Linzee sat on the couch, her legs pulled up and tucked beneath her. Her feet were bare, but they were warm as the snow fell outside the window.
Stretched out across her lap was a photo album. Colored paper, ribbons, programs and photographs covered each page, her fingertips moving gently over the things collected there, nudging the memories to kick in like an old reel to reel projector and coming to life across the cluttered surface of her brain.
She could see it, feel it, smell it … almost as if she’d been there just that morning instead of thirty-some years ago. The fresh, untouched ice lay before her as she bent to pull the guards off her blades. She breathed in and the smell of ice filled her nose and lungs. It was a comforting smell. Cold, almost metallic. Familiar.
The sun had yet to rise. The world was dark and quiet, most people still tucked into the warmth of their beds, but here the lights were bright white, like high noon on a chilly winter day. The surface of the ice was smooth, the faint lines of the Zamboni faintly etched on the top layer, the red hockey circles looking fresh and vivid against the clean white field of ice.
Linzee shouldered her scribe and stepped just inside the entrance, skating carefully along the curve of the wall. She glanced at the numbers listed along the thick, plastic rail, but she paid little attention to them. She knew where she was going. She’d been here hundreds, thousands, maybe even a million times. She knew the lay of the land and each measured rectangle or “patch” of ice.
When she’d strapped those pink and white lined PVC pleather ice skates—a Christmas gift from her grandpa—onto her feet and joined the public lessons held that January so many years ago, a quiet arena and pristine figure eights traced on clean ice was the farthest thing from her mind. She’d pictured blue-eyed, blonde-haired Lynn-Holly Johnson speeding across the shiny surface, executing perfect spins and landing jumps in the outdoor rink while Melissa Manchester’s voice hit the notes of “Through the Eyes of Love” and a brooding Robby Benson looked on. Well, truth be told, she was always pretty indifferent toward Robby Benson, and it hadn’t really mattered what music was playing in the background. At least she’d gotten the blue eyes and blonde hair part right.
At twelve, Linzee was considered a late bloomer. And, if you asked that public lessons teacher who later became her personal coach, not a particularly talented skater. At least not when it came to jumping and spinning. Her coach oftentimes treated her with poorly veiled impatience, letting her know that she’d rather be with other students, specifically the one Linzee walked home from the rink with. The girl—Linzee could picture her dark eyes and her short dark hair without any trouble, but she couldn’t remember the girl’s name … which bothered her a lot because she remembered just about everything—lived just a block away from Linzee, in a duplex on the corner. She shared the house with her dad, although he worked long hours and Linzee had seen him outside but never had the chance to meet him. The two skaters practiced together, but had, on occasion, taken to the ice during public skate times as well. The girl was happy and friendly, and Linzee remembered the way in which she’d done an impromptu dance during the cha cha cha that ended Stevie Wonder’s song, “I Just Called to Say I Love You”. She was playful and laughed much like Linzee was known to do, but she’d been talented in all the ways that Linzee herself was not. Linzee was almost certain the girl had no real understanding of how good she actually was. Their coach did, though. She knew how much more she shone than Linzee did, how much more promise she carried onto the ice with her.
With seven years of tap, jazz and ballet dance tucked beneath her belt—or perhaps the waistband of her tights—the balance, the grace and the posture that was required on the ice never proved terribly challenging for Linzee. She knew how to hold her arms and hands. She knew to keep her chin up. She knew how important it was to smile. It was the athleticism perhaps … the pure strength that she lacked. Linzee liked to perform. She loved the music filling up the hollow space so many feet above her, loud and crisp and clear. She enjoyed the showmanship, the glide of ice beneath her blades, but she was a more delicate skater. She loved the fluidity of a program, the partnership of movement and notes. She was no powerhouse, but she was dedicated and had a genuine enthusiasm and willingness to practice. Even back then Linzee knew there would always be someone who skated more beautifully than she did, who expressed herself better on the ice. There would always be another skater that won all the ribbons, awards and accolades. Still, she showed up layered in tights, a skating dress, sweater and gloves at four-thirty in the morning, her hair pulled up, her bleary eyes adjusting to the brightness of the early morning arena, and she’d strap her skates on—a much more expensive and robust pair than the ones she’d started out with, made of thick leather with clean white laces—as the space filled with other skaters and the sound of blades cutting across the once smooth ice.
Linzee’s feet moved, one over the other in rhythmic crossovers as she flew around each end of the rink, her legs pulling long, strong strokes as she built up speed in the straightaways. Her hair would blow back in the breeze, and the chilly air would bring roses to her cheeks that were at first cold, then hot with the heat of her rising heart rate as she pushed herself through footwork and other composition. Her jumps rarely had the height to them that her coach wanted, and oftentimes they weren’t landed cleanly enough. Her sit spins were never close enough to the ice, her camel leg never quite high or straight enough … but her spins were pulled in tight with a single circle etched into the ice when she was done. She was no Dorothy Hamill or Oksana Baiul, but when she came off the ice, she felt like she’d given it all she had, even if the delivery had been less than perfect. And she’d been happy.
