Loving the Ice

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

I like going ice skating. I’m not very good — I wouldn’t even begin to compare myself to friends who used to figure skate or play hockey. I’ve got no stories of glory days on the ice, no sit spins to try just to see if I’ve still got it. I just like to skate.

I’m not bad, per say. I know how to accelerate, stop, and keep myself upright for most of the time. I like to think I’m getting better each time I go to a rink, as seldom as that may be. I keep telling myself I should go more often. It helps me de-stress.

Julia was never a skater either, but she loved going almost as much as I did. For her, it wasn’t about the ice. She just loved that it was something we could do together. Her face used to light up like a holiday season streetlamp decoration when I pulled her along, sometimes even going against my better judgement and skating backwards so I could hold both of her hands and see that beaming smile.

“Oh my god you can’t just let go whenever you want, I’m still learning!” Even had I not been looking right at her smile, the excitement in her voice betrayed the fact that she wasn’t scared — she was actually having a good time.

“Yeah. You hate me. So much. For taking you ice skating and putting a smile on your face. Do you also hate fun?”

As I reached my hands out to support her again, she poked back in retaliation. But I was a bit too far and her center of balance a bit too forward — her arms hit the ice before I could grab them.

“You okay?” I asked, reflexively. I didn’t need an answer. She looked up at me with the same smile. She was fine.

I always get stuck in that strange middle ground where I’m good enough at skating that beginners will ask me for advice, but there’s still always a handful of people at the rink who clearly have years of skating experience on me. So I often find myself trying to teach my friends the basics of a hockey stop with a bunch of boys speeding right past us, all of them probably a good 4 years younger than me. They all clearly are itching for a stick in their hands and a goal to shoot at. It doesn’t bother me. If I’m alone, I just enjoy the me time. If I’m skating with friends, I’m too busy enjoying their company.

“Yo there’s no way that party is happening at our place tonight.” Ben said to me, as he handed his rental skates back over the counter. “I literally just told you before coming over here this is the only thing I’m doing today to take time off studying. Do you not understand the concept of finals week? Do you even have finals?”

“Yeah I have finals, and I do study. I just think we should keep our promise since we already told Mary and like all of her crew that we’ll throw down tonight.” I honestly wasn’t really feeling the party either. I just was hoping Ben would change his mind so that I would have an excuse to procrastinate a little bit more. Besides, Mary had this one friend…

“Absolutely not tonight. Sorry. Definitely this weekend though, we’ll make something work. Besides, I thought you didn’t want Julia coming around again?” Ben forgets most of my complaints, so I was surprised to find out that he had remembered this one.

“I didn’t invite her.”

“You invited literally all of her roommates though.”

“She wouldn’t come anyway. She doesn’t want to see me I’m sure.” I actually had no idea what she wanted at this point, but I said it anyway.

Ben sighed. “It sucks to see you guys this way, man. I know this has been super difficult for you, and nothing’s changed about when I said I’ll be on your side all the way, but I hope you guys aren’t gonna be like this until the day we graduate.”

I really didn’t want to continue the conversation any longer. As we stepped out of the rink I abruptly changed the topic to dinner choices. He took the hint.

Every winter when the temperature gets just cold enough and school is just stressful enough one of my friends will always organize a trip to the rink. I never say no. But I always go at least three or four times a winter, and that’s more times than most friends who don’t skate will want to go. By the time spring is peeking around the corner, I’m dying to get those last few chances on the ice, but it’s hard to muster same the enthusiasm in my friends. They’ll go enthusiastically in the beginning of the winter, fall on their ass a few times, sometimes quite hard, and won’t want to come back. It usually takes the passing of the year to make them forget about the bruises.

Ben’s phone buzzed on the drive home from the rink. He was driving, so he asked me to look at it. It was a text from Tony, a mutual friend.

“Tony’s asking if you still need his… oven mitts? You borrowed his oven mitts?”

Ben laughed. “Yeah, completely forgot. I borrowed them last week cause I was trying to bake stuff for Mary’s birthday.” Apparently Ben wasn’t done trying to impress Mary.

“Well that explains the mess in the kitchen last week.” I felt the phone buzz again. “He also says… he’s asking about details from last night? I thought you went to the library to study last night?”

Ben hesitated. Without taking his eyes off the road, he reached for his phone in my general direction. “Yeah, I did, I don’t really know what he’s talking about. Here, I’ll take the phone.”

“No dude you’re still driving, I can text him back for you. What do you want me to say?” I pulled the phone away from his reach.

