Afternoons at the Ice Palace

alec-soth

                                              (Photo by Alec Soth)

I know I look kind of miserable but that was the first day of my punishment. Aunt Lucia thought I was just fulfilling the sentence she’d determined after I got in trouble: twelve figure skating lessons, Tuesday and Thursday after school. I had skipped school a half-dozen times and on top of that was caught smoking pot in October. I’m not saying I did the right things, but to hear her tell of it I was on the road to ruin and if she didn’t get me turned around she would next be visiting me in prison.
“So this is what I’m expecting, Kara: no more skipping, no smoking anything, no staying out past midnight. Also taking figure skating classes twice a week for six weeks, or until I say you’re done, whichever I decide.”
I jerked my head up from the book I was reading and focused on her freshly permed burgundy curls. “Okay, okay-but really? Figure skating? What’s that about?”
She was ironing my best white shirt. “You’ve always had a knack for sports, am I right? I saw you skate a month ago, remember? You got a knack for it. Exercise is good for mind and body.” She sprayed a mist on the cotton and attacked the wrinkles. “Or in January you can go back to Vinnie’s.”
I shuddered. My dad–her brother, Vincent/Vinnie–didn’t have space or time for me in his life what with his business and a new wife.I’d just turned fifteen when I realized Harper–that was her name, says she was a model once–had never been around kids. She also had no sense of humor so we really didn’t hit it off. What she did have was close to eighty pairs of shoes that spilled out of my dad’s closet, not to mention who knows how many dresses and accessories. I stayed as far away from her as possible.
“Since you put it that way…if I must, I will comply,” I said to Aunt Lucia and turned the page. “But I’d rather skate my own way. All that ballet stuff added on is a bit too much.”
She kept ironing. I could feel her staring at me, those dark eyes drilling a hole through my skull, reading my thoughts. I closed the book and went upstairs.
“That’s my Kara, back on track,” she called after me.
She’s like a cheerleader with kindness overriding the pep, encouraging me even when I don’t want it, making me stand tall when I feel like a million scrappy, scrambled pieces. But I wasn’t ready to give her the upper hand–or, at least, to let her know I was giving in.
I really attended skating lessons after school at the Ice Palace because I liked the ice. I thought this was a good way to have some fun and fulfill the sentencing. Despite its name, the Ice Palace is just a plain outdoor rink with a medium warming house that has a roaring fireplace. That saves the place. They sell hot chocolate, coffee and snacks that are less than delicious.
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That first lesson wasn’t too successful. I was used to skating fast, not gracefully, and plowing my way through clumps of weaker skaters. Ordinary peons like me with nothing better to do on Saturday, leaving the ice surface gouged. Now I shared a smooth, clean rink with a dozen students who acted so serious, practicing various jumps, spins and fancy backward skating called a grapevine. And figure eights, which terrified me. That’s where you make two circles, one next to another so it looks like an eight, and try to stay on the same line as you re-trace it on the edge of one blade. Complicated. I wobbled and scraped the ice and made not one perfect circle. I had an urge to make a seven or an eleven but Steve, my instructor, was stern and very tall. When I finally completed one he punched a fist at the sky as though I’d won a race. Everyone else looked over. I felt I’d melt as heat crept up my neck. A giant gust of wind swept up, bringing me energy and release. I got to free skate.
The second class went better. I picked up things fast, Steve said. I already skated backwards, turned well and could stop so that ice sprayed everywhere. I overdid that so I learned a quick T-stop, flashy but neat.
I started to hurry over to the Ice Palace each day after school. On lesson days I’d warm up for a half hour, stay a little after the class and then catch a late bus. It was hard work and sometimes tedious. But by the end of the third week I considered that my aunt was actually a sage who knew figure skating was an alchemical process whereby I was transformed into someone different. But I didn’t tell her. I just let things happen.
“You’re sweeter lately,” she said one night as I was helping in the kitchen. “Maybe it’s the figure skating?”
I shrugged. “I’m operating under a mandate, remember? I can do this.”
She snapped me with her tea towel. “Steve costs a lot so he’d better whip you into shape– or more drastic measures will be needed.”
I snapped her back and it turned into a chase. Aunt Lucia, she ran fast for a large middle-aged woman. Afterwards she told me she’d excelled in track and field as a kid. I stayed up late and drank spearmint tea with her as she shared surprising stories. She’s my favorite aunt even if I do resent her demands and nosiness. She’s sly and good all at once, a master (mistress?) of many things.
I kept skating. I’d found my place at the rink and found it harder to not be happy. I learned new things, shoot-the duck, the sit spin and waltz jump. But skating was natural while living felt awkward; it was not anywhere near what it should be. I read a lot and I liked stories that made me ask questions and dig for answers, but nothing had helped me understand my parents better. They basically abandoned me in tiny excruciating steps. Well, not my mom. She up and left for due to “a passion for Chardonnay”, as dad explained it, graduated the program and left us. Years ago this had happened but still. I resented and missed her and my father. There was a place inside that felt like a wound that had to heal too fast, and did so badly. Some scars remain oddly sensitive; numbness with a shadowy ache is what is left me.
But when I entered the warming house and sat down with my used Riedell figure skates (they’d cost Aunt Lucia too much), my heart started to drum on my ribs. My scalp tingled. My spine got straighter, my back stronger. My feet wanted to hurry and take off as I loosened, then tightened my laces just right. Then I took off the rubber blade guards at the gate, stowed them in a cubbyhole, and burst onto the glittering ice. In the late afternoon sun it was a jeweled winter lake, glassy and bright as light and people skimmed and sailed. When it snowed the light softened and the air was silkier even as my cheeks stung, but sweetly. I loved the way my thigh muscles burned as I sped around the rink, how I was learning to control every muscle as I sweated and improved each move. I was Kara the girl who could leap and spin, not Kara that weirdo from out West who had to live with an aunt. I was sloppy and tired at first if pleased. After the seventh class I’d caught up to many of the others. Steve said he was proud of me; that surprised me. I had discovered abundant freedom in a world where some freedoms seemed to shrink the older I got. It was a kind of ecstasy. My mind opened and my heart embraced what came; fear dissolved with the small acts of bravery out there. Those silver blades on my feet took me out of myself, made me reach farther, higher. I felt bigger. I felt safe from sadness.
So when Aunt Lucia came to the last class to see what I had done with twelve lessons I showed her. I had to let her in on the secret, the passion I’d found. I completed a stag jump to applause and felt myself turning into gold beneath a high winter sun. And my sentence was completed just like that: I got more lessons. I still have the picture that Steve took for us. Aunt Lucia is smiling like a madwoman and I’m laughing, imagining all the ice that lay ahead of me like a magic pathway.

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