Before 1990, the sport of figure skating had been made up of different components. Competition very rarely consisted of just freestyle, with the sequined costumes, stage makeup and catchy program music and choreography.
Compulsory figures—or “patch” as it was called—was a fundamental part of the competition process. For the first fifty years of global figure skating competition, compulsory figures made up sixty percent of all scores. This is how “figure skating” got its name. Although Linzee loved skating freestyle, it was in figures that she excelled.
Quiet, controlled, balanced … figures demanded precision, perfect foot and blade placement, exact edges and clean, deliberate movements. Each mark placed on the clean ice was scrutinized by judges who knelt down on the cold surface to discern which edge of the blade had been used. Linzee practiced, using the circles traced on the ice by her scribe, and was able to produce rounded, identical circles—a near-perfect figure eight—on the unmarked surface when it came time for competition. She’d learned the size and the shape. Her body found the stillness, the balance, the precision it needed to make clean, precise marks something natural, something that made sense to her both mentally and physically. The artistic turns, loops and subtle shifts of balance over the tracing foot took an immense amount of concentration. It was a quiet, slow, controlled element of the sport she loved so much, and this is where her brilliance lay, passing her figures tests and ranking high in competition even after she’d fallen during a morning freestyle practice and had her right arm encased in a fiberglass cast. This was the part she was good at. This was where she’d found her strength.
Linzee turned a page in the scrapbook and spotted a photo. She smiled and gently shook her head. She’d been thirteen perhaps, short hair, clad in a black sweater with a deep blue and teal design. Her skating dress was also black, and she held up a big blue ribbon, her eyes squinted and her braces reflecting the sunshine of a bright, cold afternoon. She remembered the black gloves she wore during that competition. Her “costumes” for figures competitions had all been very conservative and calm, just like figures themselves. It wasn’t flash and glitter. It wasn’t the crowd rushing to their feet in wild applause. It wasn’t teammates in the stands stomping their feet and chanting the skating club song while they waved their arms in the air. Figures was the part of each competition that wasn’t all that entertaining. It was the part that few people showed up for. There wasn’t enough action. Staying still and quiet was dull and boring, and time while skaters did their compulsory figures was usually spent by others in the lobby where it was warm. It was a break between freestyle competitions used for indulging in snacks and hot drinks. A blue ribbon or a gold medal in figures didn’t bring about applause. The awards ceremonies were polite and gracious. As quiet as the competitions themselves were. They weren’t any less important, they just weren’t celebrated with the same pomp and circumstance.
Linzee looked up and watched the snowfall. She drew in a deep breath. The movie projector clicked and the scenes in her head fell dark. It had taken more than thirty years, but she’d finally found it. Skating, which had meant so much to her for so long … one of the few things that had pulled her forward in life, one of the few things she’d sunk into that made all of the other things a little easier to take. There it was. A true-life analogy that made so much sense, she couldn’t believe she’d never seen it before.
Ice skating was like life. Hers in particular. Although she’d always loved freestyle—the big, noisy, in the spotlight kind of stuff—it wasn’t something she was known for, not something she was all that good at. She worked hard. She pushed and she fought. She fell down a lot, and inevitably, there was always someone who did it better than she did. There was always someone who showed her up. Someone who was prettier, or smarter, or more desirable than she was. She never placed first in competitions. Hell, sometimes she didn’t even get herself on the score board, but if life handed out grades, surely she’d get an A for effort. She wasn’t a standout, but she always showed up.
She was like compulsory figures. Thoughtful, patient, detail-oriented. Her achievements were big, but they were celebrated quietly. She had talent in what she did, but she wasn’t always noticed for it. She faded into the background. She was soft and sweet, loyal and trustworthy. Just like the patterns she’d made on the ice … predictable, never changing, perhaps a bit boring and tedious, but somehow comforting in her reliability and steadfastness. The stands weren’t full, and there was no loud cheering, or feet pounding against the bleachers while she skated, but there were a few folks who didn’t mind the quiet, who braved the cold and showed up to each event.
Linzee turned the last page of the scrapbook, then closed it altogether. It lay warm and heavy on her lap and she looked up again, seeing that the cold had made a long, delicate swirl of frost that clung to the darkened window. She missed skating. She hadn’t been on the ice in many years, but she realized she’d never really left it. It had been a sport, but in reality, it had been—it was—so much more than that. “It figures,” she said to herself, then she quietly laughed. It was part of her very foundation, and she knew that it always would be.