“Don’t worry about it, I’ll text him back when we get home.”

Despite what Ben had said, I was still confused about Tony’s second text. Making sure that Ben had his eyes fixated on the road, I slowly moved his phone back to the cup holder in which it was previously held, but scrolled his messages up as I did so. Hopefully from his peripherals it just looked like I was putting his phone back.

The regret was instant and powerful. As soon as I processed the message, the regret turned into anger. The text from Ben to Tony directly before the messages I just received read: “jesus I just hooked up with Julia how did this happen” Taking any longer to put the phone back would have looked suspicious. I did one of the most difficult things I have ever done and pretended I hadn’t seen it. But the following silence in the car was deafening, and I knew I wasn’t giving enough credit to Ben’s peripheral vision. We both understood what had just happened.

I can’t deny that the falls hurt, believe me, I know. I’ve had my own share of them when I was first learning. But that’s the mistake some people make — they think at a certain point, you just get good enough to never fall. In their mind, they obviously can’t put in enough time and effort to achieve that level of mastery, so it’s not worth trying.

Well, there’s about a million ways in which that mindset is inaccurate, but the thing that people overlook most easily is this: everyone keeps falling. The best hockey players, the best figure skaters, the Olympic speed skaters — they all keep falling. The thing is, you only see them on TV when they’re putting on their best show. You don’t see them at their 6am practices, taking fall after fall just to nail that next axel.

Of course, you get better at falling. You just have to. You learn to land so you collapse your body instead of breaking a bone. Just like anything else, it gets easier with time.

One of my friends who would always come skating with me at the beginning of each winter was Sophie. Sophie was actually pretty decent — similar to me in that she could hold her own on the ice. While her enthusiasm was contagious and lovable, what I most admired about her was that she didn’t fear falling like our other friends did. I told her about this during one of our outings to the rink, and she told me about her experiences with snowboarding.

“Right up until I came to college, I did a lot of snowboarding. I was getting good enough to attempt moguls and some high jumps, but I hadn’t really mastered it all yet. I kept falling. A lot. I mean so much that my dad noticed and told me ‘You fall a lot. But you always get back up.’ And I almost told him right then and there, no shit dad, what am I gonna do, just sit there? Of course I get back up!”

You always get back up. You have to. It’s so obvious, but sometimes you need friends like Sophie to show you.

There’s something about skating that nourishes my poetic side, even though when I’m on the ice I’m really not thinking about anything other than how good it feels. Unlike walking, which requires that you physically pick up each foot and put it in front of the other, skating lets you coast some distance on a single push. It’s an escape from the daily trudging of here to there. On the ice, you can be a little bit more relaxed, a little bit more carefree. No need for the relentless struggle of each step — just push, and enjoy the glide. Look around. Take in the refreshing chill of the air above you.

As was the case with most of our serious conversations, we met outside. Without a word, we started walking our usual path around campus. Except now, there was no “we” or “our” anymore.

Julia always seemed to talk first even though I always wanted to. “What I do with Ben is not really your business. So yeah, I don’t mean to hurt you but I’m going to live my life.”

I’d heard that one before. This wasn’t the first time we’ve gone on this walk since we broke up. “By that, what you really mean is, ‘I don’t really care about you anymore.’ ”

“No, that’s not what I said.”

“Actually in this case, it is. Cause apparently you living your life is mutually exclusive to not hurting me. Obviously you made your choice so I can tell which one’s a lie.” My cynicism was creeping up again, telling my emotions, “stand back, I got this.”

“I told you I’d try to be friends, but then I didn’t think you’d go and fuck my best friend,” I continued.

“Like I said, that’s not your business. All I wanted to do today was just make sure you’re okay. If you won’t…”

I couldn’t handle it anymore. I interrupted her. “That sounds incredibly insincere. I think it’d be best if we had this talk when we’re not both emotionally compromised. I’ll see you later.” I turned around, not waiting for a reply. I hadn’t done that to her before — it was hard. I thought she would say something to retaliate, but to my surprise she kept quiet and let me leave.

The time between when I finish tying my skates and when I step onto the ice to breathe in that first chilling breath of the frisk rink air is usually around 20 to 30 seconds. Those 20 to 30 seconds are very important — it’s just long enough for a small voice in my head to pop up and say “you think you still got it in you? What if you fall on your face today?”

My steps never slow. If anything, I step out onto the ice with a little bit more vigor each time. My answer is always, “I’ve fallen before, and I probably will again. I don’t have any choice but to get back up. I’ll keep falling, and I’ll keep skating. ’cause I love it.”

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