There are distant childhood memories I have that I’m forced to conclude are false, only because their existence differs so sharply from the narrative of the rest of my life. One: that my presence once made a boy pretend to faint. (We were in the first grade.) Another is that—I think—I used to be pretty good at ice skating.
Maybe “pretty good” is not the right term, but keep in mind that I’m using it relatively. Pretty good compared to how I fared the one summer I tried soccer. (Was it just me, or was I just running uselessly from one end of a field to the other while touching neither the ball nor a single other player?) Pretty good compared to the time I tried gymnastics as a 12-year-old and was placed in a beginner class with a group of mean seven-year-olds who literally did back handsprings around me. Pretty good compared to how I did in the Presidential Fitness awards, which was to receive an award that only reluctantly agreed that staying alive through the end was at least worth something.
I never took figure skating lessons, but during the winters when I was in middle school I borrowed my mom’s old white-leather skates and climbed down onto the small, frozen holding pond that sits next to my parents’ house in the suburbs. (For some kids, I think you need to get to 15 or 16 years old before you accept that sports are not now and will never be your thing.) And though I did not jump or do axles of any degree, I am (or was) fairly certain I skated with some smoothness, some grace, some ability to spin myself to a stop when I wanted. I remember holding my arms out to the side, preparing myself for a trick that would, admittedly, never come, but feeling like a star all the same.
This is how I remember it, but again: take my memories with a grain of salt. I certainly do.
EARLY ON IN HIGH school I mostly dropped ice skating in favor of its summer equivalent and bought myself fancy blue K2 rollerblades with a few months’ worth of babysitting money. This, too, I was fine at, and I sped around the parks and lakes in my town with neither protective pads nor fear. But after a few years and two fairly bad falls—one in which I dove headfirst into a hill to avoid a patch of sand on the sidewalk because I guess that made sense at the time, and a second in which my skate got stuck in a groove and I landed flat on my butt, which has never afforded me as much cushioning as I would like—I remembered that I was mortal and threw the blades in the discarded sports equipment bin in my parents’ garage. The ice skates were already inside.
I only went ice skating once more over the next several years: my high-school friends and I went over some winter break home from college, and maybe it was the lasting skate anxiety and maybe it was also the thin socks that made my feet wobble so painfully, but the experience was not a pleasant one. I didn’t fall, but only because I spent most of my time there sitting to the side of the rink, cradling my feet like birds with broken wings, glaring angrily at the rosy-cheeked jerks gliding along lap after smooth, easy lap.
When you watch figure skating on TV and someone falls—which happens a fair amount, and is something you would think would be more of a deterrent for these people—do you ever watch his or her face? I always do. I always look for tears welling. The camera people never zoom in close enough for me to be sure, but how is it possible they might not cry at all? Falling on a surface that is both unforgivingly hard and slippery and doing so in front of crowds of other people: I can’t think of much worse.
Still, though I was anxious and pre-embarrassed for a fall that might not even happen, I made plans for a weeknight trip to The Depot, a former train shed and current ice rink in downtown Minneapolis, to ice skate. I took two of my thickest pairs of socks with me and put a third in my purse. That much I could control.
WHEN RYLEE, MOLLY, AND I arrive outside The Depot on a Thursday night, we can see about 10 people on the ice. With the way the windows are positioned we can’t see their feet, so it looks like they are floating peacefully in circles. They’re sparkling, too. “It looks horrible in there,” I say—the fear talking—but I keep walking toward it, because with the disco ball twirling above the rink it also looks like we’re about to walk into a very large snow globe.
The thing about poorly-executed ice skating is that it does not provide a great number of interesting details: at some points we were on this one patch of ice, and at others we were on patches on the opposite side. My first lap around the rink was cautious, and the next few progressively less so—but only up to a point. It was easier and better than I remembered it being, which is no doubt due to the thicker socks and the fact that Rylee was, at various points, more pulling-me-along than I was skating independently. She tells Molly and I that we have to do tricks, so every time she says “go” we sort of crouch down toward the ice like the dullest three-member synchronized-skating team there ever was.
No matter the socks, no matter the simplicity of my skating: my ankles and feet hurt right away. Ice skating is hard, and I know throughout it that I do not look graceful. I probably never did. We skate to the railing to take one of many short breaks before finally leaving, and it is then that we notice a tall, middle-aged man wearing an unbuttoned plaid shirt, a curly graying ponytail halfway down his back, arms out to the side like I used to do when I was little. I don’t ask, but I am certain his name is either Lester or Wolf. He is skating backwards. I keep expecting him to leap, but he doesn’t. By now there are over 30 people on the rink—couples and little kids and high schoolers, mostly. Wolf does not appear to see any of them, but neither does he ever come close to a collision. He is, and not just because of his ponytail, magnificent.
When we hop off the rink, quitting earlier than we expected but not a moment too soon, we take off our skates slowly to watch Wolf loop around the rink. “Look!” I whisper, pointing. He’s twirling—a scratch spin—and not one of us breathes until he stops. And I swear I remember feeling the specific serenity I see on his face. That’s why it’s terrible to grow up; when I skated on that pond I knew I wasn’t Kristy Yamaguchi, but I also thought I might still have the time. But even if we can’t all do everything we admire, there is nearly always someone who can. And to watch that person love it like you used to is, from where I sit, often just as good.
Katie Heaney is a writer based in Minneapolis. She has a memoir coming out in early 2014.