Look At You Now

When You Win Gold At Sixteen: A Skater’s Story.

Lara Zielinski went to the mall, in search of a new pair of jeans. She also needed a place to go. Lara was not quite five feet tall. She was short. Her lack of height had not been a problem during her brief but spectacular figure skating career. She had less actual leg to get in the way of every complicated triple landing, every low sit spin, but now Lara was a regular person and she had trouble if someone sat in front of her at the movies. She could not buy clothes like everyone else. She ordered everything custom made.

But for some reason, desperation, Lara hoped to find the perfect pair of jeans. She went in and out of changing rooms, trying on petite sizes, feeling every last drop of fabricated optimism being squeezed from her. It was possible, of course, to have clothes taken in, jeans could be hemmed, but somehow that was never the same. Lara headed to the food court.

Lara’s dog was with her ex-husband for the week. Lara never knew what to do with herself when Chelsea was away. Hillary Clinton had named her only daughter for the Joni Mitchell song and Lara had named her dog after the president’s daughter. She had admired the way the awkward girl had grown up into a lovely and accomplished young woman after a childhood spent in the public eye. Lara respected Chelsea Clinton and she also loved her dog. So did her ex-husband. It had been an ugly divorce, and Richard had taken her to court, somehow gotten joint custody of the dog. But Chelsea was her dog, hers before the marriage. Lara had kept the house. Still, the judge’s decision had staggered her.

After a morning of shopping, Lara’s hip hurt. Her right hip. Sometimes, it was the left. Obviously, trying on eighteen different pairs of jeans had aggravated her tender bones. Lara sat on a bench in front of the fountain in the mall food court, eating a hot fudge sundae. She did not bother to wipe away the tears that fell from her face. In truth, she had come to the mall for ice cream. Lara had to go through ridiculous lengths in order to be kind to herself.

“Excuse me?” a voice asked. “Are you Lara Zielinski?”

Lara blinked.

“Lara Zielinski,” the girl said again. “You are Lara Zielinski, aren’t you? You are? I know you are. This is so amazing.”

Lara could not remember the last time she had been recognized. Sometimes, when she went to competitions. Lara did occasional commentary for TV; Scott Hamilton pulled some strings on her behalf. She was not a complete wreck, was not a complete has-been. She still had money left over from those years of touring, from the Wheaties cereal box. But on her own, off the ice, much too low to the ground, Lara was a nobody. A short woman with a limp. Lara turned to look at the teenage girl, who was also eating an ice cream sundae.

Coincidence?

The girl was thin and Lara understood that her admirer was bulimic, a bulimic figure skater. So many years after the Olympics, only another skater would recognize her. The problem with bulimia, Lara knew all too well, was that it weakened your bones. All those triple jumps, all those hard and relentless falls on the hard, hard ice, coming down on those already fragile bones, hard, fast, at impossible angles. Your body took a beating. Lara had been twenty-eight when she had her first hip replacement surgery, thirty when the other hip was replaced. She had been sixteen when she won the gold medal.

The world had once been hers.

Lara swallowed another spoonful of her sundae. Coffee ice cream. Hot fudge. Whipped cream. Wet walnuts. Lara loved this sundae, not as much as she loved her dog, but she loved it. The girl was waiting for an answer.

“I used to be,” Lara said.

When she got married, Lara had taken her ex-husband’s name. Because she had hated handing over her credit card. Or calling to make a doctor’s appointment and being asked that question. “Are you the figure skater who won the gold medal?”

Because, really, how many Lara Zielinskis were there? My God. She was the only one. Except that, now, of course, she was Lara Gray. This was a suitable name, reflecting her state of being. Forever injured. The figure skater, the ice pixie, a television darling, was sometimes criticized for wearing baby girl pink skating outfits covered in sparkles, far too many sparkles. The sixteen-year-old Lara could not have enough glitter or sequins.

