole would exist for both of us, and if they were good—and the Ladies had won the championship three of the past four years—they could also feel that gap. As much as I had to trust my team to open up that surgical lane, they had to trust me to beat Pan through it or our gambit was a loss. If we both ran the gauntlet together, the best case scenario was a wash in points for both teams, and the Maenads would suffer bitter defeat. That was where the “interstitial” part came in. The theory was that you could thread the needle so that your opposing jammer, caught a half-stride in your wake, would slam into her own blocker just in time for the lane to clot back up with sweaty writhing bodies and lock her behind while you skated free.
Pan had inside position on me. We both knew this. If I gave her too much free reign, she’d feel what was up and take away my advantage. If I checked her too hard I’d be out of position to exploit the hole around the first turn. She could play it however she wanted since the Ladies were ahead. But over the past hour, I’d come to learn her style of play. She favored grace and finesse over conflict, sinuosity over sinew, and she rarely initiated blocks herself even when not wearing the jammer’s star. Because she possessed such excellent balance, this served her well, but it suggested the course I had to take. I’d maneuver inside, then check her ass hard to the outside, effectively out-pirouetting her own spin, which I expected would push her off-balance despite giving her first shot at the interstitial lane.
To an observer in the stands we might have looked like wading birds locked in an exotic courtship dance, the two of us actually skating backwards in tight loops while a crush of bodies sweltered in front of us. And then, in the culminating sweep as I darted from way inside back to the sweet, sweet middle, I laid it on thick to her shoulder. Except, expectation is a dangerous thing. She absorbed my hit with one of her own. In our collision, angular momentum exchanged, our skates got tangled. I did an involuntary backflip but didn’t stick the landing, slamming down instead on my tailbone in what sounded to me inside my brain like a bowler landing a strike, Pan crashing on top of me. With her on top and the play’s timing shattered, all hope of tactical advantage was lost. It was now every woman for herself. I pushed her green ass off and shucked the pain that now reverberated down my spine into that psychological compartment usually reserved for the pure hatred of the father who’d left us when I was twelve, even though part of me knew I was going to be stiff and sore for weeks.
We were both back up careening counter-clockwise, no hole in sight, just a hummingbird blender of black-and-white and green-and-gold bodies. Somebody’s fleshy bicep slammed what should have been Pan’s neck, but somehow she evaded it Matrix-style, cutting under and around the jab. At the next pass, Pandemic sliced through our defenses to earn lead-jammer status, and though I caught her in the third pass, we were in each other’s hip pockets the whole jam and there was no way for our teams to reset. In that green bodypaint she hardly seemed to sweat. She sprinted with me for the full two minutes, each of us scoring points as we lapped our opponents but she played clean and there was no way for me to close the gap. With time winding down, and my team utterly gassed, the Maenads had lost.
After the bout, our mouthguards unplugged, I slapped gloved hands with Pan in the respect of worthy adversaries. She looked like an Orion Slave Girl in her green body paint, but our shared glance betrayed the intense individual battle we’d just fought to a stalemate, her gaze cool and level, mine bemused and cocky. If our skates hadn’t tangled, I would have beat her through the lane. She hadn’t planned for Interstitial. She knew it. I knew it. Sometimes you could win and still lose. She had changed her game at the last minute and gotten physical. If she hadn’t slammed me at the turn, right now I would have been the hero. Smart move, I had to admit.
Her hand was firm. I liked this chick. She was calm, but she was totally badass. As I skated off to the locker room, I expected great things from #313. Pandemic Prime didn’t join us at the bar for the Turner Hall afterparty, but I learned her name from our compatriots. One of our rivals, politically savvy salon owner Elizabeth Mann, a.k.a. Hypnomad, still draped in the slut red of the Brew City Banshees, placed her hand solicitously on the small of my back and with her other bought us the first of subsequently unquantifiable rounds of tequila. “Pandora Malvern,” Elizabeth shouted into my ear because the amplified chords of the Five Card Studs strumming away on stage made vocal decibel levels lower than lawnmower magnitudes inaudible. “Apparently she’s a lab tech down at the Global Water Center at some startup developing algal biofuel.”
“Cheers!” I said, slamming the shot with one hand while removing Elizabeth’s hand with the other.
In the alcoholic splendor of the evening that ensued, I forgot all about Pandora’s on-track excellence, and the wisdom of Sun Tzu swirled into sweet manic oblivion. Since my seismic breakup with David, I was incredibly single, and as I was taking a night off from my meds and thus wild as a tiger in heat, there were no shortage of virile males willing to buy a drink for Milwaukee Maenads star jammer Athena Rose, badass derby girl, a.k.a. Zoe Minerva Blackbourne, part-time librarian and full-time twenty-seven-year-old bipolar mess. I don’t exactly advertise the mess part. But I don’t lie to them. I just put the truth in play. Expectation, I tell them with archly batted lashes before shooting another liberated tequila, is a dangerous thing.
The thing is, it’s not all about me. But it is a little. Because as it turns out, I was the last person to see Pandora Malvern alive.