The day I left skating, I was sure of one thing: I didn’t know exactly who I was other than a girl who hurt too much for her chronological age.
My blades sank into the ice, and each stroke, each edge, each three-turn resisted, forcing me to push harder. My program demanded more energy from me because the record-breaking end-of-May heat had leached into the rink, softening the ice. Instead of gliding across a smooth sheet, I slogged through a field of frozen fractals bent on gluing themselves to my blades. Out of energy, I still had to pull off a triple axel. Double it, I thought. On my worst day, I could land a double axel . . . until that day.
My right hip slammed into the ice. Panting, I rolled onto my knees, then stood up, hunching until I caught my breath. I looked up, and just as I had expected, my coach was shaking his head. Not a normal uh-uh shake. A slow you-pathetic-loser shake.
I mentally flipped him the bird and thought, I’m not subjecting myself to this anymore.
Instead of skating to my coach and completing my lesson, I hopped off the ice, hooked my guards on, and marched to the freezer humming by the lunch counter. There, I filled a plastic baggie with ice. Pressing it against my hip, I scurried into the locker room, tears stinging their way out of my eyes.
I reached into the side pocket of my skate bag and pulled out a tube of lipstick—red, the one I’d used for my salsa routine. I leaned against the counter, pressed my lipstick against the wall-length mirror, and wrote the following:
We spend all these hours here skating, beating up our bodies. I don’t understand why. What’s it all for?? A world exists outside these walls, where life involves more than ice packs & medals. Time to spread my wings & explore it. ~Madz
My mother would freak, but I’d made up my mind. I shouldn’t have been this tired and sore at sixteen.
I removed my guards and tucked them into my skate bag. I wiped the water off my blades with a clean, dry rag, then repeated the process with a second clean, dry rag. Blades are beautiful things. Shiny, strong, and sharp (if they’re taken care of properly), they hold an edge, a vital component of staying in control on the ice. Each jag on their picks is strategically sized to grip the ice for a perfect launch into a jump.
I held up my skate, slowly rotating it before my eyes as if it were a precious gem on display at Tiffany’s. Every knick tells a story, but that day, all the stories merged into one: I’d beaten up them and myself for this sport. A tiny wedge of leather stuck up from the boot, so I pressed it back in. The damage had happened a week before, when my blade dug into the leather as I fell on an attempted quad toe loop. The slam contused the same hip I bruised five minutes ago.
At least I didn’t fracture a vertebra like my best friend, Lindsey. It was a stress fracture caused by the repeated pressure her training had put it under. The problem came to a head seven weeks ago. Her body twisted when she fell hard after catching an edge on a rocker during her last maneuvers test.
I had a test to take myself, and I’d need to do it soon.
I slipped puffy terry-cloth covers over my blades, packed up the skates, and pulled out my phone. I searched the internet for local clubs hosting tests. The highest-level freestyle test would be my final figure-skating test. It would close this chapter of my life and launch the beginning of a new chapter.
I found a test session scheduled for the next day at a rink I was familiar with; however, applications were due two weeks before. Then I noticed the test chair was Lindsey’s mother’s best friend.
Call me as soon as you can, I texted Lindsey. I need you to do me a favor.
I peeked out the door to find Nathan coaching Joao. Nathan wouldn’t waste the last few minutes chasing me when he could spend it coaching his star student, who’d won sectionals the year before and medaled at junior nationals.
“Hey,” Lindsey said, peeking in, startling me. The rubber floor had cushioned her steps, silencing them. “When I left the gym, I saw you fall. Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” I glanced in Nathan’s direction. His focus remained on Joao.
She opened the door wider and held it open. “It looked like you walked out on your lesson with Nathan, but I know you wouldn’t dare—”
“The session’s almost over, and I’m skipping the next one. I’m tired, and the ice sucks.”
“But I want to see your new program. You’ve skated on sucky ice before. Why aren’t you looking at me?”
Cracking my knuckles, I looked up at her.
Her jaw dropped with a gasp. “You did walk out on your lesson.” She peered at Nathan. “Aren’t you afraid he’ll block you?”