Being an adult did not suit Lara. It had never occurred to her that she would ever be thirty-two. Chelsea Clinton had a respectable career, a grown up haircut that suited her, a husband who did not cheat on her. It seemed profoundly unfair.

The teenage, bulimic figure skater suddenly kneeled down next to Lara’s bench in front of the fountain. Lara had the impulse to hold out her manicured hand, to see if the girl would kiss it. She could still have that effect on people. She had done something that most people could only dream about.

“This,” the girl said. “Is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me.”

“I won the gold medal,” Lara said.

“You did,” the girl said. “I have watched that skate. Over and over again. You were sheer perfection. Every jump, every spin.”

Lara realized that she had been crying before the girl arrived, and the praise only made her feel worse. There was still a contingent of complete and utter assholes in the world of skating that believed that her win was a fluke, luck, that she had robbed Michelle Kwan out of what was rightfully hers. That it was Michelle who was the true American champion.

You cannot win a gold medal with luck.

Talk to Lara’s hips.

“It was the greatest moment of my life,” Lara said.

It had been sixteen years ago. Half of her lifetime.

“You are sad,” the girl said. She wiped the tears from Lara’s face with the bottom of her pink t-shirt. The moment was shockingly intimate and Lara felt the sudden desire to kiss the girl. Not in a motherly way, but to kiss her passionately, to inhale her youth, her reverence for Lara.

Lara realized that she desperately wanted a pill and so she opened her purse and inspected the contents of her bag.

“Would you like a Hydrocodone?” she asked the girl.

Lara was a public figure. It was important that she remember her manners. Chances were: if this girl really was a skater, some part of her body was hurting. A pill would do her good.

“Oh, my God, really? I’d love one,” the girl said. “I fell right on my ass the other day. It kills. It’s so embarrassing.”

Lara handed her a pill. It was not easy to find a kindred spirit.

“Come,” she said. “Sit next to me.”

Lara smiled when the girl took a pillow from her knapsack and sat down on it.

“It is really is killing me. The doctors say I broke it. My ass.”

Lara and the girl swallowed their pills companionably.

“My ex-husband has my dog for the week.”

“That sucks,” the girl said.

“It does. It sucks a lot. I love my dog. I love her more than anything.”

Lara used to love her husband. He was an orthopedist to the stars. He had performed both of her hip operations. He was the man who had promised to fix her, only he had failed. She did not know what she had expected. Why she had thought the second surgery would be better than the first one. That the recovery, the physical therapy would be less brutal. She had wondered, even, if it was her fault that he cheated on her. Because she had been furious with him when the pain didn’t stop. Hurled insults. Thrown dishes. Yet it was Richard who had cheated, who had had sex with that Russian gymnast, that twenty-year-old former champion, after he fixed her hip.

The fucking bastard had slept with two Olympic gold medalists.

Maybe if he had slept with a dancer. Or an actress. Maybe then, she could have forgiven him. But another gold medalist?

After she found out, Lara had driven six hours, showing up at the girl’s college dorm room in the middle of the night and threatening to kill her. The campus police had come. After escorting her off campus, the officer had asked Lara for an autograph for his daughter.

Now her ex-husband had her dog.

“My ex-husband,” Lara said. “He loves Chelsea, too, but he doesn’t need her the way that I do. It’s completely selfish that he has taken her from me.”

“Maybe he wants you back,” the girl said. “Maybe that’s why he has the dog.”

Lara had not thought of it that way, but of course, it was true. Once a week, when Lara handed over the dog for a two-day visit, they were forced to see each other. Once a week, her ex-husband apologized for sleeping with the Olympic gymnast. He could never apologize enough. With one major slip, he had mocked the most special thing she had ever hoped to do in her life.

“Do you want to come see my dog?” Lara asked her new friend. She decided that the girl was her friend. She needed a friend.

“Really?”

“I was going to go visit her anyway.” Lara said.

