Early one Saturday evening, my husband and I were walking along the South First bridge that crosses from downtown into South Austin. The weather had cooled into the 80s — a rarity in July — and we were headed to a women’s roller derby game.
We’d always intended to go to one of those games and tonight was our first. The Holy Rollers were playing the Putas del Fuego, so you knew it had to be good.
A little way across the bridge, I saw some debris from a recent storm. A single sheet of notepaper with rose-colored writing on it lay there, twisted. I picked it up and started to read it aloud as we walked.
It was a woman writing her boyfriend. She had done something that upset him. He had left and wasn’t returning her calls. “I’m afraid we’re not together anymore and I don’t know what to do!” she said.
“What do you think she did?” my husband asked.
I shook my head. “Don’t know.”
We kept walking and I kept reading, the rose-colored details slowly seeping out. She cared deeply for him, she wanted to stay with him, he made her feel loved and beautiful.
“What I did,” she wrote, “is eating me up inside and your not talking to me is killing me.” She asked for forgiveness and told him she loved him.
My husband and I walked some more, idly talking about the note. Had she really sent it to him? Had he read it? Had they gotten back together? Why had the note been abandoned on the bridge — and who had left it there?
“It’s not all crumpled up, like he was mad when he read it,” my husband said.
“If he read it,” I said.
This was one of those brief, intimate glimpses of others’ lives that had always haunted me — the kind you got when your train passes by a house with lit windows and you see a face or faces staring back at you. Who were those people, what were they thinking? You had a split second of clarity into their lives — or maybe you just thought you did.
Scenes like this happened more often in a city, where you were physically closer to others. You heard scattered fragments of conversations and laughter, watched faces clenched in anger. If you looked up from your smartphone, the world was teeming with drama and energy.
Once, in a swanky West Austin restaurant, we saw a young woman storm out, leaving her male friend behind. He sat and stared and drank for another several minutes. Then, when he asked for the check, the waiter told him she had already paid it.
“Man, that guy really lucked out,” my husband whispered.
“Are you crazy?” I hissed. “That was the ultimate, classy kiss-off. She really showed him.”
We talked about it for another few minutes, but couldn’t convince each other. Men can be so clueless, even when you try to give them the benefit of your superior insights. It was sad.
But now, I wondered, what should we do with the love note? It wasn’t ours — but I’d begun to feel protective of it. I couldn’t throw it away or leave it for somebody else — a total stranger — to read, could I? I’d picked up the note because I thought it could be interesting — was that so wrong? Maybe so. But now what?
I put the note inside my purse. We went in the events center and sat on the top row, trying to figure out the roller derby rules as we went along. The Holy Rollers’ uniforms read Kill, Kill, Kill on the front, the Putas wore black. They skated, they elbowed, they shoved, they occasionally broke into fistfights.
It was fun, even if I wasn’t quite sure of the rules. I kept wondering, though, whether women’s roller derbies were empowering for women. On the one hand, they encouraged women to be physical and aggressive: good. On the other, why were women considered to be empowered only when they acted more like men?: bad, derivative.
By half time, my stomach started to growl. “I need to eat or I’m going to die,” I told my husband.
We left, walking back across the bridge, and went to an Italian restaurant. I had a gluten-free, dairy-free pasta dish, which I don’t recommend unless you hate yourself. My husband announced he was sulking because we hadn’t stayed for the whole game, which was evidently all my fault.
We spent quite a bit of time glaring at each other and passing blame back and forth over the table like it was a salt shaker — one of those brief marital squabbles that comes on like a case of indigestion. Then, we walked back to our condo in a slightly better mood, but didn’t find any more love letters on the ground.
You know, you’re supposed get wiser as you age — or, anyway, that’s the comforting wisdom we tell ourselves. Sometimes, I’m not sure, though. Maybe you’re simply more aware of your own limitations, more knowledgeable about what you don’t know, and humility passes for wisdom.
So I don’t know a lot. I’ll never know what happened to the letter writer and her boyfriend or to the couple we saw break up that night. I’m pretty sure my husband and I will survive to get in another glaring contest or an equally pointless fight again; it’s what happens when you live together and the other person is imperfect.
But sometimes, just sometimes, you find hard information — actual facts! — you can run with. The Holy Rollers beat the Putas by six points, as it turned out. I’m absolutely certain that must have been really empowering for the Rollers.
(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)