“I skated a session before lunch and a session after. Two out of three isn’t bad, considering I wasn’t going to come here at all.”
She grimaced. “He’s gonna block you.”
Blocking skaters from texting or calling him was, still is, Nathan’s F-you. For a few reasons, I didn’t think he’d block me. For starters, he and my mother had a spiritual Type-A connection. They’d controlled my life in unison for the past six years, the harmony between them matching that of an Olympic pairs team: he’d dictate his life-controlling plan for me, and she’d religiously execute it, setting up my lessons, practice sessions, competitions, off-ice training, sessions with my choreographer, meetings with my nutritionist. Another reason, she’d always paid him and all involved in his plan on time. Finally, she’s a powerful lawyer. Why burn that bridge?
“Let him block me. I have nothing to say to him anyway. Wait here.” I grabbed my skating bag from the locker room, scurried back to the door, and cracked it open. “I have to get out of here.”
“You’re pale. I don’t blame you if you’d rather relax by your pool. We’re all vitamin D deficient around here. How’s your appetite? Do you want me to grab you some juice? Maybe your blood sugar is low.”
“I’m good, thanks.” Eyeing the swinging doors leading to the main entrance, I deflected the conversation. “How’s your back?” SuperEdge was like a nursing home. Around there, How’s your [fill in the blank]? was the standard conversational courtesy.
“Better. The brace is off, and I’m taking Pilates classes to strengthen my core.” She patted her abs. “I’ll be back on the ice in a week. My mother says the new refrigeration system and doors will be in by then. With all the money this club takes from our parents, the ice should always be perfect.”
I craned forward to make sure Nathan was still on the ice. “Did you get my text?”
“My mother has my phone.”
My eyes lasered into hers. “I need a favor STAT. Call your mother’s test-chair friend and ask her to squeeze me into her test session tomorrow morning. I’ll text you a picture of my credit card.”
She recoiled and shook her head. “No. Have you lost your freaking mind? You’ll have to compete at the highest level, and no offense, you’re not ready for that.”
“I’m not worried about competing, but I would like to have something to show for all these years of training. Please. If you’re my friend, you’ll do it. Trust me. This is what’s best for me. And no matter what, don’t tell your mother until after I test. Otherwise, she’ll tell my mother and sabotage my plan.”
I stepped out of the locker room. “Beg the test chair if necessary. Or have her call me, and I’ll beg her. Text me what she says.” I hugged her goodbye. “When you have a day off, we’ll have a pool party at my house.”
As the Zamboni rolled onto the ice with its usual whine, the skaters hooked their guards on and scattered into the locker rooms. I scooted toward the door, hoping to make a clean break. My coach would have my butt on a platter for not skating the next session, not practicing everything we’d gone over during my lesson. At the moment, he was chatting with an off-ice trainer.
When the Zamboni plowed by Nathan, creating a temporary wall between us, I broke through the first set of doors, turned into the main office, and printed out a test application. I’d need signatures from a parent and a coach. Nathan would never sign it. I’d have an older girl I skated with a couple of years ago sign it. She coached at a nearby rink. I’d text her once I got in my car and have her sign it before I drove home, where I’d ask my father to sign on the parent’s line. He wouldn’t understand the significance of the test as my mother would. He attended my competitions and shows and often asked how my skating was going—that was it. Mom was the one who navigated my figure-skating career.
I broke through the final set of doors, into the sun, which instantly thawed my face and limbs. The rink wasn’t frigid, but the contrast between inside and outside was stark. I threw my skate bag into the back of my SUV. As the liftgate closed, I turned, jumped back, and gasped.
“Where are you going? You have to run through your new program and work on . . .”
Gestapo. Jail warden. Possibly a warlock. These thoughts were not hyperbolic. When Nathan finished firing off the work-on list, I said, “My knee’s bothering me. Don’t wanna push it.”
“Lie,” he said.
“Truth,” I snapped back. He was right, though. I was lying. Honesty wasn’t the key to breaking out of this prison. Earlier, my honest complaint about the ache in my chest didn’t stop him from pushing me. So I didn’t expect him to give me time off for the freshly bruised hip and sheer exhaustion I suffered.