That was the other thing. Her ex-husband worked fourteen-hour days; when he was not in surgery, he was seeing patients. He worked all day long and he had no time for Chelsea. It was not just that Lara missed her dog. The dog missed Lara.

“I would love the company.”

“You break into the house?” the girl said.

Lara shrugged. During the first week of court-mandated visitation, she had broken into her ex-husband’s new house. She knew the code to the alarm system because it was her birthday. She had searched everywhere for her dog and her dog was not there. After failing to find Chelsea, Lara had jimmied open the medical supply cabinet, took several vials of prescription pain pills and left.

On his custody days, her ex-husband brought Chelsea to a doggie day care. There was a playroom for dogs, a nap room for dogs, wading pools for dogs to splash in outside on hot summer days, tennis balls, rawhide bones and healthy snacks, a staff to take them on walks. Lara was revolted by the place.

The girl followed Lara out of the mall and into her car.

“Wow, I like these seats,” she said.

Lara nodded. She had a good car, a cream colored BMW convertible. The seats were a rich, soft leather. Lara had bought good things with the money she had made from being a former Olympic champion. She had a small pill addiction, but during the six years of her marriage, her husband had monitored her intake. Leaving him was the most self-destructive thing she had ever done.

Deep down, she even understood why her husband had slept with the gymnast. Her medal was relatively new. Only three years had passed and she was still the reigning champion, though she certainly would not compete again. Not with her hip. Olympic gold medalists were almost as rare as royalty, but as her friend, Gold medalist Scott Hamilton, had once pointed out over whiskey sours, they were also the most fucked up bunch of people he had ever known.

“I don’t know your name,” she said to the girl.

Jennifer Sherbet.

“Jennifer Sherbet.” Lara liked having a passenger in her car. She understood that the girl was waiting for her to respond, but the name meant nothing to her.

“Are you a good skater, Jennifer?” Lara asked.

If this girl were good, really good, Lara would know who she was. The girl sitting next to her was generically pretty. Blond hair. Blue eyes. Too tall.

“I think so,” the girl in her car, Jennifer, said.

This, of course, was the wrong answer. A true champion required an enormous ego. Lara kept her hands on the wheel. She was always careful at the wheel. She was no longer famous, but any major fuck up would still land her in the newspapers.

“You think so?” she said.

“I mean, yes. I am really good.”

“Jennifer Sherbet. You are the Jennifer Sherbet who won a bronze at Nationals last year?”

Jennifer Sherbet grinned.

“You have heard of me.”

Lara did not know how her brain had pulled that name from some obscure corner of her brain. It was coming back. All the talk about America’s dwindling pool of competitive skaters. The Japanese takeover. And this Jennifer Sherbet, injury prone, tall, medaling for the first time. A tentative jumper. Dick Button had made some awful pun about how sweet she was, playing off her last name. Unlike Lara’s Olympic win, it was a fluke that Jennifer Sherbet had medaled at nationals. The defending champion had had a meltdown, missing every triple, leaving the ice in tears, setting the tone for the night. The gold was there for the taking, and skater after skater fell apart. Sherbet snuck away with the bronze. Not the gold. Not the silver. The bronze. It would get her more money, in the years to come, if she were to tour with Skaters on Ice.

“You’re injured.”

“It’s just my ass,” Jennifer said with a sigh. “At least it wasn’t my ankle again. I’m going to be good as new when I get back on the ice.”

“How old are you, Jennifer?”

“Seventeen.”

Lara didn’t answer.

“Seventeen and three quarters.”

“Oh, baby,” Lara said.

Jennifer Sherbet started to chew her nails. Lara had effectively wiped that grin off her face. Neither of them were feeling that good. So much for the Hydrocodone. That was the problem with pain pills. They didn’t really make you happy — not without a whiskey drink and a dog to pet.

Lara pulled into the parking lot of the doggie day care.

“This is so weird,” Jennifer said.

“You don’t want to come?” Lara asked.

“Oh, no. I am coming.”

