Fiction / December 2017 (Issue 38: Writing Hong Kong)

The Hard Commit

by Daniel Zhao

Six stairs silent before him, so unlit and dead. A laminated page zip tied to the metal rails through a hole punched on top, "Snake seen in the area," featuring pre-installed Word clip art.

He takes a swig of the Japanese green tea, so bitter and unsweetened. Cold from the vending machine, humming quietly against the wall. Commit. You can do this; you know you can; it's all in your head. Commit.

He kicks off. Front foot on the bolts, back foot light on the tail. The familiar cackle of rolling wheels on cement. Fast approaching the lip of the first stair, he bails. He loses his footing, falls onto the board beneath him, rolls with it down the stairs and slaps his elbows on every subsequent lip, on the funny bone.

Down on the ground again, so damp and unfeeling. Staring at the menagerie of moths hurling themselves at the single lamp post, and in considerable funny-pain and laughing, he curses. He thinks he ought to drink more tea.

After he graduated from university, he returned to Hong Kong. His old friends, classmates from Chinese International School, were forging the typical Hong Kong international-student-educated-abroad story: making their first paychecks, working as junior associates in banks, law firms or social enterprises. Those that weren't were pursuing further education, in fields like medicine, mechanical engineering and computer science. Others still, found ways to continue living abroad, comfortably or not. Meanwhile, he was out every night, on Lower Cyberport Road, learning how to ollie, the founding trick of modern skateboarding.

The bike path he skates on is frequented by yuppies. They jog past, in high performance athletic gear and fresh pink New Balances, while he leaks sweat from eyeballs to boxers, hair tied messy in a bun with a rubber band. Grip tape like sand paper, he's lost count of how many pairs of skate shoes he's burnt holes in. It started with that spot on the outside of his foot, below his left toe, and within months, the holes spread like an infestation, around the tops and down to the soles. He's disgusted by the kids strolling through Causeway Bay in their pristine Vans classics.

Taxi drivers parked beside the bike path can attest to his religious devotion to concrete, signified by the scabs on his elbows and knees. There are a number of ways to worship, beginning with the board slipping out from underneath him, or flying out before him, or slamming the nose on his shins, until they swell and bruise, or as he chickenfoots, landing with only one foot on the board. This mistake results in him doing the splits, incompletely and ungracefully.

Despite its basic nature, the ollie is considered by many professionals to be notoriously difficult to learn. It is among the most unintuitive of all actions, and there isn't a single instance in daily life where such a sequence of movements would be performed. After six months, on the day he popped his first ollie, he was filled with an unbreakable confidence. He felt higher than the tip of the spire of the Bank of China, or any finance associate on cocaine, lines stretching the span of the Tsing Ma Bridge. He skated home ecstatic, crossing the street on a red light. That was when he almost got run over by a Toyota Alphard.

To the joggers, skateboards and skaters are seen as a spectacle, a marketable trend, a hobby, a decoration in hipster coffee shops and co-working spaces. They won't understand the attitude, the filth, the style, the ease or the style with the ease, the steeze. With their perfect makeup and quick-dri shirts, which will never reveal the slightest drop of sweat, even in Hong Kong's suffocating humidity, they're too clean, just like the Vans in Causeway Bay. When he first started skating, they shot him dirty looks, don't hit me, my partner, or, God forbid, my dog, their eyes warned.

Once, at an internship, he got reprimanded for taking a skate deck off its rack on the wall and skating it at the office during lunch break.

Within seconds, the receptionist came shuffling. "Wei! What are you doing? This is not a toy!" she said. Clearly, the skateboard, with Coca-Cola written in white font against a red background, belonged on the wall instead of on the ground.

Now, when the joggers pass, he shows off a little, if only for the culture. He crouches, adjusts his feet into position—back foot on the centre of the tail, front foot nudged behind the front bolts, angled slightly outwards. With a quick downward flick from his back foot, he pops the board into the air. After a brief delay, he slides his front foot towards the nose and jumps, tucking both his knees into his chest. The actions are not performed simultaneously, but milliseconds after another. Only with perfect timing will his body weight shift with the board, allowing him to stay over it whilst moving through the air.

Once, he caught the eye of a girl across the street. Her legs were open, stretching. A rare occurrence, for skating itself rarely helped him succeed with women, not in Hong Kong. Instead, skating gave him a kind of confidence, stemming from its requirement to commitment. It taught him to do everything with 100%, because unless you committed to the pop, the slide and the jump, you never landed the trick.

Three months later, sitting on the roof of an old residential building in Causeway Bay, he was smoking cigarettes and drinking 7-11 bought beer with the girl from across the street. They had started talking because they found each other on Tinder. They sat shoulder touching shoulder, even though it was their first meeting.

"So how's Tinder treating you?" she asked.

"I don't know what you mean."

"Don't people use Tinder to hook up? I mean, that's the reputation, at least."

He didn't know what she meant. It was his first time meeting any of his matches. He wanted to kiss her, but he was afraid.

Commit. Commit. Commit.

He reached his arm around her shoulder, pulled her close, and they kissed. Her lips were cloudy with cigarette smoke.

Crisscrossing the moths were mosquitoes and gnats. These nimbler insects swerved between them like fighter jets doing figure eights. He sighs in frustration. He has the technical ability, this much he knows. Individually, the stairs presented no challenge. Plus, since the steps were wide enough, he could skate them as if they were individual steps. Despite this knowledge, when strung together, the steps were deathly intimidating.

He once read somewhere, probably in one of those hipster cafes, and definitely one in upper Soho, that "you can't cross a chasm in two small jumps," though, in his case, six small steps were all that were required. But no matter how many times he launched himself off towards the stairs, he bailed at the last second every try.

Skating is an ongoing battle between belief, body, physics and master. But mind is master, and master was saying no, only because master hadn't done it before. By finishing the tea, no longer cold, he conceded. He had lost the battle against himself, a battle so easily won if he could simply commit, and, in doing so, defeat the master. He dusts the dirt off his elbows and shoulders. A couple days later, he'd still be picking out bits of gravel from inside the skin of his palms.

No doubt, he'd be back tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, with the same consistency that the joggers returned to their offices. He had to commit during the trick, but in learning it as well. Progress happened slowly. With every passing day, he ollied a little higher, a little faster, a little cleaner. He held manuals for one second, two seconds, three seconds. He would skate the first stair, the second and, eventually, all six. He knew those six stairs, and the resulting six seconds of ecstasy, were worth the six months of pain, frustration and falling, over and over again, in love with the concrete.


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