Lindsey’s mother stared from the rink door. Go in and worry about your own daughter, my mind urged her, but the telepathic attempt failed. I was sure she’d already texted my mother. They reported to each other when one or the other wasn’t at the rink.
“Those in motion tend to stay in motion and be successful,” Nathan said, following me to the driver’s-side door of my car. “Those who throw in the towel become inactive and tend to stay inactive. Inaction leads to a lack of success, not to mention soft, weak bodies. You’ll become a soft, weak, unsuccessful person. And you’re so much better than that.”
“Thank you? But you know I’ve plateaued, and to be honest, I’m happy where I am. I’m just as happy landing a single axel as I am landing a double or triple.”
“You rarely land a triple axel lately. It’s only one more rotation, Madz, just one more. You’ve done it before, and you can do it again. Same with your triple toe loop. Even your quad. All you need to do to skate clean is focus, nail the required elements, and remember to breathe. And eat some protein. When I told you to lower your BMI, I didn’t mean don’t eat.”
“I am eating.” It had become impossible for me to keep up with the calorie count needed for his lessons and off-ice training. “And one more rotation on my end of this relationship could mean another stress fracture.” Or worse, more blows to my mother’s rink-mom ego. Which inevitably would mean more ice time for me, more off-ice training, more Pilates, more bruises.
“You haven’t had a stress fracture since you were twelve, and the last I heard, your tibia healed and grew normally. Furthermore, you’re missing the point. You’ve shined in the qualifying series before and placed at sectionals. If you could get back to where you were last year, you could win sectionals next year, and placing at nationals wouldn’t be an unrealistic goal. But you need to persist. Falling on the double axel was just laziness. You gave up before you even took off.”
“First of all, the ice was so soft it felt like my blades were carving through paste. Second, you’re missing the point. You said not every skater peaks at ‘best.’” I finger-quoted the last word. “I reached my peak; now I’m rolling backward. Besides, I’ve met my skating goals. I never said I wanted to medal at nationals.”
“You told me you wanted to be the best.”
“I was ten. I loved to skate. And let’s face it: I’d been skating at a rink where it was easy to be the best. Most of the kids skated once or twice a week. SuperEdge turned what I loved to do into a job. Sometimes a bodily war. Tell me. Other than coaching or joining a show, where’s all this skating going to take me, even if I were to win gold at nationals?”
“I’m doing very well coaching.”
“But you’ve been stuck in a rink your whole life. Maybe I don’t want that . . . no offense.”
He twisted his lips and stared at me for a few seconds. “I have to go back in. I can’t force you to practice, but if you don’t, I’ll have to let you go as a student. I have a waiting list of kids who want to work with me.”
My point, I thought. Skating with him is work. A body-weakening job. Skating’s supposed to be fun. Yes, it requires major effort, but it should instill a sense of joy and strengthen the physique, not wear it down. “Thank you for helping me become a really good skater, Nathan.”
“What’s that?” He took the test application from my hand.
I cracked my knuckles and bit my lip. He could find out in a minute when and where I was testing and run interception with the chair. If he found out Lindsey played a role in getting me into the test, he’d hold it against her. Bad for Lindsey because she wanted him as a coach. She was on his waiting list.
“I’m testing out. I’m done competing. Keeping my body intact is more important than medaling.”
He paused, stared at me, then pulled a pen from his jacket and signed the paper. Handing it to me, he said, “Knock yourself out, Madz.”
My jaw dropped. His hasty signing . . . hurt.
He turned his back on me and walked into the rink, ending our relationship. Nathan had one-upped my drama with a perfect execution of reverse psychology. Despite the impact, I wouldn’t give in. I’d use his signature to my advantage.
For the first time since he became my coach, he wouldn’t be at the test with me. No biggie, I told myself. I could hear him coaching me in my sleep.
Sleep. Something I looked forward to catching up on.
My stomach fluttered as I accelerated out of the parking lot. I’m. In. Big. Trouble. My mother might disown me. I’d severed my tether to this place, and I already felt myself whirling, my life spiraling out of control. Not because I regretted my decision. Because I didn’t know what was next for me.