Lara understood that she had profoundly upset her teenage bulimic figure skating friend. But seventeen was old. And the girl’s ass was broken. She was too tall. She took pain pills from strangers.

“Follow me,” Lara said, taking her friend’s hand. At this particular moment in time, she felt better because the girl was tall. As if her height would somehow protect her from the woman at the front desk.

“Hi, Tempest,” Lara waved to the receptionist, and turned down the hall, quickening her pace, until they were running.

“We’re not supposed to be here?” Jennifer asked.

It was immediately clear the girl couldn’t really run. Her ass was broken, but she was a sport. A potential wild card champion. She ran anyway. Lara opened the door to her dog’s private room, but Chelsea wasn’t there.

“Come on,” she told Jennifer, grabbing the girl’s hand. “I know where to look.”

“Oh, please. Please. I can’t run,” Jennifer said. “I’m injured. I can’t. I have to protect myself.”

And so they walked, quickly. Down the hall and then a left. Tempest wasn’t chasing them. She was, after all, just a receptionist at a doggie day care. Why should she care if Lara visited her dog? Lara found Chelsea in the dog run.

“The black standard poodle, there, lying in the corner, that’s my girl.” Lara was proud of her dog. She had once thought she would have children, and maybe she still would, but her husband had cheated on her, and suddenly she was alone for the first time since winning the Olympics. She had made a drunken pass at Scott Hamilton, but her friend did not reciprocate Lara’s feelings. “That’s my baby.”

“She’s not running,” Jennifer observed.

There were about ten dogs on the dog track, a cocker spaniel, a greyhound, a couple of corgis. A terrier and a toy poodle. A yapping Pomeranian.

“Her butt isn’t broken,” Lara said. “She just doesn’t like it here. She misses me.”

Lara said hello to the man who was working the dog run.

“Mrs. Gray?” he said. “You know you’re not supposed to be here.”

“Alberto, really,” Lara said. “What is the harm?”

“Honestly. What is the deal?” Jennifer asked, panting, her hand patting her bony behind. “Do they have a restraining order on you or something?”

“Sort of,” Lara said. “I mean, no. Not legally. But my husband doesn’t want me here. This is his dog day. He has made this clear to the staff.”

“And every week you come.” Alberto said.

“That is so fucked up,” Jennifer said.

“Tell me about it,” Lara said. “Come here, Chelsea, come here, girl. Come, sweetie.”

The sad poodle saw Lara, wagged her tail, and ran to her.

“Hey Chelsea. Hi girl. Baby.”

The door to the dog run opened. It was Tempest, the receptionist who had not run after them, but apparently walked instead at a leisurely place. “I called your ex-husband, Mrs. Gray.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” Lara said.

“What a bitch,” Jennifer observed.

“She is, isn’t she?”

“Hey,” Tempest said. “He gave me one hundred dollars. I have bills to pay.”

“I am just visiting my dog. I am not doing anything wrong.”

“I told him you are here, Mrs. Gray. He is on his way. You should leave.”

“Take the dog!” Jennifer yelled. “Take Chelsea and let’s get out of here!”

“I should take her?”

Chelsea had jumped on Lara, was licking her face with such passion it seemed as if the dog had been starved of affection her entire life.

“Take her. Obviously. That’s why you asked me to come with you, wasn’t it?” Jennifer said. “For courage.”

“That isn’t why I asked you.”

“Well,” Jennifer said. “That is bullshit. You don’t know yourself. Take your dog and let’s go.”

Maybe, Lara was wrong about Jennifer Sherbet after all. She would have to see her on the ice.

“I am taking my dog,” Lara told Tempest and Alberto.

One of the Corgis had started to bark.

“No, no, no,” Tempest said. “Don’t do that. I don’t want any drama, Mrs. Gray. Don’t take the dog. Then I am going to have to call the cops.”

A Dalmatian leapt on to Jennifer, two front paws landing on her flat chest.

