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As the darkness melts down around me, I listen to the sounds of my skates. Swish swish as I glide, scrunch scrunch as the blades slice when I push off. Every now and then I hear a scrutch when the edge of the pick on my figure skate pushes in for some extra oomph.
Tonight the air is moist and cold, the dampness a rarity in typically dry Calgary. The skin on my face tightens, held by a frosty face mask.
With my bulky mittened hand, I shove the sleeve up on my left arm so I can check the time. Twenty minutes have passed. For 20 minutes I have been circling the small outdoor rink, and I resolve to stay at least 30 minutes despite the chill.
Christmas lights glitter on the tall trees overlooking my neighbourhood rink, a transformed basketball court in one of the city’s many manmade-lake communities.
Other skaters weave in and out around me. I cautiously brake for little tykes unstable on their blades. Seconds later I hold my breath and lean my weight back in a feeble attempt to avoid collision when the young, hockey-trained skaters zig-zag in front of me at lightning speed for a game of tag.
I know no one here, but I am deeply at home.
With each revolution around the rink I peel back the years.
I am gliding around the outdoor rink of my East Coast youth, glancing across the field to see the beacon of my kitchen light. I close my eyes briefly and hear the voices of my childhood friends. I expect one of the boys to skate up beside me and do a snow-spraying hockey stop in front of me to startle and impress. Then, if I am lucky, he will offer to take my hand and help me speed around the rink. After a few turns to build momentum, he will stop and whip me past him, letting go of my hand. I will carry on, feeling as if I am flying above the ice.
Decades later, I wiggle my toes inside the white leather skates to test their coldness. I worry about frostbite at my age.
At the outdoor rink of my teen years, we skated for hours, until all feeling had drained from our feet. When we could bear it no more, we hobbled in to a small plywood building and vied for a space close to the wood-fired heater. With stiff fingers we unlaced our skates and stretched our toes toward the inferno.
If we were fortunate, one of those boys who liked to show off their skating prowess would offer to rub our feet back into the feeling world. I remember that delicious fine line between pleasure and pain as the heat aroused the subdued nerves, and pins and needles shot through revived feet.
Tonight, my chin starts to become numb and I tuck it into my burgundy cowl-neck scarf to shield it. When my chin reaches a low-enough temperature it immobilizes, as if my jaw is no longer connected, much as I imagine too much Botox would feel. My jaw begins to tickle with a sensation similar to sucking sour candy, and always forces out a laugh.
I smile and recall when my frozen chin made me mumble and giggle when I was 14 and clutching the waist of my best friend’s older brother as we rode snowmobiles through the forest.
I can see her when we stopped for a break, laughing at me as she glanced over from the back of another boy’s snowmobile. As soon as I opened my mouth she knew that my odd chin-freeze thing had happened. She smiled knowingly at my quirk and eyed my arms around her brother, my secret crush – not so secret to her.
He turned and said, “Are you okay, are you too cold?” I could only nod numbly and giggle. “Is it your chin thing?” He knew I had a chin thing. He likely knew I had a crush as well.
I am warmed by the innocent memories. Tonight, there is no wood-fired heater to wiggle my toes before, no boys to rub them and no friends to laugh at my frozen chin.
The building where I now tie my skates is a warm, modern city version of the uninsulated shed-like building of my old skating haunt and I am alone. Yet I am deeply at home here on the ice, savouring the magic of Canadian winter. I glance across the park and down the street, and I see the lights on either side of my garage. Though I’m far from my youth in a different time and a different town, I can still see a skating rink from my house. This sense of continuity, of communing with the season, the ice, delights me.
I am again a carefree teen as I walk home, skates tossed in a bag slung over my shoulder. I glance up at the rink as I walk past, half expecting to see an old friend wave goodnight.
Sue LeBreton lives in Calgary.
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