“Ok, Lara, honestly, I don’t like dogs,” Jennifer Sherbet said, pushing the dog away. “Let’s just take your dog and go. Please.”

Lara hesitated. “I’d have given you money,” she said to Tempest. “More than my husband. You only had to ask.”

Alberto did not hesitate. “I’ll take your money,” he said.

“Come, Chelsea,” Lara said. “Baby.”

Lara did not have a leash for her dog, but Chelsea left with them, running down the hall, leading the way to the door. Lara had started the day alone at the shopping mall, but she left the doggie day care with her dog and her new friend, Jennifer Sherbet, the teenage bulimic figure skater. Lara was afraid the friendship would not last long, but the girl, running despite her broken behind, came with her. She got into the back seat without asking, letting Chelsea sit up front.

They were out of the parking lot when Lara noticed her husband coming from the opposite direction. His office was nearby.

“That’s him,” Lara said, pointing out the silver Mercedes to Jennifer. There was nothing he could do. He was going in the wrong direction. He laid his hand on the horn and let it honk. Chelsea barked. “That’s the bastard,” Lara said. “That’s my ex-husband.”

“That’s him?” Jennifer said. “And you think I’m old?”

“He’s handsome,” Lara said. “He’s incredibly sexy.”

“He’s practically a senior citizen.”

It was true. Lara’s husband was old. He would be turning sixty. But he looked like Paul Newman. She felt suddenly ashamed. This girl, her new friend, was supposed to worship her. That was part of the deal. And yet she dismissed her ex-husband with a single glance.

“I’ll take you home,” she told Jennifer Sherbet.

Jennifer gave Lara her address, almost identical to her own.

“You live near me.” Lara was confused.

“I know,” the girl said. “I followed you to the mall. I watched you try on jeans.”

“You did?” Lara said. “I didn’t notice you.”

“No,” Jennifer Sherbet said. “You didn’t. Usually I’m at the rink. I just can’t skate now, because of my ass. I was feeling kind of sad, so I thought: maybe I might try to talk to you. I see you walking your dog all the time. You never notice me.”

Lara had once liked that about her house, when she first bought it, the proximity to the skating rink, but she never skated. She had two replaced hips and she was terrified of falling. To put on skates, just to glide on the ice and be reminded of everything that she could no longer do was too painful. It was also a reason why she was a spectacularly terrible television commentator. At her last engagement, she had taken so many pills that she could barely form a cohesive statement.

“So pretty. Pretty pretty pretty,” she had said when asked about a skater’s technique. She then proceeded to cry on camera.

She had never noticed Jennifer Sherbet before and apparently she had had plenty of opportunity. Lara’s first instinct had been right. The girl had been stalking her.

Lara looked at her dog, Chelsea, sitting next to her in the front seat, pink tongue hanging out of her mouth, looking at the passing scenery. The dog was happy. The sky was blue. Lara felt the wind lift her hair. She was never going to give her dog to her ex-husband again. She did not care what some judge had said.

“You think he looks old?” she asked Jennifer. “You don’t think he’s handsome?”

“You think I am old.”

“Oh, honey,” Lara said. “I won my gold when I was sixteen.”

“And look what happened to you.”

“Look what happened to me.” Lara shook her head. “I’ve had both of my hips replaced. On a good day, I can’t do a single axel.”

“I am good,” Jennifer said.

“You are seventeen and you’ve never won a national competition. Come on, honey. You have to be realistic.”

“I used to want to be you. Now I hate you.”

Lara looked at her passenger in the rear view mirror. Tears streamed down the girl’s cheeks.

“No, you don’t.”

“I do.”

“No, you don’t.”

“I do.”

“Should I take you home?” Lara asked.

“Don’t,” Jennifer said. “Please.”

Lara passed her exit and she kept on driving. She loved her car. She loved her dog. She loved this girl, crying in her back seat. She wondered how long she could drive, how far they could get, before they would have to stop and let Chelsea out to pee.